We're a Happy Family
Speak no evil
Troupe Gammage, 23, lays claim to musical family lines going back generations in Austin.
In the 1960s, his attorney grandfather provided an aspiring booking agent named Charlie Hatchett with the contract that still serves as the basis for the Hatchett Talent Agency (see "The Hatchett Man," Sept. 30). His father, Ernie Gammage, started out as a teenage musician in that same era and graduated to the business end.
His mother is veteran local singer-songwriter Christine Albert (see "Train of Love," Jan. 9, 2004), who steered Troupe into Natural Ear Music School, but tellingly, his first recordings at the age of 11 were soundtracks to video games. Soon he co-founded his own production company and released two albums online that racked up more than 25,000 downloads. Speak, his band with Nick Hurt, Joey Delahoussaye, and Jake Stewart, welcomed its full-length bow, I Believe in Everything, on local indie Playing in Traffic last month.
"Austin has such a great foundation of roots music and musicianship, like the stuff my parents were doing," acknowledges Gammage. "And Austin is changing, but it's staying true to what it's about."
What it's all about changes almost daily – especially in the seventh grade. At Kealing Middle School, Gammage edged out another aspiring drummer, Jake Stewart, for a spot in the band Xenophobia.
"My first introduction to Troupe as a musician came when I was told he'd replaced me in the band," laughs Stewart, 23. "Most of my musical education came in jazz band at LBJ [High School]. I played for three years at LBJ, including my senior year with Troupe. We were both drummers in the first band."
While Stewart's experience playing jazz proved invaluable, his partner in Speak's rhythm section, bassist Delahoussaye, came with a different attitude. At 26, Delahoussaye is the eldest member of Speak, marching closer to the big 3-0 than his teens.
"I was a stubbornly solo act until I met the other guys," he explains. "In fact, I had long given up on the idea that I could find other songwriters with whom I'd really wanted to collaborate. Not to say that I thought my songwriting was better than everyone else's; I just never found the right match until I heard Speak."
At Natural Ear camp, Gammage met guitarist Hurt. Hurt's family wasn't particularly musical except that his father is cartoonist Sam Hurt, whose UT comic strip Eyebeam was ubiquitous in the 1980s, featuring proto-slacker characters that continue endearing themselves weekly to Austin in the Chronicle.
"My dad knew everyone," says Nick Hurt, "so I'd go watch Cornell Hurd play and go to Antone's Blue Monday. When I was first singing with Misspent Youth, I got to sit in with people because my dad knew them. Not everybody had the opportunities I had to do what I am doing, and the respect of my family too."
Peer to Peer
"We would sneak off and play together," laughs Nick Hurt about his days at Natural Ear with Gammage, who put in time with the Wild Things among other U-18 bands.
Gammage and Hurt are sitting inside Threadgill's World Headquarters, musing over the menu for dishes that suit Gammage's "strict vocal diet," which is to say non-mucus-producing foods. Speak's effortless-sounding harmonies come with much practice, care, and voice warm-ups before shows. At Threadgill's, cream gravy is considered living dangerously.
It's the perfect setting for the two nonetheless, a museum not only to the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters but also to the community of local visionaries who built and sustained it. That same effort is reflected in Speak's community, many decades removed from the Sixties, yet connected by passionate commitment to art through organizations such as the Vagabond Collective and Skanky Possum. Their peers include a dazzling array of musical talent including Mother Falcon, Sphynx, Marmalakes, Little Lo, the Sour Notes, Sip Sip, Caddywhompus, Oikos, Corduroi, and Hello Wheels.
"It's awesome to sing together with the zillion Mother Falconers and Marmalakes, play house parties with them," Gammage enthuses. "Mother Falcon are so Austin – music nerds with Americana and world influence and hip-hop beats. Sonically and musically, we're all on the same page. There's no need to go outside Austin."
Mother Falcon's dynamic depends on more than a dozen classical musicians. Speak employs four rockers, yet Gammage, Hurt, Stewart, and Delahoussaye are almost orchestral in their sound. I Believe in Everything remaps the future by modernizing the past. "Carrie" and "I'd Rather Lie" pop and spin radio-friendly, but "Stand by Us" pushes further, nostalgically evoking satiny 1970s dance magic on the order of Chic with silky harmonies and driving synthesizers.
Austin first heard of Speak citywide in 2010 when it released the five-song Hear Here EP and took home Best New Band at the Austin Music Awards. Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads presented the plaque to the quartet, who were as humbled by the company onstage as by the spotlight. The moment underscored the Heads' art-rock influence on Speak and gave the Austin quartet an unexpected stamp of credibility.
"The cool thing is," notes Hurt, "that we worked for it. We've played a million shows at random coffeeshops to eight people. Going to the Music Awards felt genuine, not like 'you have been chosen by Disney Records.'"
"That's Austin in a nutshell," agrees Gammage.
For the moment, Speak is content. The long-awaited release of I Believe in Everything has passed, and now come the high marks for the foursome's harmony-heavy, keyboard-driven sound. All the band's touchstones are apparent in the vibrant pulse of the tracks: Motown, Passion Pit, the Beatles, MGMT, the Beach Boys. Sterling production by Chris "Frenchie" Smith.
"The harmony thing is obvious, but there are many elements to it that are really meticulous, like setting the changes between songs, the number of pedals, the synth tones," elaborates Gammage. "If there are parts we can't do live, we have to figure out how those are going to function. It's complex. That's true of the songwriting, too. We're trying to balance it with breathing room and space in our tracks, that contrast between complexity and simplicity."
All agree that a lengthy compositional process is crucial, and the lessons are valuable, according to Hurt.
"Great-sounding records don't need to be made in expensive studios anymore," he opines. "We recorded at our house and at Frenchie's house before we did anything in the Bubble. Guitar amps in closets and microphones in living rooms – that gives the record a great energy because we were comfortable and didn't feel rushed while tracking.
"I'd love to do it again for our next record but be weirder."
That "next record" is still on the horizon. Closer at hand is the ongoing cycle of support and encouragement from bands like Mother Falcon, who are currently working with the Sour Notes on Attendance Records, a program dedicated to encouraging creativity in public schools.
"I've been so happy with how much of the relationships between our peer bands are completely based on friendships," Hurt concludes. "It's wild to be so close with them. It's so much better than a competitive relationship. We found great partners by building these bands together. I feel more productive, and there's enough room for all of us.
"We're all one happy, friendly family."