Grady Roper is a ringmaster, a painter, a record label, a band, and, whatever he is at the moment, he is prolific. From the mid-90s, with his underground comic zine Proper Gander, through years of group shows at galleries that no longer exist, through thousands of CDs, records, and tapes pressed, to the present weirdo variety show Thirst Fursday, Grady has been a visionary leader.
INTERVIEW BY CHAD ALLEN
Switched On, Austin
Synthesizer dream space, storefront, repair spa, and online retailer of music electronics.
When was the first Thirst Fursday?
I wanna say Fall 2010, something like that.
What was the idea, that Attic Ted would have a variety show?
Well, no. In the early 00’s, Chain Drive would have weirdo punk bands on Wednesdays nights and it was free and we would go sometimes and it was kinda edgy and scary to go in there.
Because the scene was so different?
Yeah. I’ve been in some gay bars but never one like the Chain Drive. It was really interesting and a fun mesh of people and a refreshing thing for the Austin scene to be going to these edgy shows at the leather daddy bar. Through that, the guy who used to book those shows made a connection to the Chain Drive. When he gave up I asked to do a couple shows and then, what if I did a monthly show? That’s kinda how it came into being. As you probably remember, the Wednesday thing didn’t work out because they treated people kinda shitty. You wouldn’t play there for the first couple years, “fuck that place.” Thirst Fursday made Chain Drive cool again in our circle.
How would you describe our circle?
You know, like weirdos, artsy types. I always think of like misfits, in the sense that we don’t fit in anywhere else. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.
Have there been different periods of Thirst Fursday?
The four venues have set the tone. Really early Thirst Fursday, the original Chain Drive was so magical–black magic–and really set the tone for a different experience. The people who are doing it with me. I did it for a year or two until I asked Stephanie Bonham to be my co conspirator. She really transformed it. Really important, doing zine giveaways and….
Do you do a zine every month?
Not every month, but we did one this month. Now I’ve been trying to pull Pecan Crazy cassette releases into utilizing that space to promote those things, but not to much avail. Well, except I can channel off some money to pay for the tapes and then pass out a bunch of free tapes.
Making it different from a regular show, trying the zine giveaways, and different interactive stuff. This month and a lot of months we are doing read along alternative literature mixed in with the bands. James Roo is going to perform. A night like tonight the Bugglies are going to play and then there is going to be a this theatrical interactive QRSTV, then Andrew Goldfarb, then another band, then this alternative literature poetry short set.
We did it for 6 months at MOHA. Tried to do something different with less bands and more art interactive things, but it didn’t really work out.
Why, because the venue is not a bar?
No, just finding people who were interested in helping curate.
Do you feel like it has always been that way, from the Proper Gander days and through all of your various projects, where it is difficult finding people to collaborate, for a long period of time? It comes in fits and starts, right? Where people get excited about it, they work with you, then move on to something else. Is it different now at all, or is it the same vibe?
I guess it is similar, but the thing is that the difference is that now everyone that I’ve been working with for so many years is getting older and less interestested. It is harder to find where the new crew is, where the younger people are that have energy.
It seems like something you are good at doing though, bringing bands who are young and fresh. Every Thirst Fursday seems to have a new crop and not a lot of overlap or too many people that are the same from month to month.
Well I mean it is certainly what I strive for. I am always harassing people around town, “who are the new weirdos?” Ish (mael Ricardo Archbold) helps me out a lot. Once or twice a year I have him give me a list of half a dozen bands. He’s usually right.
One of the landmark events within the Thirst Fursday epic, to me, has always been the wrestling. Did that start informally and then everyone was like, “let’s do that again!” ?
Well funny thing is, Stephy asked the band Party Girl to come play and they said yes, but unbeknownst to us this other weirdo kid in North Austin had been doing a band called Party Girl for years, before the other Austin Party Girl. Somehow he knew about Thirst Fursday and he was like “what, I’m playing? Nobody asked me! Well, I’m gonna come–Party Girl is playing!” And so it was this joke that it was going to be the battle of the Party Girls. We were trying to talk them into wrestling at the end. But the Austin Party Girl–those guys don’t wrestle; they’re like pretty boys.
Underwear seemed to be the essential costume for wrestling, right?
Which the original Chain Drive set the tone for.
It was permissive.
It was unbelievable that no one broke a collarbone.
So no serious injuries–for wrestling on concrete?!
Well everyone probably felt bad the next day, but nobody went to the hospital. But we recently stopped wrestling because all of us that had been wrestling for so long had been hurt so many times.
Just like normal professional wrestlers, y’all were like “we’re done” after two years.
But back to the Party Girl show; Liz Burrito was there, wasted, and I challenged her to wrestle in place of Party Girl. We wrestled for a while and it was sexy and hot until her boyfriend dragged her out. She just kept coming back into the bar and jumping on me. There was already a little physical rowdiness.
