Basement tapes from the new indie paradigm
Mark David Ashworth is an unlikely master of ceremonies. Humble and soft-spoken even onstage, the 25-year-old songwriter grins almost apologetically to the intimate Beerland crowd as he announces, "Tonight we're going to do things a little differently."
Drawing a crumpled strip of paper from his gray wool blazer, Ashworth calls Red Hunter to the stage. The Peter & the Wolf catalyst climbs behind the drum kit with his guitar and begins lowly crooning "Safe Travels," eyes shut, Martin Crane and Nathan Stein sitting cross-legged with guitars onstage in front of him.
This is the Tonewheel Collective's final show, a loose conglomerate that has banded together some of Austin's best young musicians in a collaborative showcase without pretense or expectations. Tonewheel shows revel in a casual spontaneity; the bar becomes a living room through the relaxed, un-self-conscious atmosphere.
Before long, all the collective's core members take the stage to perform, including Jared Van Fleet of Voxtrot and Bill Baird of Sound Team. Other artists take their turns as well: Peel's Josh Permenter, Josh Duke of Four Hungry Tummies, and Pink Nasty, who jokes that she's "breaking up the boys club" before launching into an effusive duet of "Love Hurts" with Van Fleet.
Just shy of midnight, Tonewheel spins out of control. Ramesh Srivastava, Voxtrot's main man, leads a charge to the microphones, flanked by bandmate Matt Simon and the Black's Dave Longoria. Baird crowds in next to fellow Sound Teamer Gabe Pearlman, while Permenter hovers hollering in the background. Ashworth and Crane, who plays in both Tacks, the Boy Disaster and the Early Tapes, wedge next to Van Fleet's keyboards as Stein positions in front of the drums. In a cumbersome unison, the outfit bursts into Dylan and the Band's "I Shall Be Released."
They say ev'rything can be replaced,
Yet ev'ry distance is not near.
So I remember ev'ry face
Of ev'ry man who put me here.
With an inevitable eruption, the collective rolls into complete abandon, freewheeling at its most exuberant. Baird bounces with his guitar in childlike enthusiasm, sandy blond hair stringing moppishly into his eyes, while Srivastava drives the ensemble into the unrestrained chorus, the new vanguard of Austin indie playing out The Last Waltz with youthful wantonness.
I see my light come shining
From the West unto the East.
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.
Even as homage permeates this late-November night with nostalgia for a long-gone confederation of friends and artists, Voxtrot's full-length debut looms imminent and Van Fleet's blog-buzzed solo project, Sparrow House, accrues national attention. Peter & the Wolf's 2006 debut, Lightness (Texas Platters, Oct. 27, 2006
), meanwhile, has thrust Red Hunter into an uncomfortable spotlight despite its praise, and Ashworth, Stein, Crane, and Van Fleet are starting their own label, Autobus, to secure national distribution for their work.
The informality and spontaneity at the hub of the Tonewheel Collective is already a passing luxury, however.
Music From Big Orange
The courtyard of Big Orange indulges in an improbable hybrid of art nouveau and white trash. In the corner, a metal canoe leans overturned against the planks of aluminum that fence the grounds. An ancient Samsung TV faces upward, gutted and retooled as a planter. Beside it sits a water tank filled with flowing strands of unwound cassettes, the swells of brown tape shimmering in the rain.
The sound inside the studio is deafening. Matt Oliver's wiry frame hunches over the keyboards, facing the whitewashed wall and shouting out lyrics inaudible against the din. Jordon Johns, unshirted behind the drums, shoots frenzied bursts of sharp rapports as Baird's bass booms around the concrete room. A cabinet of systematically aligned 14-inch televisions lines the back wall, six wide by six high, uncanny vestiges of Sound Team's major label deal.
"Now we just use them to trip people out at our parties," laughs keyboardist Pearlman about the 36 screens used in a photo shoot last year.
Sitting around a picnic table outside the Eastside haven, rain tapping sporadic rhythms off the tin roof above, Sound Team seems more relaxed, more carefree. Last spring, the quintet was cautiously excited in preparation of their debut on Capitol Records, Movie Monster.
"Are we optimistic? I don't know," said Oliver at the time ("Be Real," June 6, 2006). "We're probably scared shitless, but isn't everybody? If we seem happy and optimistic, it's because we know that we're going to be doing this together no matter what happens. We really like doing this."
