Thursday, October 28, 2010


Fur State
The Boxing Lesson

Best-laid plans, right? I wasn't planning on doing a writeup of the new release by The Boxing Lesson; I'm a bit snowed under with all of the Halloween and Fun Fun Fun Fest activity streaming to my inbox. It's not as if the band is unworthy of my attention, but unlike most other unsigned new music acts in Austin they have dedicated and professional management (The Loyalty Firm) and they're getting their fair share of coverage for Fur State.

But then I sat down and listened to the album! I haven't been much drawn in by the Boxing Lesson's more extroverted, vocal-driven songs. There's a lot of anonymous-sounding, producer-driven rock in Austin (and everywhere) and what I've heard of later Boxing Lesson releases doesn't do a ton to separate itself from Beautiful Supermachines, Baby Robots, TV Torso, or a kajillion others. The only thing that really stood out to me about them was a negative... annoying vocals. Fur State is a completely different animal. All-instrumental, it was recorded during the duo's first months in Austin with a cadged-together roster of equipment. It was recorded on and mastered to cassette tape, and has a warm running buzz that's only one of its atypical qualities.

If you've paged through a Demo Sweat column or two you may know that I have a built-up resistance to fiddly, ambient bedroom-type recordings. My usual response to music of this type is to feel that if the musician hardly expended any effort making it, why should I care listening to it? I like bands and arrangements and interaction between instruments, not layers and layers of repeating loops. Fur State dramatically improves on the clichés rampant in these sorts of projects. Other than the torpid "Six" each of these tracks is compelling and distinctive. The tunes develop, with certain instrumental tones being phased out and others taking their place. I didn't find my attention wavering at any moment listening to most of these pieces, which sound far more like finished songs than I was given to expect. There's a flat-out rocker in "Three," and the dance-inflected "Five," with its beautiful guitar tone, is reminiscent of The Sea and Cake at their lazy-Sunday best. In the context of all of the other highly engaging tracks, the spooky audio collage "Seven" strikes the ear just right even though it's essentially ten minutes of voicemail messages.

What really sets this album apart is how each number sounds like a performance. The guitar and keyboard parts consistently last for just the right amount of time, and they also have movement within themselves -- each figure doesn't sound spat out of a computer but rather played by a human. It's not just intriguing listening to how all of the lean melodies stack up over one another, but how tiny little embellishments are made within them. The compositions draw you in in a way most music of this sort never does, and that's no small accomplishment. I really feel like there's more to listen to and discover in these songs even after repeated spins. Fur State is so good that it makes me rethink my whole position on The Boxing Lesson -- obviously I need to go back and listen to their more recently recorded stuff more carefully. And with headphones on.

The Boxing Lesson are having a costume listening party for Fur State tonight at the Side Bar, including a sneak preview of their upcoming studio album Possibilities. Check it out, and perhaps pick up the ultra-limited edition version of Fur State that comes with a "herb" grinder. That's some apropos marketing!

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."

Monday, October 25, 2010

Anna C. Tells You How It Is

Literature, Party Photographers, Planets, Half Mile Fox Fur, Suede Uppers
Beerland, 10/24

The original plan for this review was that I would give my take and the multifaceted Anna Charlock hers for each band. The theme was going to be how everybody listens/looks for different things in their music. But she wrote her parts first and kind of nailed it. I'm glad to not have to write tonight because I have spent the whole day engaged in a crash course on all the out-of-town Fun Fun Fun Fest bands I know absolutely nothing about. I hope you enjoy Anna's guest piece and let's all pressure her to write about music more often, so perhaps she can also get into music festivals for free one day. One note on perspective: Although we both thought the Suede Uppers were dullsville, they had the biggest crowd by far. From the venue's point of view, they were the highlight of the evening. - WH

I came out with Westy to Beerland on Sunday night to fulfill my weekend jonesing for live music. Since it was an off night for the club, we got to see a relatively long roster of bands for the usual cheap cover charge. Bands hauled on and off the stage with admirable speed, setlists cut to a short-and-sweet half an hour. Other performers and their friends made up most of the audience. For most of the evening a small crowd of boozed-up twentysomethings clustered on the outdoor patio, many dressed in styles that were the height of fashion around the time that they were born: plaid shirts, high-top sneakers, miniskirts with tights, Doc Martens boots. I don’t really get why so many people at these shows think it’s cool to dress like it’s 1989. Perhaps because so much Austin music draws its inspiration from that era.

When we came in, Suede Uppers were going at it. The four-man group plays fairly cut-and-dried barroom rock, obviously inspired by early punk bands like the Dead Kennedys and the Descendants. Each pounding chord, guitar solo, floor-tom whack and shouted lyric is exactly where the listener expects it to be: lather, rinse, repeat. We left after hearing a few of their formulaic songs.

Half Mile Fox Fur were a bit more interesting. Their brand of sludgy, dissonant noise rock could get old very fast in the hands of less mindful musicians. However, these three dimunitive dudes arrange their tunes smartly. One of their most memorable songs begins with spare, quiet playing, builds up into a dragging three-chord drone, and dissipates into planned chaos before finishing with on the same quiet pattern as before. It’s jarring and atonal, but there’s a method to the madness. The drummer, bassist and singer/guitarist make the most of what they have by constructing parts to play off of one another. Although I like my rock a little more melodic and accesible, I stuck around to watch HMFF instead of leaving for the patio. I can tell they’ve got talent!

