An Interview with the Suffers

Having garnered international acclaim in recent years—from being featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series and given many favorable shout outs by the New York Times—the Suffers have not forgotten their roots. There is no dearth of talent or soul born in Texas, but unlike other musicians who make big, pack up and leave (Beyoncé, let’s remember, is also from Houston), the Suffers are steadfast and committed to carving their niche in Houston and fostering the city’s identity as a growing hub of the arts.

The Suffers were a surprising delight for those who came out early on Sunday, and definitely my favorite performance at High Water—a sentiment echoed by concertgoers across the lawn. The ten-piece band has honed their dynamic blend of reggae, classic rock and R&B (termed by the band as “Gulf Coast Soul”) for an exacting, engaging performance. Like on the cover of their self-titled debut album, when the band took to the stage they clasped hands and reached for the sky, signaling the cohesion and soulful rhythm to follow. Also like their album, their performance was packed with punches: energetic transitions, reggae-tinged drum solos and a charismatic lead vocalist who demanded the audience’s attention. “There are two things we want you to take from this show,” Kam Franklin relayed in between songs, “the first is our name. The second is that we are from Houston.”

After the show we had the pleasure of speaking with a few of the band members on their hometown, achieving success at the right time and on what it means to suffer.

We were greeted at the band’s tent by Mark Austin, the Suffers’ manager, and invited to make ourselves at home. We took a seat on a modish blue couch beneath a painting of Miles Davis, before a coffee table scattered with wine glasses and flowers. We were joined by bassist Adam Castaneda, drummer Nick Zamora and vocalist Kam Franklin, who busied herself folding iridescent skirts and rummaging through her suitcase in preparation for their photo shoot that afternoon.

Bethany: You guys have a lot of pride in your hometown of Houston, Texas. How does that influence your sound and how do you fit into the music scene there? The Suffers are kind of like spokespeople for Houston now.

Kam: It affects everything we do, in every single way. Texas pride is definitely a real thing, but being that we are from Houston, we come from a city where people have shit on us for so long that it’s almost a beautiful thing to see us rise up and see the city undergo this huge renaissance of new music, new art, new venues, new people coming through—it’s been the number one most culturally diverse city on the Forbes list the last two years in a row, it’s now surpassed Chicago as far as being the third largest city in the United States, and it just keeps getting better every year. That is because of major events, I think that is also because of the job market never really losing its momentum, and musicians from all over not really being able to afford to live in LA, Nashville, New York, so they are moving down south and they’re able to maintain not only a life, but also establish roots, and it’s a really beautiful thing to be a part of.

Phillip: We look at you guys as spokespeople for the city now, do you view yourself in that way?

Kam: I do.

Adam: A little bit, yeah.

Kam: We are on that Welcome to Houston commercial.

Adam: (laughs) We are on that Welcome to Houston commercial. I mean—we are all from Houston… and we’ve all been in a bunch of different bands from around town, so it’s, ya know, really cool… We are from a city where tons of people leave to go to greener pastures, as they say. Ya know, Austin, New York, whatever, and we are kind of the ones that stuck around. Still down here holdin’! And we are the ones that are always talking about Houston, ya know. We have been talking about Houston for as long as we have been playing music in other bands, and that’s a long time, so it feels good [that] after so many years of saying “no, Houston’s awesome!” there is awesome stuff going on in Houston, and people are finally saying “oh Houston’s pretty cool!” I like being a part of that.

Bethany: You started as a two person band, right, you were one of the founders—

Adam: It wasn’t really a two person band, me and Pat were sitting around one day and said hey let’s start another band… All of us at the time were in other bands, and it was a conversation we had one day… We made a few phone calls, and really within a couple of days, we had pretty much everybody. And actually we almost had Nick on the first go, we called him and I think he didn’t call back (laughs).  

Kam: (smirks) He said he was “busy.”

Nick: I… I had three other bands, and it’s not that I was busy ya know, there’s a point at which you gotta be like alright I wanna do it, but I can’t… and, uh…

Kam: Then he felt left out!

Nick: (laughs) So I went and saw them. The singer of my other band took me to see them at the Continental Club, and my wife went with me, and it blew me away… I had played with a lot of the other guys in the band at that point, but I didn’t know Kam. I was floored. It was badass! It was kind of a missed opportunity… A month later, their drummer decided to move to California and Pat called me, and my wife said, “you need to do that!” It’s probably something she regrets at this point, like, “Shit I had no idea what was going to happen there,” but uh, yeah. I agreed. It was good fortune… I feel like we are the luckiest band out there, because everything happened in the right way at the right time. Had we had this opportunity when some of us were younger, we might have been too dumb or naive to take advantage of it, to do the right things to get where we have managed to get so far.

