Miss ’90s Alt-Metal? Then Get to Know Narrow Head

Pic: Na Stacia Ellis

Decibel Theorem 666: If an OSDM band wears pungent and brutal OSDM band shirts, that OSDM band will also be pungent and brutal. Turns out this concept can be applied to “Decibel-adjacent” artists as well. It’s okay to Febreze the putrid coffin stink every couple weeks and lose yourself in “dreamy and crushing.” Granted, we know you’ve heard way too fucking much heavy shoegaze recently, but rarely do that subgenre’s practitioners take their cues just as often from Neanderthal noise rock as “hey, uh, ’member Gish?”

Quietly ascending Houston five-piece Narrow Head split the difference beautifully on soon-to-drop sophomore LP 12th House Rock (Run for Cover), applying a muscular, punishing rhythm section to entrancing Kevin Shields-esque pedal witchery. That alone is worth talking about, but we were particularly interested in the mostly mid-twentysomethings’ killer collection of alt-metal/post-hardcore/grunge shirts—from Hum, Jawbox and Sonic Youth to Alice in Chains, Nirvana and Godflesh—proudly rocked in concert and fun D.I.Y. videos like “Stuttering Stanley” and “Night Tryst.” Frontman Jacob Duarte was gracious enough to humor our old-man questions about not only ’90s merch, but keeping multiple dreams alive in COVID end times

Your T-shirt game is definitely strong. It’s increasingly rare to see guys in their mid-20s rep some of the more cult bands you do.
Well, my dad was in a band [The Tie That Binds] similar to those styles—like Jawbreaker or something—so I kinda grew up around rock music that wasn’t just your typical classic rock that your dad would listen to, you know what I mean?

I thought your dad was in a pop-punk band, from what I read.
I consider them ’90s emo, but they have pop-punk in it for sure. It’s like Samiam or Jawbreaker, stuff like that. His interests went from… he likes Jawbox and stuff, so I kind of got started with him and then developed my own taste.

Resale of old band shirts has gone through the roof on eBay. Since most of you guys are in your mid-20s, I’m gonna extrapolate that you weren’t around to buy them in those bands’ primes.
No, definitely not. If we did, that would’ve been awesome. But we got them before they were expensive, so that’s a good thing. [Laughs] I’ve never paid more than… I mean, I have for, like, a hardcore shirt, but I guess the most I’ve spent on a shirt is $60 or $70. I flipped one for more than that.

What was the $60-$70 shirt?
It was a Helmet shirt that actually goes for like $150 now. I’m not gonna sell it, but…

Is it a Meantime or Strap It On era shirt?
It’s the one with the businessman shaking hands with an alien.

Oh, that’s Betty.
Yeah, it’s that era.

I assume that, like any other city, Houston has boutiques or vintage shops with huge mark-ups—say, an original Pyromania shirt for $200. Do you have a band shirt you’ve always wanted, but it’s just too expensive?
Honestly, no. I’m not a big collector guy or anything. If something’s too expensive, it makes me not even want it. I’ve seen a Selena shirt at one of our resale places that was like $200. It’s a badass shirt, but I don’t like Selena that much, you know? She’s from Texas; I was just trying to support. [Laughs] But yeah, I don’t know. I find a shirt from a band that I like and try to find the o.g. If I can’t, I just figure something out. That’s my process.

How about older shirts that don’t fit anymore, but you keep them anyway?
Yeah, I have this Rival Schools United by Fate shirt that’s like a small. It’s so tiny, but I still wear it. I also have a Cyndi Lauper shirt. I think it’s a girl’s shirt, man. It looks crazy on me. It’s, like, not even a crop-top; it’s so tiny. But it looks cool.

Did you dig that new Quicksand album [2017’s Interiors]? I thought it was way closer to Rival Schools than Quicksand’s first two records.
I did, I liked it a lot. It still sounds like Walter Schreifels writing all the songs, but it does have a little Rival Schools vibe. I think that’s just how that guy writes now.

After seven years as a band, you’re just starting to get a little notoriety. Have you ever had an opportunity to tour with any of these bigger bands whose shirts you rep?
No, nothing like that. We’ve been a band for a long time and I don’t know… we’ve been through a lot of member changes and a lot of [me being] not sure if I wanted to continue the band because someone quit and I was like, what’s the point? It just took a long time to figure it out—how we sound live—I think that’s why we’re catching on now. You can show [people] some of our songs and they’ll fuck with it, and you can show them a video of us playing live and we don’t suck live. So, that’s good. But no, we haven’t had the opportunity to play with my favorite bands. I’ve been putting it out there in the universe, so I think it’ll happen someday. Like, my dream tour is Narrow Head opening for Quicksand and Deftones. That’s my dream three-band tour.

You’ve indicated that 12th House Rock is a big departure from [2016 self-released debut LP] Satisfaction, which is interesting in that astute listeners have heard five of these songs—be it from EPs or singles—in the interceding four years. How did you pick and choose old and new for 12th Rock?
Okay, so, after Satisfaction is when we did the “Hard to Swallow” EP [2016’s Fantastic WOW, 3 Singles and a Cover] and [2017 three-song EP] The Spring Singles. I felt that time is when we were being our most active and going on tour. But no one knew us and no one knew about those songs, so I’ve always looked at them to be produced a little more. They kind of fit with the vibe of the other songs [for 12th House Rock] I was writing at the time. So, that’s why we threw them onto the album. I just feel like no one really heard those songs except the fans that know us pretty well. No one really knows those are old songs except, like, you or the people that have been with us for a while.

