Monday, March 19, 2012

The Nervebreakers' T. Tex Edwards Talks

If you were lucky enough to see pioneering Dallas punks the Nervebreakers back in the mid-to-late ‘70s, they definitely made an impression. On one side of the stage stood lead guitarist Mike Haskins, pealing off blazing licks while looking for all the world like a baby-faced Donnie Osmond. (He still does.) On the other stood rhythm guitarist-backup singer extraordinaire Barry Kooda (ne Huebner) -– immortalized by the Rolling Stone “fish pic,” taken the night the Nervebreakers opened for the Sex Pistols at the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas -– in his Army helmet and pistol belt (he served in Korea in the early ‘70s), legs splayed, his Les Paul slung low, trying to eat the microphone. In the middle, draped over the mic stand with a cigarette in one hand, an expression of ennui on his handsome mug, was the lead singer, Thom “Tex” Edwards.

Contemporaries, not followers, of the first wave of New York/Cleveland punks, the Nervebreakers compiled quite a track record in the years between 1973 (when Kooda insinuated himself into Edwards and Haskins’ “art-rock” band Mr. Nervous Breakdown) and 1980 (when the NBs imploded at the end of an East Coast tour). They opened for the Ramones and the Clash, as well as the Pistols. They released an EP (Politics), two singles (“Hijack the Radio” and “Girls Girls Girls Girls Girls”), and two tracks (“I Love Your Neurosis” and “So Sorry”) on ESR Records’ legendary Are We Too Late for the Trend? compilation. They served as Roky Erickson’s backing band, documented on the Live Dallas ’79 album on French label New Rose.

Their debut full-length, We Want Everything, was recorded in 1980 and finally released on vinyl by Existential Vacuum in 1994. More recently, Pittsburgh-based garage label Get Hip reissued We Want Everything in 2000 (CD only) and again in 2010 (CD and vinyl). Also in 2000, the Italian Rave Up label released a vinyl Nervebreakers anthology, Hijack the Radio. Next month -- if the Lord is willing and the creek don't rise -- Get Hip will release the compilation Hijack the Radio! (Vintage Vinyl & Studio Sessions, Volume One), about which more later.

Post-Nervebreakers, Edwards relocated to Austin, Hollywood, and then Dallas and Austin again. Along the way, he reinvented himself as a purveyor of Crampsian psycho-country under the rubrics Tex and the Saddletramps, Out On Parole (releasing Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone To Kill on Sympathy for the Record Industry in 1989), the Loafin’ Hyenas (with ex-members of the Cramps, Gun Club, and Blood on the Saddle, releasing the self-titled The Loafin' Hyenas on New Rose in 1991), and the Swingin' Cornflake Killers (releasing Up Against the Floor on Honey Records in 1997 – still with me?).

In 2007, Pardon Me and Up Against… were re-released by Saustex Media, the San Antonio-based label helmed by Hickoids frontman Jeff Smith. That same year, the Nervebreakers regrouped to record some original material they’d never gotten around to cutting back in the day, and put together a collection of previously unreleased archival tracks. Around the time of SXSW 2009, they played a handful of shows in Austin and Dallas, ripping through energetic versions of classics like “My Girlfriend Is A Rock” and “Hijack the Radio,” and even essaying a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street.”

Since then, Edwards has undergone Interferon treatments for hepatitis C. We’re happy to report that he’s on the mend, and as you can read below, Nervebreakers fans can look forward to their once-scarce original recordings, as well as their latest ones, being generally available in the wake of their recent reunion activity.

When Edwards let me hear a rough mix of the Nervebreakers’ 2007 recordings, I was floored. Face Up To Reality -- for that is the title by which the new Nervebreakers album shall be known -- hits like a candygram from the gods, a fully realized full-length from guys we thought we’d never hear from again. Its combo platter of cleverly arranged, muscular Rawk, songwriting smarts (mainly from the team of Edwards-Haskins), and sardonic humor is reminiscent of both the latter-day Dictators and Killer-era Alice Cooper (back when that moniker still referred to a band and not a Hollywood Squares clown). Comparisons being odious, it kicks all kinds of ass on the reunited Stooges’ The Weirdness (if not Rocket From the Tombs’ Rocket Redux).

