Another Crossroads

Former Sister Double Happiness frontman Gary Floyd re-confronts his (and America's) musical roots

Gary Floyd could be angry if he wanted. Angry at the fact that his music does better in Europe than here in his hometown. Angry that some of his records have been so poorly distributed that they are essentially unavailable. Angry at a record industry that swallowed his second band, Sister Double Happiness, in the midst of the early '90s altrock mania, then spat him out into bargain-bin hell. "Heart and Mind for miles" is what he says you'll find in the used CD bins -- in other words, a healthy number of copies of Sister Double Happiness' 1991 major-label debut on Reprise.

But that's something Floyd's learned to expect after spending nearly 20 years in music, first with the Austin-based hardcore-cowpunk band the Dicks, and then in San Francisco with Sister Double Happiness, which in the early '90s was supposed to be the Bay Area's entry in the alternative sweepstakes.

Heart and Mind was recorded just before what Floyd jokingly calls the "Nirvana Revolutionary Liberation Movement." Though the CD was an anesthetized version of the band's punk-meets-blues concept -- perfect for fans of both HYsker DY and Led Zeppelin -- the group garnered Floyd a lot of attention for his music, his dues-paying Texas days, and his forthrightness about his homosexuality. A framed cover of a 1991 issue of The Advocate featuring Sister Double Happiness hangs in a corner of his spacious Western Addition flat, sharing space with Floyd's own collages and watercolors.

But as Floyd puts it, the attention the band got was "like attention [for] having an ear on your forehead. We were sort of in that first wave of alternative music departments at record labels, and all they do is get people with funny hair to work. They have the same fucking ethics, they just look a little dowdier."

Since Sister Double Happiness' breakup, Floyd has kept a low profile, at least stateside. Just before the band split -- with drummer Lynn Perko joining Imperial Teen and guitarist Ben Cohen now in El Destroyo -- he formed the Gary Floyd Band with Danny Roman, another Sister alumnus, stripping off the distortion from his music and sinking deeper into blues. Five albums have come from the project, but the recent, wryly titled Back Door Preacher Man is the only one in general release in America.

It's not a new album, merely a compilation of "greatest hits" from the previous CDs, but it's very much of a piece; Floyd's high, reedy voice can sound ancient at times, regardless of whether he's meditating on a love story like "Franklyn & Susie," leaning into a blues stomp like "Bodean," or making his own attempts at some of his favorite country and blues covers: Muddy Waters' "Can't Be Satisfied," Memphis Minnie's "World of Trouble," or Willie Nelson's "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground."

"I don't pretend to think that I'm any kind of accomplished blues singer," says Floyd, "except to say I honestly did those songs. As honestly as I could without trying to gum 'em up, or white-boy 'em up with that 'everybody feelin' all right tonight, let's put our hands together' attitude, which has always repulsed me." He's never attempted to work with blues musicians in the Bay Area like John Lee Hooker or Merl Saunders. "Maybe 20 years ago I would have done that, but now it's like ... leave 'em alone. The last thing they need to do is meet me."

The Gary Floyd Band's blues focus was a homecoming of sorts: growing up in Gurdon, Ark., in the early '60s, Floyd recalls the man who put records on the jukebox at a restaurant his mother owned giving him singles by B.B. King, Fats Domino, Lightnin' Hopkins, and others. "When I had a chance to do a Gary Floyd Band record, I only thought it'd be one time," he says. "So why not do everything that I like? It's only going to be released in Europe, so why not? I have nothing to live up to."

European tours have been his focus in recent years, playing in England, Prague, Belgium, and "everywhere in Germany there were more than two or three people." Currently, though, he's working at returning to a wider audience -- somewhat begrudgingly -- with his new group, Black Kali Ma. Featuring Matt Margolin and Roman again on guitar duties, Miles Montalbano (another Sister member) on bass, and Waycross' Bruce Ducheneaux on drums, it's back to raw noise and punk-metal.

Now recording its debut album in the East Bay for a planned summer release, the band was recently flown to New York City by Jesse Malin, frontman of D Generation and owner of the club Coney Island High, in exchange for the group playing a handful of Dicks covers. "Punk rock fantasy camp," as Margolin puts it.

Black Kali Ma is also slated to appear at this month's record industry showcase South by Southwest, and Floyd's somewhat fearful about once again being sucked into the maw of commerce. "I've had A&R people breathing over my fucking neck for 20 years and I'm sick of 'em," he says. "This way it will be better for us because we're recording it the way we want to and we're taking a lot of time."

Floyd has long been a vocal advocate of gay rights, sometimes angrily so -- on "Where Do We Run," from Sister's 1993 album Uncut, he sang: "I knew some tough guys who went out to have some fun/ They got a gay guy tried to shoot him with a gun/ That gay guy struck back and cut the bastards' throats ... they are weak, weak and going down." The same attitude pervades Black Kali Ma's "Gotta Keep Movin' On," which Floyd wrote in tribute to James Byrd and Matthew Shepard.

"If you think [San Francisco] is bad, just leave for a while," he says. "You get out of here, there's a lot of fucking racist, homophobic shit going on, sexist crap that goes on that even would shock the most politically incorrect people in this city." Referring to Shepard, he says, "Even if he'd gone up to them and said, 'Can I suck your dick?' " -- and here, his voice rises an angry octave -- "you don't kill people for that."

In the late '80s, Floyd tried to get away from music; soon after Sister Double Happiness released its first album in 1988, he broke up the band and pursued what he calls a "spiritual journey," studying Indian religion and even contemplating joining a monastery, an idea he dismissed fairly quickly, though he routinely credits a spiritual adviser on his records. "I figured if I joined a monastery I'd probably end up being a pretty bad monk. Miserable me, you know, fucking fag sitting around a monastery pissed off at everyone."

"There were times that I didn't feel like being a part of the scene anymore, but that's not a choice that I make. I actually accept it now: I'm always going to be doing music. I tried to quit music a few times. I tried to say that I'm not going to do any more bands now, but I figured out that's not really a choice now.

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