I was pretty excited to see Planets. When we heard the three-girl punk group play Beerland a month ago, their set was tight, energetic, and powerful. Singer/guitarist/band mastermind Debra had a talented drummer behind her, who made her songs really stand out. Their style draws from late-70's bands like the Ramones and the Buzzcocks, college rock like the Pixies, and the raw, spare energy of early 90's-era riot grrl. Unfortunately, the lineup changed: they now have a lead guitarist but no bass player, and a new drummer. Planets’ set on Sunday had the loose, amateur feel of a jam session. Debra’s songs wavered in coherence, the lead guitarist played distinctive riffs only on occasion, and the new drummer sounded lost as she pounded the same beat on every song. To their credit, the band seemed to be having a good time -- they bantered drunkenly between songs & made jokes to the audience. I heard some pretty cool guitar parts pop up amidst the floundering, too. Here’s hoping that Debra helps Planets grow into the new lineup, and finds another bassist.

The Party Photographers, of Philadelphia, drew me in with the presence of two women in the band -- their drummer, who plays standing up on a small 2-drum setup, and their adorable fedora-clad singer. At least their musical concept is unique. They combine repetitive, simple Mo Tucker drumbeats, a grinding, industrial bass guitar sound, and echoing vocals reminiscent of Donita Sparks of L7. However, there’s almost a total lack of arrangement. The guitar and bass power through with very minor changes in feel, playing a heavy-handed bar-chord/root-note formula that obliterates any distinction between songs. The Party Photographers could have a good thing going for them if they worked on varying the dynamics in their music. The guitarist and bassist need to learn how to better complement the spare drumbeats & vocal melodies, and they all could stand to move around more onstage! The singer had the aura of an embarassed karaoke performer, and the other three just looked bored. If they’d had a better stage presence I might have (partially) forgiven them their monotonous songs.

By the time Literature played, Beerland was pretty empty. The vanished crowd missed out on what was easily the night’s best act. The four guys play energetic, dancey pop-punk that calls to mind Devo, Television, or more recently the Strokes or Vampire Weekend. The lead-guitarist/singer provides tipsy, shouty vocals in the style that’s so popular nowadays. The rhythm and lead guitarists have mastered the art of trading off parts, the drummer plays super-fast disco-ish fills, and the bass player manages to hold the whole ruckus together. Also noteworthy are the lead guitarist’s stage moves, which rival those of my all-time favorite Carrie Brownstein. Periodically he tiptoes, jumps, pivots, and even does a Michael Jackson catwalk while playing crazy-fast licks. Literature are talented musicians. I am eager to hear more of these guys, and wouldn’t be surprised at all if they start playing bigger venues.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Demo Sweat #18

I'm shocked how many posts and days have gone by since last we visited the "no submissions rejected" wheeze; these things don't get any easier to write. It takes a lot of listening and a lot of note-taking. I've been doing Demo Sweat long enough now that people are writing and saying "You hated our old stuff, but now listen to our new stuff!" I'm glad of it. The hardest part of becoming a good band is staying together long enough to improve. I'll always give a second or third chance to a band if they ask for it. A lot of the time my first impressions are wrong. Not as often as they are right, but I form and express a lot of first impressions.

Let's begin with three artists from Demo Sweats past. I gave Jake Nishimura of The Nish Initiative a hard time about his vocals the first time I wrote about his project. I'm glad that he felt confident enough in his new recordings to write and ask me to listen again. He deserves some props for working hard on his singing because it sounds substantially better on this new batch of tunes. That's a big step, because whatever his good points as a songwriter were it was hard to listen past the blue notes before. Now that he's got better control of his voice, he needs to work on what he'd like to say with it... there's nothing that stands out in the hooks, lyrics, or sentiments of "Shaky Ground" or "Forgive Me." The melodies are pleasant, but the songs need a personality injection. Keep writing, and I'll keep listening. Disciples of Sound are mighty but empty, great vocals wasted on dull, riff-grinding writing. "Dirt Bed" is the same old one-rail 12-bar. Pass. The Daily Brothers deserve some props for sweet art and the ease with which they recreate sounds from classic records. But like their earlier single "Cocaine Blues," their full-length Hot Damn! finds me missing the point. The songs are constructed from bits of Motown and Phil Spector hits but the lyrics and vocals merely copy in the style... there's no sort of modern interpretation or personal bent to it, it's just retreads. Like The Ugly Beats and The Happen-Ins they need to find some way of reflecting that they are making 60's music in the 2010's. Otherwise it's just a revival.

Still Imagery by Landing Station isn't terrible for ambient guitar-and-drum rainfall rock, it's more like superfluous. I quite like the shifting modal patterns in "Sphinx" and the percussive guitar-effects approach on several less structured interludes, but a whole hour of this stuff is tedious. The trouble isn't that there is no audience for ambient guitar music in Austin. It's just that everybody who would potentially go see this sort of band is already in one (or more). If they aren't, they could be in one in ten minutes. Less if they're roommates with a drummer. I caught Distance Runner at a School of Liars house party and was impressed by their keyboard-driven post-emo style, although they could have used their five-instrument lineup more imaginatively. Their singer has a great voice and they have a good rhythm section. Their EP Scars Have Roots is better arranged than their live show, with a cool weird instrumental and pretty good lyrics. They should play in between SuperLiteBike and For Hours and Ours, since their style splits the difference between those two bands' sounds so evenly.

