Thursday, September 23, 2010

Demo Sweat #17

I've been thinking a lot about process lately. Introducing a recording news column has led to many conversations with local artists about the vast array of different options musicians today have for documenting and distributing their music. I got to go to an actual studio for the first time in a while to see J. Wesley Haynes Trio do their thing. Our dear friend Sean Padilla came over to borrow my beloved, weatherbeaten Takamine acoustic for use on his Gratitude Sessions project. The Coast of Nebraska, after twice I painstakingly pointed out their flaws, seriously asked me to produce their next record. (This is something I always hoped would happen. Only in Austin could such a demented rock critic wet dream come true.) I just read that my friends in The Sour Notes had to hock some gear to get their forthcoming Last Looks finished. Also, one band I myself am in is almost done with a record and another one is beginning work on one this weekend. You see where my mind is at.

So let's use this overdue new installment of Demo Sweat to discuss the review process a little more in-depth. This blog began because as a newcomer to Austin I immediately felt the absence of local music writing that took a journalistic approach as opposed to a literary one. I don't write poetry or short stories. I've never even daydreamed about trying to write a screenplay. I write what I see and hear. People experience music in very different ways. My bandmate Mike hears in colors. Anna C. is more about moods. As for me, I always feel like I can break everything I hear on a record down to statistics, like a newspaper box score. All is objective fact. Your band is a crime scene and I'm "CSI: Miami." The fashion in music blogging nowadays is for people to just write what they feel; like an art therapy project. That's not how I operate. I have a rubric that I run through internally with every band I ever come across.

The first (and last) step most bloggers take is to figure out what comparisons to make. I don't even think of this as a step. It should be obvious, if your musical knowledge is up to snuff. The first question I ask isn't, "What famous bands do these guys sound like?" Instead, it's "Given their influences, do they do enough to step out on their own?" Consider Indofin. These guys have been together since 2002, and yet they're still gigging at places like the hateful Beauty Bar. To say they're a tight band with an instantly recognizable sound would be accurate, but it wouldn't be the whole story. Every decade has a few rock bands that just strike a chord with a certain subset of male musicians to the extent that sincere, flattering imitation is all that most acolytes can manage. Like Metallica. As an ongoing artistic concern they haven't been cool since 1988, but somehow there continue to be bands -- nowadays, bands featuring kids who were born well into the nineties -- whose sole influence is the first four Metallica records. I don't know why. Check out Houston's Metavenge sometime.

While Indofin tunes like "2X Broken" have nice melodies and particularly arresting, slippery bass playing from Albert Huang, they are following Sublime's formula exactly. On every song. The chicka-chicka reggae guitars, lightly funky walking basslines, and pocket drumming will be instantly recognizable to anyone who surived the 1990's. Indofin don't add anything at all. In fact, they lose rather a lot -- TJ Huerta's singing has good rhythmic spacing but not a lot of personality, and the touches of dub, hip-hop, classical guitar, and skatepunk that made Sublime a deceptively versatile band are all right out. Just a lot of "Santeria" remakes remain. So if you're a hardcore fan of Sublime and you live in Austin... well, you probably already know about these guys. It's a band's own job to find their core audience. A good critic should be able to give his opinion about whether the world at large (that is, people who aren't colossal fans of that obvious central inspiration) would be interested in the band. In this case, sorry, no. For a Texas band who obviously worship Bradley Nowell but manage to assert more original ideas (and less obvious secondary influences like the Police and Pearl Jam), I direct you to Potbelly.

The second thing I listen for is the ability to vary approaches from song to song. Bands where every song is essentially the same style and tempo seldom have long shelf lives. A lot of Austin bands are releasing two versions of the same tune as a single every few months in an effort to get written about by those capricious NYC blog elites. I don't get it -- trying to break nationally is like spending all of your discretionary income on lottery tickets. Why not concentrate on the far more realistic goal of putting on a diverse, fun, and rewatchable live show for all the awesome but jaded music fans right here in ATX? Again, this is my own way of looking at things. You may disagree with me completely and prefer bands who stick to their bread and butter. That's cool. My goal isn't to make everyone happy, it's to make a clear enough argument about what I think to get you thinking in a new way. The way I see it, bands who get up and play the same song eight times in a row suck. OK, that really sounds like more of an objective truth than an opinion.

Let's apply rule #2 to Marathon, by singer/songwriter Darden Smith. At first glance there's not a lot that separates this LP from untold thousands of other Austin country-rockers. The production is quite good, detailed and with a lot of extra touches that elevate Smith's whisper-quiet vocals while never obscuring them. But the song subjects are tiresome. You ever been to an open mic night in these parts? You may have noticed that three-quarters of the songs performed or more address one of the same three subjects: love of nature, romantic love, and generic nostalgia. (While these themes are universal in college towns, Austin has a unique fourth-most-popular song topic: Smoking pot with Willie Nelson.) Smith's lack of lyrical insight violates rule #4 ("Why would anybody who isn't friends with this guy be interested in what he has to say?') but the tenets go in order of importance and he comes across favorably when it comes to #1 and #2.

The album's structure is thoughtful and original, with atmospheric instrumental pieces that divide the proper songs like stretches of state highway between towns. The use of accordion ("Bull by the Horns") and flamenco-fueled trumpet (multiple tracks) is very reminiscent of Calexico, as is Smith's standard dry vocal delivery. But "Make It Back to You" is unabashedly middle of the road, almost edging over into CS&N territory. You know what? In the context of the album's more conflicted moments, the song comes across as really pretty, with a nifty workmanlike melody. It reminds me of the quieter moments on Wilco's great Being There. Another track, "That Water," has a more sinister mood and a totally different singing approach, a Leonard Cohen-like basso. Smith's simple songs pop out a lot more thanks to the instrumentals and the changes of pace. In this genre dramatic mid-song shifts (see #3) are sort of ruled out on principle, but there are more than a few choruses here that sidestep the obvious progression from the verses and move into more intriguing harmonic space. I do wonder how much of the album's mood, quite dependent on room tone, gentle balance, and colors from instruments like piano and upright bass that are tricky to transport, translate to Darden Smith's live shows. After hearing Marathon I am curious to find out.

