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‘We were there’: Meet the ‘Curious Mix of People’ making Austin music in the ’90s

University of Texas Press

In 1990s Austin, an underground scene was brewing at house parties, makeshift venues and long-departed clubs.

While many of those bands and venues have since been lost to time, the underground music ecosystem of the ’90s not only eventually birthed some of the biggest, most critically-acclaimed names in indie rock, it was also an incredibly active microcosm of the do-it-yourself (DIY) scene where bookings were handled with phone calls and snail mail, and shirts and merch were printed by the bands themselves.

“A Curious Mix of People: The Underground Scene of ’90s Austin” captures the electrifying moment in the words of people who were there. Authors Greg Beets and Richard Whymark share the story through over 100 interviews with ’90s scene fixtures — musicians, DJs, club owners, record store clerks and dozens more hangers-on.

The Standard spoke to Beets and Whymark about their book, out now from University of Texas Press. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: For folks listening in Denton or Houston or El Paso: What’s so unique about the Austin music scene of the '90s? How would you answer them?

Greg Beets: You almost have to go back to the '80s. Because so much of what was going on here in the '90s was predicated on what bands like The Big Boys and The Dicks and the Butthole Surfers had done. They laid down a template in a place that was really out of the way at the time.

Greg Beets, left, and Richard Whymark, right, at the KUT Public Media Studios.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Greg Beets, left, and Richard Whymark, right, at the KUT Public Media Studios.

Austin was not an easy place to get to. Back then there wasn’t the internet to get people and keep people connected. So getting out of Texas — as anybody who’s ever driven I-10 out west — is a feat in of itself.

Maybe the difference in the '90s might have been that at the time Austin started emerging on the national consciousness a little bit more through things like the movie Slacker. And in the channels that people had available to them, I think, really started growing. There were local record labels that were putting out local music. There were fanzines that were documenting the local music scene, in addition to the alt-weekly, The Austin Chronicle. So there was just a lot of activity.

Meanwhile, going on at the same time, nationally you had the emergence of what was known as alternative rock at the time, which had become a commercial force that it really wasn’t in the United States, at least. So there was a dichotomy there, too, between bands that really wanted to remain true to DIY. What do you do when you start becoming commercially successful, and how do you work that out? It was an interesting time to be around doing music.

Richard, I want to ask you, since with that British accent, I have a pretty good idea of where you’re from originally. Tell me a little bit about how Austin resonated on the other side of the pond, or elsewhere.

Richard Whymark: So I got here around 1993, '94. We hadn’t seen Slacker, it hadn’t really made it to England. I know it was on late night television once, but when I got here, I almost immediately discovered KVRX, another University of Texas radio station run by the students. Their motto was, “None of the hits, all of the time.” They deliberately avoided the hits. And it showed me, and I think a lot of other people, another way of doing things that didn’t have to be top 40 all the time.

There were a lot of musicians working really hard at it at the time. Why don’t you drop some names, y’all? Spoon, obviously.

Whymark: The bands that did well, certainly as far as label success goes, all seem to begin with the letter “S.”

There was Spoon, as you mentioned, who originally got signed by Matador. And then there was Sincola, who were originally on Craig Koon’s Rise Records label. And then also, of course, there were Sixteen Deluxe who were on King Coffey’s Trance record label. King Coffey was the drummer of the Butthole Surfers. And then Sixteen Deluxe, because they did so well on Trance, they had a bidding war between, I don’t know, nine, 10, 11 major record labels.

And then Stretford also did very well. They were on Unclean Records, also run by one of the SoundExchange employees called Roger Morgan. And honestly, the list goes on and on.

I think of other bands that would emerge and become more popular as we moved into a new century, right? … And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, or just Trail Of Dead, as a lot of fans knew them. They came out of that scene, too, didn’t they?

Beets: They absolutely did. And those guys moved here, I think, in the latter half of the '90s, around like probably '95, '96 or so. They came to know some of the guys from a band here called Glorium. I should say Glorium actually started in San Antonio and then moved to Austin.

But in addition to just being a great, jagged punk band that had a different, cool artistic-type of approach to the basic punk rock template, they were just great guys and they were all about helping other bands get connected to shows and to people who might be able to help them out, and that sort of thing. Their claim to fame early on, I think, was just the ferocity of their shows and the destructiveness of their shows.

It was mayhem, man! It was absolute mayhem.

Beets: It was great. Yeah. You had to dodge and duck and stuff like that.

Who are you writing this for? Were you writing this for folks who remember what it was like to go to Emo’s before everyone had heard of it? Or were you thinking more about people who are trying to connect modern music to what was going on here in Austin in the '90s?

Beets: We were writing for both of those groups, I think. At least it seemed to us at the time we first started working with our colleague Chepo Peña on this project. Richard and Chepo started it as a documentary.

We were there. So to some degree, I mean, I feel a personal sense of accountability to the other people who were there, to try to get it as right as I possibly can. So that was definitely an important thing. But I think we also wanted to place the scene from the '90s within the context of what was happening and in music on the larger scale at the time.

Richard Whymark and Greg Beets will be featured at the upcoming Texas Book Festival running this weekend in downtown Austin, Nov. 11-12.

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