In the News : Denton Makes the New York Times

Mark Graham for The New York Times
The Boxcar Bandits at Hailey’s, a popular club in Denton, Tex., a city that is a new hotbed of indie music. There are more than 100 local bands.


Here's what the New York Times thinks of Denton..........my comments follow at the end


An Indie Scene That Comes With a Texas Twang in Denton

Denton, Tex., has emerged as a hotbed of alternative music with a lo-fi sound that’s a mélange of Southern twang and experimental indie-rock.

Published: May 11, 2008

WITH its Piggly Wiggly markets and dusty pawnshops, the Texas college town of Denton does not look the part of a Woodstock in waiting. A Romanesque courthouse juts out of the central square, as in that fictional town in “Back to the Future.” And whenever the local college football team plays at Fouts Field, the entire town seems to put on Mean Green T-shirts.

But wander into the Panhandle House, a barnlike recording studio on North Locust Street, and you’ll find Midlake, a five-person band whose music the British newspaper The Guardian has called “a dreamy concoction of Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and the Yardbirds.” Actually, the band is ensconced in the dingy storage room next door, which they have turned into a makeshift shrine to the 1970s — patchouli incense, wood paneling and vintage vinyl — that befits their retro three-guitar sound.

“We really wanted to create this warmth and ascetic vibe that matched our music, right down to the curtains,” said Eric Pulido, Midlake’s lanky guitarist. The band was meticulously recording their much-anticipated third studio album, though it was hard to tell on this recent Friday afternoon. The room was littered with empty beer cans, and the recording equipment looked as cheap as a pawnshop special. “We’re definitely not gear heads,” added Tim Smith, the fuzzy-bearded front man.

Midlake may be the current poster boys for Denton’s indie music scene — with gushy write-ups in Rolling Stone and cameos among its members for trendy causes like Al Gore’s We Campaign — but they are not the only ones vying for that title. The town’s lo-fi sound, a mélange of Southern twang and experimental indie-rock that suggests Wilco and Radiohead, has garnered an eclectic following that stretches from alt-country die-hards and college radio listeners to MySpace fanatics and clubbers in Europe.

At last count, more than 100 bands were polishing their sound in the city’s dive bars, rooftop spaces and fraternity basements. Even the local record store, a converted opera house called Recycled Books, has a section devoted to Denton bands. The bin dividers read like a Lollapalooza T-shirt: Lift to Experience, Centro-matic, Jetscreamer, Vortexas, Robert Gomez, Stanton Meadowdale, Mom, Mandarin, and Matthew and the Arrogant Sea, to name just a few.

Not bad for a college town of 110,000, prompting more than a few music industry insiders to call Denton the next Austin. “There’s this combination of artistic fervor and small town naïveté,” said David Sims, a music columnist for The Dallas Observer. “Artists here don’t know they’re not supposed to be Bob Dylan so when they start a band, they shoot for the moon.”

A former agricultural trading post, Denton is a prairie town just north of Dallas’s exurban sprawl, in a part of North Texas known for its tornadoes and tough liquor laws. The highway that goes into town passes through peanut farms and horse ranches, although a few strip malls have also sprung up.

The town manages to combine the bohemian charm of Berkeley with the rural folksiness of the South. Downtown Denton is a grid of squat early-20th-century brick houses, with two notable exceptions: the 10,000-student campus of Texas Woman’s University, whose twin dormitories are the town’s lone skyscrapers, and the campus of the University of North Texas, which has about 35,000 students.

To get a flavor of the town’s quirky mix, stop into Jupiter House, a popular 24-hour hangout where office workers in Dockers and Birkenstocks sip espressos next to tousle-haired hipsters with torn jeans. But hang around town long enough and the music starts drifting in from every which way. Drive by Rubber Gloves, a former cement factory on the outskirts of town, and you might hear musical acts like the Shins or Modest Mouse performing in the still-grimy converted rehearsal space. Pick up a video rental at Strawberry Fields and you might stumble upon Ghosthustler, an electronica trio mixing beats in the back of the cramped store. Or just stroll through the town square, a manicured green rimmed with mom-and-pop shops, and you might run into folks like Buck Ragsdale, an 80-year-old retired construction worker who holds a weekly bluegrass session on the lawn. On a warm Saturday morning, Mr. Ragsdale and his fiddle were joined by a dozen gray-bearded musicians in cowboy hats, jamming to an out-of-tune rendition of “Whiskey Before Breakfast.”

“A lot of us older ones were raised on farms,” Mr. Ragsdale said. “We would play as often as we could and for as long as we could.”