The rules don't work backwards. Anxious Mind, by guitarist and songwriter Denzil Warner, really hits the mark when it comes to variety. There's hard rock, trad blues, dance music (complete with AutoTune!), falsetto funk, and Stones-style irreverent folk. Good for Denz for spreading it around, but... well, there's a problem when "Jesse Gonna Be Here Tonight" rips off Chuck Berry front to back, vocal melody, guitar lead, and all; "Anxious Mind" repeats (for its entire length) an unmistakable Black Sabbath riff; and "Making Love" resurrects a disco hook so played out P. Diddy would be ashamed to sample it. There are good underlying qualities to Anxious Mind, like the lyrics (much more specific and humorous than average, particularly "Hybrid Car Blues"), the blending of a lot of different guitar sounds, and cool tricks that make nonsinger Warner's vocals sound funky and smoky, at least until about two-thirds through when the ideas just start to run out. This record would have been a lot stronger if edited down to an EP, with a few of the completely unoriginal tracks excised. Even better, Denz could combine elements from three or four of the unfinished boogies lurking on the back end and put more dramatic changes into the songs like "Anxious Mind" and "Going Down" that do have some hooks working for them.

That brings us to #3. This is where it gets a little more controversial. I think most people who listen to music critically, although they might not do it as consciously as I do, would agree with rules 1 and 2. But #3 is more a matter of personal taste. I want to be surprised when one song ends and the next begins and is totally different. But what really excites me is when a band manages to execute a dramatic shift within a song, still keeping things coherent. Sudden jump stops of this sort are very hard to execute well, but when they are the effect can be unforgettable. The Black Keys' "Tighten Up," for example... or if you'd prefer an evergreen, what the hell, the guitar solo to "Stairway to Heaven." It would be silly to expect a band to do this every time out (unless they're Mr. Bungle), but when I hear a out-of-the-blue change that really knocks me flat by a local band, it tends to make me hear the rest of their stuff in a whole new light. #3 and #4 are what separate bands to whom I'll give a good review from bands of whom I'll become a diehard, proselytizing, lifelong fan.

I have a lot more new local music to discuss but I seem to have reached a natural stopping point. There may be a Demo Sweat 17.5 fairly soon, or possibly a bunch of shorter reviews. Perhaps if I link this next group you will go listen to them with what I have written today in mind and try and predict my responses. That would be interesting! So go check out Fulton Read, Shmu, Sleep Good, Mostly Dead, and Disciples of Sound and we'll meet again soon.

Now in list form:
  1. Given the band's influences, do they mix it up enough to appeal even to people who might not be fans of the exact same list of artists?
  2. Does the band change styles, moods, and approaches from one song to the next?
  3. Can the band make dramatic changes within a single song that catch the listener off-guard while keeping the overall composition coherent?
  4. Does the band have anything to say in their lyrics (or their emotions/moods/colors if it's instrumental or electronic music) that would interest anyone besides their family and friends?
  5. OK, never mind all that. DOES IT ROCK? More on this later.

Monday, September 20, 2010

You Should Know What's Going On

Begin with Purple Rain. Robert can't really replicate Prince's moves -- he's a mere mortal -- but he can say that the "I Would Die 4 U" sequence is the "apogee" of rock-frontman hand motions. When the shouting, hectoring face of La Snacks sings "Kristin Was a Meteorologist," he points at his head when he sings "head." Then he points up when he sings "sun."

"I want to go to shows and have people sing along, and want the people in the audience to know the lyrics." La Snacks started in Beaumont when there were no local bands of note to see. Relocated to Austin, they're still unique. With the right combination of hand gestures, facial expressions, and beer gulps, "I can make people know what the lyrics are." Being a rock bandleader, in the La Snacks style, has all kinds of duties and obligations attached to it. "If someone buys you a beer while you're on stage, it's your duty to gun it."

And then there's the moves. Robert is shy about demonstrating them at first, but we give him a mic stand and a little space and soon they start coming. A lot of the moves involve beer. "Drink beer. Sing. Drink beer. Sing. Lose beer, make face." There's guarding two beers. Stealing the guitar player's beer while he's tuning. Falling down and staying there. The mostly-retired "Bobby shuffle," an uncomfortable looking ankle-turning manuever. "Only in Beaumont," friends in the front row get whacked with the microphone stand. Singing to one particular person in the audience for an uncomfortably long time, or hugging them and not letting go, work everywhere.

"Music to me has to be interesting," Robert says. That's why he started the band, and why he puts so much thought and effort and making La Snacks shows entertaining. Like a lot of rock true believers, he likes performing and feels natural at it. "It's really comfortable for me to be on stage, more so than in social situations. They're my songs and I'm in control." His animated performances are partly an expression of his pride in the songs. He's also trying to get as much out of each audience as possible. "If you're going to watch the whole show you should know what's going on.... It should be interactive, and fun." And he also feels kinship with those music fans selective enough to choose to pay attention at a La Snacks gig: "If you're listening to ME, there's something going on. You're smarter."

La Snacks songs try to reward the close listener with peculiar details, strange references in the lyrics and deceptively supple melodies in Robert's unconventional vocal style. "You don't have to write about being 13 all your life," says the writer, who works history, politics, and music geek references into his lyrics. As free as he can be with his opinions while on stage, caught up in the moment, it's hard to get him to be negative about others' music in private. "A lot of bands we like listen to stuff we would hate."

