Bubble Puppy Psych Del Rio
In the mid to late 1960s, it is indisputable that Austin, Texas was the epicenter of the burgeoning psychedelic music scene with The 13th Floor Elevators leading the way. However, San Antonio, a mere 80 miles South, were close behind with their own psychedelic heroes such as Bubble Puppy, The Sir Douglas Quintet, Lord August and the Visions of Light/Lite, and The Swiss Movement – granted that most of these bands frequently played Austin clubs and/or actually physically moved to Austin as at the time it was “the place to be”.
Antonio has its own psychedelic festival in the vein of Austin Psych Fest (rest in peace). On Saturday, September 23rd, the Psych Del Rio Music Festival came to fruition on the sleepy San Antonio Riverwalk. The small-scale festival, hopefully to become an annual happening, was beautifully organized by the K23 Gallery with a handful of sponsors and achieved the impressive feat of being a completely free festival for the masses – think about that for a minute, Levitation. It truly was a labor of love rather than a labor of commerce. The night was headlined by San Antonio legends Bubble Puppy with support from well-known names such as The Warlocks, Psychic Ills, and Flavor Crystals as well as a smattering of Texas bands that lean heavily toward psychedelia.
One of my favorite acts was the up-and-coming Houston based garage-psych band Flower Graves on Wallflower Records. Their upbeat, reverbed-out tunes with just the right amount of vintage organ really set the mood for the evening. After their set, I met up with front man, Mikey Drag, for an impromptu interview in which he filled me in on their brief history (only a few months in and they already had their inaugural show opening for the Brian Jonestown Massacre in Houston earlier this year), their soon to be released 7” record to be followed by a full length LP, and loose plans to conduct a West Coast tour of the US. Keep an ear on these cats – they may be visiting a venue near you!
The most impressive act of the night was truly the incredibly energetic show put on by Bubble Puppy. Most of the younger crowd that came to see some of the other bands or people that just completely stumbled into the venue by chance didn’t seem to have any idea what or who they were seeing but they were eventually caught up in the magic. The current lineup of Bubble Puppy really is the most cohesive incarnation of the band. They played flawlessly and you could really tell how much fun they were having being up there – Drummer David “Fuzz” Fore had the biggest grin on his face for the entire hour and a half set. Rod Prince’s bold, almost operatic voice, carried us through the classic songs such as ‘Hot Smoke & Sassafras’, ‘A Gathering of Promises’, and newer songs we hope to hear more of in the near future. These guys really give everything they have every show and all while having a blast on stage! Always respect your elders – especially when they are our psychedelic fore-fathers. I made arrangements to meet up with Rod and for over an hour we discussed the history, the present, and the future of Bubble Puppy.
Hey Rod! Thanks for taking some time to talk to us before the show. I guess let’s start at the beginning. Please tell us a bit about the origins of the band…
Let’s see, Roy (Cox) and I played in the second incarnation of The Bad Seeds in Corpus Christi (TX). Roy, the bass player and my song writing partner in the Puppy, first met when he came down from San Antonio to audition for the new band. He was an organ player back then, not a bass player yet. He was a psycho though! [haha] He’d shout, “Whoah! I’m the Flash is who I am!” “Oh, ok. How nice.” An assumed name, to go with this other identity he’d cultivated for some strange reason. He didn’t actually pick up a bass until we put the Puppy together in early ‘67. After a while he really hit his stride with the bass, and at the top of his game, Cox could stand up to any bass player on the planet – I don’t care who it was! The boy was badass. Deadly. He called me from San Antone right after I had just returned from California, just when I was trying to figure out what to do with myself since I had just been turned down by the service.
Were you being drafted or volunteering for service?