Indeed, music seems to be ingrained in Denton’s roots. This unassuming town has given birth to musical acts ranging from the Grammy-winning polka band Brave Combo to the one-hit wonder Deep Blue Something (remember that “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” ditty from the 1990s?). In between are musicians as notable and diverse as Sly Stone, Don Henley, Meat Loaf, Pat Boone, Norah Jones and Roy Orbison.

Much of the musical genius can be traced back to the University of North Texas’s College of Music. Walk through the college’s leafy campus and you can eavesdrop on any number of lab bands polishing their chops, or pianists pounding away on a Steinway in the racquetball-court-like rehearsal studios.

“These kids are definitely more educated than your average garage band,” said Jay Saunders, a trumpet instructor at the university.

There’s another reason that Denton has emerged as a hotbed of alternative music. It has to do with another indie rock capital, 200 miles to the south.

“While Austin’s become more and more commercial, here it’s stayed more independent,” said Erik Herbst, owner of the Panhandle House recording studio. With its high-tech boom and music festivals like South by Southwest, Austin has seen its profile swell, leaving some artists disenchanted by the commercialism and higher rents. Even MTV’s “Real World,” mind you, has invaded the city. The cooler kids have decamped to Denton.

“It has a smaller-town feel than Austin,” said Isaac Hoskins, a 26-year-old former beer-truck driver who was moving to Austin four years ago when he made a pit stop in Denton and decided to stay. He now fronts for a local alt-country band called the Heelers.

Not that Denton is above riding Austin’s coattails. Since 2004, Dentonites have staged something called North by 35, or NX35 (the name refers to the highway linking Denton with Dallas), which showcases Denton-only music.


STILL, unlike Austin, downtown Denton has no liquor stores or a Starbucks, and it sometimes feels more like a suburb of Dallas than a subcultural oasis. It didn’t help things when a developer last year bulldozed much of historic Fry Street, the former epicenter of Denton’s live music scene, to make way for a CVS (a plan since stalled by a permit issue). All that remains today of the Haight-Ashburyesque strip is a mosquito-infested mud pit and a graveyard of frat bars and head shops.

But in a testament to the town’s musical resilience, the night life simply migrated over to the main square. Pick any side street and you’ll find partygoers noshing on tacos, outside a smattering of derelict warehouses that have been transformed into clubs and live music stages.

The hub of Denton’s unplugged music scene is now Dan’s Silver Leaf, a colorful dive bar in a former radiator repair shop decorated with Texas longhorn skulls. On a breezy Saturday night last March, the bar was packed with 20-somethings with straggly beards, ponytails and vintage T-shirts. They sat in stone silence as Sarah Jaffe, a 22-year-old transplant from Dallas, belted out a heartfelt ballad reminiscent of Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah.” Local music watchers were already calling her the town’s next Norah Jones.

“People get kind of jaded because we literally have some of the best musicians in the world play here,” said Dan Mojica, the club’s silver-haired owner, who was holding court at his usual spot at the backyard bar. “We’ve set the standard so high that locals are expecting that all the time.”

Later that night, as the courthouse clock struck midnight, the crowd moved to Hailey’s, a larger and fancier club that readers of The Dallas Observer once named best club in Texas. It was mostly a bingo-age crowd, dancing the hokey-pokey to Brave Combo.

The real party took place across town at Strawberry Fields, the off-campus video store, where a yet-to-be-discovered band called the Heartstring Stranglers strummed their upright basses and dazzled a small but rapt audience with their indie-jazz and French lyrics. Outside in the dark parking lot, Chris Flemmons from the Baptist Generals and Michael Seman of Shiny Around the Edges — both elder statesmen of sorts of Denton’s music scene — were sipping tall boys and pondering where to go next. Perhaps the Fra House, a cottage nearby, was showcasing a new band? Or maybe something was happening on the rooftop at Cool Beans? Mr. Flemmons fired off a flurry of text messages as the band finished their set.