Perhaps he is sensitive about the comparisons his own band draws to various 90's bands, some of whom Robert has never loved. "People say that bands sound like whatever their favorite band is," he says. Apparently La Snacks get Drive Like Jehu a lot, which seems weird to me... none of their songs are nine minutes long. His tastes in local music are broad enough: Follow That Bird!, The Gary, YellowFever, Golden Boys, The Eastern Sea, Transmography, Ume are some of the current favorites he names, along with the late Single Frame.

La Snacks continue to play out as often as they can. "It's all about getting enough money to put out a record." They tour when they can, although it's a challenge. "If I go away three months on tour, there no job when I get back." They've built up a decent audience in Austin, although you get the feeling Robert is ready for bigger crowds. The hardest dancing man in the city should expect no less.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Power Paper and Poetry

First impressions count for a lot in music. Before I listened to the music of Bee Sting Sessions I had already formed an attachment to the band... thanks to the original, collectible, and personal packaging of their debut CD. With printed lyrics and simple but memorable art, the case instilled a curiosity in me about the band that their music went on to confound.

Singer and guitarist T Ellis: "We went and looked through a lot of different kinds of CD packaging. Bassist Phil: "We knew before we started we wanted more than a plain-jane jewel case." They ended up going with a recyled-paper design from Stumptown Printers, of Portland. They were "already cut but not put together," says T. "We started a mini-sweatshop with glue gun and parts." They've gotten amazing feedback from the elegant, DIY results. "It reminds fans of a record." As Phil says, "People nine times out of ten will put a CD on their computer and then throw away the jewelcase." Bee Sting Sessions appreciate both the environmental and the psychological impact of having their CD case be one of the 10% that listeners hang on to.

With T's controlled, jazz- and classical-influenced singing and minimal acoustic guitar and electric bass backing, that first CD kept things on the quiet side. The group's metal attitude only really showed through in the lyrics. As they expand into a full-band lineup with lead guitarist Sam and a pianist and drummer, they're balancing their natural inclination to get louder and heavier with the expectations of fans of the first recordings. Phil: "T brings an acoustic, open-mic feel; Sam & I bring faster, hard rock, intricate technical parts. She's silky... we're fetus." T says "Hopefully we can use those varying shades of gray to our advantage." Sam: "It's more like black and white, but we get colors to come out of it."

The very band name is meant to represent a larger idea than one set group playing music together. Phil and T began the band playing a lot of open mics and they appreciate those that promote "expression without limitations." Even as they begin to resemble more of a traditional rock band there's still an element of open-stage anarchy built in by design. "Anyone who plays with us at any time is part of the larger whole," Phil explains. "We're open to anything -- poets, other guitarists, a clarinet player. It's a musical collaborative."

The band may have its idealistic side, but they are learning about the realities of the business element to things as well. They're quick to warn young musicians about the exploitative nature of third-party, out-of-town bookers who require the "pre-sale" of tickets, a common pitfall for first bands all over nowadays. And like almost everyone in Austin they have their audition horror stories: A drummer showed up with a kick drum, a snare with no stand, and no sticks. A booker won't respond to T's e-mails after one health-enforced cancellation, but put her personal address on his band's mailing list without her permission. "If you don't know anything about business, have some common sense!"

Don't ask Bee Sting Sessions what they sound like. No one serious about music leads with that one! "'Where can I listen to your band?' is a better question," says Phil. "'It's nice to mush stuff together," T offers. "Art is not created in a vaccuum."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Extended Family

It's hard enough to keep three or four musicians adhering to one schedule. How does the name partner in Rich Restaino & The Obits deal with a roster double that size? There's no single secret to it. "It's pretty easy considering there are eight people," Rich says. "We're all around 33, none of encumbered by kids... [Drummer] Dave's wife is pregnant, it's going to be a test."

At full strength Rich & The Obits field two guitarists, drums, bass, keyboard, and a three-piece female trio of backing singers that's the secret to their sound. Just the band's lineup is ambitious but Restaino keeps low-key about the band that grew out of a desire to keep working on his songwriting after his old group The Late Fees called it quits. "I had really low expectations because I'm that kind of person," says the singer, who doubles as a schoolteacher when he's not leading a big band. "My uncle was in a band signed to Capitol in the 70's. He ended up being a mailman.... Now he's playing with buddies, writing again." This helps lend some perspective. Rich is realistic about his band but still speaks of role models like Bukowski who weren't able to fully realize their visions until later in life. He's modest to a point, but there's still something driving him to deal with the logistical hassles of that eight-piece lineup... he's still a musician at heart!

So how is it done? It takes the right kind of personalities, and the right level of experience, in the band. "So many of us have done music in many different ways," Rich says. Gratitude counts: "Show appreciation at every opportunity. 'It's so great that you still want to play with me!'" The band tries to be productive in smaller combinations, when necessary... so long as the drummer's available they'll "go with a quorum," and if no drummer, they'll do vocal rehearsal. And every member is encouraged to bring in their own song ideas.

After finishing their recently-released We're in This Thing Together Restaino figured no one would be up to that level of hassle again. Recording for the CD had to be done "piecemeal" and took seven months. But it only took a few weeks after its completion for band members to start asking about the next album. "Really?" says Rich, incredulous. "You want to do this again?"

New challenges await. "I still feel like I haven't made a record that's cohesive," says Rich. "I've gotten three or four songs in but get stuck." The band is moving from new wave towards soul, thanks to the 45's of Rich's friend and former bandmate. "Every good record that's come into my house came from him. His record collection is the ninth member of the band." Things in Austin didn't turn out exactly as planned: "I moved here because I wanted to be in Uncle Tupelo."