Yeah, drafted. Everyone was. I was expecting to go to Vietnam but they didn’t want me. Too fat! [Laughs] So I came to San Antonio and it was me and Roy to start with. We looked around to see who we could find music-wise and Danny Segovia was a stand-up singer and sax player playing in one of the local bands. Back then everybody was family and everybody knew each other. So, we ended up with Segovia and Clayton Pulley, our first drummer. Clayton was a good ol’ boy. He was the sweetest guy in the world, and he would beat the dog shit out of the drums! Whoomp! Big ol’ sticks… I loved it. A loud drummer. Clayton knew this guitar player up the street from him in Austin, who was Todd Potter. So, we went up there and played together and there was a bond. There was magic between the two of us. That was the original Puppy. That was the lineup we opened for The Who with back in ’67. The first show ever. We called the band Willowdale Handcar at first. [Heh!] Then over the years… or actually over that one year, we picked up a manager, Jack McCleskey, from somewhere…he wanted a more west-coast sound, and replaced Clayton with Craig Root, who looked the part, and played with a much lighter style. This direction got old pretty quick, so we changed our name to Bubble Puppy and moved to Austin. Danny didn’t want to move, and he left us. I called “Fuzz” [David Fore] and he quit school to come and join us. And he was the final piece in the puzzle. We had a house and we practiced and practiced and practiced and me and Cox were writing the whole time, putting songs together. Cox went down to Houston and ran into Ray Rush from International Artists. He played him some of the songs we had written and Ray signed us up right then. So, we went to Houston, got a little bitty apartment, practicing at Love Street till we got a house on East Mount Houston street where we could play. We were dirt poor. There was no money coming in to speak of. We were living on black eyed peas canned in mason jars from my great grandfather’s farm. Kept us alive. Cox and I kept writing and writing. The greater part of A Gathering of Promises was written out there at the EMH house. Of course, we took a fair amount of hallucinogens…
Was that mostly LSD, or mescaline, mushrooms, any of that?
Yeah, a little bit of everything. Back when you could get the real thing. The genuine article, not this bathtub shit. Of course, you could play anytime there day or night if you wanted to; and we did. And the songs kept getting better and better. Pretty soon we were in the studio. I think ‘Lonely’ was the first track we did. And with ‘Hot Smoke & Sassafras’ we had the music track first. And that was just us down at the I.A. studios jamming, me and Fuzz, and Cox. Potter wasn’t there because he was sick. The riff came up and Cox put a bass lick on it and pretty soon we had this badass music track. But there were no words. Nothing to it at all at that point. So, as it turned out, we all had a chance to go see Cream play in Houston. And they’d been a huge influence on us. But I said “y’all go on. I’ll stay and put a melody and words to ‘Hot Smoke’” and it turned out I would never get to see Cream. But that’s how that happened. Shortly thereafter, maybe three months in, it was ready. Released in December of ‘69. Took us a while to finish up the Gathering LP, since we were on the road for stretches, but it got done. We came back from the road to find they’d done the final mix while we were in Chicago. We came back and said “I don’t think I like that. It’s fucked up, man!” [Laughs] And it was, but it is what it is.
So, what was the whole San Antonio/Austin music scene like back then?
Well, back then it was… It was so long ago… and nobody was really very good. Nobody was badass. It was almost like everybody was still learning their craft – I know I was. Most people were still learning and picking up on the skills of Steppenwolf, Cream, Hendrix – the really badass players. Most bands did covers of their favorites, with some originals thrown in if they had any.[Heh!] In the actual scene, there were two distinct factions; the cowboys and the longhairs. Blood and water. They didn’t mix. That wouldn’t change until ’69 or ’70 when some of those cowboys started taking acid.[haha]
What were some of your major influences back then? You mentioned Hendrix and Cream…
Yeah, Hendrix and Cream. And Steppenwolf really had a big hand in what we were doing. We played with them so many times, and Demian ended up being produced by Nick St. Nicholas, the Wolf’s bass player, and we were all good friends. Later on, after Demian, Roy and I got together with Goldy (McJohn) the organ player, and Jerry (Edmonton) the drummer of Steppenwolf, and we did a stint as ManBeast. We had a big time.