* * * * * *
Texas native speaking now :
Mostly, that fellar from the NYT got it right. His characterization of Denton was just a tad too folksy, countrified and cute, but I've got no basic quibble with him. Denton has moved, in the past 10 years, from being a little town too far out to be called a suburb, to the present day where the suburbs have caught up to us and now we are part of the vast McMansion and big box sprawl that starts in San Antonio and continues barely uninterrupted up I-35 till you get to Oklahoma City. It's coming at us from all sides, too - creeping in the back door, via I-45 and US hiway 380.
The part about Denton having a superior music scene is very true. The School of Music at UNT has been rated by various sources as one of the top 5 or top 10 in the USA. This creates a rich source of musicians, teachers, students, music stores, bands, and other related ephemera in this town. Denton ISD benefits mightily from all this : has consistently been rated as a school district with one of the richest music programs in the state. UNT is famous for producing all kinds of musical talent : while the "One O'Clock Jazz Band" may be the most widely known, what is less known but just as important is that UNT is a major source of fresh new opera singers. I have long been an opera aficionado , and have dragged my unsuspecting little children to watch UNT productions such as "Cinderella" ( complete with hypertext in the very fine local Murchison Theater ). You just can't start kids too early, when it comes to cultah'.
My two sons have benefited mightily in other ways, as well, from all this : both took piano lessons for years. The older one then played percussion in a school sponsored jazz band for years, and is currently forming his own indie band with friends. They keep talking about something called a "micro-korg ". The younger one is currently studying violin. Who knows ? They could be famous someday.....I'll get back to you when they do.


The Greatest Stories Ever Told

Could you narrow your favorite movies down to a list of only 10 ? I barely did. Notice there's no "Godfather" or "Pulp Fiction" here - while I like those films, the violence is too much and I can't watch them again and again. All of these films have strong female leads...hmmmm

In no particular order :

1)Gone With The Wind-(GWTW) Every little girl growing up in the south thinks she’s Scarlett O’Hara. If she doesn’t , she should. Classic tale of the Old South, plantations, Civil War, rising to meet life’s struggles. Those who can, and those who can’t. For me, I kinda looked like Scarlett, for a brief moment in my teens, and went through some family hardships, so the comparisons were more than superficial. Although some parts of this film are not entirely PC by today’s standards, the characters are so iconic that you must be familiar with them and their story to understand many cultural references. I have a group of friends who continue to this day, to discuss this film ( and book ) on a near daily basis, and to find guidance and inspiration, much like consulting the I-Ching. Our mantra often is, “ What would Scarlett do ?” ( Or Rhett ? or Mammy ? etc) True aficionados have read the book, as well, several times, and can find a quote for every situation.

2)The Year of Living Dangerously –(TYOLD) Before Mel Gibson was an old egocentric loud-mouthed bigot, he was sexy young hot Mel. Mel from Australia, Mad Max, the Road Warrior. While he was still young and cute, before he became obnoxious, he made this little charmer of a film, which I think may be one of the sexiest movies of all time. The prolonged scene where he takes Sigourney Weaver away from the party , through road blocks, political intrigue of all sort, so they can have a romantic rendezvous, is one of the most tense, drawn out, steamiest movie seductions of all times. Watch it for that, and for the beautiful south east Asian scenery, great screen chemistry between Gibson and Weaver. Also has a very nice performance by Linda Hunt as a man, a beautiful score by M.Jarre, and some rather biting socio-political commentary on Western views of third world countries.

3)A Room With A View –(ARWAV) Charming little “Masterpiece Theater “ styled romance, with a twist. This film starts out cute as can be, rolling along, and you think you know where it’s going : proper young English lady travels, enjoys Italian countryside with other ladies, prepares to lead conventional Victorian upper class life, then bam ! Julian Sands grabs the girl and gives her one of the best screen kisses of all times. (I want to be kissed like that ! ) She suddenly knows what true passion is all about. The scenery is fabulous . Each of the minor characters, Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliot, Daniel Day Lewis, plays possibly the best performance of his/her career.

4)Casablanca – Woody Allen had it right. This IS the greatest film, and love story of all time. The fact that it was cobbled together at the last minute, is replete with many little errors , non-continuity slips and goofs, makes no diff. It is brilliant, charming, funny, the most beautifully sad love story ever told, and never grows tiresome. (Romeo and Juliet ? Bah, humbug ! ) Wartime tale of intrigue and romance. Bogart was never sexier, Bergman never more breath-takingly beautiful. The B & W cinematography just makes me weep with joy.

5)When Harry Met Sally – (WHMS) Of course, I have a special affection in my heart for this film, which parallels my own particular romance with hubby dear. However, what keeps me coming back to this movie time and time again is the sparkling, witty dialogue penned by Nora Ephron, one of the funniest writers of the last quarter century. There are just so many really amusing things that were said, written , or acted in this tale of modern dating in NYC, I can entertain myself for hours just remembering them all. There are several movies, similar to this that all came out around the same time – Hubby #2 is esp. fond of Sleepless in Seattle (which I find terribly contrived and sappy). Hubby #1 liked "Joe vs the Volcano"(which I never "got", it all seemed so random and pointless to me.) My other fave of this ilk is :

6)You’ve Got Mail –(YGM) It’s not just that this film represents the peak of Meg Ryans’ cuteness phase ( maybe slightly post-peak; Tom Hanks is def on the downward slope of his cuteness…hey, it happens to all of us, he had good run of it ), and an adorable romantic comedy (little known trivia : it’s a remake of an earlier movie, called The Shop Around the Corner ) along the lines of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing “. I love this film for what it says about books, writers, literacy, the big vs. the small, and the importance of the things that matter. It is quintessentially wabi-sabi. Once again penned by the magical Nora Ephron.