Being at the center of the hurricane for Rich Restaino & The Obits isn't a bad fallback option. One last shred of wisdom from the education world might apply: "As a teacher, always have a backup plan."

Rich & The Obits play this Saturday at Rockin' Tomato, with World Racketeering Squad... WRS's CD release show.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

It's All About the Parts

The first time I saw The Sour Notes their new bassist and keyboardist were only a couple of shows into their tenure in the band. I never would have guessed it if they hadn’t told me themselves. They’re a band with bright, basic melodies to spare, but structurally their tunes are sneaky-smart. They never seem to end up in the places you would expect, yet they make perfect sense. I’d liked their recordings very much but I was really impressed by how much more they brought to the songs as a live band, playing arrangements that alternately rocked up and stripped down the original versions. And with two-fifths new members! Obviously there was both exceptional talent and prodigious hard work in effect here.

Both begin with Sour Notes mastermind Jared Boulanger, a quietly driven music obsessive on a mission. He’s seen his project get stronger and stronger with every release despite a lineup that’s in flux by design. “Anyone who’s with me is with me,” Jared says. “I’m going to do this no matter what.” For those who join up, “it doesn’t have to be a lifelong choice.” Jared is the sort of writer who hears every part of the finished song in his head before presenting it to his bandmates, which is not uncommon among true pop craftsmen. What is unusual about the Sour Notes is that their leader has a rare sense of what matters and what doesn’t, allowing the rest of the group to contribute their own sounds and styles.

“The craft of songwriting is in the forefront,” Jared says. From the beginning, “I didn’t care if we sounded like a rock band or a pop band. I’m not going to try and direct it. It’s all about the parts.” This liberated attitude is the secret to the band’s surprising range and chemistry on stage. A tune that was mostly synths and loops on CD might be reimagined with accordion, cajon, and melodica. A delicate ballad could become a rocker, if that’s how the band is feeling it. Those unmistakable parts aren’t getting lost either way.

I’m talking to Jared the day after drum tracking began for what will be the fourth Sour Notes CD at SugarHill Studios in Houston. Although he’s on the record as saying their last release, It’s Not Going to Be Pretty, is the best thing he’ll ever do, Jared is eager to go in a completely opposite direction for the next one. “I don’t want to ever repeat myself, so I will not ever make another record like that.”

To be entitled Last Looks, the next Sour Notes release is all about turning points: “Before major changes in life you take a last look the life the way it is in the present.” Jared is teaching the songs to the band as they record them. He’s particularly excited to employ the vocal talents of keyboardist Kelly DeWitt, who judging by the live show has integrated into the band with alacrity. “It’s not important that I sing all the songs just because I wrote them!” Jared says.

The Sour Notes have a history of putting out records on New Year’s Eve, so there’s a good chance Last Looks will enter the world on the final day of 2010. Received in Bitterness came out on 12/31, and then the band began a tour on January 1st, as auspicious a time to set out as any. Rather than recognize the flip of a calendar page, Jared would just as soon “celebrate something I accomplished.” Touring has been a growth experience. “On the first tour, we were expecting people to show up just because we sent fliers to the venue. [In time] we saw how much work successful bands did.” There’s a huge amount of prep work involved with hitting the road, from finding the right local bands (“Appreciate those who try, because in a few weeks, I may need the same help”) to becoming a borderline nuisance to area media. “Create your own success! Nobody has time to pay attention to your little band. Unless....”

Playing good shows in our hometown can be tricky as well. “I feel like in Austin there’s less sense of community than there could be,” Jared reflects. “If you want to set up a show, there need to be more chances taken on bands that aren’t established.” One opinion we share is that bands and bookers alike could be more aware of Austin’s musical diversity. “Every show should have men & women represented,” and it’d be nice to see more of a balance between guitar rock bands and electronic or “other” acts, rather than drawing invisible lines and putting three similar-looking, identical-sounding acts on every bill. Asked to name his favorite other Austin bands, Jared’s eclecticism and fondness for female singers is reflected: White Dress, Ume, No Mas Bodas.

The Sour Notes have earned their fair share of accolades. They’ve made some good records, and with the current lineup they’re well on their way to being a great live band. They could afford to be aloof, to ignore the hundreds of bands in Austin envious of the success they’ve had. But they don’t choose to play it that way. I think that might be their secret weapon: as serious and driven as he is about his music, Jared is humble and easygoing. He’s genuinely grateful for every compliment paid him, never seeming as if he takes his band’s fans or positive reviews for granted. It seems like he’d be a pleasure to work with, and that’s true of too few songwriters in his class. As much as some musicians want to get totally lost in their own work to the exclusion of all else, it’s easy to forget that there’s so many potential allies in town fighting the same instinct. Other bands aren’t your competitors! Jared: “People who are like-minded or on the same paths of life will get along together.”

Many of the Sour Notes’ songs are inspired by old films. Here’s three of Jared Boulanger’s go-to classics:
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1966, Mike Nichols: “The feeling sticks with you a long time.”
  • A Woman Is a Woman, 1961, Jean-Luc Godard: “All Godard, really. The back and forth struggles.”
  • Winter Light, 1963, Ingmar Bergman: “Even if you’re not spiritual, dealing with the complications of belief.”

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Death, Life and Domestic Beer

Being in a "successful" band can mean a lot of things. If your goal is to write songs, play shows, and make records (and drink beer) with your friends, and you do those things, you've succeeded. A lot of acts with promise can't stay together and end up stalling after a couple of gigs because no one has agreed upon what they expect out of the band and how they are willing to work for it. The guys from The Gary have been in bands of varying degrees of professionalism their whole lives. Despite having no expectations for gaining local notoriety, getting press attention, and touring, all those things have taken care of themselves... because the band put making music that they were happy with first.