Fulton Read are an interesting case. They certainly have their good elements and their bad ones. They have a tendency towards aggressive over-marketing, which I suppose is how young bands nowadays prove they're serious but rubs me -- and frequently, my Internet browser -- the wrong way. Local bands that are trying to promote themselves as international acts often give me the impression that they don't value their roles as ambassadors for the Austin scene. Although the sell-sell-SELL message didn't put them in the most flattering light, there are a lot of things about their music I like. Their hybridization of current radio pop-punk, beach-hatted white boy funk, and classic rock orchestration could be forced and terrible in the wrong hands, but it's pretty loose and creative for mass-appeal rock. The songs and Anthony Erickson's gee-whiz vocals are relentlessly positive and upbeat, but not in a monochromatic Radio Disney way. If "A Better Way" were played on Top 40 radio, I wouldn't change the station. Real musicianship and canny, trend-spotting songwriting carry the day here. Beatle-isms share space with little computerized blips; 70's rock guitar solos drop in for a middle eight. I kind of like it despite myself.

You know who's also good is this Shmu guy who plays drums in Zorch. If Shmu's solo joint Discipline/Communication is to be taken as evidence Sam Chown is all of these things: a disco star in Canada, a frustrated guitar rock fan, at least six people in two different bands at the same time, too much musician for one paragraph in an Austin locals column to handle. Discipline has some giddy highs, particular in its dance-crazy opening quarter. "Impressions" and "House of Stares" are hot and cold club jams respectively and "Directions" a chill-room mash-up of Tortoise and Radiohead licks with singing jazz bass. But it gets disappointing ("Dangerous Passion" and "Open Your Eyes" are just straight-up boring rock songs) and repeatedly, super weird. "Fester" sounds like two bands playing the same song at the same time, neither well, and one twice as fast as the other. It's more interesting to describe than listen to. I really like Shmu's singing voice and some of the wordplay in the lyrics, but especially compared to Zorch this music seems formal, restrained in a way, and way more serious than the Sam I know. The gags are all in the transitions; he does one pose at a time rather than just heaping on a million ideas at once. And where are the lyrics about the trilateral lizard-government-space alien conspiracy?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Stone Alone

Andrew Stone
The Parlor North Loop, 10/14

I have an epic new Demo Sweat almost ready to enter the world, but I wanted to take a moment to dedicate a full entry to local guitarist/songwriter Andrew Stone, who I saw almost a week ago at the Parlor. I much prefer bands to solo guitar slingers, but this fellow is a rare case. Short of the brilliant Nathan Payne I have yet to see a one-man show in Austin as compelling.

Many of the musicians I go to see don't move at all when they are performing. That's no fun. More self-aware ones make a point of observing the audience and reacting, deliberately moving around even though it's not quite natural because that's what crowds expect. But the best kind of musical performers move without self-consciousness. They close their eyes, shake their hair, and jump about on stage because they have to do so, because there's something inside of them they can hardly control and they can't imagine playing music without stalking the floor like a savage beast. Andrew Stone plays like that. He has a magnetism that doesn't translate to MySpace clips, and for that reason alone I suggest you go see him live. He also plays guitar like a madman and howls off of the mic like wolves are after him. It's hard to take your eyes off of the man while he's playing, and that sets him apart.

I first encountered Stone in a column a couple weeks ago, and what I had to say about his recordings still holds up... as talented as he is on guitar, he could stand to work on his vocal technique and his songwriting. He's a very capable player and I would like to see the same sophistication his guitar parts evidence reflected in his arrangements and his vocal melodies. His dynamics playing live really leap out as compared to the demos; a lot of the finer elements of his guitar tone get lost in translation. He sounded great playing a new Telecaster at the Parlor, with the blues elements of his picking and chord choices contrasting, very originally, with a sort of modern rock amplifier tone. By varying his attack on guitar and picking his spots to stomp a tambourine on the floor, he brought a very full and varied sound to the stereotypical singer/guitarist setup.

Like all great guitarists, I think he would benefit from the rhythmic discipline a solid drum and bass backing would lend -- his performances tend to speed up and slow down as the excitement level rises and falls. But, wow, is it fun to just to watch him play -- one minute he's bombing slide runs like Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin III and then he's doing a chiming Minus the Bear finger-tapping figure. His songs could have some more shape and less repetition to them but it's hard to knock them when the individual parts sound so good. His vocals are passionate, and he has good natural talent, but he does need to practice hitting everything in key -- his guitar chops outstrip his singing skills at this point.

There are a lot of blues-inspired songwriters in Austin who aren't worth your time. Some may be further along the path to becoming polished songwriters than Andrew Stone, but none that I know of have the assets he does -- an arrestingly original, signature instrumental approach and a clear passion and confidence when performing. His songs sound sharper now than they do when he recorded them, and surrounded as he is in Austin by so much talented competition he can only stand to improve. Get into this elevator on the ground floor, music fans.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Foundation and Empire

I'm staring here at five full college-ruled pages of notes from my conversation with Soundfounder, familiarly Andrew Brown, and wondering where the hell to begin. Before I get swept away perhaps it's best that I mention that Exploded Drawing 2 takes place this Friday, 10/15 at East Austin's Baby Blue Studios. This concert series cultivated by Soundfounder and fellow Austin musician Butcher Bear seeks to give original Texas electronic music its own stage. Six producers get twenty minutes apiece to present their own compositions. This week's installment will feature Multi-Tracker, Empireal Formula, Aaron Peña, Atarimatt, NickNack, and Chili.

