Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Weekend with the Devil

Before I moved to Texas, before Big Western Flavor as we know it even existed, I was a fan of The Invincible Czars. I did quite a bit of research about music scenes before selecting a new one to call my own. (Ultimately I decided against Portland because the prospect of having to wear overalls and learn the autoharp wasn't appealing.) The Czars, on the other hand, seemed from the first listen like the kind of local band I wanted to have in my city. Their fidgeting resistance to fit any sort of category description available, their bountiful chops and lack of fear about employing them, their creative projects -- like film scores and radical Nutcracker performances -- as a means of outreach to new listeners, all of these traits set them up as role models for original musicians new to the Austin environment. I had a lot of respect for them even before I met Czars guitarist/bandleader Josh Robins and he bent over backwards making Anna and me comfortable in Austin, introducing us to many of the most incredible players in town, getting us into cool parties, and sharing with us his limitless well of practical Austin rock-war experience.

So why has it taken this long for me to do an interview? Well, a few reasons. One is that Josh is a delightfully nonlinear thinker and translating his rapid-fire musings into coherent copy is a challenge I had to work myself up to take on. Besides, the Czars have had an interesting year in terms of shifting membership and changing goals. They've been keeping a low profile since the performance of their live film score for The Unknown back in February. As the lineup has shuffled, the veteran band has had to reassess what their music means to them and what they are willing to do to keep making it. By looking to their past, Josh and the band have hit upon a project that has reinvigorated Invincible Czars, and will keep them busy and visible for the next several months. On October 31st at Stubb's the insanity begins.

The Czars first presented their genre-hopping, totally rewired take on Iron Maiden's The Number of the Beast October 2007. It was supposed to be a one-off show, a cool band doing a wild full-album cover, "not uncommon in Austin for Halloween" as Josh says. It was "a lot of work for one show," with Josh and keyboardist Bill Petersen sweating to give each song on the British metal classic a distinct and subject-suitable makeover. In Josh's opinion, the experiment didn't quite cohere. Not every arrangement was a winner. "We didn't perform it very well, frankly," Josh says, noting that not all of the songs were sufficiently changed from the Maiden originals. "The whole band wasn't that gung-ho about it," but as soon as the first performance was over, they were asked to do it again. Going forward, that "changed our performance and our attitude."

But the book wasn't quite closed. For better or for worse, the Invincible Czars have a lot of fans who remember their cover projects fondly while being totally unaware of their parallel existence as an original band. Just recently a bank teller saw Josh's band t-shirt and piped up, "That's the band that did Number of the Beast!" For years, listeners have persisted in asking when a recorded version of the Czars' Number will be available. With interest in full-album live performances trending lately, the time seemed ripe to revisit Iron Maiden and improve on the elements that didn't work fully the first time around. "I had put a lot of time into it. Why not finish?" Josh says. In addition to live performances 10/29 in Houston, 10/30 in Denton, and Halloween in Austin, each of the Invincible Czars Beast tracks will become available as digital downloads... one per month, always on the sixth day, starting with "Invaders" on November 6th.

A "big chunk" of the arrangements have been freshly re-written, with ideas that didn't quite gel (an acoustic Latin-flavored "Gangland," notably) replaced. There's an art to coming up with takes for these songs that logically suit the subject matter, rather than using pure whimsy. Staying "true to the spirit of the song" is paramount. "Run to the Hills," with its multiple perspectives, led to a sharing of lead vocals, with Josh affecting a Slim Pickens voice for the part of the settlers. "Gangland" already had a swing rhythm, so it lent itself to jazz. Picking apart the Maiden classic so closely "kind of ruined the album for me," Josh says. Most of the songs have the same progressions, "not chord changes found in jazz, country and reggae." So adjustments and re-harmonizations were necessary. What essential element from the originals needs to be kept to keep them recognizable? Structurally, the Czars stay close to the album even while changing the style dramatically. And the signature guitar riffs and melodies, the stuff hardcore Maiden fans will pick out immediately, have been carefully maintained. "There is a point where it can get lost, but I feel like we never got close to that on this project."

With all the uncertainty surrounding the band's future this year, setting a recording and release schedule for the Number of the Beast singles has given them a momentum that should keep Invincible Czars rolling into 2011. They're working on putting the tracks down at Chico Jones' local Ohm Recording Facility. The Czars have a long relationship with Jones and Josh says "he keeps getting better and better." They also have some other fascinating crossovers in the works, looking to make next year a much more active one. They're collaborating with Bee vs. Moth on their own interpretation of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" and next July 4th they'll be doing an "1812 Overture." Keeping new projects in the works is a key element of keeping the band vital. With shifts in the lineup, "what has wound up happening is that we play a lot of the same songs... What does the new person know?" They are changing working methods to try and realize new material more quickly. For the first time in Czars history, the Iron Maiden tracks are being recorded part by part rather than as a full-band performance. A breakaway "Czars Trio" has been formed so Robins can work out jazz standards at the airport bar. When it comes to keeping a hard-to-classify passion project like Invincible Czars operating after many years, a by-any-means-necessary attitude emerges.

Josh is resigned to the fact that some may always see the Czars as "that Nutcracker band" but then again, the money they make every December largely funds their original projects for whole rest of the year. "My goal is to make my living making music I like. It's difficult, but not impossible to attain. If there isn't a ready-made audience, you have to find your Nutcracker. You have to accept what will make money or what won't."

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