The past year has put Oliver's sentiments to the test as Movie Monster was raked through a skeptical indie press before the band's being dropped from the label this January.
"All of the nightmare stories and all the worst-case scenarios that you hear happening to bands going to a major label, every single one of them happened to us," reflects Oliver. "We made the best decisions we felt we had at the time, but knowing what I know now, no, we'll never sign to another [major label] again."
Sound Team has since regrouped, replacing departing members Sam Sanford and Michael Baird with the unjaded energy of 17-year-old Will Patterson of Sleep Good. They've also taken back control of their career, preparing the release this month of a series of 12-inch vinyl singles under their Big Orange moniker, which housed both of Baird's recent solo albums, Sunset and Silence! ("Texas Platters," Feb. 9). As a final send-up to Capitol, the band plans to re-record Movie Monster, making it available for free on their Web site.
"Ultimately none of that stuff has anything to do with music," says Baird of the major label experience, as Oliver adds thoughtfully, "But we had to go through it to figure that out."
Sound Team's trials have resonated among their close group of fellow artists. As Peter & the Wolf's debut began to take off last fall, the notoriously nomadic Hunter was forced to navigate the looseness of his live shows with expectations bound to broader attention. "One of the biggest things that's changed is that now the people showing up at our shows might not necessarily be our friends or fans," comments Hunter as he navigates a rural Pennsylvania highway. "Sometimes people are there just to judge you."
Like Sound Team, the attention now focused on Hunter has forced a re-evaluation of his music and career.
"I'm questioning the American/capitalist take on music and what it's supposed to be in our culture," sighs Hunter. "Instead of trying to release a bigger record than the last one and put it out on a bigger label and have it go to more press and get more hype, I might go in the opposite direction.
"I'm more interested in the music going directly to people who do resonate with it, cutting out the periphery. So right now I'm not responding to labels, I'm not sending out my recordings to press, and I'm thinking about going to a cabin."
UT's Plan II is a liberal-arts honors program, allowing students to design majors across a core humanities curriculum. Emphasis is on interdisciplinary freedom within a close-knit community of only a few hundred students.
Performing at Plan II sponsored open-mic nights called the Common Lamppost, 2002-2003, Ashworth, Van Fleet, Crane, and Stein sparked an instant affinity for one another. (The program also precipitated Baird and Oliver's meeting in 2001 and their collaboration into what would become Sound Team.)
The four songwriters traded tunes and contributed to one another's work. Moving in together, Crane, Ashworth, and Van Fleet began writing songs for a band and, recruiting Stein and Matt Simon, assembled the Press in fall 2004, a raucous extravaganza with Crane at the fore.
"I felt like I was in the middle of a tornado," he remembers, shaking his head in amusement. "Kind of like the perfect storm."
As each member evolved musically, the Press could hardly incorporate their individual ambitions, a typical college-band history. Yet even as the group moved on to other projects, the four continued to support one another's work.
The following year, Crane ran into Clem Poole, a friend from a Connecticut high school arts camp. Poole and his brother Noah were performing as Wax Museum Pandemonium and pulling off shows in unlikely locales with Red Hunter called the Order of the Owl. Throughout the summer, the cadre commandeered abandoned buses, construction sites, graveyards, and even Town Lake for midnight rituals of song.
"You felt like you were part of a cultural event rather than going to a show," says Crane, who inducted Ashworth, Van Fleet, and Stein into the revelry. "You'd meet up at someone's house, and there would be something like 50 people riding their bikes though the streets at midnight, all these little groups of friends meeting. There was just a lot of good will between everybody. And you're in these remote places, a feeling of the wilderness in an urban space, being wild in the city."
That sense of communal spontaneity congealed into the Tonewheel Collective as the four former members of the Press and Baird took over a biweekly residency at Beerland in fall 2005. It was a loose affair, guesting friends like Hunter, Poole, Duke, Permenter, and Nick Hennies of the Weird Weeds. The improvisational shows continued through the spring, juxtaposing intimate acoustic sets of new songs with haphazard jam sessions, instruments passed around indiscriminately in an ecstatic caprice as each member pushed the others into new, unexpected territories.
"It's all about getting out of your comfort zone and confronting your inhibitions, what you lack," offers Baird. "There's a nice overlap there, people who are more withdrawn up there with people who are going crazy. Maybe I'm getting people to be more spontaneous or wild, and they're making me focus more on the craft. We inspire each other."
Ashworth laughs, "It's a testament to the ability of those guys that it was able to come together in any way at all."
