Remembering It's Rock

Texas eclectics Slobberbone refuse to surrender to altcountry dogma

March in Austin, Texas, and the streets are filled with the din and clatter of competing sounds. The noise of traffic and pedestrians swells as the strain of music resonates from what seems like every building. The annual South by Southwest conference, the world's biggest music industry orgy, is heating up just as the city's temperature drops. Even for Austin's sometimes cool spring evenings, the night is uncharacteristically frigid. North of the city's main drag, across from the famous Stubb's Bar-B-Q, the Club Deville is hosting a private party for the locally based Doolittle Records label. Outside the bar, underneath a canopy deflecting an intermittent drizzle, Slobberbone is finishing up its set with frantic hillbilly redux of the Cars' power-pop classic "Just What I Needed."

The cover comes after the group -- singer/songwriter Brent Best, guitarist Jess Barr, bassist Brian Lane and drummer Tony Harper -- has finished putting the assembled crowd in a state of near-frenzy with its performance. It's an hour's worth of whiskey-sodden laments that explore the dark folklore, twisted comedy and workaday struggles of a sometimes forgotten underclass. The music is unadorned and unapologetic rock 'n' roll, but one fused with country themes and chaotic punk energy.

After the set, Best packs his gear and retreats to a quiet corner outside, shivering as he pulls off his knit cap. As the steam rises from his head, he untangles a mess of long black hair and rubs his eyes as a look of frustration comes over his face. During a week when bands come from all points to hawk their latest wares, Slobberbone is stuck playing a game of hurry up and wait. The band's label is right in the midst of a merger that has pushed the release of its album back until summer. It seems an eternity has passed since Slobberbone's last long-player, and Best is eager to get it out now.

New Depression: Slobberbone (clockwise from top middle), Brian Lane, Brent Best, Tony Harper and Jess Barr
Bruce Dye
New Depression: Slobberbone (clockwise from top middle), Brian Lane, Brent Best, Tony Harper and Jess Barr

It's been a long road for the band since the release of 1997's Barrel Chested (on the heels of its 1996 debut Crow Pot Pie). Two and a half years of continuous roadwork followed. Even for the strongest of wills, the rigors of life in a van and the endless stream of one-night stands can be trying. Add to that the strain of a hectic SXSW schedule, one that will see the band perform multiple shows. Whatever it is, Best -- shoulders hunched, head in hand -- looks very tired.


It's early May and late afternoon in Denton, Texas, when Brent Best answers the phone. He speaks in a tired drawl that suggests he might've just risen from a deep sleep. Gradually, though, it becomes clear that the exhausted frustration of SXSW has given way to a sense of satisfaction, the result of the stellar triumph that is the band's forthcoming record, Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today (set for release July 25). From his earliest efforts as an East Texas punk rocker to his Denton garage band days, through the various mutations of Slobberbone's twang-core, Best has been in constant pursuit of a particular sound. Everything You Thought is the product of an artist finally finding what he's been looking for. From the opening 12-string/fiddle salvo of "Meltdown" to the pop songcraft of "Bright Eyes Darkened," the love-haunts-eternal ballad "Josephine" to the chugging banjo wail of "Pinball Song," the group has created a record that's sure to dazzle some and leave others groping for adjectives and genre hybrids to define the band's distinctive new sound.

Everything You Thought was recorded at Memphis' legendary Ardent Studios last winter with producer Paul Ebersold (Sonia Dada, Green on Red). Making the album in such expensive trappings was not a concept the band felt comfortable with, according to Best. So leery were band members of the increased expectations that they actually tried negotiating a smaller budget for the album. "I don't know," sighs Best. "I'm just self-conscious about that sort of thing, because we're not the type of band that needs a huge budget and a big studio. Even though it worked out this time, it's probably not something we would need to do again."

Despite the relative success of Barrel Chested -- the disc has sold 20,000 copies, and the single "Your Excuse" garnered the band some American airplay and a strong European following -- Best wasn't interested in repeating the formula.

"It was a weird feeling at the time -- and this goes back to them sending us into a big studio. I remember feeling like, "I guess we need to deliver some rock songs again, à la Barrel Chested.'

"But I knew this album wasn't going to be that way. I think maybe a lot of my initial concerns came from worrying about how I was going to shoehorn some blazing rock songs into this album."

Besides his own creative uncertainty, Best had to deal with the ongoing upheaval at the band's label. Doolittle founder Jeff Cole, the man who discovered the band in 1995 and helped produce both its records, recently left the company after its merger with New West Records (home to former Wall of Voodoo singer Stan Ridgway and honky-tonk hero Billy Joe Shaver, among others).

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