Andrew's a serious guy who looks at things from a lot of angles. I usually have trouble maintaining eye contact with people I don't know well but after five minutes chatting  in Soundfounder's LP-filled walk-up I forget I am self-conscious. As much as I enjoy talking about music with people whose taste and views are similar to my own, I learn the most from musicians with a different approach. As a solo composer and member of the band Focus Group, Andrew's instrument is the MPC, an unassuming industrial-looking grey slab that resembles a pumped-up Speak and Spell but provides the basic sampling and looping tools to make any kind of music imaginable. The most famous MPC users are hip-hop producers, like the venerated J. Dilla, but the machine isn't any more married to a genre than a guitar or a piano. What music comes out of it is all up to what the user chooses to load into it, and how he stacks and orders his layers of found sounds.

I first wanted to talk to Soundfounder after seeing him play a low-key set in a backyard, noticing he took time between songs to explain just what it was he was doing. Musicians don't have to be open books about their creative process, but those that are make for better interviews! "People have a smoke and mirrors vibe in electronic," Andrew says. "They say 'I like that person,' but, well, what does he do? There's a lot of different things that come in. 'A DJ' has become a catch-all term." Electronic musicians can work strictly with turntables, with keyboards and triggers, with a laptop, with MPC's, or any combination of the above -- there's no right or wrong way to do it. Held in an intimate studio instead of a club, Exploded Drawing is designed to bring some more transparency to the process.

Andrew brings a bit of a rock and roll attitude to his sets. "I like to talk to the crowd, even when I do big shows... I got that from playing with Focus Group. When we started we had no mics set up to talk to the audience. The human element can be lost. I like to incorporate things I've seen songwriters do. Let people know that you are making music you are passionate about, that you're not just part of a huge blinking machine."

What fascinates me about musicians who work with samples, as opposed to twanging a guitar string or smacking a drum head, is how every piece of music they ever listen to could possibly contain elements of their next work. I could listen to Andrew talk about this all day. "I've been developing my ear for 10 years," he says, beginning as a hip-hop producer in high school in San Antonio. As a result he doesn't take in a new record in quite the same way as most listeners. "I am always listening for drums. Beginning, middle, end, or in a breakdown... final, full drums that you can move around." Picking a snatch of sound that you like is only the beginning. You can take a whole figure and loop it. You can "take tiny random chunks and see how they fit together." Or you can take just a little piece out of a well-known song and see what happens, see what new rhythms are created by the edit. "Lately, the stuff I call my own is less recognizable chunks, more stuff I have manipulated."

He was drafted into the category-defying Focus Group by his high school chum Donald Gallaspy, who moved to Austin before Andrew did and met the other band members at St. Edward's. The nascent Group had been experimenting with playing their more traditional band instruments along to sampled rhythms. Donald told Andrew it worked well, and Andrew said "If you like drum loops, let's play around." Andrew has a clear idea when he is working on tracks of what stuff will go towards his solo project and which pieces he will take to the band. "I know the kinds of things that Focus Group needs from me, for the most part. Sometimes solo stuff ends up working well with the band." Interestingly, the combination works even though Soundfounder doesn't have the same grasp of music theory that the guitarists and keyboard players have. "I do everything by ear, they know scales." When he cues up a tone that clashes with the sound of the other instruments, it has to be manipulated into pitch. As a trippy instrumental act, it might surprise a few Focus Group fans that there's not much improvisation involved in live shows. "We do our improv during the songwriting process. By the time it hits the stage we stick to what works."

"Electronic music is limitless. Once you have the laptop or sampler, the only thing that limits you is memory." All you have to work with is "anything the human ear can hear." Given that, how do you know when anything is done? While a lot of his job is collecting sounds, at a certain point Andrew has to sit down and shape what he's got into finished pieces. "I go through phases where I'm working on music a lot. I'm pretty close to finishing a new Soundfounder record. Time to go back and polish stuff I have and make it presentable." He's been recording his new material live to analog tape, which is something that might surprise a lot of electronica fans but makes perfect sense to me. In addition to modern acts such as Boards of Canada and Flying Lotus, Andrew finds a lot of inspiration in 70's rock... Randy Newman, the Kinks, Harry Nilsson. "That's why I had to record to tape!"

As a rock musician I spend a lot of time debating how much computer post-production is too much. The technology exists nowadays to clean up tracks and snap beats to grids so perfectly that even hard rock and country bands on the radio sound automated. Speaking to Soundfounder I learn that it's something electronic artists consider as well. "Perfection is attainable -- perfect time-wise, melody-wise, clean... if you want." But as he's gotten more experienced his attitude towards this has changed. "Things I would have considered horrible mistakes earlier" he now keeps, "allowing chaos to play a role." Listeners expect perfection, so Andrew tries to do the opposite of what's expected. That's an impulse to which any artist can relate!

When he first came to Austin, Andrew did DJ gigs, but what he wanted most was to play shows, original music for a crowd that's there to listen as opposed to dance. "That's one reason I took Focus Group seriously." That's also why he's working on making Exploded Drawing a scene fixture, since it's tricky for electronic producers to book rock and roll-style shows. It's puzzling being a musician doing anything outside the lines around here -- it's not that audiences don't exist, it's just that local venues, press, and promoters can be disinterested in the extra work it takes to mobilize potential fans of what's new and different. Musicians have to take the initiative. Soundfounder and Butcher Bear ("my ideal partner in crime") are trying to increase exposure for like-minded artists all over Texas. They know the interest is there. "After my opening sets for Take and Nosaj Thing, I let people know I was starting [Exploded Drawing] and got two pages of e-mail addresses," Andrew says.