This Wheel's on Fire
Last fall, as members returned from summer tours with their established bands, the Tonewheel Collective was revived for a brief run of Sunday night shows. The same exuberance emanated from the group, the freedom and informality of the gathering a cathartic contrast to the demands of widespread attention placed on their other projects. As the Tonewheel nights began drawing attention of their own, the work of the shows became more difficult to balance with the developing dedication of the group's members to their own music.
"One of the cool things about Tonewheel is that we killed it before it got to that point," speculates Van Fleet over dinner, his foot unconsciously patting time to the pace of his voice. "I don't know if it's really possible to go back to that spontaneity, but you gain experience in being able to maximize what spontaneity you do have instead of wasting it."
Aggregating resources and talent in support of one another's work, the four college friends have reshaped Tonewheel into the more structured Wheel Collective, the formal association solidified by their newly launched label, Autobus. With the help of Tommy McCutchon and his local label, Unseen Worlds, Autobus will allow the group the advantages of self-release coupled with the distribution and promotion power of a label's coherent focus.
"With the experience in Voxtrot, I figured I would be learning a lot of lessons, and I am learning from that and learning from Bill and learning from Red's experiences," explains Van Fleet, who spearheaded the label effort. "With everyone doing it and everyone sharing what they're doing, it becomes a lot easier to navigate it all. It's very confusing trying to make music professionally."
The label debuts this month with Ashworth's Viceroy and a second EP from Van Fleet's Sparrow House, Television Snow. Ashworth's effort weaves his transcendent voice and acoustic guitar through delicate Latin and Southwest rhythms reflective of his time spent in Mexico. Sparrow House's sophomore release, continuing the seasonal cycle begun with last year's poignant, Elliott Smith-styled Falls, finds Van Fleet experimenting with more electronic beats and shoegaze influence.
Crane's band, Brazos, which includes Stein, Paul Price, and Esteban Cruz, all members of the Early Tapes, unveils its debut EP later this summer, while Stein is working on his own solo release that should see release on Autobus by year's end. Autobus or automat?
I Shall Be Released
Sitting amid the arranged chaos of Spider House, Nathan Stein is calculated in his responses. He's the secret weapon of the Wheel Collective and any number of Austin bands, working with Eric Wofford at Cacophony Recorders ("TCB," July 21, 2006). Whereas other members of the Wheel are songwriters at heart, Stein is more compositionally oriented, jazz influenced, and musically driven. From behind wire-framed glasses, he gazes abstractly, 1,000 miles away. His Plan II concentration was physics.
"I think the major label model of millions of dollars dumped into a marketing budget, giant multiplatinum records that make enough money to cover for all the wastes of money, I don't think that's necessary," he says finally. "[Necessary] is developing a middle class for music. There's room for a middle class where artists are creating and reaching an audience all over the world, because there's almost no effort involved in that now.
"If you can sell your records to them without having to spend a million dollars on marketing, then you can sell fewer but still come out ahead. And if you're making records yourself on your own label, then you're making more money for each record. I think not having to take that gamble with marketing and not having to go on that publicity campaign allows you to spend the time creating music. That's what I would like to see, anyway."
As major labels continue to falter in the new millennium and independent acts grow increasingly varied and devise more specific means to target fans, artist-run labels like Autobus or Sound Team's Big Orange or even Red Hunter's Whiskey and Apples offer more control and, ultimately, localized profit. It's a strategy that Athens, Ga.'s Elephant 6 Collective proved viable throughout the Nineties and that, more recently, has been adopted with Animal Collective's Paw Tracks label.
Even major artists are beginning to recognize the advantages of a new system. Last Fall, Barenaked Ladies released Barenaked Ladies Are Me on their Desperation Records, and, although backed by Nettwerk Music's PR machine and reputation, the disc grossed the band almost $1 million in revenue from intellectual property.
There are simply more music-revenue outlets today than ever before. Concert-ticket sales have doubled since 1999, while digital technologies, ring tones, and licensing to television, film, and video games all offer artists opportunities for direct profit once dispersed through broad networks.
"If you're willing to do the research and the work, all the tools are available to you," says Van Fleet. "By now, it's really within range for artists to maintain control and still be able to work in the same league and same channels with people who are making significant music."
Perhaps most importantly, the model of an artist-run indie label allows the creative leeway to release any work with minimized investment. That's the ultimate balance of freedom and control.