12th House begins and ends with songs that are spacier and epic, but the middle is hammering and relentless.
That was pretty intentional in the sense of… it’s not a concept album. That’s not how I think of it. But the tone and the mood of each song I sequenced very carefully. The first song [“Yer Song”], it kind of makes me think of the sun coming up, the start of something new. Then you have the two kind of “pop hits” afterward [“Ponderosa Sun Club,” “Stuttering Stanley”]. And then you get to the dark part where it’s heavy and aggressive, and that goes on for a while. Then it gets super dark with “Delano Door,” and then the last two songs are like… a sense of hope; it’s not just negative and sad. Actually, the first and last songs were supposed to be there from the beginning before we even completed it.

I’m gonna assume that the “12th House” in the title is a Zodiac reference.
I have an explanation for it, but I always get lost talking about it. It’s supposed to be dark. In a way, I’d like it to be its own genre because that’s how we got the name. There was this girl I was dating and she was asking about Narrow Head. I sent her the record and I was asking her what she thought of it. And she came up with the genre. She was like, “I don’t know how to explain it, but I want to call it ‘12th house rock.’” I was like, damn, that’s kind of a sick name.

How deep does your interest in astrology and psychic abilities run?
I’m pretty interested in it. I’m not very educated on the stars and shit, but I like reading about my sign and other people’s signs. I take it seriously, but I don’t think every little thing that happens in my life, I consider… I don’t blame it on [my sign]. But I do care about it and am interested.

What’s your sign?
I’m an Aries.

I like both the positive and negative qualities of my sign. Do you feel the same way about Aries?
Yeah! There’s some stuff where you gotta be careful: You don’t wanna be too proud. Aries can be mean without trying to be. They’re just kinda straight-up sometimes, so I try to keep myself in check. I find it really interesting to read about people’s traits and seeing it in action. But it’s also kinda silly to say that, like, “Oh, you’re so Aries.”

A lot of heavy shoegaze bands worship at the altar of Smashing Pumpkins. I like that you bring noise rock and occasionally even industrial-sounding drum machines into the mix.
I try to do it all, man. I try to smash everything I like into one ball of rock. [Laughs] I love Smashing Pumpkins, Deftones, Helmet, Guided by Voices. I like to just throw it all in there and turn it into our own. It’s easy to rip off a song, but it’s even easier to be inspired by a song and come up with your own shit. Sometimes my favorite songs [that I write], I’m like, “Oh, this kind of sounds sicker than a Smashing Pumpkins song I was trying to rip off.”

There’s that Aries ego, right?
Yeah, yeah! [Laughs] But no, that just seems to be our style. We’re not trying to deliberately sound like somebody. We’re just taking all the influences from everybody we like. You’d never guess it, but I’m a huge Joe Walsh and James Gang fan. The first song on 12th House Rock has a James Gang riff in the verse.

Not to suggest that Satisfaction wasn’t dynamic, but from the almost spoken-word female vocals on “Delano Door” to “Wastrel,” which is basically an acoustic dirge, 12th House definitely a step in a new direction.
I think the average Narrow Head fan right now is just thinking Satisfaction. It’s hard for them to shake that this is what we sound like now. I don’t think we even sound different… we’re more mature, we know how to write songs, we know how to produce. This record is an opportunity to show old fans and new fans this is where we’re going with the production style. Satisfaction, we tracked it in a weekend and it was so expensive. I was like 20 and I was super broke and didn’t have time to work on it. We made mistakes. 12th House Rock is… it’s not that we’re changing. We’re evolving. Meaning we can sound shoegaze like Satisfaction or heavy rock. I’ve seen some negative comments [on Facebook] about how the production [on 12th House] is not as good.

I saw that, too. When you debuted the “Stuttering Stanley” video.
[It’s like] dude, what are you talking about? There’s like 20 guitar tracks on that. How does it sound like a demo? [Laughs] It definitely got to me, seeing that. I had to let it go and just be like, “Hey, just don’t read the comments.” But it does bother me.

You did an interview recently implying that your interest in shoegaze was overrated, suggesting that there had to be some aggression to it. Shoegaze is almost like emo in that it’s become such a broad, almost undefinable term, but could you elaborate on that?
I really love My Bloody Valentine; they’re great. I love the textures and the melodies. It’s so hypnotizing. Sometimes I just wish there was a more aggressive bassline or harder drums. That’s what I try to do with it. I grew up on hardcore and heavy music. Which is why I’m stoked that Decibel is talking to me right now. I’m glad Narrow Head is heavy enough for y’all to fuck with. I want to go on tour with Power Trip, you know? They’re homies and we have the same agent, so…

When you say growing up on hardcore, are you talking about Revelation or Victory, or…
More like from like the ’80s: Bad Brains and Negative Approach. Then I get into my late-’80s shit where it’s like… well, not late-’80s, I’d say maybe ’85: Agnostic Front Victim in Pain. Then New York stuff, Outburst and all that, I really fuck with that. Then ’90s, I like Gorilla Biscuits and Youth of Today, but I was more a fan of Revelation’s emo bands like Texas Is the Reason and Sense Field. [Sense Field] are cool, I like one record; some of their other shit is kinda butt-rocky to me.

Is there a dream producer out there who could really augment the sound you’ve developed over the last seven years?
To be honest, I don’t know too many big producers. The only ones I know are big hits in the ’90s like Terry Date and Butch Vig. [But] I was talking about it today [and] I’d really like to work with [Philadelphia bedroom pop artist] Alex G. Only because he’s an amazing songwriter. He has the best vocal melodies. He’d be sick helping with song arrangement and melodies. I really feel like he could complement our heavy sound.