So what can you expect Friday? "We could fill up the roster with just our homies, but to keep it interesting and fresh we must mix in people we don't know. 2 of the 6 at this next one I don't know." They will try to keep it diverse. "A good mix of pros and complete weirdos. Not all inbred, not all digital or all analog." If you are a producer who wishes to be considered for future Exploded Drawing shows, write and let them know where they can hear your music. "I love it when people send me links!" says Andrew. And remember, "we want pros and inspired amateurs." Some performers are well-established Austin DJ's with polished sets. Some are venturing out of the bedroom for the first time! Should be good.

Bottom line? "I'm part of a community I'm trying to build," says Andrew. "Austin has fertile soil to create a scene for these kind of performances." By using his talent and connections to build opportunities for other producers in the same boat, Soundfounder's personal gravity is rising the tide. Local rockers take note.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Millions Can't Be Wrong

"It's funny what kinds of people dance," Freshmillions bassist/programmer/funkiness collector Geoff Earle muses. "Jadedness is kind of the enemy here. Humans who have a lack of pretension will dance." Earle, guitarist/keyboardist Cody Skinner, and drummer Dan Skarbek don't seem all that self-conscious themselves. They've been known to take the stage in bathrobes or tracksuits, and their music exists in that postmodern space where there's no rules about where sounds originate. Live instruments, loops, and samples of all sorts of provenance are fair game, and the only objective is that people listening get moving to it, beginning with the three guys on stage.

Although the Freshmillions machine hums along so nicely now it's hard to believe they didn't have everything worked out from the beginning, Cody says there was "zero, zero orchestration." Rather the band in its present form grew out a five-year search by Geoff to find the right outlet for his beatmaking abilities. When he was 22 a college buddy who lucked into a job with Columbia Records offered him the chance to work with a big library of pre-cleared samples. The results were encouraging, with Geoff's work getting serious consideration for use by big-time artists. Although none of his efforts ended up Top 40 smashes, the confidence boost was enough: "I made a lot more beats!"

Upon settling in Austin, Geoff began to transition from producer to bandleader. Freshmillions didn't find a stable lineup immediately. At one point they had a vibes player; Bryan and Trivett of The Sword passed through for two shows. Geoff grew up with Cody, who moved to Austin from Denton in July of '09. He knew Dan from music business school in New Orleans; when his name showed up on a Freshmillions guestlist, Geoff and Cody immediately started thinking about drafting him into the band. They got their man. "Now I'm playing with dudes who are better at their instruments than I am," says Geoff. "I think that's why the band's taken off this year!"

To the casual observer, the completed lineup is a guitar-bass-drums power trio. But their sound, and their process, are more complex. "I'll make a beat and bring it to the table," says Geoff. "That's how the project started." A number of the songs on their stellar debut -- "Million Dollar Bill Pt. 1," "Monty," "Forever" -- he completed writing himself around his initial sampling. Now that Cody and Dan are on board, Freshmillions work together to build instrumental parts around Geoff's tracks. "He's going to bring in a snippet, or maybe multiple snippets," says Cody.

There's no doubt about the extra power the live drums and guitar bring. "You want the full palette of sounds available to you," Cody says. "People never get tired of seeing people play music -- it's a different energy." Freshmillions had to figure out that they were a rock band to find the audiences most receptive to their grooves. Cody: "We played a lot of shows with dance groups and electronic bands and people didn't dance!"

Cody and Geoff's list of favorite Austin bands cross the divide between rock and "other," and many are trying like Freshmillions to straddle both. Neiliyo, Butcher Bear & Charlie, Fingaar Bangaar, Focus Group, Zlam Dunk, Woodgrain, Spells, and Sip Sip are all mentioned. "Zorch is top of the list," Cody says (and I tend to agree). As for favorite venues, they're one of the first bands I've spoken to with nothing but nice things to say about the Beauty Bar. "You would never expect it," but according to these gentlemen the bartenders and the staff in general at the often-maligned 7th Street disco have never been anything but nice to them. "The 21st Street Co-Op show was the most fun we've ever had on stage," says Cody -- glad I caught that gig! They're also looking forward to playing Scoot Inn again.

Next steps? For now, the plan is weekend shows in as many southern towns as possible. "I wonder if we would do well in Europe," Geoff asks. "Guess we got to book Europe and see what happens," Cody responds.

I catch a ride with the guys to their show at the Beauty Bar, and while we're chatting on the way I learn a few more interesting things about Freshmillions. They can't drink or do anything else mind-altering before they play, because keeping time with the loops and samples requires their full unadulterated attention. This is particularly challenging when the opening bands are bad! Another thing I didn't know about is how fully their electronic equipment is integrated with their guitars. Commands from the computer over by Geoff go through MIDI cables and operate Cody's guitar effects. If either musician needs their hands free to play a keyboard part, the computer tells their pedals when to loop a bass or guitar part and for how long. If there's delay or something else that needs to be timed to the music, the computer sends the necessary information to the effect. Freshmillions may seem like goofy, fun-loving guys -- and they are -- but when it comes to their music they're all business, and they know the technology front to back.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Ditch the Fest Fest
Cheer Up Charlie's, 10/9

It's been almost exactly a year since Anna C. and I left Boulder, Colorado to move to Austin. I remember, because it's now the second October in a row that I've been disgusted by the degree to which corporate entities control the agendas of music fans in the "live music capital." Austin's reputation among outsiders does not line up with the reality. We're supposed to have the most discerning, open-minded music fans anywhere, respecting tradition but not bound to it, eager for new sounds, driven to be the first and not the last on a rising new act's bandwagon. Fans like myself and Anna. Unfortunately, the town's receptivity to music is being manipulated by entities that do not have the advancement of art and culture first and foremost in their minds. For an unwitting Austin music fan, the concert calendar is a constant stream of "must-see" imports, attached to steep ticket prices and promoted unceasingly by a crappy, slothful local press who are complicit in the booking agencies' scheme to suck in every last dollar of disposable hipster income.

