There it was: the chance for Dallas-based reggae band Ugly Lion to break free from regional barricades and gain credibility on a national level. The band won the Wakarusa Winter Classic in February, a competition to join the bill at the Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival, which meant they had a golden opportunity to play one of the nation's most reputable music festivals to kick off their summer tour. But enthusiasm about the gig faded in a matter of weeks and, by the time Wakarusa on Mulberry Mountain in Ozark, Arkansas, rolled around in June, Ugly Lion's set was a complete flop because more than half of the band failed to show.
"It was frustrating," bassist Kyle Atkinson says from his work station in a Deep Ellum glass studio. "For years, I wanted to play Waka. I've played the Waka Winter Classic two or three times [in different bands]. It was a big deal to me."
Ugly Lion played the Little Rock River Festival in Arkansas the weekend before Wakarusa, after which some of the band returned home during the week to work. It wasn't until Atkinson and lead singer and guitarist Brandon Chustz were atop Mulberry Mountain with little cell phone service that they received a text that Ugly Lion's drummer, keyboardist and lead guitarist/violinist would not be joining them. Alleged car troubles prevented the three band members from making the eight-hour venture to the festival.
Ugly Lion perform Friday, November 18, at 2826 Arnetic with Katsuk, Night Owl Nurse and Tweed EQ.
"At that point we started flipping out. We didn't know what to do," says Chustz between breaths as he blows some blue glass. "Kyle and I just played, the two of us. Dave [Willingham] was also up there with Spoonfed Tribe so we asked him to sit in on drums since we had the kit in our trailer. And that was it."
There's a fine line between doing what you love and doing what you have to do in order to live, especially for musicians. Finding that balance was a recurring problem for Ugly Lion; Chustz says the band almost split several times for this reason. Post-Wakarusa, it was understood that Chustz and Atkinson were the heart, soul and only members left in the band. In addition to enduring the embarrassment of their festival snafu, the duo had to deal with canceling a whole slew of tour dates in California.
But hope on the home front never dried up. As quickly as things had shattered, Chustz and Atkinson began to glue the pieces back together. Chustz moved to a new house and found out that a neighbor, Paul White, happened to be a great guitarist. White was inducted after just one jam session, and he invited his drummer from another band over to play. There were reservations about adding drummer Travis Lennon to Ugly Lion, as he and White were in a Dallas rock band called Gods of the Industry and had never delved into reggae. Both men do, however, school students in their respective instruments.
"Reggae, it's a different thing. It's more than just the theory behind it, there's a feel to it. It's something that you either got it or you don't," Atkinson says. "[Lennon] fuckin' kills it."
The new Ugly Lion's first show was at House of Blues as an opener for Tribal Seeds — not a bad gig considering they had rehearsed for only a couple weeks. Mike McDonald, Ugly Lion's first keyboard player, who parted ways a couple months prior to build up his solo reputation as electronic producer w i Z a r d, attended the Tribal Seeds show and heard about Wakarusa. He promptly reclaimed his spot as keyboardist.
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Chustz, Atkinson and McDonald all express their gratitude for the addition of White and Lennon to the band. As the bowl cashes and coughs subside, the three ramble on about the new energy in Ugly Lion practice and the new life being given to old Ugly Lion songs.
"The attitude is completely different now," says McDonald affirmatively. "We're all grateful to be playing music again. We feel re-energized."
In October, Ugly Lion was invited back to Arkansas for the annual Mulberry Mountain Harvest Festival, hosted on the same festival grounds as Wakarusa. The band performed as a five-piece, full of enthusiasm, kick drum, guitar wails and even some womps and wobbles. For Chustz and Atkinson, the opportunity struck a more personal chord; it was redemption.
"The crowd was totally diggin' it," Atkinson says. "It was the best feeling ever."