When Bubble Puppy went through the name change from Bubble Puppy to Demian, was this a deliberate choice to name yourselves after a Herman Hesse novel like Steppenwolf?
Yeah, that was Nick’s idea. One thing you can say about Nick is that he put everything he had, every penny, every ounce of his energy into the Demian project. It ain’t his fault that ABC-Dunhill shelved the record. It was a good product but they just had so many other good products that year. It was success to a point but it wasn’t what we were really capable of doing by any means. But we had a great time. But then after Demian, the dueling egos came up and it just tore the band apart. Potter went in one direction and Roy and I the other…
You guys were on the International Artists Label (a notoriously crooked record label out of Houston Texas that existed between 1965 and 1970) along with The13th Floor Elevators, The Golden Dawn, and The Red Krayola; I’ve heard tales of how poorly they treated and mistreated their bands. Did you guys have a lot of trouble with them as well?
Oh, fuck yes! The company itself, run by Ray Rush, was a whole different entity. He was the only one in the whole company that had any idea about the record business. Any clue at all. The place was filled with lawyers, and the president of the company was a truck driver. “What’s up with this?” “What are y’all doing?” “You don’t reckon they are thieves, do you?” “Might be…” “You think they’ll take advantage of us?” “Pretty good chance of that!” Yeah. Their business practices were appalling. Here we were with a top-ten worldwide hit, but they wouldn’t turn the booking over to an agency that’d spread the act all over the planet. The contract we signed… we didn’t have any choice if we were going to make a record, that’s what you gotta do. 3% of 1%… some other percent each of retail sale. So, they’d give us enough to live on, basically, and their accounting practices were ridiculous. Todd’s father was an accountant for the state and he got right up in their asses but they wouldn’t back down and that’s why we walked away. “We are going to suspend your contract after all this.” “What contract? Who fucking cares? We’d like to make some money.” They were dicks. Then again, Ray quit long before we quit. Those people were fucked up.
Was that a big part of the name change to Demian?
Well, yeah, actually. We just reached a point where we couldn’t take that shit anymore. Nick had been talking to Roy all this time and “Hey man, why don’t you come out here and we’ll get you a record deal?” Nick knew full and well how good the band was, how badass we were, and he knew he could get a deal. But we couldn’t get away from that ‘effing record company with the Puppy name. We just packed our shit, got in the van, and moved out there. Gene came later with the amps.
That was out to LA?
Yeah. We were supposed to get the Dunhill A&R man out to listen to us, and to find a venue for total unknowns in LA was tough. Nick was friends with a guy that ran Irma’s Hotel out in the valley. This was a mighty small place. And we’re coming off playing stadiums for live performances. Even with the smallest of our gear, we’d turn our amps around and face the wall and it would still blow your brains out. We opened for Cheech & Chong of all things. The A&R guy was there and said “Badass! You got it!” Got that recording contract, but we sure didn’t play much. To practice we would have to rent a room at Studio Instrument Rentals, a place on Hollywood boulevard. You just couldn’t find a place to live where you could practice also. There was just no housing like that. So, the Demian album was scheduled for the Record Plant, a real recording studio… none of that IA stuff – top of the line, the best you could get at that time. They were in high demand too, so we were scheduled from midnight to 6am. Anyway, we did it in a week, or maybe 10 days… the graveyard shift. [Heh] And it came out pretty good, considering…
When did you guys come back to the Bubble Puppy name?
Well, we did a reunion in ’85 of the original band. Did the Wheels album, but the old problems were still there and it lasted about six months. After that it wasn’t until 2011… I trashed my left hand in ’90 and didn’t play for 20 years or so. It was too frustrating trying to pick it up. I can’t make a fist [index finger sticking out] but I’ve learned to play again using these three fingers. That we can do the tunes now is only due to the magic of Mark (Miller). He plays all that shit just like I used to; note-for-note lick-for-lick. He’s gifted…..he can hear anything and play it effortlessly. It’s scary [haha] Actually, all three of those guys are… (Mark, Jimmy Umstattd, and Gregg Stegall)
Are there any memorable shows, people you played with, or interesting stories you would like to share?