If you're just a tool with a trust fund, it doesn't matter to me if you want to spend forty-five bucks on Strokes tickets... knock yourself out. But what really bothers me about Austin's cozy hype industry is the way that it sucks in local musicians. A lot of people move here intending very seriously to give making music their lives a shot. The less self-aware ones get stuck on the merry-go-round. They have to go to the Pixies show. They have to buy a three-day pass to the festival. They have to spend a month's salary to get the shiniest plutonium wristband (or whatever the hell) in March.

As a class musicians tend to have inflated opinions of their own importance and a deep-seated need for approval. All they see talked about in the local press is the big-time shows, so they get brainwashed along with everybody else into thinking that there's no other game in town. They don't see any point in going to see other local bands. They feel the only path to success for their own projects is getting written about by some blog in Brooklyn and ignore promoting to local fans and working together with other bands in the same community. They post lists of all the out-of-town buzz bands they hope to open for to Craigslist, ignoring the fact that the majority of big shows shut out local bands entirely.

Explain to me how else some 40 of Austin's finest acts were free this Saturday for Ditch the Fest Fest. We weren't able to stay at Cheer Up Charlie's for the entire day, but in about three hours' time we saw an impressive variety of music, from Pataphysics' comedy garage to Missions' Euro-tastic vintage electro bleeping. Megafauna brought blistering solos, Agent Ribbons whispered spooky poetry, and Hatchet Wound just rode an ugly, screaming, noise-bass groove until it somehow turned pretty. As we walked in A Giant Dog's Sabrina was out-howling the entire Happen-Ins. Everywhere we looked, there was someone cool we had met before during our yearlong immersion in Austin music -- Zorch's producer Evan, the Sour Notes' bassist Amarah, KVRX folks, local writer and impresario DIY Danna. And also there was a guy dressed as a pirate.

My point is, if you want to be a bigger part of the Austin music scene (whether you're a musician, writer, filmmaker, promoter, or all of the above), you need to put yourself in places where fans and supporters of local music are going to be. Judging by the all the idiots with out-of-state license plates driving the wrong way on South Lamar last night as we were coming home from another awesome free show at the Rockin' Tomato, those folks weren't at Zilker Park this weekend.

Let me a take a moment to recognize the band Red Leaves. I've written about them pretty harshly in the past. We saw them at the first show we ever went to at Beerland last fall and they sucked. We encountered them a few times after that and they quickly became a band that we would avoid at all costs. At the time they seemed more conscious of image than musical coherence, with their guitarist, bassist, and drummer all grinding away oblivious to one another and their token female member plunking away ridiculously late on guitar or bass. To Anna they became the go-to example of a local band where a woman was used as a prop to increase visibility rather than a creatively engaged member. Well, we saw them yesterday and although it was the same lineup and same setup, we have to change our attitude now. They killed it. The bass and drums were far more involved in developing the songs, those late guitar and bass parts are right on time now, and since they've gotten their musical issues in line the thing that always made them appealing, really melodic male and female vocals and even harmonies, pop out in a brand new way. The boy singer could stand to quit imitating Thurston Moore's vocal mannerisms so closely, but they have gone from unwatchable to maybe the best band we saw yesterday. In the nick of time, too, because with the proliferation of local No Wave bands in the wake of Casual Victim Pile, there's a need for a band like this that has the ability to bring real songwriting to the table. There's another lesson in there somewhere. Keep playing!

Quickly: The Happen-Ins are great dressers, but they really need to find some sort of modern twist to their Stones-Band-Dylan 70's rock sound, because they bring nothing new to the table and it's obvious to a lot more people than just me.... Missions have a little bit of that static science-class feeling a lot of all-electronic acts have as a live band, but their songs progress and are distinguishable from one another. Pretty sure one of their members is also in Love at 20, only she actually showed a pulse and some personality playing with this band. Hatchet Wound remind me of PiL, and their super-basic bass and drums setup works well for what it does. I suspect though that if one of the two of them weren't female, they would have trouble booking shows with this stripped-down and repetitive a style. Lead guitar would be nice. Agent Ribbons are new to Austin but arrived with a ton of hype. I can see why people praise their songs, which are warped and twisted while still having really simple rockabilly underpinnings. They play very quietly, which is nice because their lyrics are great and you can hear them clearly. Still, I think they'd benefit as a live band if their drummer would go ahead and hit the drums like they're not going to hit back.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Fighting for Life

Don't Shoot the Messenger
Mostly Dead

Usually I listen to a disc about three times front to back for a review. This doesn't prevent me from writing things I will change my mind about later, but it seems to be the fairest method. There are exceptions. A lot of droning home-recorded "experimental" music doesn't need me to sit through it more than once to reach a conclusion. And some songwriting identifies itself immediately as incompetent and/or plagiarized. All art is not created equal. I make no effort to treat musicians who are terrible equally to ones who are clearly talented, and neither should you. If your friends' band sucks and you know it does, you're not doing them any favors blowing smoke.

