By Mark Guarino
As Brent Best talks, roosters cackle outside his back door. “A low-rent Shangri-La” is where he’s living these days outside Denton, a university town in north Texas his former band Slobberbone helped put on the musical map.
In Slobberbone’s tenure — five albums between 1994 and 2005 — Best spent scant time in Denton due to a touring rotation that ultimately drained the band of its energy and crippled its will to live on. Life since then has taken a milder pace. Best’s recent home is a ranch tucked at the end of a dirt road. His neighbors are cats, chickens, snakes and roosters. His tomato plants just died but he’s getting used to living alone. It’s better than cramming inside a van for weeks on end. Or coming home to a house with the same people you just spent six weeks smelling.
Best is older, 35, and he is the first to admit those days were numbered. “There’s just a natural progression of things. Something had to give,” he said.
Now he’s turned to The Drams, a band that at first glance seems somewhat like his old band. That’s because The Drams is essentially Slobberbone shuffled: Out went bassist Brian Lane, in came bassist Keith Killoren with keyboardist Chad Stockslager. Guitarist Jess Barr and drummer Tony Harper remain, but that’s not a signal The Drams is simply retooled Slobberbone. Jubilee Dive (New West) is the album that band never made: a juiced-up 70-minute epic of jolting, orchestrated rock. Removed from the greasy bar burners his former band was known for, Best was able to translate that mad energy into songs with the grand scope of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run glory days and the tight-knit harmonies of The Band.
Best freed himself up by hearing keyboards, strings and horns in the new songs he was writing and then bringing them in, a direction he understands will be greeted with hesitation from Slobberbone’s fanbase, which he describes as “pretty rabid.” Case in point: Once The Drams started playing shows earlier this year, his email address was tracked down. Suddenly messages from his faithful started popping up, asking him point blank questions: “My friend says there’s no fiddle — where’s the fiddle?” “My friend saw you in Dallas and said you don’t play any Slobberbone — what’s up with that?
“It can be overwhelming at times when you know what you’re up against,” he said, laughing.
“I think Slobberbone’s greatest appeal was, no matter how adept we got playing our instruments, no matter how much better we became live, there was the undercurrent of four guys hanging on for their dear lives,” Best said.
Slobberbone is now enshrined in the hallowed days of alt-country, part of a second generation of bands that took off after bands like The Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo demonstrated that the blue collar aesthetic popularized by MTV grunge was more tangible in fringe punk bands that took country music seriously. In the mid to late 1990’s, alt-country boomed with up-and-coming bands creating the template for the “O Brother” fervor to come.
“I remember our first South By Southwest show, probably in 1996,” Best said. “On the bill that night was The Hangdogs, us, Whiskeytown, The Old 97’s and Blue Mountain. If somebody dropped a bomb on that club, that would have eliminated the chunk of the next six or seven years. Anyone that was really down with that was probably in that club that night.”
Best was born in Austin but soon his family moved to the country outside Dallas. His father, an engineer for Texas Instruments, was enamored with the outlaw country scene in Austin, an interest that transferred to his teenage son who found himself trapped with friends primarily invested in Van Halen. “Because of that I never had anyone saying what I should or shouldn’t listen to. It became all one thing to me. I lost all delineations between what was punk or rock or country as long as it was good,” he said.
He played bass starting at age 15 and didn’t pick up a guitar until five years later when he was enrolled at the University of North Texas, studying film. Denton was an unexpected oasis of music and art thanks to the university’s rigorous and acclaimed jazz program (Norah Jones is a graduate), which brought musicians through town, some to study, others to
“Denton’s always been a hotbed of musical activity,” said Dan Mojica, owner of Dan’s Silver Leaf Lounge, a local club where Slobberbone played its final shows. “I would put it up against Austin at any given time. It’s just very fertile.”
Slobberbone came together when college ended with all four members working dead-end jobs. “We just always wanted to do it,” Best said. After self-releasing one album and playing shows around town — the first before friends at a drive-through liquor store — the band signed to the Austin label Doolittle with the expectation of one necessity: a van. Touring dominated their lives from that point, leading to almost 200 dates a year. Best remembers the familiar routine of leaving a warehouse job to tour and coming home with $300 in his pocket for rent. The band shared a house and life was simple.