Right here in town, over at the Theatre for Performing Arts at Hemisphere Park we opened up for Canned Heat. That was our first big show since Fuzzy joined us…. ‘Hot Smoke’ had just come out and it was climbin’ the charts fast. In that beautiful theatre, the curtain went up and we hit the thing and those people went nuts! Three standing ovations. They wouldn’t let us get off the stage. Our families were all there and my father said “You were right, son. This is what you were meant to do.” That was a major milestone… but there were others. Most of the shows we did with the big acts were badass because they were all so good. To me, the best part was the reaction between the audience and the band and how far you could move them, and how crazy they would get, and how much they loved it. There was a bunch of shows like that. Most, in fact. They all kind of run together after all these years. Then there was a show with Janis Joplin in Houston – that was beyond fun.
Was that with Big Brother and the Holding Company?
No, with Full Tilt Boogie. We did the show and everybody hit it off. So, they all come over to our house and we had a big party. Got us into some rock star shit![ha!]I was the only one that had a telephone in my room and Janis wanted to call her folks. She talked to her folks for a while then we sat on the bed and nattered for 30 minutes or so just talking about bullshit. Sweet lady. She was a good hog. See, I have to do that… Janis told me in all seriousness. “If they ask you about me, tell ‘em I was a good hog.”And she was. So, there is that.
Do you guys write any new songs?
I have, Jimmy does and Fuzz too, but I found that the old songs are what people want to hear. The bottom line is that I can’t recapture the feel for the music I had when I was 20 to 25 years old. Life in general, and the world, has severed that link with the creative realm. Most of our songs weren’t written about reality, they were written about what might be, what could be, what could have been. It’s a creative realm and I can’t seem to bring myself back to it. Living with too much reality for too many years I guess.
Do you feel like your music has any spiritual aspect involved?
It’s a gift. That’s what we are here for. Get out there and do what you are supposed to be doing. I mean, I’m older now and it means a lot more to me than it did back then. It’s the thing that instills the magic in it – especially in live performance. I can always feel that bolt coming right down through the top of my head and lighting all this shit up and making it work.
What do you think of all these contemporary psych bands that you guys have had such an influence on? Are you familiar with any of the bands on the Psych Del Rio bill such as The Warlocks or Psychic Ills?
I know the names, yes. I’m always curious, ya see. It’s funny over the years, the term “psych” stuck to us but back then “psychedelic” was more Blue Cheer and stuff like that as opposed to…well, to me, psych was Jimi Hendrix but now the new definition would be “metal” vs. “psychedelic”. To us it wasn’t about trying to be “psychedelic”, it was about virtuosity. It was about trying to play the baddest-ass shit you could think up. We played Fitzgerald’s in Houston about two years ago and they had a big metal fest going on upstairs while we were playin’ the room downstairs. We started our set and directly those metalheads started filtering down to bang their head with us. [Heh] The thing is, you gotta be able to really play to do metal, and that virtuosity was always the Puppy’s core. I love that shit.
There are a lot of bands that site you guys as an influence…
It’s funny how that is… that we could have influenced anybody, since any player’s style is the sum of his own influences. [Heh] We were ahead of our time, but that might be why the music still works today. And I couldn’t be happier about that. But the songs have held up. Really held up, generation to generation. That shit was real, it wasn’t half-ass, it was hard-ball. In the end, all the Puppy songs were just exactly that magic we were trying to make.
Looks like I have held you up for over an hour now. Any final words for readers of It’s Psychedelic Baby Magazine?
I couldn’t be happier than where I am now. The new band, the magic thereof, no tricks, no bullshit. Beyond all hope for me, after all those years when I never thought I’d play again. This is joy and magic in the extreme. Doesn’t get any better than this for an old fart. Yeah! Y’all come and see us! Share in the magic. That’s what it’s about.
Written and illustrated by