Did Jules (McKnuckles) take it over and become the ringmaster?
Yeah like a few months into it. She was helping facilitate, but it was a few months until it was officially “Wrestling with Jules” and became hers. She definitely picked it up and embraced the idea.
So it was organized to the extent that people were writing their names down and being matched up by Jules?
Did Chad (Hopper, aka Palfloat) and Amanda (Jones) take over when wrestling disappeared?
No, I was talking to Kevin Pope about how we needed some fresh life blown in and he had the idea. Now we have a kissing booth that is kind of provocative, encouraging people to whore themselves out for the arts. At the old Chain Drive I would bring my trailer. After the bar closed we would all go smoke weed and make out in the trailer. I asked Badlands if I could park the trailer in the back and have a make out room and they were like “fucking hell no you can’t have a make out room!”
Is pushing social norms essential for TF? Is that an important part of the experience for you?
Well, I would like to create a night that is more interactive and interesting instead of just another Austin show–just bands playing. It is discouraging still–the event page I made for this month says “come hang out on the back porch and ignore these great bands.” I wish i could set up a show where there was really no show–you just come and hang out on the patio.
At that point you are just hosting a party and the party could involve any number of things. If only you could have a space that didn’t have an outdoor section, or was all outdoor where no one could get away. If you’re going to come you’re going to have to experience everything.
Maybe the music isn’t the most important part of TF. Maybe it is true that hanging out on the back patio is the important part.
Having an outlet or a scene for weirdos?
Sitting around having people share experiences and expanding people’s minds. Me, I like music and performance. I go to shows usually because I want to see the bands.
Musically it has always been quite a variety. What has been the most normal thing that has happened there, musically?
I can’t think of the most normal thing that has happened!
Generally it is pretty experimental?
One thing about it being a free show and us not being able to offer money, it has weeded out bands that do think too highly of themselves.
So you have had bands say “sorry, we have to get paid or we are not playing”?
Yeah and it’s like, “oh well….”
Is there something wrong with someone making a living playing music?
No. When I’ve reached out to bands I’ve tried to explain that the shows are more of an interactive event. It’s not just a “show”, you know? It’s something special. I would rather let brand new bands play every month, because they get their friends to come. Bands that have been together for years play all the time.
People should get paid. In other countries, the arts are better taken care of than they are here.
I guess here, where you don’t have a lot of business or government money going into the arts, you have musicians who don’t get paid going to see other musicians who don’t get paid. There’s no money in the system. Do you think it should be on the venue to pay out more of the bar profits to have that music?
I don’t know what the magic solution is. A place like Badlands, the owners are there, working. They’re not that privileged, they’re busting their asses and scraping by. I think MOHA works it out well. They get a lot of free alcohol because people donate it. Going the non profit route–I don’t want to fill out any forms, I don’t want to be held accountable, I don’t want to fucking talk about it!
You just want to create the experience and that’s it. That’s as far as it goes.
Right. And if everyone is poor and they need to save their money for beer instead, the money is not the important part for me.
Would it be more sustainable with money, or would that introduce another problem?
I think the elimination of money makes it better for what we’re trying to do. It is a little unfortunate, but I think it makes it more sincere. Like I would be embarrassed to play a show that had some corporate banner attached to it. “Thirst Fursday sponsored by blah-blah-blah.” That sounds really dumb. But that is the measure of success in America, this fucked up idea. I wonder how long it will be before a corporation renames the country. “Verizon’s United States of America!”
Maybe they could just do political parties.
I’m voting for the Miller Lite candidate!
Is it important to have a sense of sexual deviance? Does that fit in with the misfit theme?
That had a lot to do with a lot of things, like Chain Drive setting the tone. We would have contests to see who could make out with the most people. But even that–some people stopped coming to TF because they thought it was getting too raunchy and was making them uncomfortable.
So you got to the point where you were alienating the alienated?
Ha! Well I didn’t think we should pull back, I thought they should toughen up. It was more part of challenging the status quo.
By whatever means necessary. Well that certainly is unique. I can’t think of anything else like that (in Austin). I mean it is different from burlesque which seems so self aware and codified. You have an open environment where you encourage free expression.
At some of the peak times it has felt important to me to push different sorts of ideas–to be like “these are not necessarily bad ideas. You can embrace this and it is actually pretty nice and fun.” Just being challenging and kind of political.
I never thought of it as political, that’s interesting.
Someone once said about Proper Gander that we weren’t political because we weren’t doing political stories, but I was like, “are you not looking at this artwork?” You don’t have to be talking about politics to be political. If you are challenging anything that is the important part.
Do you see a through line between Proper Gander and TF?
Yeah, I mean, it’s kinda the same thing I was doing.
But with less work, maybe?