The title track operates off a snaky, menacing riff, with lots of high-end guitar damage from Haskins, who proves time and again on this album that he was the most lethal player to emerge from the whole ‘70s Texas punk development. “Just Yawn” evokes rockabilly with its leg-twitching beat and Tex’s vocal hiccup, capped with more dueling dual guitars. “Don’t Wanna Be Used” is a splenetic minor key rant, reminiscent of Elvis Costello’s “I’m Not Angry” until its masterfully malevolent bolero ending.

On “I’m Lost,” “My Girlfriend Is A Rock” lyricist Carl Giesecke –- whose tub-thumping is punishingly precise throughout –- crafts a tale of a Robinson Crusoe/Gilligan’s Island-like idyll. “I Don’t Wanna Hold Your Hand” isn’t the Fab Four pastiche/parody you might expect from its title, but rather, a two-beat polka you can pogo to. Speaking of which, onstage visual vector Barry Kooda collaborated with Haskins on the Ramonesian dance ditty “They Were Doing the Pogo,” which reminds me of nothing so much as the sheer idiot glee bassist “Barbecue Bob” Childress used to project onstage, bouncing up and down with the pure joy of a fan who got to be in his favorite band.

“Formerly Street Queen” is cut from the same bolt of cloth as the Dictators’ “Minnesota Strip,” a gritty street saga overlaid with wah-wah dramatics, while Kooda’s “Wake Me Up” recalls his anthemic “Stand Up” -- We Want Everything's closing track -- musically, while lyrically painting a picture of a couch potato snoozer. The glammy “It’s Obvious” struts on wobbly six-inch platform heels, while “Breaking Down” encompasses a Clash “Jail Guitar Doors” intro, a catchy sing-along chorus, and a modal psych solo. “I’d Rather Die” takes it out with rib-rattling aplomb, a valediction that sounds like they never left (when in fact, their last trip to the studio was 30 years previously).

But you’ll have to wait to hear all of those until Get Hip (or somebody) deigns to release ‘em.

When I spoke to T. Tex by phone on April 22, 2010, I’d recently seen a screener of Laura Tabor-Huerta’s documentary DFW Punk. Then I caught up with him for an update on November 27, 2010. The publication for which this was originally written decided to pass on the piece, but nothing's ever wasted here at The Stash Dauber. You can also read an interview I did in 2000 with Mike Haskins, Barry Kooda, and Bob Childress here. Lucky you.

K: How’s your health these days?

T: I’m doing pretty good now that I finished that stuff [Interferon treatment]. It’s a gradual thing. I’ve got more energy; I’m in a lot better mood. Starting to be among the living again.

K: How did it feel seeing that footage of yourself, from the Nervebreakers and later on, in the DFW Punk documentary?

T: A lot of that stuff I’d seen before, the stuff that my buddy Edwin shot back in the early ‘80s. I don’t know if there was a whole lot of Nervebreaker footage.

K: There were probably about 30 seconds.

T: That’s one of the problems. Not much has turned up. I know there were some videos taken back then, but not like today where if you have a bad gig, somebody’s gonna have a tape of it.

K: Everybody photographs and videos everything today, whereas back then, it wasn’t as common.

T: Which is good in some ways, but it does make you think when you get onstage, “God, if I screw up really bad…it’s documented!”

K: It’ll be all over the Internet in the morning.

T: Like the Sly Stone [at Coachella] thing. I didn’t even care about that, but it was the whole train wreck thing, or the auto accident where you can’t help but stare. I read the whole article!

K: You’re not even curious, but it hooks you in.

T: It’s that Courtney Love train wreck thing. You could care less, but still…I’ve seen [DFW Punk] twice. I saw it once over at her house -- [director Laura Tabor-Huerta] lives not very far from me down here -- and at the Austin showing last year at the Alamo Drafthouse downtown. But I didn't see the earlier versions from a few years ago, which I never heard anybody say anything good about. And then there's that last section of the film…she still needs to edit some more there. But she’s fooled with it for years and, I think this is pretty much it.

