Feature Stories

The Suffers Make It Out of Houston the Old-Fashioned Way

The Suffers have come a long way since they started out playing cover songs five years ago. The 10-piece "Gulf Coast soul" band from Houston started in 2011, started writing their own songs in 2013 and by 2015 had made their late-night television debut on The Late Show With David Letterman. Since then they've added appearances on The Daily Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and NPR's Tiny Desk Sessions, and today they're one of the hottest up-and-coming acts in Texas. The Suffers come to the Kessler Theater on Friday with a lot of momentum on their side. Ahead of the show, one of the group’s founding members, bassist Adam Castaneda, talked to us about the band's eclectic musical origins and quick rise to national notoriety.

How did the Suffers first get together?

Our keyboard player, Patrick Kelly, and I had been playing in bands around Houston for a while. I started my first band when I was 17. We were in all these different bands and saw all these great guys playing out there. We thought it would be cool if that guy worked with that guy, they worked with her, and this guy. That’s kind of how we figured it out. At the time I was in a country band, a Latino ska band and a hip-hop group. Most of the guys were in disparate genres, too. We had a wide net to throw. We started making some phone calls and within about two weeks we had the lineup almost complete.

Was there an original plan for what this would sound like or were you just getting together to see what happened?

We were actually thinking of doing more covers and playing weddings and things like that. We covered a lot of old reggae songs, David Bowie and Bobby Brown. But we’d play them in a ska, rock steady and reggae sort of way. That’s all it was ever meant to be. But over the course of a couple years we started bringing in some other tunes that we wrote and our style started developing.

Tell me about this “Gulf Coast soul.”

Houston is the most diverse city in the U.S. ethnically, culturally and musically. There’s a very special blend of music that happens in Houston that I haven’t really seen in many other places. We’re close to Mexico, so we have the influences of Conjunto, Tejano and Norteño musics. We’re close to Louisiana, so we have Cajun and Zydeco. We also have country and hip-hop, which we’re well known for. There’s also blues and rock. It all mixes in a really unique and beautiful way. We’ve leaned on all those styles and the resulting mix we call Gulf Coast Soul. It’s all soulful music to us.

Where did the name of the band come from?

It comes from a late '70s movie, Rockers. It’s a Jamaican movie about Jamaican studio musicians. It actually stars reggae studio musicians. It’s about the main character not only trying to record, play and be a musician, but also trying to sell records as a distributor. He’s riding around Jamaica on his motorcycle with a crate of records, trying to sell it to record stores. He’s trying to sell some records to somebody and getting some flack, so he says, “I and I are sufferers,” which basically means we are all in this together because we are all struggling. We thought that was really cool and as musicians, we are all kind of struggling with this too. For a little while we were called the Sufferers, which we quickly found out is not easily pronounced. It’s kind of a tongue twister, so we shortened it to the Suffers.

What can we expect from your show on Friday?

There’s a certain power that can come from having a band that size and we’re aware of that. But it can also become a little too much and we’re aware of that as well. So we try to keep our sets really dynamic and high energy. We keep the music going, it’s positive, a really good time. Like I said earlier, we all came from a lot of different genres and we try to lean on that experience.

Is there a particular way you start your performances?

We call it “supermanning.” First off, we all count off. I’m No. 1, our drummer’s No. 1 — everybody is assigned a number. After we get to the last number, 10, we all raise our hands in the air and scream, kind of all get in tune. Not necessarily musically in tune, but mentally in tune with each other. That’s kind of our battle cry before we kick off the set.

David Letterman had a very enthusiastic response to your television debut.

We kind of blacked out as soon as we hit downbeat. Nobody seems to have much of a memory of actually playing. We remember vividly before and after, though. Letterman’s voice wasn’t coming through our monitors, so we didn’t know what he had said. The people in the audience and the viewers at home heard it, but onstage we had no idea that he said anything. It wasn’t until that night when they broadcast it on TV and we had kind of huddled up in a little bar that we heard what he said. 

It is unusual to see such an enthusiastic response from him. Didn’t he kiss lead vocalist Kam Franklin?

He put his arms around Kam, pulled her in, and gave her a kiss. Someone made a side-by-side shot online. He did the same exact thing to Diana Ross. The pose is almost identical.

How did the Suffers manage to get all the way to the Late Show With David Letterman without a record deal?

We had played CMJ in New York City in the winter of 2014, something ridiculous like nine sets in four days. At our last set at the Rockwood in Manhattan, one of the producers was in the audience. We didn’t think much of it, happens in the music industry all the time. But a few weeks later they called. We kind of have a history of impressing people in person at shows. In 2015 we played around 170 road shows. We are believers in that old school way of doing things, where you just get out in front of an audience and play your heart out. If you really bring something genuine, you will connect.

THE SUFFERS perform with Sam Lao at the Kessler Theater at 8 p.m. this Friday, April 22.
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Jeremy Hallock