Well, yeah. Less leg work; I only have to go to one place, instead of, like, 50. But it is searching for and organizing people to share ideas.
I know you got discouraged after doing the paper for a while and you have been doing the record label as well. Is it nice to be able to coalesce everything into TF?
All this stuff is discouraging all the time. I don’t know why I feel the need. I guess I have hope that it is a positive influence.
Well you must see the positive influence and get that confirmation at certain points to keep it going. It is obvious that you are doing something different and filling a need. Right?
And if it’s even just my own personal need. Hopefully encouraging artists to have the opportunity where they can take more chances. I guess that’s just the overall goal is to help move the curve of things away from this bland regular that everyone is doing.
The very existence of these projects is a statement against the status quo, maybe?
Even if it doesn’t seem like it makes the most impact at the moment. It is important that it exists at all like there has to be a dissenting voice?
It’s amazing how things come around so much further down the line that you don’t realize. I wonder what kind of influence Proper Gander really had on our community. Even though the Chronicle never did a big write up on us or anything.
It seems important to keep it an underground thing, though. That is what you are interested in, right? If it were popular you’d be looking for that other thing.
Yeah, I guess so. It is kind of just out of habit, now.
TF and PG created a sense of camaraderie. Is that another important part of it–community building?
Yeah, it is good community building.
And even if not everyone is willing to pull their weight in that community, they are still showing up!
It is hard to put too many expectations on people. Everyone is pretty wrapped up in their own little worlds.
It seems like Pecan Crazy is releasing a lot more stuff.
Cassettes make it easy. Two or three hundred dollars investment. It is cheaper than records or CDs.
Has the resurgence of that medium made it more possible to get excited about releasing stuff again?
Yeah, although it has been surprising, in that I’ve really sold so very few cassettes. The Pataphysics tape is the only one that has come close to breaking even. Mostly it is that cassettes were accessible financially. For Pataphysics and How I Quit Crack I pressed like 250 of each of those because I had this impression that people were going to be buying them. Ha, but really they’re not! So since then I’ve only done runs of 100 and I’m giving the bands usually like 40 of them. If I have ten I can give out as promos, then I can sell the remaining 50 and break even. I certainly didn’t start a record label to try to make any money. I’ve been doing Pecan Crazy for, I don’t know, 20 years? Well, like, ‘99 when I first started putting stuff out. Seems like at some point it is really gonna catch on that all this stuff is really cool and it will all be bought up by people I’ve never heard of. I just still waiting, you know?
It seems like music has to be free now. Have you thought about offering streaming music on Youtube–like posting the full album or just one side of the tape? Or put it up on Bandcamp with the option to donate when you download the tracks?
I mean, I should do all that. I need an intern. All the Pecan Crazy releases I have put up on the free music archive, pretty much right away. A few of the artists were like, “really?!” I do embrace artists not taking themselves so seriously. What do you think you’re really going to accomplish? Let’s just have a party.
“Let’s just have fun”, being the central idea..
Yeah. I thought what I should really do with Pecan Crazy is start scouring the thrift stores for cheap tape players–like $5 tape players. “Oh, I love tapes, but I don’t have a tape player.” Oh? $5 tape player…just go to fucking Goodwill! They’re all over the place.
Free tape player with purchase of the cassette?
I should start releasing 8-track tapes with a digital download.
Just to have the object? Why not just a piece of artwork with a download code for the music?
I have dreamed about that quite a bit. Doing like a silkscreen on wood panel–basically making an original piece of art that look like an album. I see people selling their fucking download cards for $10 at a show and it makes me want to punch them in the face. Dude–it’s like suck my dick. That’s bullshit.
It is hard to pay for something so ephemeral.
It is important that artists can make money. It is just the stupidest part of it.
The most regrettable part. So the whole point is just to have fun?
Yeah have fun and making a safe haven for people to take chances and hoping that it rubs off and catches on.
Yeah, even people playing at TF can take that idea with them to the next show, or next idea, or next song.
This last month we had more of a straight up pop band, this young kid I know from around town. It is a little bit psychedelic, but pretty much just pop music. It’s fine. But the kid was telling his bandmates that “hey, we’re playing TF, we should try to make it weirder.” I was like, “yeah, please do!” It was if they thought by playing a normal set they would be shamed. So that, I guess, is kind of encouraging.
Encouraging more experimentation. Should people be trying to outdo each other or should people just try harder to do their own thing, as much their own as possible? Sincerity is important.
Yeah. We’re here to try to foster more experimental stuff.
Thirst Fursday is hosted at The Badlands Austin. Unfortunately, at the time of printing, it appears The Badlands has lost their lease, making the future of Thirst Fursday unknown. Still, you can expect Grady to keep the underground weirdo scene alive. Any news will surely be posted on their official Facebook page.