Riding the Fader

The cult of Chavez gets another round

Michelle Ambrose swears her life changed in 1996 when she and a date saw a couple of bands play behind a Detroit bowling alley. She'd heard of neither the headliner, an Ohio group called Guided by Voices, nor the opening act, a quartet from New York City named Chavez. The psychology grad student will ramble for ages about how the openers inspired her to eventually start a short-lived college band, how they forever changed her attitude about music. But when she talks about that night, she summarizes the experience simply:

"It fucking blew my mind."

Ambrose, now 29, was an instant disciple of the band that makes overzealous Parrotheads out of mild-mannered indie rock fans. Chavez's members might be the ultimate unsung underground heroes with an obsessive following. Even though she lives in Boston, Ambrose is flying out for Chavez's California reunion shows this week.

She's not alone. Charley Caffey, a 22-year-old administrative assistant from Pittsburg, set aside part of his holiday PTO to drive to Chavez's New York gigs. Caffey first heard of the band when its retrospective box set Better Days Will Haunt Youreceived a stunning 9.4 from indie tastemakers at Pitchfork(there hasn't been a new recording by the act since 1996).

"Riding to NYC to see Chavez, for a night of mayhem," read Caffey's rideshare posting on Craigslist. "I'll pay gas." After a recent show in New York, a Matador Records message board member enthused, "If these guys are within 250 miles of your home, every effort should be made to be in that room." Another demanded: "Go see them, tell your friends to see them, and buy the new album."

After forming in 1993, Chavez earned a reputation for off-the-chain live performances and picked up scattered fans with a pair of full-length LPs — 1995's Gone Glitteringand 1996's Ride the Fader.Both records possessed riotous energy, propelled by the primal thumping of drummer James Lo and the double guitar broadside of Matt Sweeney and Clay Tarver. And just as things seemed to nearly topple over from the jagged potency, Sweeney's arching vocal lines would bring everything back from the edge of disaster. It was somehow more melodic than labelmates like Mission of Burma and more abrasive than tourmates like Guided by Voices. With the full-volume guitars and the splintering percussive drive, Chavez's rock was seething with rebellious spirit.

But until recently, the band remained largely a footnote in the facebook of '90s indie rock. Chavez would play an occasional reunion show, but its members scattered to different projects over the last decade. Frontman Matt Sweeney collaborated with Billy Corgan's Zwan and Will Oldham. Guitarist Clay Tarver directed a handful of "Got Milk?" commercials. Chavez's current engagements might not be stadium sellouts, but loyalists show up from different states to see them.

This year's Better Days Will Haunt You retrospective inspired a new urgency amongst Chavezheads. The release wasn't headline news even in the indie rock community, but in addition to the hummer from Pitchfork, Better Days was deemed "essential" by the Village Voiceand received four stars in Vogue — Italian Vogue, that is. As with much of the band's long history, this new box set was mostly overlooked, but the small reaction was fervent.

But as exciting as its sound may be, Chavez is loved because of what the group represents: the perennial underdog of underdog music that never got its due. For Ambrose and Caffey and the precious cult of Chavez, this is real independent music: something that you stumble across accidentally, or find in the pages of your favorite magazine, that you can make your own, guard closely, and mourn when the masses show so little concern as the group fades away. Something that is, like all of the best things in the world, beautiful because it's so rare.

 
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