Employing seven band members and a long roster of guests, all working through parts intensely composed by Mostly Dead leader Andrew Nolte, Don't Shoot the Messenger is impenetrable on first, second, and even third approach. It's quite obviously the work of musicians who have mastered their art, as the constant bone-jarring meter shifts and smarty-pants vocal and instrumental harmonies will regularly remind you. Their combination of music-major chops and rambling hippie idealism doesn't leave you any really obvious comparisons. The only band I can think of with a similar hybrid of Danny Elfman and Tom Waits is Colorado's similarly inaccessible Orphaned Gears, a band whose ambition I admired -- and whose exhausting song lengths and triple-stuffed arrangements left me grasping for excuses to not have to listen to them.

Don't Shoot the Messenger is honest about the amount of work it's going to require from the listener, beginning as it does with tracks like "Fallen Out" that force all of Mostly Dead's details into short, tense songs. "Expect the Unexpected," with its rushing chant of "it could happen to you" at the climax, illustrates well how Nolte's compositions divide out accessible, rhythmically square parts with unsettling sections. Violin and horns interject in weird spaces, and abrasive guitar effects add to the feeling of displacement. Only towards the end of Messenger's running order do songs like the salsa "Hypnosis & Patches" and the beatnik swing "How Can You Know?" let the band stretch out in a more traditional way. Mostly Dead throw so much at the ear right out of the gate, it's possible to overlook how many really immediate elements there are to the album -- the string quartet that opens "Goodbye, Blue Planet," the jazzy fingersnaps and operatic female vocals of "Spoonful of Spin," big gang choruses on many tracks.

Although it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, Don't Shoot the Messenger strikes me as the definition of an artistically successful record. Why makes me say that? There's a method to Nolte's madness. If the music seeks to constantly keep the listener from getting comfortable, the lyrics answer the obvious question as to why the musicians want to elicit that reaction. At first the idealism of these broadsides, which use "you" and "we" pronouns just as often as "I" and "me," might be distasteful to more cynical listeners. I don't like so much to be lectured by my record albums. But if the big question over music and art in general is, "What's the point?", I don't have to ask myself why Mostly Dead sound the way they do. This is difficult, personal music crafted with a message in mind. As a critic, whether I agree with the message or not isn't at issue.

Don't Shoot the Messenger does a really fine job of creating an atmosphere that suits the lyrics. Mostly Dead are passionate about the state of our environment, culture, and relationships. Someone interpreting their music incompletely might see them as relentlessly negative, but they are conscientious about discussing solutions. In the same way they construct difficult songs but leave care to bring in anthemic, simpler sections when they are needed, Nolte isn't monochromatic with his lyrics. At points he can sound like he's issuing a laundry list of complaints, but he finds ways to mix it up. One is using sweeter vocals from bassist Mo Born and guest female singers to contrast his own raspy, hectoring tone. The instrumental arrangements often bring in a humor and lightness that the lyrics lack. Who can be unhappy listening to slide whistle, or a good sheepish melodica solo?

This was a big project. It sounds like one! A lot of very talented players worked hard to put this thing together. That's why it would be a shame if Mostly Dead did nothing for the whole length of Don't Shoot the Messenger besides announce how screwed the human race is. Thankfully, they are not entirely about listing problems without offering solutions. The chorus from "Serpents & Doves" illustrates their balance between hyperbole and twisted optimism best: "Unbearable sorrow and perpetual pain/In the darkest of hours on the blackest of days/I can still hear music."

P.S. Don't Shoot the Messenger on CD ends with an amazing 25-minute composition, "The Pledge of Unification Vol. 1," that's like a whole second Mostly Dead record unto itself... it has elements from the 10 songs that precede it, plus solo sections for all the instruments, plus a lot more lyrics (including some overdue discussion of what can be accomplished through music as opposed to complaining). It's a great introduction to their world but I feel like it should be treated as a separate piece. Coming at the end of a pretty weighty full-length, as it does, it seems like overkill, but if you sit down and listen to it by itself I think it's the most suitably overblown thing they've yet done.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Nerds Inherit the Earth

A question that I ask myself a lot while absorbing new music (and discussed at length in the most recent Demo Sweat) is whether the subject matter will interest anyone beyond the songwriter's immediate circle of intimates. As a prose writer who has written more than his fair share of lyrics it is always surprising to me how little self-awareness a lot of lyricists exhibit. If you're going to write about how much you love your girl, or how pretty the mountains are, it's going to be an uphill battle separating yourself from the untold millions of verses written on the very same topics. Then there are the many writers who don't have subjects for their songs at all. Coherent, structured songwriting, where the verses tell stories that set up a big payoff in the chorus (if you don't know what I mean by this, go buy several XTC records and study up) isn't a prerequisite for masterful pop songs. Beck and Dylan prove otherwise. But, if you've been writing songs for a while now, and are having trouble convincing people that they are as good as you think they are, you might be able to learn a thing or two from World Racketeering Squad.

With all due respect to drummer Bruce Chandler and his notable knack for high harmonies, the engine that makes WRS go is the partnership (and friendship) between bassist/singer Reed Oliver and guitarist/leader Isaac Priestley. The duo has a particular kind of relationship to which I can relate -- they're not all that alike, they have violent differences of opinion on nearly everything they hold dear from music to film, but they're both weird dudes and weird dudes have to stick together, even if they're not offbeat in precisely the same manner. Isaac lived in New York for years and recorded by himself with a four-track, but never found much of an audience without a band. Reed had never written a song or played bass before Isaac moved back to Austin and dragged his old friend half-accidentally into beginning World Racketeering Squad. Reed's natural gift for lyrics ("Sometimes," Isaac says, "it feels like Reed is writing just what I want to write") and theater-honed sense of showmanship complement Isaac's rock-nerd attention to arrangement details and drive to get the most out of his music. Reed and Isaac's differing values make for songs, recordings, and shows that are far better than either would be able to do on their own.

