I imagine that in every local music scene, someone could make a diagram for a given geo-temporal parameter (for example, the Fort Worth of 1978) that is basically a bunch of musicians’ names with lines drawn between themselves and everyone else they played with, the lines labeled with their groups’ names. Given the overlap of membership in most cities’ bands, these hypothetical “lineup lines” would probably become indecipherable, especially when it comes to Denton-associated bands of the mid-2000s through late 2010s. I thought about this because of this new band called Understudied, the latest project of singer-songwriter Pat Ferguson, whose own line in that scene diagram would be part of a busy tangle of inter-band connections.
See, before he started Understudied, Ferguson (under the moniker “Paddy Flynn”) played bass in this band called Deep Snapper with his friend, guitarist John Newberry, and their friend, drummer Chris Smith. Later, Tame … Tame and Quiet guitarist/bassist/vocalist Aaron Bartz joined Deep Snapper and was more recently the singer of a different band called O.Deletron, which was a project of Denton-based multi-instrumentalist Jason McMullen (who’s been in a million other bands but probably most notably Jetscreamer and Raised by Tigers), and the bassist of that band was Fort Worth Weekly contributor Patrick Higgins. Higgins himself has been and is currently in multiple other bands, and the reason why I bring all this up is because one of those bands is the aforementioned Understudied, which, of course, at one time had Jason McMullen on drums.
McMullen is no longer Understudied’s drummer, though Newberry still plays guitar, where “still” is an odd thing to say because Understudied has hardly played any shows at all, a peculiar fact given that Ferguson started the project in 2015. But wherever you are, there you are. Here, in the Fort Worth of 2023, Understudied is a band that in Ferguson’s words sounds like if “Mercury Rev and Guided By Voices jammed together,” crewed by himself and Newberry on guitar, bassist Higgins (Blacklights, Spiral Sound, O.Deletron), and drummer Quincy Holloway (Sub Oslo, Dove Hunter). Before that lineup solidified, however, Understudied was little more than sonic sketches captured on a Mac.
Like a lot of musicians, Ferguson writes songs as a means of processing the world and where he is in it at a given time. “I write constantly. Not everything sticks, but I write a lot because it’s therapeutic.”
In that regard, Understudied started in almost diaristic fashion, “just jamming stuff into Garage Band.” This was in 2015, when his job (which he prefers to keep confidential) moved him to San Antonio. During his time in Alamo City, he’d been playing in a band called Ship-to-Ship (Ferguson: “We practiced a lot and played very little”), and the song ideas that didn’t go very far in that band ended up kludged together with his own, and he started recording them at home.
“I got them to where I was happy,” he said. “Thought I would just throw them up on Bandcamp, and that would be it. But one day I came into the living room and my son Carl was playing guitar along with the tracks, so we made a band.”
Carl was in high school at the time, but he, his dad, and Newberry booked a three-city tour with McMullen on drums. Then Understudied sort of went on hiatus, as Ferguson’s job changes took him to Africa before he returned to North Texas, where his family and friends live.
“Since I started working on Understudied, I’ve been out of the country twice,” he said. “Stress and travel make me write. Over that time, I racked up five records, so in 2021, when I moved back to Fort Worth, [Newberry] was like, ‘Are we gonna do this or not?’ ”
Ferguson and Newberry still had to put a band together, and at an Idles concert in Dallas, they ran into Higgins and pitched their new group to him. Higgins was stoked.
“I’d been a fan of everything he has ever done,” Ferguson said. “Spiral [Sound], Blacklights, O.Deletron — he’s just a great player and a nice guy.”
Through more friend-of-friend networking, they landed BULLS’ Ricky Del Toro to fill the drum throne. Ferguson thought they had the ideal lineup.
“We got together and practiced a ton, which was hard because all of us have kids and jobs and stuff,” he said. “You have a lot going on. Trying to get four schedules to mesh is nearly impossible. A year goes by without playing a show. We kept practicing, still playing the same eight songs, and [Del Toro] had opportunities to do other stuff.”
Understudied was yet again left without a drummer. Then Ferguson got engaged.
While a band member’s marriage is often the first words written on the proverbial wall for a band’s impending demise, Ferguson’s wedding had the opposite effect. His bride to be, Megan, wanted to put together a show to celebrate their nuptials, featuring Understudied.
“We were two weeks out from the wedding, and we had no drummer. But Megan knew [Holloway]. She asked. He said sure. Dude knew everything like on the first go. What’s funny, I’d approached him a year ago, but he was too busy. And after the second rehearsal, he was like, ‘I wish I’d done this, like, a year ago,’ so of course he was in.”
In July, Understudied recorded five songs with engineer Peter Wierenga (Denver Williams, Tornup, Siberian Traps) at a friend’s home studio. Ferguson was ecstatic to give his songs the full-band treatment. “The demos were OK, but they had robotic drums on them from Garage Band. … In September, we’re going to go back to finish up some parts and then release it in the fall as a four-song EP” after the tracks are mixed and mastered.
The band is also booked to play Growl Records in Arlington on Sep. 14. Given that his band’s members’ schedules (and his own, for that matter) are a challenge, Ferguson plays acoustic versions of his songs under the name Overstudied. He also has a band with Newberry called Goiter Belt that he says is more or less “Deep Snapper Version 2.0.” Clearly, Ferguson has an affinity for his old band, but he allows that Understudied is probably more palatable.
“Deep Snapper,” he said, “was hard to listen to, on account of the stream-of-conscious writing. Understudied is more focused. Where Deep Snapper was reactionary, Understudied was born of things I was feeling. Failed relationships, COVID isolation, traveling — being in a foreign country brings things out of you. [Understudied is] more cerebral than my other projects.”