Earlier this week, the Texas GOP Twitter account tried to knock Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s past in the form of a couple of tweets. One was about an old DWI charge and the other was about O’Rourke’s time in the El Paso band Foss. With a young and lightly bearded O’Rourke in a dress on the cover of Foss' The El Paso Pussycats 7-inch, the tweet said, “Maybe Beto can’t debate Ted Cruz because he already had plans…”
It’s expected mudslinging. O’Rourke has been open about his DWI charge on the campaign trail, as well as his time playing music in the El Paso area. And so far, O'Rourke's campaign hasn't gone after Ted Cruz's time as a theater actor.
O’Rourke played bass in Foss along with a drummer then named Cedric Bixler in the mid-’90s. Bixler (now known as Bixler-Zavala) would go on to form the incredibly powerful At the Drive-In with Jim Ward and later, the Mars Volta. But Foss was a mere footnote in the story of the pre-At the Drive-In days. It wasn’t until At the Drive-In was about to record their commercial breakthrough, Relationship of Command, that Foss was openly mentioned in an interview with the webzine Buddyhead.
Foss’ music has been incredibly rare to find on the internet. Harder than another band O’Rourke was involved with called Fragile Gang, who have some live material up on YouTube as well as a Bandcamp page featuring O'Rourke behind a drum set for its cover header. With only an intentionally bad performance on a local El Paso TV show called Let’s Get Real on YouTube, hearing what Foss really sounded like has been hard to know until lately. Rolling Stone recently streamed their song “Rise” from The El Paso Pussycats 7-inch, which sounds like 13 Songs-era Fugazi by way of Pavement’s lo-fi masterpiece Slanted and Enchanted.
El Paso had not been well-known for its bands before At the Drive-In. Matter of fact, as Steven Blush wrote in his book about ’80s underground punk rock, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, “If you were from El Paso and you were into alternative culture, you’d leave.”
But there was a special blend of rock, punk and metal in a scene right on the border with Mexico. There was a sense of pride in being from the area, but there was also a desire to get out and see the world at large. With the DIY ethos founded in the 1980s with labels like Dischord, Sub Pop and SST, along with touring bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat and Hüsker Dü, people across the country with limited (or no) access to record labels or booking agents realized they could record albums and tour across the country, too.
Out of that influence on the local El Paso music scene came O’Rourke. The ethos of taking things upon yourself and creating something better is at the heart of his campaign. Welcoming all walks of life, no matter the party recognition, he has shown all over the state how people can come together and create an open dialogue.
In May 2017, we interviewed Cedric Bixler-Zavala ahead of an At the Drive-In show. At the time, O’Rourke was an emerging challenger in the Senate race. Since the article was more about At the Drive-In and their latest reunion, we decided to leave in only a small portion of what Bixler-Zavala had to say about O’Rourke. But for this article, there’s room for the whole lengthy quote.
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Here’s what Bixler-Zavala responded with when asked if it was weird to do press for At the Drive-In yet be asked a lot of questions about his time with O’Rourke in Foss.
“I don’t mind it at all,” he said. “It’s not weird to me. I think it’s great. I think it’s about time people know those roots because they were [what], in one way, spawned me and it spawned Beto. I learned everything from my line of living, the way I make art, I learned it from Beto. I believe he was just winging it and learning it as he went along, too. But he was sort of my older brother, kind of mentor, who just showed me what it was like to take that [Jack] Kerouac influence and then really just go see America. And then go and sort of tour, which is kind of like busking because a lot of the times our shows fell through.
"So, I think it’s great to talk about it because I have many fond memories. Being with him is what turned me into the kind of musician I am today. I knew about punk rock, but he was into things like Maximumrocknroll back when Maximumrocknroll had that tour bible that listed cities and people’s houses and places to eat for free all over the United States. He hipped me to that. He hipped me to so much what’s considered indie rock today I never paid attention to — Rites of Spring or Dinosaur Jr. I came from a world listening to a lot of dub and a lot of Grateful Dead and The Black Crowes, Blue Cheer, that kind of shit. His band asked me to play with him and then they just reintroduced me to all that kind of stuff I had strayed from. I think it’s great. I have a lot of stories from back then. It just sort of adds to the cool factor behind Beto.
"He’s got an interesting past. And I don’t know if this is a bad thing to lay on him, but I always think he’s got a charisma that [John F.] Kennedy had. I don’t know if it’s technically because of his political stance. He just has this charm and he has this nature of really wanting to change things for the better. I’m just so glad he decided to take that route. He’s such a cool motherfucker to me.”