Kam: This band is a ska and punk band forever!

Nick: We were lucky enough to make good decisions and have the right people looking out for us. We were a reggae cover band basically, we played reggae style covers of whatever kind of song, and then we started writing songs and they started sounding like this, and we were smart enough to not force things in the wrong direction. We don’t need to be that band, and now we are here, we have all of these cool experiences.

Phillip: We caught y’all’s set at 1, and the two things you emphasized throughout the show were “we are from Houston,” and you emphasized your name, the Suffers. How does your name relate to being from Houston or how does it affect people to know what your name is?

Nick: There’s probably meaning that could be pulled from that, in terms of being a musician from Houston, but in general the name came from a movie called “Rockers.” It’s about musicians struggling to make a buck in Jamaica, they are hustling to make a buck however they can. And there is a line that Adam always quotes from the movie where this guy is negotiating with somebody and says, “and I suffer, I suffer for this, help me out,” so it’s just kind of like…we have a good time, there’s maybe some melancholy notes in some songs, but it’s more about the struggle to do something that’s for you but that’s difficult to be successful at. I think you could relate it to the experiences of being a Houston musician, trying to get people to not introduce them as a band from Austin, or to not take them seriously until they move to LA… there is definitely some meaning there.

Phillip: We’re from Charleston, so we aren’t that familiar with the scene in Houston. Where does the stigma for a Houston band come from? What causes that?

Nick: It’s more about the reputation of the city. We are near New Orleans, we are near Dallas… and Austin of course is known for its live music… so Houston just doesn’t have that identity built in, it wasn’t developed like some of these other places.

Kam: On your side of the country it’d probably be like, say if you’re in a band from Charleston, they’d probably say why are you still in Charleston, why don’t you go to Nashville, or Asheville? It’s that… As if your city isn’t good enough to develop its own identity as a music city. And so instead of us giving into the stigma, we are saying “no—there is way more to Texas than just Austin or Dallas, or oil, or money.” We feel as though it’s on us as representatives of Houston, or Houston bands or whatever, to show that this is what it is… I don’t know how y’all are when it comes to pride out here, but I know if I have the opportunity to talk about Houston or even think about it—I mean I’m looking at my arm and I’ve got a Houston tattoo on my body! It’s just my favorite thing, and I want people to know its my favorite thing. And I want them to know that without that city we wouldn’t exist.

Phillip: Have you been able to see y’all’s influence on Houston so far? Paving the way for other bands to come up?

Kam: Definitely! Yeah.

Nick: We have been in all sorts of other bands, some that are still in existence, and we are friends with all of these people. So when we can—ya know some of us are familied up, so when we are home we are “home home”— but Kam is out pretty much every night when we are back, and every chance we get we want to talk to the guys that would like to get the same opportunities we have had, so we give advice or just talk to them. Every time you are in a place where someone has had success doing the same thing you want to do, it’s gotta be somewhat inspiring to know that you are not wasting your time… There are phenomenal musicians from Houston that move away, like Robert Ellis. He lives in Nashville, but he did this thing out of Houston for a long time until he had the opportunity to move away. For that artist who wants to follow in his footsteps but doesn’t want to move to Nashville, maybe they’ll see us and be like okay, cool.

Bethany: I’m curious about the dynamic of being in a ten person band. Does that come with a support network? Do you have one primary songwriter or is it collaborative?

Nick: As much as possible, we all do everything. We all help out. I was talking to someone recently about that. The nice thing about the way we operate as a band, personally and professionally, is that when there is no one else, we have each other. If you need help moving, or someone is throwing a baby shower, or we need to get some information out to someone for a press release, whatever it is, we generally have it covered. There’s definitely challenges, being in a big band, but from the beginning we were committed to not losing that aspect of ourselves, because it would’ve been way easier to do things a lot sooner if we decided to go with, say five members instead. We did it! It works for us. It doesn’t work for everybody but it works for us.

As we said our goodbyes Kam finally found what she had been rummaging for in her suitcase—a Texas-sized silver diamond ring with the head of a tiger. As we stood to shake hands I noticed Adam’s striking black and white leather cowboy boots, and Nick put on a rose-embroidered white denim jacket for the photo shoot. There’s something to be said about the seamlessness with which this down-to-earth band can imbue their sound and their appearance with such vibrancy and richness. The Suffers are an experience you don’t want to miss out on—be on the lookout for upcoming tour dates on their website, and follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

Commentary by Bethany Fincher

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