EDITOR’S NOTE: A few super-helpful individuals with ties to the band have contacted me to clear up a few details about the group. Those changes are now reflected below. Thanks everyone! Keep reading (and expect a few new “Nobody Listens to”s to appear in the next few weeks).
Yes! At long last I’m writing a new post. I’ve been away for a minute, but I’ve been thinking about you. And it’s with great tenderness I craft this newest essay. This will (hopefully) be the first of three new posts to go up within 24 hours, and will (again, hopefully) kick off a return to regularly scheduled programming here on this blog. Tonight I’ll be putting up a remembrance of a great Austin band that no longer exists, and in trying to document the inherent tragedy and strife that followed Bankrupt and the Borrowers, I’ll be laying out some emotion here for the world. With their name as a signifier, Bankrupt and the Borrowers may have held the best indexical relationship in modern music.
It’s completely a fluke I ever heard about Bankrupt and the Borrowers in the first place. The band never had a record deal, rarely toured outside of the greater Austin area, and as far as I’m aware none of my friends were also listening to the band back in 2009 when I was on a family vacation down in the Texas state capital trying desperately to convince my parents to take us to one of downtown Austin’s plentiful rock clubs. We were in the live music capital of the world, and I wanted to go see a show.
It didn’t happen, but scanning the paper for acts with potential had taken me across a video of a Bankrupt and the Borrowers song. From its opening chords I was taken to a fantastically angsty, raw-ly emotional depth of blues- the music and lyrics both evoked a point where things were so grim that you just had to crack a weak half-smile and keep drifting towards the next day’s depression. It wasn’t uplifting stuff, but the feelings in it were great catharsis. This is something I’ve remembered in tough times and called back upon when the darkness needed a way out.
Bankrupt and the Borrowers didn’t fabricate those echoes of bottoming out. In the mid-oughts three young men with international roots met by happenstance in New England and decided to become a band and be very poor together. Jesse “Cadger” Moore, Blue “Deadweight” Mongeon, and Jon “Baggage” Pettis eventually found themselves in Austin, apparently by virtue of its plentiful work for musicians and cheap housing. The trio found a punk drummer in James “Osteo” Taylor and settled in to a neighborhood of artists in East Austin, blending dirty, grungy rock with the type of blues that seems to take strength from hopelessness. They were also broke. I bring this last bit up to really hammer home the point and spotlight its importance to the group; from the get-go, Bankrupt and Borrowers listed the lack of funds as a musical and lyrical influence, and the band members’ poverty is evident in their work from the low-quality home recordings they pieced together to the reckless desperation of their live shows. Bankrupt and the Borrowers lived up to their name by staying true to their passions and feeding those passions off of the detrimental lifestyle other aspects of their lives had led to.
To my knowledge, Bankrupt and the Borrowers only released one set of recordings, a home-recorded EP entitled Beers on the Bible. The band has a distinct and original sound, flipping the switch from simmering rock and jangly blues to the wailing guitars and strained voices of a grungy and particularly angry breed of rock music. While the group lists their socio-economic circumstances and geographic locations as food for musical thought, the individual members’ backgrounds and tastes are easily in view. Guitarist and sometime Vocalist “Cadger” studied blues guitar, while bassist and vocalist “Deadweight” brings an indie rock sensibility to the group. Rounded out by multi-instrumentalist “Baggage”‘s interest in horn arrangements and “Osteo”‘s history as an Austinite punk drummer, Bankrupt and the Borrowers touches on several genres, each of which fits nicely in step with the topical themes of their music.
Beers on the Bible covers an emotional range that typically oscillates between depression and rage. The vocals and guitar arrangements in particular reflect a certain disconsolate thrashing that instantly calls to mind someone who might not be in a great state of mind. Even songs about lovers (“I Love you Baby“, “Katie Anne“) and their homebase on Austin’s East side (“Home“, “Dumpster“) can make lyrics that would otherwise come across as neutral at worst sound filled with intense (and yes, typically negative) emotions. This does make the music decidedly dark, and Bankrupt and the Borrowers rarely seem to have happy news to share, but it adds an emotional complexity that sounds earnest enough to give the listener the idea that harsh truths are being shared. Tracks from the EP such as “TCB” and “The Cat” benefit from this earnest emotional openness, as unclear lyrics still betray a kind of romantic desolation, squealing guitars and frantic drums mimicking the chaos of the bandmates’ lives.
And all of this brings me to the band’s most frequently-mentioned tune, an epic blues number ambitiously titled “Holden Caulfield at 35“. In a rare behind-the-scenes interview, the band allows that the song takes inspiration from an imagined drugs-and-women-fueled weekend on the Mexican border for the now-approaching middle-aged narrator of “The Catcher in the Rye”, but more so betrays that even when they attempted to write a happy song the resulting subject matter betrays the reason why so many of their songs seem to tell miserable stories. Musically the song throws the kitchen sink at Caulfield’s passed out friend Rosie, slowly climbing from a solo guitar riff to add whistling, harmonica, three vocalists delivering verses, and the eventual heavily-stomping coda that features an elegiac trumpet solo over the refrain “I’m still smilin’ all the same”. It’s a powerful track, and followers of the band responded in kind: in the aforementioned interview, the band noted that at the time the track wasn’t recorded and fans at shows were singing along to every word. Glimpsing a moment of validation, the musicians that comprised Bankrupt and the Borrowers could take some solace in the fact that they were writing music that fans connected with and could empathize with- real music.
The sad tale of the Bankrupt and the Borrowers, however, only continues in tragedy. Seemingly just as the group was staking a claim on the music scene in a town that can easily swallow an artist and replace him with five more, tragedy struck the group in a very real way. In the early morning on October 9, 2009, a power strip in the home the band shared on the Northeast side of town malfunctioned and started a fire. Within minutes the house was ablaze, and the one functional fire alarm was insufficient warning. Jon Pettis, a multi-instrumentalist who took duties as a vocalist, guitarist, and player of several brass instruments for Bankrupt and the Borrowers died as the house burned down around him. Pettis’ life, as those of his friends and bandmates, had been trending upward; the group was consistently booking shows, touring, and making new connections. Just before the deadly house fire that took one of the bandmembers’ life, Bankrupt and the Borrowers had been announced as a marquee artist for Austin’s annual Fun Fun Fun Fest.
That show would prove to be the final concert for Bankrupt and the Borrowers as such, and would be dedicated as a benefit for the survivors of Jon “Baggage” Pettis in the wake of his sudden and unexpected passing.
The surviving members of Bankrupt and the Borrowers have continued performing in and around the Austin area with a collective of down-on-their-luck musicians who go by the name of East Cameron Folkcore. This new project has even had its story told by a local documentary filmmaker who wanted to recount the origin of the group as a companion to their second full-length album, The Sun Also Rises. Meanwhile, little remains of Bankrupt and the Borrowers other than poignant memorials to the group. Myspace, Facebook, and blogspot pages for the group are still live, though inactive, and the group’s official website is off the web. For me though, this is a band that I didn’t even get to see play, and I mostly listen to them through Myspace streams and youtube clips. And somehow that is still enough to get across the intense emotions of pain and loss that followed the group from their inception and seem just as appropriate now, almost three years after their last performance. Nobody is listening to Bankrupt and the Borrowers right now, and to be honest many people don’t need to very often. But the unfiltered and unrefined pain that the group was able to translate from their meager means into arresting music makes the group a potent listen, and their tragic story is fascinating and gut-wrenching enough to be shared as often as their songs.
“I’m still smilin’ all the same…”