After five years of performing, Burning Hotels have just wrapped the biggest show they've ever played. As they leave the Dada stage in Dallas, the club is still packed, and in a private corner on the back patio, singer Chance Morgan divvies a pack of Parliaments among the rest of his bandmates in celebration.
There's reason to be cheerful: This was among the first opportunities that the band had to showcase music from their new, self-titled record. And, other than a few broken strings, it was a flawless performance.
Still, considering the great crowd reception throughout the show, the band seems slightly out of their element. Because, really, they're foreigners and ambassadors. Chance Morgan and Matt Mooty, the band's two songwriters and co-frontmen, are Fort Worth boys. Granted, they're ones with really good timing.
At this very moment, Fort Worth has arguably the most vibrant music scene in North Texas. More impressive is the fact that Fort Worth is only continuing its growth. Next year will mark the opening of Near Southside's Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge and the reopening of the historic Ridglea Theater. Sooner than that, The Moon Bar will relocate to the Ridglea complex, whereupon Morgan will take over duties as the bar manager.
In many ways, this restructuring of the Fort Worth scene represents a shift in the North Texas scene. If nothing else, Fort Worth will now be able to more directly compete with Dallas mainstays such as the Granada Theater and the Kessler Theater.
But among the growing list of reasons that Fort Worth's music scene deserves more attention now than ever, one can't help but notice the Burning Hotels' name toward the top.
Sure enough, Morgan and Mooty are happy with the way things are going. But they're still a little unsure about being considered the Fort Worth "band of the moment." Truth is, they feel weird putting themselves up against the great acts that they were fans of long before they ever formed Burning Hotels.
"The first show that got us into local music was when I went to see [Flickerstick] on November 7, 2001, at Ridglea Theater," says Morgan, sitting at a small table across from Mooty at a smoky old country bar in Fort Worth. "It was right after Bands On The Run, and it was my first time seeing a local band at Ridglea Theater, which was a massive room. It was completely packed. And the lights! Those guys live in my town. It became more of a possibility than a dream. And then, to become friends with them and to be ushered into the scene, it was cool."
Mooty and Morgan had already been best friends for years when they saw this pivotal show. Soon after, they moved into a house together only a short distance from where they currently sit, sipping on whiskey.
"We used to live in a house back behind the bar," Morgan offers. "You could throw a baseball and hit it."
The analogy flows perfectly as Mooty periodically glances at a small television above the bar where the Texas Rangers are wrapping up their victory in the American League Championship Series.
But those times were much different for the two budding songwriters. They lived together, partied together and worked on all their music together. The result was 2007's fast-paced post-punk EP titled Eighty Five Mirrors. The initial effort was cohesive, especially considering that it was the band's first attempt at recording, but Mooty and Morgan were still struggling to signify the band's sound. Their next release, and first full-length record, Novels, was a necessary progression for the band. Mooty and Morgan each took an individual approach to songwriting, creating songs on their own rather than together. By the time the album finally came out in 2010, though, their chosen post-punk style had long since faded out of fashion. What's worse, the band had already grown tired of the new material, which had saturated their live show for more than a year before its release.
"Matt would say, 'Hey, I wrote this song,'" Morgan recalls. "He'd come to practice and do the arrangement with [bassist] Marley [Whistler] and [former drummer] Wyatt [Adams], and whenever the next show was, we'd play that song because we'd be so excited about it. We'd probably been playing Novels for close to a year. Then we sat on it for a year, and then we put it out and we had to play it for another year."
As a result, the shows began to get pretty stale. It didn't help that the band was being booked in bars that didn't usually have original music — or worse, an occasional broken-down skating rink. At one particular rink in Austin, the band was paid with ant-infested pizza. A string of gigs like that, of course, is all part of the plight of any band trying to make a name for itself. But it could easily cause burnout.
In the Burning Hotels' case, it just led to a three-month hiatus.
"It was time to make a major change," Morgan says. "We needed a fresh start, getting back to basics."
Since there were no shows scheduled, Morgan and Mooty met several days a week to write and record new music. Eventually, they were commissioned by a fashion photography company for whom Whistler's girlfriend worked to record a song that would accompany a photo shoot. It was never intended to be a Burning Hotels track, so the constraint of making music in the style of previous efforts wasn't there. What they came up with was "Allison," a synthesizer-heavy down-tempo song that would eventually become the first single on the band's latest release. It was completely different from their previous sound, but they knew that they had tapped into something they felt was really cool.
"It kind of just reaffirmed what we missed about playing music," Morgan says. "Just the writing and being together. I was like, 'I haven't had this much fun playing music in a long time.'"
Even though the sound was so different, changing styles wasn't much of a risk at all, turns out. Had the band stayed with their old post-punk sound, they likely would have quickly faded away, if only because of boredom — both from the fans' standpoint and their own.
Instead, Mooty and Morgan followed their instinct and continued on their new thread. Now, with their self-titled release and new sound, the band is finding new doors opening to them — ones that, of late, lead to packed houses like the one at their Dada release show and similar situations.
"We're finally making the music we want to be making," Morgan says. "We've finally hit a niche to where we feel like it's the best thing we've ever put out. If you don't feel that way about what you're doing, you're probably doing the wrong thing."