Then Europe called. In 1998, Slobberbone played its first overseas tour and made the discovery that, not only were the crowds bigger but they knew every lyric. “They looked at us as goddamn AC/DC,” he said. They returned almost three times a year, playing rock festivals and selling out clubs, subsiding on that income to keep going. “Slobberbone may have never lasted as long as it did had it not been for Europe,” he said. “It kept you honest. You could go over there and be a rock star and have someone move your gear for you and not worry about anything but putting on good shows. If you had a big head, you were a few weeks away from playing The Chucker in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. After a month of two, I would find myself missing those little ratty holes.”
Marriages and road fatigue gave the band a reason to pause. Near the end of 2004 they decided to think about it and by spring it was easy to see: the band needed to be put to bed. “There had always been a push in the band that if it ever became hard or strained between the four of us, we’d never replace anybody and keep going,” he said.
After a short tour, the final two shows in March 2005 were played in Denton. It was an international send-off. The majority of the 270 people crammed inside Silver Leaf Lounge were passport-holders from Holland, the U.K. and Germany. “We didn’t even advertise it,” said Mojica.
The Drams were cobbled together almost instantly. Up to that point, Best was periodically playing acoustic shows. At South By Southwest that spring he discovered he needed a band after being slotted on a full band bill that wasn’t the solo showcase he anticipated. Since Lane moved to Florida, he called up his remaining Slobberbone mates plus Stockslager and Killoren who he knew from the Dallas band Budapest One. “I threw (the band) together really just for that. It was fun and there weren’t any concerns of going anywhere with it,” he said.
Best found the extra vocalists and multi-instrumentalists inspired him to write songs that reached beyond his usual guttural rock fare. When producer Matt Pence, also the drummer for Centro-Matic, heard his demos, he was immediately struck by the sudden pop hooks (one song is what it is titled: “Hummalong”), celebratory vision and double tracked vocals. “I would tell … he wanted to go into a direction that was more expansive than previous Slobberbone records,” said Pence.
For four weeks in January 2006, they set out to try doing just that. With New West’s encouragement, Best recorded at The Echo Lab, Pence’s studio in Denton, where it would be cheaper but more importantly, there was no set deadline to produce.
The goal was established from the start. “We wanted something epic,” said Best. “Doing things that any of us had ever wanted to do.”
With the floodgates swung open, choices became plentiful. On “Wondrous Life,” the album closer, orchestra bells, strings and a choir surge with grandeur. “We just threw the entire kitchen sink in there,” Pence said. “We were laughing when we did it. It was so ridiculous that Tony and Jeff and Brent would be involved in these kind of elements that are not very tough sounding. Slobberbone definitely had some muscle and these were not very muscular sounds. To hear them loud in the mix, we laughed our heads off. We were also laughing because it was actually working.”
The lyrics of Jubilee Drive take a cue from the album title. When there is darkness, Best seems well focused on finding light. “See the beauty being where you are/appreciate the fireflies, baby, just in case you never see the stars,” he sings (“Fireflies”). The writing came from feeling rough around the edges, tired, and not appreciating the continuing foibles unraveling on CNN. “If you’re at home and not being productive on a regular basis and taking all that in, it’s easy to get in a funk. Six years ago I was watching the news and thinking that politically it can’t get any worse. And here I am,” he said. “Maybe the uplifting stuff was really a product of me trying to get myself out of that funk and sort of take stock and go ‘okay, regardless of what is going on in the world, at the end of the day all I can be accountable for is me’.”
The one new song certain to get catch the attention of Slobberbone fans is “Shortsighted” where Best is heard singing, “let’s fail miserably/let’s play the shit joints/let’s make up the songs as we go along/let’s do the right thing just because it feels wrong.” It may read like an indictment of his old band, but amid the song’s flickering organ and chugging guitars, it
“That song wrote itself. Fans are so protective of what you do that it’s even beyond you. And that’s cool, but if you make your living being in a band, the rewards have to be just getting to do it. Whether you’re playing to the bartenders or to 2,000 people in Amsterdam,” he said.
Best is not lost on the irony that, in escaping the rigors of one band, he is now facing the rigors of another. In October, the Drams play a month-long tour with Drive-By Truckers and then go to Europe in November.
“The plan is to be gone,” he said. “I’ve spent the last year and a half sitting in my dark house and recording music and watching CNN. I’m actually dying to get back on the road.”