K: It’s definitely a fan’s labor of love. There’s no slick cinematic value to it at all. A few of the people that saw it here in Fort Worth said that she’s trying to cover a whole lot of turf in a short amount of time…stuff from the Nervebreakers era on up into the ‘90s. I saw footage of Lickity Split from Fort Worth from ’89, and it’s almost a different world from the one you guys inhabited.

T: But that’s kind of what she inhabited, though. The guy that did the Texas psychedelic documentary [Dirt Road to Psychedelia], that guy Scott Conn, I talked to him recently, and he’s doing one on the Texas punk scene, and it’s mainly focused on Austin. He’s a little younger, too, but he knows he needs to include some of the Dallas and Houston bands, too. He came over one afternoon and we talked, and I gave him some email addresses of some people that could help him out, so he might wind up with a better perspective on the early stuff. I don’t think he’ll go too far into the ‘80s, but since he’s younger, a lot of stuff he likes probably starts with the Big Boys. So that might be pretty good. He’s a little bit more professional –- in a good way.

K: Not slicker, but more craftsmanlike.

T: Yeah, right. That’s what I was trying to say.

K: It’s interesting seeing how people’s perspective on a lot of music has changed. In the moment while it’s happening, we kind of take things for granted, particularly when they’re local to where we come from. But it seems like Texas punk and psychedelia have really gained a lot of stature in people’s minds over time.

T: That whole first wave of punk was so marginalized and put down when it was current. It was important to [people who were there at the time] but they didn’t think of it in the whole scheme of things. Now at least it’s getting its due.

K: It just seems like that music has had a phenomenal longevity, as widely loathed as it was when it was new. It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since the Stooges. It seems to carry a lot of weight, and not just with older people, but even with people in their 20s who know about the Nervebreakers and the Big Boys or whomever.

T: They don’t realize how it was at the time, that these bands weren’t very big at the time. They were the weirdo fringe. The Stooges never got played on the radio! They were so totally out of the mainstream, and now it’s part of Rock & Roll History 101.

K: When I think about the Nervebreakers, compared to other Dallas bands like the Telefones or NCM, you guys had a little bit more time in music under your belts. You didn’t appear out of nowhere after the Ramones or the Sex Pistols. You guys were a band from much earlier, and in that sense, I kind of equate you with somebody like Rocket from the Tombs in Cleveland, or the early Neon Boys stuff in New York.

T: We were trying to do something, and then when that [’76 punk] came along, it was close enough to what we were doing to where we were thrown into it. You start getting into all that and you realize that it all kind of came from the same stuff, though. I saw a thing of Nick Cave when he was real young, his first band…before the Birthday Party [The Boys Next Door]. They were doing Alice Cooper, David Bowie, stuff like we did when we first came out of high school in that same time period. Then you realize we were all doing this in different parts of the world and we were the weirdos aping the stuff we liked, and it turned into whatever we turned into.

K: At the time you started playing, did you feel commonality with any musicians that you knew, or were you just kind of isolated?

T: Pretty much isolated. You’ve worked in a record store, so you know how it is, you think you’re the only one who likes something, then a few more people come in and buy it and you think, “Wow, that’s neat.” You realize there’s just a small group of people that are into certain things.

K: We just had “Record Store Day” and I’ve been thinking about how the way people consume music has changed, and I’m not sure how young people find out about things anymore. When I was a teenager, I’d go to the record store where the guys a couple of years older than me that knew a lot more would make me aware of things and I’d kind of follow those threads. With the Internet, kids have access at the click of mouse to the whole history of recorded music, but who puts that in context for them? It seems like it’d be kind of overwhelming and hard to filter.

T: It is for me! There’s all these bands I’ve never heard of, and I’m sure that some of them are doing something I’d like, but I just can’t wade through all this other stuff to find out who they are unless somebody I know says “Hey, you’d probably like this,” the way they did at the record store when I was a kid. That’s the only way I hear about stuff nowadays, or if I read somebody I like and they go, “Oh yeah, we like…” or they compare it to something else. There’s just this mass of stuff and who knows what’s what.

K: It seems like in the last five years or so, any band from the last 30 years that had any kind of notoriety, from the Sonics to the Nervebreakers, has gotten back together. What was it that motivated you guys to start playing together again?

T: We did some reunion shows back in the ‘90s and they were just one-off things. I was doing stuff, and then when I moved to Austin, I was doing my things. There wasn’t any real reason to [have a reunion]. I had no computer. I was late on that, like most old guys. When I got on that, we kind of got back in communication. Before that, there’d be the occasional phone call, but [the Internet] kind of got us back in touch.

I don’t know if there was any certain event that got us to start thinking that way, but Carl [Giesecke] the drummer said something about recording a song or playing a gig or something. He said, “We should record some stuff,” and he was talking about trying to write some new songs, and I went, “Well, we have all these songs that we never [recorded] before.” So we went back and listened to some live tapes of them and went, “Hey! These are pretty good songs. These are better than I remember.” So we decided to make that the project.

I wasn’t doing much at the time, so I went up [to Dallas] a few weekends and we recorded stuff all day, and that didn’t work out. All you could do was get in there and rehearse for a little while and then leave. The recording sometimes would just be one song, or sometimes it would be two, maybe even three in a Saturday afternoon over at Mike [Haskins]’s house, so it was more long, drawn-out, but it worked better that way. You think something’s going to be a certain way, and when you get into it, you find out, “Oh, that’s not practical.” And we just did it the way it worked, so it stretched out over a year or so. Like I said, I wasn’t doing much else, so I didn’t mind driving up to Dallas all the time.

K: What was it like playing with those guys after 30 years or something?

T: It was fun. It was too loud! I think after the first rehearsal or two I came home and I lost my voice, which seemed odd. I finally went in for an ear test and found out I have moderately severe hearing loss and had some custom earplugs ordered. Lots of people I know are in the same boat. “You’re not alone; I can’t hear, either.” I had all those bands with all those guitar players, but then I worked at the Continental Club [in Austin], worked the door there for a number of years, and some of those bands weren’t loud, but some of them were really loud. I can remember one Hank III show and my ears rang for a long time after that.

K: I can remember going back to the Continental for the first time in 20 years and being astonished at how small the room was. How did all those times fit in there?

T: Now our new challenge is to play quieter. When you’re younger, you equate the power with the volume, which isn’t necessarily the truth.

K: It’s kind of an adrenaline thing, whereas really, you can get a better sound and more dynamics using smaller amps and playing quieter.

T: Yep. My band down here [Out On Parole] doesn’t play that loud, so it’s not a problem. But with the Nervebreakers, it’s going to be a challenge.

K: So, what’s the current status with the Nervebreakers recordings?

T: Get Hip, who Mike has gone round and round with for years, finally reissued the CD they put out years ago [We Want Everything] and they are now also reissuing it on vinyl. Plus they’re reissuing the early Wild Child singles in a limited vinyl thing. They’re starting to go in the vinyl direction. It seems the younger folks are getting interested in vinyl again, and getting interested in the old bands, so they’re re-releasing a lot of old punk singles on vinyl. That’s a pretty good business plan.

Then Gregg [Kostelich] at Get Hip is planning on doing our anthology, which would include the studio side of the vinyl album [Italian label] Rave Up put out awhile back, plus a bunch of additional songs we recorded at various sessions back in the late 70's. It’s called Hijack The Radio! (Vintage Vinyl & Studio Sessions, Volume One) and will be released on vinyl and also on CD with a few bonus cuts added. Sophie Lo, a French gal that does great artwork, has put together a nice package of photos and info to go with it. So that part of the past will be available again.

Next comes the Face Up To Reality album we recorded last year. When that will be released or by whom? I just don't know at this point. But there's that, plus a second volume of the anthology with more older studio stuff, and then we will be fully documented and caught up. Oh, and I guess there's some pretty good live tapes in the can, too.

K: I’m just sorry you guys didn’t record “Positively 4th Street” [Dylan cover the Nervebreakers played during their 2009 shows].

T: If we [record] again, that’s one we’ll do, but Face Up is all original stuff.

K: It seems like Jeff Smith from Saustex Media would be the guy to release that. You already have a relationship with him from re-releasing the Out On Parole album.

T: He was kind of interested. He had the Nervebreakers scheduled for one of his 2010 SXSW/Saustex afternoon things, but then they [the four Nervebreakers in Dallas] decided not to come down to Austin for SXSW. Then the whole music industry has been so fucked up and up-in-the-air the last year or two. So that drags the whole process out even longer in time, but that’s about par for the course. Like I said earlier, a lot of times things don’t work out the way you’ve planned, so you just have to “go with the flow” and not push too hard, and just be happy with the way things turn out. Because once something’s done, you sure as hell can't go back and change the past. But I know it’ll get out there eventually. To me, the main thing was just getting it done, getting those songs documented, and the fact that they turned out really well –- it’s at least in the can. The big part is done, and now we just have to wait for the time to be right for somebody to put it out.

K: What are some of the songs you guys recorded, besides “Face Up to Reality” itself?

T: “Just Yawn.” [A rockabilly-ish number with a singalong punk chorus.] Speaking of “Positively 4th Street,” the first song that Mike and I wrote together was called “Formerly Street Queen.” It kind of fit in with the theme of the song, but obviously it was a takeoff on that whole Dylan “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” “Positively 4th Street” kind of thing…adverbs in song titles. We recorded that and it’s kind of punk, but it’s more in the proto-punk vein because it has this big, long, kind of epic ending that sounds like early ‘70s rock. There’s “They Were Doing the Pogo,” which is kind of our joke song, kind of a takeoff on the whole Ramones thing. Back then a lot of it was a joke and then people took it seriously. There’s one called “I’m Lost,” the first one that Carl wrote the words for, another ‘70s proto-punk kind of thing. There’s one called “It’s Obvious” that’s just real basic rock and roll, probably the closest to a Cheap Trick/Dave Edmunds basic rock and roll thing that we made.

K: Back in the ‘70s, you seemed a lot different from all the other rock bands I knew around here, but watching the documentary, you also seem uniquely Texan in a lot of ways. Like Barry [Kooda]’s comment when Sid Vicious was throwing punches at his face, and Barry tells him, “Look, son, you’re in Texas. You can get killed for doing that here!” Even before you were doing your solo stuff, you had little bits and pieces of C&W influence in your music.

T: George Jones.

K: “The Race Is On,” and you’d open with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly theme.

T: One of the songs on the new album, “I Don’t Want To Hold Your Hand,” is kind of our punk version of country from back then. It’s kind of like that cowpunk real fast “oom-pah, oom-pah” beat. That Hickoids thing, kind of a Mexican beat that wound up being the cowpunk thing. That’s something that kind of just happened.

At the time, I was not really heavily into country or anything. Just as time went on, a little bit. I was interested in rockabilly, and really got into country through rockabilly. Back then, the Clash were doing “Brand New Cadillac.” When the rockabilly thing was kind of hitting punk, people were going back and saying, “Yeah, this is kind of the modern version of what that was back in the old days.”

I started a side band, Tex and the Saddletramps, to do that, because in the Nervebreakers, we’d kind of do a little bit of it, but not really too far. That had kind of always been a [Nervebreakers’] thing. I don’t remember who all was in it, but Mike had a side band, a reggae band, just for them to explore playing reggae. With different types of music, you really have to learn to play it to absorb it and figure out what you like about it.

So I had that on the side, and once the Nervebreakers were no more, I had a band with Carl because everybody else quit, and we auditioned some people, because we still had the Nervebreakers’ rehearsal room, but we decided we were more interested in doing something else, so we just made it another band, called the Jungle Heirs. Then after that broke up, I started a version of Tex and the Saddletramps again, and that was the version that recorded “Move It.”

K: It seems like you moved around a lot in the ‘80s.

T: After that I moved to Austin in ’84, L.A. in ’86, back to Dallas at the end of ’90, and back to Austin in ’95. I guess around ’89, my dad passed away, and that was a real prime motivator for me to come back to Dallas and just be around my mom to kind of help her out. My older brother was around, but I just felt like I wanted to be there too. Four years in L.A. was enough for me. Playing with the Loafin’ Hyenas, I got into drugs, and [going home] seemed like a good way of trying to get away from that. Of course, I got back to Dallas and there were plenty of people into drugs there, but the whole Hollywood scene is just so…well, what can you say? I like it here [in Austin]. Dallas is what it is. Good friends, good people there. But any big city is going to be the same in a certain way, you can eventually find people to hang around with who are kind of interested in what you’re into, but Dallas is so weird, I don’t know. I’m just glad to be away from there.

K: Do you find the music scene in Austin to be more conducive to what you want to do?

T: Everybody in the world moves here to play music, and then half of them quit playing once they get here -- which I did, for a while, too. Everybody used to be in a band, or is in a band, and they have live music everywhere, but you just have your little niche and do your thing.

They’re really open to music here, and they have the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, which helped me through my thing. With our insurance situation, once you have hepatitis-C, you can’t get insurance unless you pay a whole lot of money. Then we have the SIMS Foundation, and they work more on the mental [health] side, rather than the physical side.

Once I decided to give up the booze, which I’d needed to for a long time, but I didn’t do it until I had to, until it didn’t work anymore, and I ended up drinking all the time, and being depressed…the SIMS people helped get me into detox and rehab and that was just the first step. Then HAAM hooked me up an internist and then I could work on the hepatitis, which you need to quit drinking if you have hepatitis, but a lot of people don’t. It’s hard to do. Hepatitis just sits there in your system for ten or 20 years and does nothing, and most people don’t know they have it until they get a blood test for something else, and then they go, “Oh, by the way, you have hepatitis.” Which is how it was with me, so I just went, “Oh, shit. Damn.” So I just kind of ignored it for awhile, until eventually I couldn’t ignore it.

K: How long is it now since you quit drinking?

T: Two years. I drank plenty in my lifetime for four lifetimes.

K: There’s a scene in the documentary where you’re on this cable TV show in Dallas and you just chug a half a bottle of Jim Beam.

T: It had tea in it, of course. “Was that really bourbon?” Well, what do you think? If you think somebody could do that, well okay. Of course not! Well, that’s part of the myth.

K: Speaking of Austin, can you tell us about some rooms you like to play down there, and some like-minded bands?

T: It changes all the time. Clubs close down and some come back. The Hole In The Wall has changed owners several times and added on. Liberty Lunch closed and the building was torn down. The Continental's still going. We opened for Chuck Prophet there recently. I did a gig with Reverend Beatman at Beerland, and then played at a neat little place on the east side called The Scoot Inn a couple of months ago with The Cynics for their stop in Austin. The Ugly Beats were also on the bill. They are pretty entertaining. My next gig is at a cool old joint called The Carousel Lounge that has a vintage circus motif. So you literally have a pink elephant next to the stage!

K: On [July 24th, 2010], you guys played a show at Trees in Deep Ellum, celebrating the 30th anniversary of Dallas’ original punk dump, the Hot Klub. How’d that go?

T: That was a lot of fun and really, really special. All the bands got to rehearse ahead of time and everybody sounded really good. There were four bands that had actually played at the Hot Klub back 30 years ago: the Telefones, Bag Of Wire, Fallen Idles and us. Then also a couple of later bands featuring various key players from several of the old, original groups like Superman's Girlfriend and Deprogrammer. A lot of old grudges were probably put aside, and we survivors that were still kickin' had a good time with some good music, good stories, laughter and hugs.

K: Do the Nervebreakers have any live action planned for the coming year?

T: We'll probably do our Dallas annual Nervebreakers reunion show sometime in the spring. But beyond that, we'll just have to see what rears its ugly head.

[The Nervebreakers just played three shows -- two sans Kooda, who had to work -- at SXSW 2012. A review of Hijack the Radio will follow once I'm able to lay hands on a copy.]


Anonymous Mike Haskins said...

Great interview! Thanks, Tex and Ken.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

Yeah I like it too!

8:34 PM  

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