When Adrian Hulet, the singer, pianist, and songwriter for the arty soul outfit oso closo, moved from Grapevine to Denton in 2001 to attend the University of North Texas, he thought he had exorcised his live-band demons forever: Right after high-school graduation, this veteran drummer and backup singer in emo-inspired bands went with friends on a mindless tour of divey clubs straight through the middle of the States and into Canada — and then u-turned right back to Grapevine.
“We were on the road for what felt like months,” he recalled. “We partied our faces off. We didn’t make a dime. It was stupid. By the time I got home, I was sick to death of traveling and playing. So I decided I’d major in business.” But Hulet hadn’t completely sated his desire to rawk. He rented a ramshackle house in a rural area just north of the UNT campus and roomed with some music-studies majors. Trying to comprehend corporate marketing strategies took a backseat to lengthy jams in the living room. Soon Hulet was snoozing through day classes to recover from all-night jam sessions. He became fast friends with guitarist and Austin native Chris McQueen, who had immersed himself so thoroughly in UNT’s vaunted jazz program’s theory-intensive studies that he’d earned a top spot in the One O’Clock Lab Band as well as a formidable reputation among his peers.
Hulet and McQueen discovered that they were usually on the same page, creatively speaking, though they were an unlikely pair on paper: McQueen the school-trained jazz prodigy and Hulet the self-taught lover of multi-instrumental art-rock groups like Genesis and, oddly enough, Queen. The two guys began writing songs together in 2003, bringing each other scraps of tunes that needed a bridge here or a chorus there. By that time, Hulet had traded the skins for the ivories. The memory of piano lessons in grade school helped him master the piano in college. The instrument, he said, “is the best ever invented and one of the easiest to learn,” though Hulet doesn’t claim to be a great player. “I’ve learned to fake it,” he said. “And surrounding myself with top-notch musicians makes that easier.”
Hulet and McQueen became the Fagen-and-Becker nucleus around which oso closo formed. The band is rounded out by fellow UNT jazz majors Lindsey Miller on rhythm guitar, Andy Rogers on bass, and Ryan Jacobi on drums. He and McQueen “spent a lot of time thinking about what a rock band could be,” Hulet said. “It was all about communication, between the players and the audience and between the players. [McQueen] and all these people have the theory and performance chops, and I sort of put simple, pop boundaries around them.” Hulet does that with a thriller of a husky, R&B-ish contralto, which he also acquired outside the classroom. He’d always had a good ear for harmonies and spent hours in his bedroom and the car singing along to tunes by Otis Redding and Al Green. He’d mimic every slur, trill, and repetition and start a song over again until he got them all right.
Oso closo released its debut album Rest earlier this year. A collection of symphonic story-songs, the album is distinguished by Hulet’s throaty crooning, McQueen’s slashing, virtuosic fretwork, and lush background strings, elevating Rest to a more mature realm than your average twentysomething musos normally attain. That, as it turns out, has landed oso closo in a kind of no-man’s land of the local scene. They’ve drawn crowds at the Denton clubs for the last couple of years, but Fort Worth remains a bit more elusive. “Right now, one of our main goals is to establish a presence in Fort Worth and Dallas,” Hulet said. “But I have this theory that people [in their early 20s] have just come out of their live-club phase and are thinking about college or careers.” “Our sound seems to appeal to people a little older than us, the Gen Xers,” he continued. “And now they have careers and are married and maybe have a couple of kids. They have to get a babysitter to come and see us on weekends. We’re out there looking for our audience.”
Hulet and McQueen are busy writing songs for oso closo’s next CD. They’re shopping Rest around to national indie labels and also hope to launch a small national tour early next year. Every step forward takes a little more time, since many of the members of oso closo are also involved with side projects. (Hulet recently played drums for about a month’s worth of gigs for Universal Records artist and fellow Grapeviner Bryce Avary, a.k.a The Rocket Summer. The two have been friends since high school.) From his vantage point, Hulet hopes oso closo can move toward a more accessible, soul-inspired sound without losing its jazz theory underpinnings. He, for one, isn’t afraid of
the word “pop.”
He and McQueen talk about pop “all the time,” he said. “The jazz program [at UNT] is very intense. But we’ve found that musicians at the highest levels have gone through their ‘jazz is the only important music in the world’ phase and come out the other end. They don’t turn their nose up at country or hip-hop or R&B or anything. They realize every genre has its own culture and history, and they appreciate them all.”
You can reach Jimmy Fowler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fri w/ Trapper John and Soulever Lift at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios, 411 E Sycamore St, Denton.