Learning Curve

No one in the living room of Clutch Cargo guitarist Ted Wood's Denton house is paying attention to much of anything except what's happening on the television screen nestled in the corner. The rest of the group -- singer Alex Karchevsky, drummer Jeremy Shelby, and bassist Chris Ott -- is supposedly here for band practice, but rehearsal has been delayed until the outcome of the Dallas Stars-Buffalo Sabres game has been decided. Since the Stars lost the first game of the Stanley Cup finals, and the score is tied in this one, everyone in the room, especially Wood, flinches as screaming one-timers ricochet off of goalie Ed Belfour's pads. Wood, in fact, is so caught up in the game, he looks as if he's about to take part in a line change, rocking anxiously on the edge of the couch.

Conversation happens in fits and starts in between icing calls and face-offs, mostly involving Stars-related minutiae, such as ticket prices and the lengths some fans will go to avoid paying them. Wood's girlfriend, Sylvia, brings up something she saw on the news earlier in the day about a fan who won a free ticket to the evening's game from KEGL-FM (97.1) by tattooing the radio station's logo on one side of his head and a Stars symbol on the other. (Apparently, there is no such thing as a free ticket.) Only when both teams have left the ice at the end of the second period do the members of Clutch Cargo get around to talking about matters concerning the band, such as its forthcoming debut, due in a few weeks.

And when they get to talking, the band, it turns out, is as keyed up about the near future as it is about the hockey game, and with good reason. After four years together, Clutch Cargo is finally starting to see some results, a glimpse of the light at the end of a tunnel that began in the sleepy East Texas college town of Nacogdoches. The group has a pair of releases scheduled to come out in the next month, and booking agents are beginning to warm to Clutch Cargo, no longer exiling the quartet to three-band-for-three-bucks bills on Wednesday nights. They may not be headlining many shows yet, but at least they're opening for better bands, such as a recent show at Rick's Place with Baboon. When you're a punk band from Nacogdoches, that's about as much as you can hope for. "Not from there," Karchevsky clarifies. "The band formed there, but that's just where we went to school."

Karchevsky isn't just distancing himself from the band's early beginnings at Stephen F. Austin University. The members of Clutch Cargo have been around long enough to consider themselves local. The band moved to Denton almost two years ago, after toughing it out in Nacogdoches for as long as they could, playing at friends' houses every weekend for more fun than money. The city had almost no live venues to speak of, and even fewer bands to play at them -- Clutch Cargo basically was the Nacogdoches music scene. Occasionally, the group would set up shows for touring bands, many of them from Dallas or Denton, just so they could get a chance to play. After Karchevsky and Shelby graduated from Stephen F. Austin, however, it was time to move on. Clutch Cargo's members realized that if they were serious about being a band, they would have to leave Nacogdoches far behind. "And pretty much after we left, all the live venues we helped get going died off," Ott says.

In retrospect, the band agrees that forming in Nacogdoches wasn't as bad as it seemed at the time. After all, Clutch Cargo had the rare opportunity of playing its first shows with the pressure off, having to impress only friends, not nervous club owners. By the time Clutch Cargo moved to Denton, "we had our shit together," Karchevsky explains.

"Yeah, that's one thing we definitely had going for us, that we were a band for a few years before we moved here," Karchevsky says.

Shelby adds, "We got rid of that period where you have to really, really suck."

"We got past that suck period before we started playing around here," Karchevsky continues. "It just got to the point in Nacogdoches where it was just us and the Beefmasters. We sucked in front of our friends, basically."

The band also met Wood in Nacogdoches, at a Toadies-Brutal Juice-Baboon show Shelby set up a few years ago. At the time, Wood was playing guitar with Brutal Juice, and he hit it off with the members of Clutch Cargo right away. And the groups that the members of Clutch Cargo saw that night were one of the reasons they chose Denton when it came time to find a new home. In Denton, they would play with Wood frequently when he was a member of The Banes, which also included ex-Brutal Juice singer Craig Welch on drums.

"I liked them the first time I saw them," Wood says. "I never really thought I'd be in the band, but here I am." He laughs. "The Banes played some shows with them. I would just see them out. Denton's a pretty small town, so you pretty much run into everybody all of the time. I had to deal with Jeremy, because The Banes would play Delta Lodge shows, and he books those. And then when Drew quit, they asked me to join. The Banes sort of broke up, and I wasn't really playing guitar in a band, because I played bass with The Banes."

Wood is referring to Drew Tidwell, one of the founding members of Clutch Cargo, who left the band two months ago. The band had just finished recording with former Hagfish bassist Doni Blair at Dave Willingham's studio when Tidwell broke the news to the band. Although Tidwell had been with Clutch Cargo from the beginning, he decided it was time to grow up and finish working on his master's degree -- being a full-time student didn't leave much time for band practice. Since his schedule was already full with classes (both the ones he attended and the ones he taught), the band wasn't completely surprised by Tidwell's departure, just by the way that it happened.

"He literally laid down the last track, walked outside, and quit the band," Karchevsky says, still a little mystified by the turn of events.

"He just wanted to be on a CD," Ott adds.

"I guess, just to have something to show for being in the band," Karchevsky agrees.

It didn't take long for Clutch Cargo to recruit Wood, although Karchevsky jokes, "We had to go through Craig Welch first." The 29-year-old Wood (who the band claims has been 29 for the past three years) adds much-needed experience to Clutch Cargo, which features a bass player -- Ott -- who only recently graduated from high school. Fittingly for a kid who has been in the band since he was 16, Ott chose not to participate in his graduation ceremonies, opting to join the other members of the band at a GWAR concert at Deep Ellum Live. "That's really classy," Wood says.

With Wood on board, the band is busy rehearsing, as well as making final plans to release two records by the end of next month. First up is a five-song single on Small Things Amplified Records, a preview of the band's full-length that will come out a couple of weeks later. The disc -- 11 shards of angular punk that sounds like it might have been recorded by Baboon's kid brothers -- will be released on either Hot Link Records, the label run by Cornhole's Wally Campbell, or Re-Do Records, another local imprint founded by a musician, the Cleaners' Jef King. Or maybe neither.

"Yeah, there's a bidding war for us, between Hot Link and ourselves," Wood says, laughing. Just then, the Stars take the ice again, ready to finish the game. Wood and the band turn back to the TV, losing the conversation somewhere between a pass from Mike Modano to Brett Hull. Clutch Cargo may be on its way to bigger and better things, but right now there are more important things than debut albums and upcoming shows to worry about. Even for a punk band from Nacogdoches.

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain