by Jeremy Hart
I love Houston; really, I do. I have to admit, though, that for all of the good things about this big, sprawling, messy city, I've never thought that tropical hipster cool was one of its charms. I can recall, in fact, hearing about the new band ex-Suspects vocalist Thomas Escalante had stepped into after the demise of H-town's ska heroes, and thinking, "What the hell? He's now in a band with a couple of the guys from punk/funk/ska/weirdo band Middlefinger, it's named after the detective from the Pink Panther movies, and they're playing...lounge music? Yeah, right; like that'll fly in this town..." Blues? Yes. Zydeco? Sure; got the swamp feel for it. Gangsta rap? Hell, yeah. Bizarro garage rock? Definitely. But guys sipping martinis and gently crooning over what sounds like the Jetsons soundtrack, well...I had my doubts.
Shows what I know. Over the past few years, H-town's own lounge/surf/"exotica" mavens Clouseaux have carved themselves out a remarkable little niche in the music scene that nobody'd ever even realized we were lacking. In the process, they've put out two full-length albums, their self-titled 2002 debut and this year's Lagoon!, out on Dionysus Records (as well as a promo EP for Lagoon!'s release entitled Destination Oasis), gotten boatloads of praise from the local press, and won awards both here and in Austin. Oh, and they've single-handedly begun what could well be Houston's next wave of music: The Tiki Craze.
Okay, so it's not a "craze" yet, it's true, but after listening repeatedly to Lagoon!, I can see how it damn well could be, at least. The music is at once smooth and sultry, evoking ocean breezes and thundering island volcanoes, complete with mysterious natives and fantastic sea creatures. It's like one of those silly fruity-alcoholic-drink stir sticks with the tiki head on it come to bizarre life (but in a good way, mind you). I was hooked, from the first strains of "Lost Lagoon (Intro)," and so I figured I'd try to catch the band's bassist/contact guy Jay Brooks for a chat...
SCR: Who all's in the band these days? I seem to recall reading somewhere that Claudio [De Pujadas, former Suspects/Clouseaux drummer] had left town; is he gone for good?
Jay: Yes, Claudio recently moved to Philly. But he's coming back home for X-mas, and I hear he may play some of our December shows (Continental Club, 12/23; maybe Rudz on New Year's). David Tashery (of Three Fantastic and Les Saucy Pants) has been filling in on drums, as well as Ryan Ogrodowicz (jazz drummer from Spring). Other cool folks include Kelly Doyle (Three Fantastic, Les Saucy Pants, Michael Haaga, Middlefinger) on guitar, Tomas Escalante (Suspects) on vocals, Steve Ruth (Suspects) on trumpet, Aaron Koerner (Suspects, Secret Agent 8) on trumpet and flugelhorn, Alfred Tam (Secret Agent 8) on trombone, and Rhonda Roberts on vocals and ukelele. Sometimes we'll have appearances by David Cummings on keys (Middlefinger), John Best on vibes (percussion professor at Sam Houston), Andy Salmon on latin percusssion, and John Daniels of Zombilly on fire-breathing and extras. Oh, yeah...me on bass (Middlefinger, Suspects). If everyone showed up at once, there would be 14 people.
I guess that means that not everybody plays at the shows, generally? How many band members usually show up?
Let's see: at least two horns, two vocals, drums, bass, and guitar. Sometimes we'll play a show with one horn, but rarely. We've also played shows with one or no vocalist at all.
Clouseaux -- http://clouseaux.tripod.com/
Dionysus Records -- http://www.dionysusrecords.com/
Tiki Oasis -- http://www.tikinews.com/tikioasis/tikioasis.html
The Suspects -- http://www.suspects.billgrady.com/
Middlefinger -- http://www.angelfire.com/mi2/middlefinger/
How would you describe the music you folks play? Where the heck did it come from? Houston's hardly a tropical paradise, after all...
The easiest description would be "exotica," although we don't strictly adhere to that genre, that was the focus of Lagoon! Another more accurate description would be "dark soundtrack music," with tints of jazz, surf, and spy. Exotica came from the effect of far-away travel after the soldiers of WW2 returned home from the islands of the Pacific. There was a fad back then for anything exotic. It was the white man's bastardization of African/tribal/island rhythms mixed with jazz. Godfathers of exotica were Les Baxter and Martin Denny.
What musicians would you say have had an influence on you?
Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Juan Garcia Esquivel, Combustible Edison, and Frank Zappa (plus countless jazz players).
How did you get involved in this whole "tiki-lounge" thing? It seems like it's kind of an insular little musical subculture.
Being bored with punk, ska, and all other contemporary rock mutations, I happened upon Combustible Edison's I Swinger album and the song "Twiggy Twiggy" by Pizzicato 5. This opened up the whole world of "lounge/exotica" music. Later on, after forming the group, we booked a show in California at an event called "Tiki Oasis." The befores durings, and afters of that experience have opened us up to the "tiki/exotica" subculture.
How do you go about writing songs? Is it a collaborative effort, or do only a few people really drive it along? I would imagine a band as big as yours could make songwriting in a traditional sense kind of difficult.
Usually songs are written by one person in the band, presented at rehearsal, and tweaked a bit here and there by the different members. Brooks, Doyle, and Cummings are the chief composers, but everyone adds their own two cents to each song, so it really winds up being a collaborative effort.
Lagoon! really has kind of a cinematic feel to it, like it's the soundtrack to a bizarre surf movie; was that intentional? Can you talk about that? Is there any kind of a storyline? "Copper Locked Nymph" and "A Most Excellent Flying Death," for example, sound like themes from a James Bond flick, while the stuff beforehand seems to build to that point.
Although I haven't read Sig Bird's book about Houston [Sig Byrd's Houston] -- somewhere deep within the text there is reference to the word "Lagoon" being used in Houston in the '50s. Evidently its then-slang meaning was "cool." As we were going for an exotica focus on the record, we thought that that would be a perfect title for the record, as it works on more than one level. No story line, just music we dig. It came out well, though. I'm extremely proud of that release.
I noticed that there aren't really any traditional "vocals" or lyrics on the album; was that something you did intentionally, as well? I know at least a few of your older songs have lyrics -- why did you skip 'em this time around?
Yes, that was intentional. Lyrics tend to confine the listener, in my opinion. In other words, when you listen to a song with lyrics, you are forced to contemplate those specific words each time you hear the song. If the lyrics are poor and one-dimensional, it really ruins the song. On the other hand, instrumental music allows infinite avenues of interpretation. Each time you listen to the song, it can mean something entirely different to the listener. We're not forced to think of a particular concept.
Aren't you a little worried, though, that some folks might not be able to "focus," so to speak, on just the music? It's hard to play instrumental stuff -- especially more laid-back, mellow music, like what you guys do -- without it being tagged as "elevator music," after all. Have you gotten any of that kind of response?
So far no one has had the balls to say that to our face. I could see how the uninformed listener could come to that conclusion, though. Especially here in Texas.
What're your plans after this new album? Is Clouseaux destined to keep on indefinitely?
It's all kind of up in the air. It just depends on the gods; the muses. Of course, I hope we continue. Clouseaux is too valuable to succumb to atrophy. I must push on... We are planning on doing a Christmas record-- hopefully to release by Nov. 2005. We also may do an interpretation record (covers).
Awesome. Are we talking covers of already tiki-flavored music, or totally random stuff?
We would probably do some Mancini, Esquivel, maybe some standards. Whatever.
I know a number of band members used to be in The Suspects and Middlefinger, by the way; what kind of a reaction have you gotten from fans of the old bands?
Not really any reaction at all. Weirdly enough. END