Let's go ahead and start with the Beauty Bar Incident, because that's when things seemed to really take off for The Gary. They booked a show at the notoriously band-unfriendly 7th Street venue that was a fiasco. The group that played before them was unprepared and took their sweet time setting up and breaking down. The men of The Gary, who have a bare minimum of equipment and well over 50 combined years experience playing in bands, readied to play quickly. While the soundman was still setting up, the bar's manager came scrambling over, concerned about making sure to get the live music over with promptly in time for the more profitable DJ. "You need to be playing right now."

They played for twenty minutes and change, then got to drinking. As they do. Guitarist Trey Pool waited the whole night to give the Beauty a piece of his mind. In the mad rush of tab closings at the evening's end, he missed his chance to do so in person. So he left a few choice words scrawled on a napkin. No one remembers exactly what it said, but it got them banned from the Beauty Bar for life. It also secured their legend. Singer/bassist Dave Norwood: "A story about the Incident ran in the Chronicle and lots of bands e-mailed and said, 'We hate the Beauty Bar too. Let's play together.'" There's even another Austin band named after this seminal moment in scene history -- Paper Threat.

It goes to show there's more than one way to secure notoriety in the "Live Music Capital," and that the best-laid plans of aggressively self-marketing musicians are sometimes no match for pure weird luck. Trey: "None of us moved here for music. We figured we wouldn't do much more than get together and practice." "I played with both Trey and Dave [separately] and never thought the two of them would go together," says drummer Paul Warner. "When we started playing we'd have five-hour practices and do three songs." "We do it for our amusement," says Dave. "The less I care, the more shit happens."

It's not that the band doesn't care about making good music. In fact, the more I talk to them the more I realize that's pretty much the only thing that motivates them. They write songs and make records as quickly as they possibly can. Their first EP Chub was done a bare three months after they formed in 2008, the full-length Logan followed hot on its heels, and there's another EP in the can (recorded at Electrical Audio in Chicago with Steve Albini). Like a lot of veteran musicians, they have long experience of working for months and years in bands and having little to show for it. "I spent so much of my twenties not doing the stuff I set out to do," Dave says. Older and wiser, thoughts of mortality and legacy inspire his lyrics and The Gary's working methods. They deliberately try and keep a fast pace -- "An LP and an EP a year, always something to be working on," according to Trey. Paul: "We book a studio date in advance and we're not always sure if we'll have enough songs."

"We learn to play the songs by recording them," says Trey. "When we get done and we hear it, then we know how to play the song. We didn't know what we sounded like until we did Chub."

Working with Albini suited their direct, set-up-and-play approach. The Gary stayed at the great man's place, where he has little bedrooms built for visiting bands, and befriended his cats. They shared his living room and kitchen. Apparently Albini drives a PT Cruiser! The engineer refused to offer any opinions of their music, viewing such as a conflict of interest, but they did get a nice compliment from Bob Weston, who saw them play at their show with Bottomless Pit. They're daydreaming about bringing Albini down to Texas to record a full-length at Willie Nelson's studios. "In three or four days we could do a full record," says Dave. "Maybe like two overdubs.... Forward, forward, forward!"

It's still a challenge being a working band in Austin. "Dealing with going downtown is hard," says Trey. "You're not going to be able to get within 6 blocks." Some of their best local shows have been at the Moose Lodge, which isn't booking weekends any more. They'd like to play more house parties, but as guys with jobs and families their exposure to other local bands is limited to those with whom they play shows. Some favorites are Hope 12, My Education, Many Birthdays, Baby Robots, Black Cock, Woodgrain. The Gary aren't close-minded, exactly, but they are more comfortable around bands with members who are roughly the same age. More important is that they be laid-back. "We can't be around bands that seem opportunistic," says Trey. Paul: "We're burned out on band agendas." Dave says, "I played in a band in '01 that was 'going for it.' It got gross and we completely lost track of what making music is about. I want music to be a cause, not an effect."

After I run out of questions The Gary stick around and hang out, because there's still a few beers left and they like my LP collection. Music fans for life, there's dozens of bands one or more of them got to see that I missed out on being slightly younger. We listen to records by Hot Snakes, GbV, Archers of Loaf. I play them Zorch and Dave digs them. I know that there are people all over the world who have this sort of lifelong close relationship with music, but in Austin it seems more a rule than an exception. "You absorb things all the time," Trey says. "I'm in my 40's and I'm still being influenced." Dave: "I avoided living here a long time. I wish I had moved here earlier."

The Gary play at Trailer Space on Saturday. For free!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Building a Scene One Stage Dive at a Time

I have been working for over a month on launching a print version of Big Western Flavor. It's my style to tell it like it is about bands good and bad, but I thought it'd be a little extreme to actually start a business geared around reprinting my insults for profit. So we tried to put together stories for the magazine in a different way. Each band I spoke to -- and I will be running interviews here on this page every day this week -- was one I felt that anyone trying to play original music in Austin could learn a few things from, regardless of age, style, or genre.

The kids literally climb the walls when For Hours and Ours play an all-ages show. High-energy, anthemic, and inclusive, the five-piece follows in the tradition of Cap’n Jazz, Fugazi, Rites of Spring -- those more focused post-hardcore bands that channeled the unstoppable force of early-80’s HC into more musically sophisticated and less lyrically nihilistic paths. There’s no separation between band and audience -- the stage is full of the guys’ closest friends and sweaty band members keep somehow finding their way out into the crowd.

