Gulf Coast soul and funk band, The Suffers is an influential part of Houston’s ever-changing musical landscape. The band feels the city itself has been both an inspiration and a driving force behind its many successes. Made up mostly of native Houstonians, the wonderfully diverse group has a broad range of musical talents from R&B and hip-hop to deep Latin pop and salsa. They came together in 2011, and the rest, as they say, is history… a flourishing part of Houston’s musical history.
I love the people, the culture, the food and the talent in Houston
Kam Franklin, 32, lead vocalist and original band member.
“The city produces incredible artists, and it just gets better with time!” Although she was born in College Station, she relocated to Houston with her parents at an early age. The vibrant young artist brings lots of sass and a wealth of experience to the group, thanks to her natural talent and colorful upbringing in Houston.
“My first experience with singing was performing in a church when I was 5–years–old — it was a lot of gospel,” she says. “But when I was a pre-teen, I got exposed to a little bit of everything — rock and roll, metal and a lot of Tejano.”
Franklin credits her childhood neighbors, whose homes she would frequent to learn how to cook, with educating her on artists like Juan Gabriel, Rocío Dúrcal, Selena, Buena Vista Social Club and La India. “I actually know how to make a mean caldo de pollo!” She laughs and explains, “You can only be taught so much of a culture that isn’t your own unless you’re completely immersed in it, and the thing is…I was completely immersed in it, and the music became a part of my culture in the same way that going to church every day was.”
The young singer nurtured her talent and began performing in ska and reggae bands at the age of 16. Her talent grew, and she embraced blue grass, Tejano, country and R&B, which led to her performing in local clubs within a year.
After attending school at Texas Southern University, she put performing on pause and began a career in the gas and power industry, working as a trade analyst at an investment bank Downtown. “I was fully focused on working and thought maybe I would go into trading.” However, in 2011, a call from pals and The Suffers founding band members Adam Castaneda and Patrick Kelly would lead her down a different path. “They reached out and said they wanted to start a new reggae cover band with a bunch of different folks. And that’s how it came to be.”
Drummer Nick Zamora, 39, is a Houston native who credits his unbeatable rhythm to the Jones High School marching band. He received a similar call from Kelly around the same time, and when his friend proposed starting a reggae cover band in hopes of making extra cash, he respectfully declined. “Why would you start a reggae cover band to make money!” he laughed, thinking back at his initial reaction. “At the time, I had other gigs, and I was working full time for Guitar Center in Houston, so I turned him down.” Zamora watched as the band formed without him, and after a few months, when the original drummer opted out, he got a second opportunity to join. He reconsidered, but remained cautious, hanging on to his day job.
Originally comprised of 10 members, the band was called The Sufferers in the beginning — a reference to an old Jamaican film called The Rockers. The group’s first gig was at Downtown’s The Mink on Main Street, a place now known as the Alley Kat. In just a few short years and after a subtle name change to The Suffers — the band members confess the original name didn’t exactly roll off the tongue — they were playing much more than reggae covers. “The band became something different than what it was intended to be,” says Franklin. “We began making our own music and writing our own songs.”
In 2015, the group made a joint decision to quit their day jobs. “We all had real, REAL jobs!” says Franklin of their 9 to 5s. And while she admits performing is a “real” job, she says that, in the United States, it didn’t feel that way for them sometimes. “Music and art is as real as it gets. Art is just as big a contribution to society as anything else,” she explains.
[Music] is there to get you through the great times, the tough times, the questionable times.
In the end, the decision proved to be a fruitful one. They focused wholly on the band and on garnering a loyal local fan base. The group made a rule early on that they would perform a lot, and often, but they did not want to open for the same artists over and over again. “It was not because they didn’t have a good vision; we just knew we wanted to get in front of as many people as possible,” says Franklin, who recalls opening for metal band Only Beast at Montrose live music hangout Rudyard’s one weekend only to turn around and open for Los Skarnales the following week. Both Franklin and Zamora recall the time fondly and note it was “a cool sequence of shows.”
The Suffers took Houston by storm. They opted to participate and get involved with whatever the city had to offer. If there was a big festival in town, they wanted to play it. Soon, Houstonians had the chance to hear them at the citywide International Festival and the artsy Via Colori street fest Downtown. They also nailed down a residency at live music mainstay Fitzgerald’s in the Heights, where fans could find them every Wednesday night. Eventually, they even earned national fanfare, landing coveted appearances on The Daily Show and David Letterman.
The city wasn’t just their stage — it was their playground, their dining room and their artistic workspace. As they produced two albums, they drew inspiration from around town. “I love James Turrell’s light exhibit at Rice University, the exotic food at Riel in Montrose, comedy open mic night at Rudyard’s and Thursday nights at the Alley Kat with Waxaholics,” says Franklin. “There is a special place in my heart for venues in Houston that go out of their way to make artists feel welcome and safe.”
As the album recording and performing continued, not all 10 members chose to continue the journey, and two founding members parted ways. Franklin and Zamora say there was never a question about whether The Suffers would move forward or not. “This is how we get happy. So the challenge became, ‘How can we get happier? How can we get better?’ We took it as an opportunity to find other amazing players that could assist us and motivate us in a way that maybe we really needed.”
Today, The Suffers is made up of the following players: Kam Franklin, lead singer; Juliet Terrill, bass player and Pasadena native; Michael Razo, solo trombonist; Nick Zamora, drummer; Jose Luna, percussionist and the youngest band member; Kevin Bernier, guitarist and the only non-Houston native (but he’s lived in the city for 20 years as a former NASA employee) and John Durbin, trumpeter and former employee at Scott Gertner’s Sky Bar. Ever the activists for the city, they proudly showcase Houston’s diversity by declaring themselves a band in which “every walk of life is represented.”
“It has been an exciting time to reinvent ourselves,” says Franklin. “This is the best we have ever sounded, and it’s not because anyone has left or we‘ve added new musicians, but because we’re evolving.”
The Suffers are currently working on their third album, which they contend is the first that they’ve had the privilege to patiently spend their time on. They say, as always, the sights, sounds and even flavors of the city help feed their creative process. After all, in a foodie city like Houston, some of the best bites can be all-inspiring!
Barbecue is inspiring as hell to me
[admits] Nick Zamora, Drummer
“I rotate through different spots, but Truth BBQ, The Pit Room and Pinkerton’s are where I usually find myself.” And if, by some rarity, the band is not on the road on a Sunday during crawfish season, he says Khon’s in Midtown is his go–to for a good vibe, great music and the best crawfish around. “Selfishly, I always hate to put out the word on this, but Khon’s is definitely the place I miss when we’re on the road.”
Franklin, Zamora and all of the members of The Suffers, past and present, are part of what make the pulse of the city what it is—a distinct beat that Houstonians vibe with—and for the last eight years, The Suffers have methodically played music along with it. “It’s a beautiful thing to see us evolve as rapidly as the city is,” says Franklin, and she promises, like the thriving metropolis, the future of the group is bright with lots more to come.
For those who may not be familiar with the city of Houston or with the band that represents it so warmly, there’s much to discover. “I understand it may be tough for an outsider to break in to the city, given how vast and diverse it is,” says Zamora. “But if you can figure out a place to start, it’s unlikely you’ll find a definitive end to Houston.”
Keep up with The Suffers online.
All Photos Courtesy of Paty Lennon