7)The Philadelphia Story – (TPS) When you start trying to decide, of all the great classic films out there, which ones you are going to let into your list, and which ones you leave off, the task grows daunting. Many folks argue Katharine Hepburn is better with Spencer Tracy, and of that grouping, I prefer Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to Adams Rib or Pat and Mike. I think I prefer to see la Hepburn as imperious and sarcastic, to giddy and ditsy. This is another retelling of WS’s “Much Ado About Nothing”, one of my fave plays , it has such great chemistry if the leads are cast right. TPS is another perfect film for me, like ARWAV , each of the actors is in possibly one of the best roles of his/her career : Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant . The director is George Cukor, who filmed many of the early/better scenes in GWTW.

8)Notorious – I’m a big Hitchcock fan, for many reasons. I enjoy his story choices, how he builds suspense, how he flirts with sexual tension between the leads, very 50’s style, teasing us all along, implying a lot while actually saying very little, his stylistic conventions, the crafty film-making he experiments with ( framing and tracking shots ). There are several films he made in what I think of as his grand style : 9)Rear Window, 10)North By Northwest , and 11) Vertigo ,( ok, so I cheated my list by one !) round out my spots. I go round and round, ( joke ! ) trying to decide which of these 4 films is the best. All of these films feature some hapless man, led astray by a cold hearted yet alluring blond . In spite of the fact that these stories are mysteries, and thus less serious, in terms of potential acting chops, than “literature”, Hitchcock pulls some very fine performances out of Jimmy Stewart, Claude Rains, Cary Grant, Kim Novak. Ingrid Bergman , Eve Marie Saint, and Grace Kelly have never been lovelier. The camera makes love to all these women , and you can’t help but feel as hypnotized as the hapless men in these films.
That’s it, for now….I reserve the right to change my mind at a later date. And I have many second tier films that almost made the list, in fact I really need to expand it to top 20, or 30:
Crossing Delancy-more NYC dating, love Peter Reigert
The Princess Bride - perfect dialogue, humor, romance, cast
Annie Hall-Woody Allen's best performance
Manhattan-Woody's most self-deprecating , and his best cinematography ever
The African Queen -hard not to put this one on my original list
The Thin Man - #1 is the best one
Harvey-Jimmy Stewart's best role
Animal Crackers-anything the Marx brothers ever made
Sideways-wine, loveable schleps
Lawrence of Arabia-super handsome Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif
Giant-James Dean, Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson's best roles-Texas iconic story
4 Weddings and a Funeral-Hugh Grant's best
Sunset Boulevard-iconic
The Thomas Crowne Affair -toss up which version is steamier, I like Pierce Brosnan a lot
any James Bond with Sean Connery
Sound of Music, Camelot, MyFair Lady-love classic 50's musicals
Dr Zhivago-great love story, Omar Sharif is hot
The Last Picture Show-more Texas icons
Monty Python's Holy Grail-love MP humor
Star Wars ( #4 is my fave)
original Odd Couple
The Graduate-Dustin Hoffman was still cute
Pride and Predjudice - BBC version, love Colin Firth
Closer-Clive Owen is my new hottie
Bourne Identity-suspence/thriller, international travel, whats not to like ?
Atonement-still hooked on this romance
Be Kind, Rewind- introduced "sweded" to our vocabulary
Indiana Jones - #1 and 3, but not 2
Diner-replace the 50's gender bias with 80's teens, that's my life
To Kill A Mockingbird-the movie is a nice adaptation of the book
Dead Again-Branagh's best role
Jane Eyre-Timothy Dalton is a hottie
Out of Africa - Redford is still a hottie, no matter how wrinkled his forehead gets
The Big Lebowski - b/c the Dude abides
Pulp Fiction - John Travolta's best screen moments since "Saturday Night Fever" and "Urban Cowboy"
Love, Actually- a cast of 1000's, way too cute
Paper Moon - Ryan and Tatum, cute duo
.....and this is just my list of mainstream "American" ( should say, English language ) films. The indies/foreign films will be another posting.