“It helps to have good material,” says trumpet player Brendan, speaking to the hysteria. “But it also helps being really nice.” The precocious, approachable nature of Brendan and his bandmates has won them more than just a squadron of devoted followers with black X’s on their hands. Friend Mike King at Gound Records pressed their first 12” vinyl, On a Weekend. Their talent as musicians is clear enough from the record. But what really sets them apart is their commitment to ideals larger than the band itself.

“Without naming names,” Brendan says, “certain bands expect everything to be handed to them. So many bands are only concerned with their own success.... We’re trying to get a scene going, to build a community.” The band’s name elegantly encodes their ideology: they put a lot of time into their music, only one way they demonstrate how much every listener means to them. At a July show at the 21st Street Co-Op, the For Hours boys danced, hollered, and headbanged along to all of the opening bands. Their guests from New Jersey, introspective screamers Prawn, seemed to have become their best friends in the whole world over the course of three shows in Texas. They finished each other’s lyrics like married couples finish each other’s sentences.

Although they book partly through MySpace like most DIY touring bands, “there’s no substitute for hanging out in person.” The story of how they became BFF’s with Prawn reflects their institutional kindness. FHAO bassist/singer Henry filled in for Austin’s Pompeii on an East Coast tour, charmed Prawn in the Garden State, and made certain to take care of his new pals when they came on a reciprocal trip through Texas. “Bands can become self-absorbed,” says Brendan, “but we’re all in it together!”

To plan and promote a successful tour without the help of a booking agency is almost impossible without many bands working together. “We send fliers to the local Chronicle-type places, but the onus is on the [local] band that throws the show. We’ll do what we can if you’ll do what you can.” Sometimes it only takes a little push to get the ball rolling on a great out-of-town gig. “Kids hear about a show and there’s nothing else to do, so....” Thanks to a good attitude and good music, FHAO has had pretty good luck on its road trips so far. Except for West Virginia. They won’t be returning to coal country any time soon.

Back in Austin, it’s an uphill battle. As a band whose members just reached legal drinking age themselves, a lot of For Hours and Ours’ fans can’t get into the vast majority of smaller music venues in town. Brendan rolls his eyes. “The all-ages scene in Austin is atrocious. It’s the hardest thing to do [setting up shows for our fans] and their not having to pay exorbitant amounts.” He cites Emo’s, Red 7, and Trailer Space as bright spots. “It takes paying of dues. We’re just now getting to the point where we can book all-ages on Friday and Saturday night.”

There’s always the co-op, which isn’t the ideal place to play sound- or security-wise -- much of their July 17th show featured no guitars or bass, since the uncontrollable crowd kept trampling on their pedals -- but does suit their vibe perfectly, all boundless energy and youthful utopianism. After bringing the house down, Henry wanders out into the courtyard wearing nothing but boxer briefs, his glasses, and a glowing coat of shiny rock sweat.

@forhoursandours (3:58 AM Jul 18th) best show ever. period.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Local Recording News: September

As I have mentioned a few times, a business partner and I am working on putting together a print version of Big Western Flavor. We have big goals for the magazine, which is taking my high standards for Austin music further with interviews with some of the most original, imaginative bands in town. The idea is to get everybody making new music around here to work together more closely. A band doesn't have to be the exact same genre as yours in order for you to learn something valuable about how they create, promote, and market their music.

I've assembled a bunch of awesome content for the September issue, but it's a rough time to be selling ads. All next week I'm going to be running the stuff I worked on for the 'zine here on the site, so people can get an idea of what we're working on. I can be ridiculously harsh on bands I don't like, but with the magazine I'm trying to concentrate less on my opinions and more on what all struggling independent bands in Austin have in common.

One thing most local musicians are all dreaming about doing is putting out a record. I learned a lot just putting together a list of musicians working on new recordings in the last month. Here it is, and stay tuned for stories next week on The Gary, The Sour Notes, For Hours and Ours, Bee Sting Sessons, La Snacks, and more. Work for the October issue of the BWF 'zine, whether it ends up in print or not, officially begins right this minute. Bands, let me know if you have recording or tour news of your own.

STEREO IS A LIE just had their debut LP mixed by Chris Cline (Trail of Dead, Society of Rockets, Elephone). It's on its way to be mastered for a late October release. In the meantime the Brit-accented dreamgazers will keep busy with shows. They're appearing at the Texas Music Matters Fest and have slots opening for Sixteen Deluxe and Atari Teenage Riot.

Otherworldly synthesist Cosmic Jaguar is working on a compilation of similarly-minded experimental artists for the Violent Flame Records imprint. Also a Mayan shaman, musician Carlos Cedillo will launch a big promo blitz on whichever date the charts deem most auspicious. Makers of difficult but abstractly spiritual music who are interested in inclusion should check out Truth seekers can also view Cosmic Jaguar videos at

Classification-defying group marriage enthusiasts No Mas Bodas are tracking at Klearlight Studios with Jay Jernigan, who they first met in Dallas while playing with The Darktown Strutters. Like their debut Erotic Stories from the Space Capsule, this new EP will self-released "if nothing changes." Five songs are going down on tape: "Flesh," "Carousel," "Quicksand," "Jungle," and "Ocean." The plan is for a vinyl issue with a free download or CD included. No guests for basic tracking, "but you never know who might pop up on the overdubs."

Indie-jazz hybrid The J. Wesley Haynes Trio, with Wesley Haynes on Rhodes, Matthew Shepherd on drums, and Willy Jones on upright bass, just recorded a full-length reinterpretation of Radiohead's Kid A. Done live in a single take at East Austin's Hot Tracks!!!, Township Records is working on securing the rights for an official release. The trio will be performing the full piece at venues around Austin this fall.