"Every relationship has tension," says Isaac. "We had to put aside the idealistic notion of a beautiful partnership where everything works." Reed has no illusions about getting Isaac to agree with his every whim, but even when he can't get his way he makes sure the band knows how he feels. "I'm going to hammer at this until I'm sure that you know what I'm saying!" For these two stubborn, highly intelligent individuals to maintain a collaboration, it's obvious that the end results must be worth all of the bickering. "If we didn't fight about stuff, it wouldn't be as good," Reed says.

But why do their differences lead to stronger songs? It's because their separate goals, as strongly as they might feel about them, aren't mutually exclusive. "When I write a song I'm nervous when I play it for Isaac," Reed says. "He's the arranger, he can see what can be done with it. My songwriting has been honed by his feedback. I have higher standards because I'm bringing songs to him." Lyrics are preeminent in Reed's writing process. "I get in my head, do it over and over, then sit down and type out the whole song. Only then do I pick up the bass." By contrast Isaac writes music more closely and leaves his lyrical notions more open-ended. Based on a single verse or even just a couple of words, Reed finishes Isaac's initial ideas. "He's good at fitting things into a scheme," says Isaac. Because of their different approaches, they're well-suited to turning one another's blind spots and weak points into strengths.

This extends to World Racketeering Squad's live shows, which have grown by leaps and bounds since they began hitting open mic nights as a duo. "When we started we had zero stage presence," Reed says. Isaac: "We have different goals for what we want the audience to experience." It took them months of playing together before they were able to balance Isaac's drive to rock ("This is a live show, no one's listening to the words") against Reed's concern that the lyrics be audible ("To me, the lyrics are always important"). Again, the path of compromise led to them becoming a better band. Gradually they learned to structure their setlists such that moments when the music takes control are balanced by points where the band backs off and lets the singer be heard. This makes for a more exciting show for the audience, and lets them appeal to different kinds of listeners in turn. "It gives us places to go in a live show," says Isaac.

If songs about zombies playing ukuleles, Summer Glau, and electromagnetism didn't tip you off, WRS are some nerdy dudes. And they're not afraid of it. Their debut full-length What Is Nerdwave? is titled after the tongue-in-cheek genre designation they have self-applied. More than a marketing hook, their nerdy tendency to analyze everything helps them improve as musicians. "I've learned a lot from 'lean startup ideology' as a programmer," Isaac says (while Reed attempts to mask an eye roll). In a nutshell, what he means is that when beginning to market a product (or a band), you start by offering consumers/listeners the most basic elements. Then you collect data (or listener feedback) and you respond to it. "I take copious notes after every show," Isaac says. "Do we like it? Are people moving around? Cheering? Do they talk about it?"

"We videotaped ourselves for months," adds Reed. The main question he asks himself is, "Are people looking at us?" Although he's used to performing, "learning to be a lead singer is completely different." Performing as himself, as opposed to as a character in a play, has an entirely different set of requirements. It's "a little bit fake it 'til you make it. Am I slouching? Stand up straight!"

"Lean" is a good description of the approach they've taken to recording to this point. "We don't take two months off," Isaac says, and "we make sure whatever we're recording we're also playing live." What Is Nerdwave? is a pretty straightforward representation of their sound as a live band, absent a stray recorder overdub here and there. Most of the CD sales they've made have been at shows, and staying active and visible as a working band is something marketing obsessive Isaac takes very seriously. "There's a lag time whenever you do anything" before potential fans really sit up and take notice. To not lose momentum you must "do it consistently -- web page, Facebook, people want to see that a band is alive."

"I've been fascinated by marketing, branding, promotion my whole life," says Isaac. "I would encourage musicians to learn about marketing and persuasion. I'm not an expert at it yet!" He has crafted a appeal for tips for Reed to deliver on stage employing "six or seven" different marketing techniques. "Every person in the band does not need to be a marketing expert," Reed adds, "but other people need to be open to the theory. [Isaac's] goal is for our band to do better." He continues, "We all have day jobs we actually like and are good at. But tips mean albums."

Isaac is all about getting the most out of his music that he can. World Racketeering Squad gives him outlets for many of his talents beyond playing guitar and songwriting -- web design, marketing, booking, networking, drawing sexy robot women. But what it all boils down to is that there's some things you can accomplish playing in a band with your friends that you can't singing alone into a four-track. "About a year and a half ago I realized I wanted to feel a part of a community, something exciting. It just occurred to me recently that it's happening!" "We had people come to our CD release and were shocked," says Reed. Including a couple with their one-month-old infant. World Racketeering Squad onesies, sadly, are not yet available for sale.

Speaking of community: WRS's favorite local bands include You Might Think We're Sharks (Isaac moonlights as their bass player) and Day Vs. Night (formerly The Night), who will join them for a show at Emo's October 25th. Conquistador Inc. and Bare Bones Orchestra are also recommended. You can also catch World Racketeering Squad this Wednesday the 6th at Red-Eyed Fly or Friday the 8th at the Rockin' Tomato.