When I first heard Texas Is The Reason, I thought it was a joke.
The year was 1996. I’d just bought a split single between two new, barely known emo bands: The Promise Ring and Texas Is The Reason. I’d heard The Promise Ring—which featured a former member of Cap’n Jazz, a group that quickly became legendary thanks to a premature demise, lots of posthumous acclaim, and a debut album that was impossible to find and was already being bootlegged. Texas Is The Reason, meanwhile, featured a former member of the New York City powerhouse Shelter, a popular post-hardcore group that had an impressive ex-member pedigree of its own, and which had just signed to a major label. No mystique there.
As it turns out, mystique or lack thereof had little to do with my opinion of the record. The Promise Ring/Texas Is The Reason split features two songs, one from each band. The Promise Ring track remains one of its best, a quirky, evocative song called “E. Texas Ave.” But as I listened to TITR’s contribution, “Blue Boy,” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The ringing guitars, the lurching dynamic, the distinctive drumming: It sounded exactly, and I mean exactly, like Christie Front Drive, a band from my Denver hometown that had been putting out records and touring for a couple years at that point. Christie Front Drive was getting some attention in the DIY scene around the country; in fact, the group had recently released a split-single with a fresh-faced band from Arizona called Jimmy Eat World, whose sound (and name) CFD had clearly influenced. But a band from New York City ripping off little old Christie Front Drive? It seemed, well, funny.
You don’t have to be a fan of emo and post-hardcore—or even have been around in the ’90s—to see the pattern here. It’s happened forever, and it still happens. Certain artists toil away in relative obscurity, going against the grain, following their own creative visions. And then, after the ground has been broken, a bunch of opportunists come along and present a more palatable package for these new ideas. They become famous and acclaimed. Meanwhile, the originators become lost in the mists of history.
That’s a typical way of looking at things, and there is some truth in it. But in the case of Texas Is The Reason, it just isn’t true. TITR’s first and only full-length, Do You Know Who You Are?, came out around the same time as the split with The Promise Ring. After hearing the split, I held off on checking out the album. Being on the then-large indie label Revelation Records, the disc was surrounded by buzz. It was getting tons of praise. The hype was off the hook. At the time, I was deeply invested in this tight-knit (and admittedly myopic) music scene, so it actually took a bit of effort not to hear Do You Know Who You Are? throughout the remainder of ’96. Even then, people hated the word “emo,” but TITR seemed like the first band that just gave up trying to be anything else. Even The Promise Ring could get away with being called indie-rock. But TITR was emo, straight-up, and no other term could even come close to describing it. The band never embraced the emo tag as far as I know, but its embrace—its distillation—of what emo had become in the ’90s was overwhelming.
When I finally did hear Do You Know? a few months after it came out, I was relieved. It didn’t sound funny at all. It was good. Singer-guitarist Garrett Klahn had come into his own, balancing intimate lyrics, a slightly raspy voice, earnest melodies, and stadium-sized hooks. It didn’t have the odd angles and endearing shakiness that, say, The Promise Ring had, which made Do You Know? feel a bit generic by comparison.
But even back then, I didn’t have a problem with generic as long as it was done sincerely, with a sense of craft, and with feeling. Songs like “Nickel Wound” and “The Magic Bullet Theory”—the latter a reference to the JFK assassination, which is also where the band got its name, via the Misfits’ lyric “Texas is the reason that the president’s dead”—is one of the album’s many soaring, propulsive anthems. Anthems I soon took to heart, in spite of my cynicism. Or maybe because of it. Songs have a way of bypassing our bullshit detectors, and when they do, you love them all the more.
The band continued to draw influence from Christie Front Drive, but Do You Know? didn’t sound anywhere near as blatantly derivative of CFD as “Blue Boy” did. It was still blatantly derivative, though. In particular, the album owed a lot to a couple of Revelation bands that had been around longer, Sense Field and Gameface. TITR even acknowledged that it lifted a line of lyrics from Gameface’s song “Three” for the Do You Know? track “Back And To The Left.” In their own separate ways, Sense Field and Gameface had helped pioneer a pretty radical type of post-hardcore—one where pretty melodies and vulnerable sentiment were okay.
They weren’t the first to do this, nor was the term emo anything new. But TITR took things one step further by reaching outside of the insular world of hardcore and—God forbid—being openly inspired by mainstream music. It’s hard to imagine that Do You Know? was made in a vacuum, seeing as how hints of everything from Smashing Pumpkins to Pearl Jam to cheesy ’80s power balladry are hardwired into the disc’s DNA. Sometimes it’s demonstrated more in spirit than sound, as on the churning, delicate “There’s No Way I Can Talk Myself Out Of This One Tonight (The Drinking Song).” But the self-martyred confessionals, the grandiose sense of melancholy, the sweeping harmonies: It’s timeless stuff. Naturally, it took time for me to realize that.
Just as the name Texas Is The Reason is a reference to an assassination, so is the title Do You Know Who You Are? These are reportedly the last words John Lennon heard. En route to New York’s Roosevelt Hospital after being shot by Mark David Chapman, Lennon was attended by a police officer who shouted, “Do you know who you are?” at the dying ex-Beatle. It’s a poignant moment to imagine. In one sense, it seems like an entirely routine thing to ask an injured person, a textbook technique to keep them conscious and gauge coherence. In another sense, it’s a heartbreaking plea from a fan to an icon; the unspoken follow-up being, “You’re John goddamn Lennon. You can’t die.”
Above all that, though, it’s the most nakedly existential question you could ask someone. Not “Who are you?”, but “Do you know who you are?” Who can ever truly answer yes? It’s a stretch to say Texas Is The Reason, as good as it was, ever came close to imbuing its music with that kind of depth. But now—with a recent TITR reunion and a recent deluxe reissue of its scant yet influential discography—it’s clearer to me than ever that the band was never a joke. Or a mere rip-off. Or anything other than four guys who were simply trying to find some meaning in the world through song.