Fresh off their epochal eighth-anniversary celebration at Mohawk The Midgetmen are putting the finishing touches on their fourth album. At 17 tracks it's a monster, and early reports have it that by their standards it's positively baroque. Backing vocals and everything. They started recording at Arlyn Studios in August of 2009, but have ended up doing the bulk of the work right at home. "Thanks to Rock N Roll Rentals and a MacBook Pro with Logic, we can basically record with professional mics whenever we feel like it," says bassist Marc Perlman. Epics take time, and the world may have to wait until The Midgetmen's ninth anniversary show next spring to sink their teeth into this one.

Geography have taken the recording of their first EP into the practice space as well, after some false starts. Guitarist Justin Granger reports, "We started recording this EP back in February 2010 in our bassist's garage, but the difficulties of DIY recording bogged us down." They spent some months searching for a studio, settled on one, but then... back to the garage. "After much discussion we decided to have another whack at doing it ourselves and this time around, it has been going much better." The self-titled EP will feature the songs "Golden Tremors," "Summertime Lovin," "In Our Town," "Boxes and Boxes," and "We All Get Along." It should be out by the time you read this!

Science fiction enthusiasts and rock animals, World Racketeering Squad drop What Is Nerdwave? on September 18th. Song topics include being a powerful human electromagnet and lusting after Summer Glau. Musicians should pay particular attention to the clever and enterprising way that the three-piece has made a variety of different pricing options available for their fans. You can buy just the CD itself for five bucks, but why would you when for only a pittance more you can upgrade to the Racketeer Glory Edition, the Limited Edition Ace Racketeer Edition, or even the hallowed Absolute Ultimate Racketeer Glory Edition? This last, in addition to the poster, bonus outtakes CD, and postcards available with some of the less ultimate versions, comes with added incentive still. Lay out for Ultimate Glory and WRS will write you your own song, on a topic of your choice!

Psychedelic-educated, music theory-damaged quartet The Fever Dreams are also preparing a new record that comes with some cool pre-sale options. Tracking for the Dreams' second full-length, with the working title Etymology, is being done at keyboardist/guitarist Harold King's Peach Tree Studios. October 31st is the planned release date, but check out before then. Pre-order customers will get access to a special, otherwise unavailable EP with "The Unsobered Tales of Nightwatchmen," a 30-minute studio improvisation. And that's not all: The Fever Dreams are also offering their most devoted fans handmade packaging, a full-sized poster, and a voucher for the full-length.

The hard-touring Achachay! will also do whatever it takes to make you buy their record. Handy Escape Coach, a five-song EP, comes with premium options including bonus live CD's, lawn-mowing, mixtape-making, and cooking services from band members, and even personal house shows. Also custom sunglasses. There's a lesson to be learned here. Bands: Don't beg for handouts! Sell your fans things they actually want. Even if what they want is for you to do their yard work in your underwear.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

March to Fuzz

She Sir, Ringo Deathstarr
Emo's, 9/4

Making yourself go see new music is a bit of a rhythm thing. Anna C. and I were pretty exhausted yesterday, and I don't think either one of us was really revved up to go to a show downtown. Somehow we went anyway. It's funny how these things work out -- we miraculously found a parking space about 7 blocks closer to Emo's than where we usually park when going to weekend Red River shows. And two bands for whom I didn't have particularly high expectations put on worthwhile shows.

She Sir has some burnishing left to do to make their live set equal to their ambitions, but even with mistakes you can hear elements in every song that show they are working hard on being original. Their principal lead singer has a tantalizing natural approach and the right sense of what notes to sing and when to place them to be heard clearly against the ringing, circling guitars. I could hear good ideas in their efforts at harmony but the parts seem works in progress. The instruments are tighter. Drummer David Nathan clearly divides one section from the last with good part choices. Guitarist Jeremy Cantrell plays hardly anything flashy but his figures are always clearly separate from the chiming quality of the bass and rhythm. Nathan and Cantrell's ability to accent in different places gives the band a more varied, warm quality than most of the Jesus and Mary Chain enthusiast groups in Austin.

Most of their songs do sort of follow the same template, but they kept giving me reasons to stay and watch the whole set. They rewarded my patience with a quiet, brooding number that replaced bass with shaker and had the guitars taking different roles. They are significantly tighter when the lead singer is not playing bass; he's not comfortable on the instrument yet and his tardy poking breaks the solid four-way communication She Sir has working when he's on guitar. Playing bass and singing is really hard.

Ringo Deathstarr are a band I'm glad I have a chance to write about because they do something unusual. I love to make broad generalizations and any guitarists who have talked to me at length know how much I dislike effects pedals. Most of the time, young guitar players use pedals as a substitute for coming up with distinctive parts. This is obvious when it happens and not a lot of fun to listen to. But there are exceptions to every rule. Ringo's Elliot Frazier is as effects-dependent as they come. Scales and arpeggios and syncopation aren't his style. But he uses effects really well; differently on each song and intelligently so that the rhythms created by the wave of the delay or flanger or phaser or whatever fits together in rhythm with the bass and drums. His playing isn't at all random and it's downright impressive how the trio can shift styles convincingly through slight changes in tempo and creative, practiced shifts in guitar sound.

The band benefits a lot from being able to switch back and forth from Frazier's lead vocals to Alex Gehring's. Neither is a real attention-getting singer but both are flattered by the way their dreamy, dazed approaches contrast each other. I also give Ringo Deathstarr a lot of credit for trying something really different in the middle of their set. Frazier turned his guitar volume down -- way down -- and played texture for a song that followed instead a simple loop played out of an iPod. Drummer Daniel Coborn did an admirable job of backing off and keeping the loop audible, and they did a haunting sort of Blonde Redhead number with effective chanteuse vocals from Gehring. When the drums suddenly swung back in mid-song to their usual powerful attack (BRMC, anybody?) it tied the departure back into the rest of the set. Very cool.

