About every other week or so, Fort Worth rocker Kenny Uptain used to get fired from his first group, a country project called the Mike Mancy Band. He knows it happened on at least three occasions beginning not long after he joined the group in 2005 as a 19-year-old singer-songwriter who already knew his way around barroom gigs.
Today you might know Uptain and his best friend, another former Mancy bandmate, drummer Kelly Test, as Foxtrot Uniform, possibly one of the most auspicious bands to come out of the Fort in the past year. Anyone who frequents local watering holes and venues has probably seen these two onstage –– they play a ton of gigs. The guys are also busy putting the finishing touches on their debut album, set to drop in about a month.
The small rock band, now about six months old, was forged by this rocky on-and-off-again relationship between Uptain and his then-Mancy bandmates, who would usually kick him out for drunken shenanigans but only to ask him back a few months later, repeating the cycle.
Finally, several years ago, Mancy essentially fired the rest of the band, leaving Uptain, Test, and Mancy bassist Royce Tompkins to put their own project together. 3 Rivers Alice lasted until about six months ago, when Tompkins picked up a nine-to-five, leaving Uptain and Test on their own. Foxtrot Uniform is military slang for “fuck you.”
But Uptain and Test say they’ve emerged sturdier than ever as a core of ambitious jam-banders who love rock but sometimes lean toward country. Their sound depends largely on whether you’re hearing them in person or via recording. Onstage, Foxtrot’s music is a swampy kind of throwback rock, a gruff and raw go at the blues, led by Uptain’s smoky yet smooth voice. From your earphones, the band’s music sounds much more textured. Drummer Test also plays the keys, and Uptain dabbles on the bass, a pair of instruments you’ll rarely see the duo behind onstage.
In a recent conversation at the Woodshed Smokehouse, a regular F.U. spot, Uptain said he sometimes laments that they’re incapable of recreating live what they recorded in the studio, but his bandmate shrugged it off. “I think they’re two different monsters,” Test said. “If you’re recording stuff, you’ve got to record it the best you can, even if you feel like you need an extra piano part or any of that shimmery shit on the recording. Then when you’re playing it live, you’ll just have to play it differently. I don’t beat myself up about that.”
Foxtrot’s pared-down strum-and-drum formula does have its advantages. For one, it streamlines the collaborative process.
Case in point: Foxtrot Uniform has never had a rehearsal. Uptain and Test said they just don’t need to practice outside of their frequent gigs. Instead, Uptain conjures an impromptu set of lyrics, a melody, and a few guitar riffs on the fly. He’ll record it on his phone and pocket it for later. Then, without warning at a later show, he’ll insert the song into a set. Test will improvise and follow along. “What’s cool about being a two-piece,” Uptain said, “is that I can come up with any song I want to, and Kelly — as long as he’s not really heard it but kind of heard me do it for a second — he’ll be right on with me. I wrote a song yesterday, and we played it tonight.”
Uptain wears a mangy dark blond beard and chain-smokes Marlboros, giving him a roughshod exterior that betrays the family man within. He’s a 26-year-old father who, after staying out late playing gigs, wakes up every day at dawn to care for his three children ranging in age from seven months to seven years, while his wife heads downtown to work for an energy company.
Then, just about every night, the rocker heads out with his guitar, beating the pavement along a now-familiar local circuit of gig spots, either solo or, more often, alongside Test, his best friend who started his own career 20 years ago as a percussionist for a young Waco native named Pat Green. Test is perhaps one of the most accomplished local musicians you’ve never heard of, and the clean-cut 37-year-old Fort Worth native prefers it that way.
He has an array of side projects to keep up with. He recently reunited with West Texas loud-country pioneers Cooder Graw, and he’s preparing for a West Coast tour with The Polyphonic Spree, the famous, sprawling orchestral pop-rock group from Dallas.
But despite Test’s numerous side projects, he and Uptain believe they’re onto something long-lasting with F.U., which has already gained more buzz and following than 3 Rivers Alice did during a couple years of local performances.
About a month ago at a Foxtrot show not far from West 7th Street, Linc Campbell, lead guitarist for Fort Worth countrified rockers Badcreek, leaned forward in his chair and gestured toward Uptain onstage. “God, his voice is amazing,” he hollered above the music.
Campbell’s not alone in his appraisal of Foxtrot’s talent. Many local musicians have approached Uptain and Test in search of collaboration, which usually means they either want to poach them or join them.
And therein lies a nagging dilemma: To expand or not to?
“The two-piece thing scares the shit out of me, because I’ve got to keep busy the whole time,” Uptain said at the Woodshed, fresh from a four-hour set. “I can’t lay back. I can’t just chill out. We’ve got to keep the music pushing, which is fine if you’ve only got an hour show. … Nights like tonight are such a beating. It’s so hard on us.”
Uptain and Test have toyed with the idea of adding a bassist, but they have yet to find the right fit. Plus, they’re just not sure. These two, after all, have been playing together for years and don’t want to disrupt the groove they’ve just recently rediscovered.
6pm Thu at Woodshed Smokehouse, 3201 Riverfront Dr, FW. 817-877-4545. 11pm w/Grant Jones & The Pistol-Grip Lassos at The Basement Bar, 105 W Exchange Av, FW. 817-624-0050. • Fri (acoustic) at The Mule Pub, 5731 Locke Av, FW. 817-732-5399. • Sat w/Quaker City Night Hawks, The Apache 5 at Magnolia Motor Lounge, 3005 Morton St, FW. 817-332-3344.