It is a well-established fact that as a high schooler in El Paso, Texas, Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) was in a band, Foss — ::pauses to take giant bong rip:: It’s Icelandic for ‘waterfall’ — with Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who would go on to considerable fame fronting the Mars Volta and At the Drive-In. On Tuesday, the @TexasGOP Twitter account tweeted what it believed was a sick burn of O’Rourke about his pre-political days.
— Texas GOP (@TexasGOP) August 28, 2018
The tweet featured the cover of Foss’s EP, The El Paso Pussycats, with a scrawled note, “Sorry can’t debate. We have a gig.” It seemingly intended to imply that O’Rourke — who was first to call for debates against the incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz back in April — was now avoiding them. Instead, the tweet mostly reminded people that O’Rourke was and remains considerably cooler than Ted “Care to see my new mime routine?” Cruz.
But it also reminded Rolling Stone of a conversation we had with O’Rourke when we joined him on the road early last year. On a stretch of highway between Tyler and Texarkana, O’Rourke rhapsodized about the El Paso DIY scene in the early’90s, where he first encountered Bixler-Zavala.
O’Rourke, who used to quiz his sister about the Beatles as a child, fell in love with punk in eighth grade when he listened to the Clash’s London Calling for the first time. The record, he said, was “a revelation.” He would go on to become a devoted fan, in high school, of Dischord Records — the D.C.-based indie labeled founded by Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson.
“I was into Minor Threat, I was into the Rites of Spring,” O’Rourke recalls. But more than just the bands, it was Dischord’s whole ethos that appealed to him, an angsty teen. “They started their own label, they pressed their own records, they wrote their own songs, they booked their own tours and they set conditions, like: you’re not gonna pay more than five bucks to come into this show. You’re not gonna pay more than 10 bucks for this record. Our shows are gonna be all ages, everybody can come in.”
By that time, O’Rourke had secured a scholarship to an elite boarding school in Virginia, where he would hole up in his room with the latest issue of the punk zine Maximum Rock & Roll and the latest Dischord release. “The record would come in the mail and there would be a nice note from someone at Dischord Records, like Hope you enjoy it!,” O’Rourke remembers.
On breaks from school, he’d return to El Paso, and its burgeoning DIY scene. Ed Ivey, bassist for the seminal El Paso punk band the Rhythm Pigs was producing shows at a venue called the Campus Queen. O’Rourke remembers that Ivey, who he still thinks of as an “elder statesman” of punk rock, “would be at the door taking your five bucks, or three bucks, or whatever it was.”
The Campus Queen was where O’Rourke first encountered Bixler-Zavala, who was performing Misfits covers with his band, Phantasmagoria. “I’m a junior in high school, and this guy is like a freshman, and he’s singing in this amazing band,” O’Rourke recalls. “He had long black hair and everybody wore the black wristbands.”
He and Bixler-Zavala — together with two other band members, Arlo Klahr and Mike Stevens — would go on to form Foss. They put out The El Paso Pussycats while O’Rourke was at Columbia University. On his summer break, the band toured the U.S. and Canada, where, O’Rourke remembers, they met and befriended a young Leslie Feist (of future “1,2,3,4” fame) one night in Calgary as she was waiting in line outside the band’s gig.
“My memory is [she] didn’t have any money to get in and so she traded, I believe, her brother’s lock-picking set and a T-shirt or a tape and then we traded her a ticket to get in,” O’Rourke says. “And then when we came through next year, she had a band called Placebo that we played with.”
The El Paso Pussycats is now a rarity, but O’Rourke gave Rolling Stone a digital version of one of the EP’s tracks— “Rise.” It’s lo-fi slacker rock, that owes a debt to bands like Fugazi and Guided By Voices. Take a listen.
Kory Grow and Suzy Exposito contributed to this report.