Ringo Deathstarr had another member until recently and is adjusting. Isn't it funny how many bands I see short a player that I end up really liking? Same thing happened with SuperLiteBike. I think it goes to show that coming up with the right parts for the instruments you have can be a quicker way of getting where you want to go than adding another musician. Losing a member and continuing to play shows often forces the musicians who remain in a band to reconsider how they approach the set. Can I play something differently? Can I make this part more exciting by waiting and coming in late, or moving it to a more unexpected place? When bands grow more creative through adversity you really learn a lot about their staying power, as a fan.

Anna C. did not care for She Sir. She has had her fill of four-guy guitar bands that sound sort of like Interpol. I try really hard to judge a band based on their own merits and not hold their entry into a locally-overexposed genre against them. In my opinion, She Sir might not have picked the most original combination of influences but they do a better job than many of taking their inspirations to cool places. I didn't think they were boring at all. Anna, not so much. She was more excited for Ringo Deathstarr, because she had seen them before and liked them. She was curious to hear my opinion, because by her own admission she wasn't sure whether she liked the band because they were good or because they had an integral female member, bassist/singer Gehring. Well, I think they're good too.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

News, Notes and Stray Opinions

I can be a bit of a straight-line thinker and I'm aware of it. I like routines, schedules, algorithms. I guess that this is an unusual personality type for a music writer, let alone a musician. Rock shows are unpredictable everywhere, but Austin gigs are particularly loose. Who knows if all the bands listed are going to show up? The cover can change between the time you leave your house and when you get to the door. And the next time I go to a show where the opening band really starts playing at the announced hour, it will be the first.

I try to cope as best I can, ill-suited as I am to making adjustments. Sometimes I forget that a blog is by definition informal and that "thinking out loud" is, in fact, encouraged. If I stay as busy I have been these past few weeks, I'm going to need to get used to the occasional unstructured, random, bullet-points blog post. And I am indeed busy, finishing up the first issue of the Big Western Flavor print 'zine (all-new interviews with The Gary, The Sour Notes, La Snacks, and more, out by the end of the month) and getting nearer than ever before to my long-held goal of being simultaneously in three gigging bands, playing guitar in one, drums in another, and bass in a third.

Quickly, then, some record notes and some stray show comments. A Giant Dog has a new 7" out; you can get it at Trailer Space and elsewhere. Anna and I love their shows and they have a sound particularly well-suited for 45's. Avant-rock supergroup Mostly Dead have a new full-length out. I'm still sorting out my own opinions of Don't Shoot the Messenger but I think this one of those bands that appeals especially to other musicians, with a finely-arranged and rococo blend of instruments. If you like loopy technical stuff, don't wait for my review, go check it out for yourself. Buzzy Spoon-benders TV Torso have their new EP Status Quo Vadis available for free download. I haven't been able to make it more than halfway through yet, but go see if you can do better. Also news: The local trio that used to be The Night are now trading under the name Day Vs. Night. Update your bookmarks.

Anna and I went to shows the last two weekends as we always do but nothing really caught our ears. We wanted to like Bike Problems because their lyrics are funny and their female drummer is excellent but the totally motionless, expression-free performance by their guitar player at Carousel Lounge really creeped us out. Saying that The No No No Hopes suck is sort of beside the point since (I think) they're trying to be a sucky punk band. As such they were unmemorable. I wasn't particularly affected by the choices for Matador's Casual Victim Pile compilation one way or another, but the more of the bands on the roster I see live, the more I side with the many, many local musicians who are angry about being excluded.

We caught Followed By Static at Trailer Space last Friday and were unmoved. Another group of yelling, droning dudes, with a keyboard player so sluggish they could replace him with a roll of tape. Their part-time cellist Randall Holt is more interesting, and substantially more melodic, by himself.

I'm speaking only for myself here, but School of Liars (Friday at The Parlor) are finally on to something. The first time I saw them they were an OK, but indistinct country-rock quartet. The second time they were a dissonant guitar trio and pretty far from OK. They have a more involved drummer now, and bassist Jeremy Holmsley is contributing as a second songwriter and lead singer. In short, they've gone from being a project to being a real band, and I'm happy for them. Not least mercurial leader Jon Keenan, who seems relieved to have such an enthusiastic rhythm section. School of Liars deserve some credit for hanging in there and working on developing their own sound. They're not world-beaters yet but they are entertaining and multi-dimensional, which you couldn't say about them before.

Anna C. didn't feel School of Liars had come as far as I did. Perhaps she was disturbed by the fact that they brought up a pretty lady to play tambourine on a couple of songs. As a feminist and a pretty badass guitar player, Anna really doesn't like it when guy bands use women as props. The full story: The girl in question is in the process of becoming School of Liars' full-time keyboard player but she doesn't have all her parts down yet. The guys brought her on stage at the show so she could feel involved and get used to performing. Good luck to her, but I hope they don't completely lose the element of Holmsley playing the keys with his right hand while tapping out basslines with his left. That is fun to watch!

It's a good week for free shows. In Austin, when is it not? The Eastern Sea is playing at the Cactus Cafe Thursday night. Then at Emo's on Saturday you've got a pretty sterling all-local lineup featuring She Sir, Ringo Deathstarr, and The White White Lights.

One of the things that keeps coming up in my conversations with local musicians is the subject of house shows. Where are they? Why is it so hard to put them on in Austin? Bands have a tendency to get into their own little cliques here. Musicians are seldom natural networkers. So if you live in a house where shows take place (or you would like them to), please let me know.