Out of the tens of thousands of words we'll generate on the music portion of South by Southwest – as begun last week with our retelling of the True Believers saga (see "One Big Guitar," Feb. 22) – these 3,000 remain my favorite. Every year we winnow the two dozen local acts appearing on the initial band lists from SXSW down to a lucky seven, acts already beloved by us but ones we haven't had a chance to expound on much. This grouping – out on the road, in the studio, floating around inner and outer space – appears well on its way to Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours of experience and expertise, but we're pleased enough to profile them well before that finish line. – Raoul Hernandez
Escaping to a cabin on the Buffalo River in Arkansas has become an annual retreat for Dana Falconberry, who moved here in 2005.
"I can't really be in Austin for January or February because my allergies are so bad," laughs the local songstress by phone from a nearby friend's house. "But this year I really needed to write. We have maybe four songs ready for another record, but I've been needing to write more and finding it harder to do because we've been touring so much. So I've come out here and secluded myself."
The Arkansas terrain strikes familiar chords for the Michigan native, who attended Hendrix College, a small liberal arts school in Conway, just north of Little Rock. More familiar yet is the natural landscape, which has become as hallmark to her music as the exceptional harmonies she excavates alongside Gina Dvorak and Karla Manzur. Falconberry's songs flit with imagistic beauty and drama, burrowed in a world where rustic details unravel narratives with glimpses of greater truths.
"I think I'm writing less directly about what's happened to me, but a lot of it actually feels more personal," she offers. "I'm writing about deeper feelings and emotions, but I'm writing about it in a way that's maybe less direct and obvious."
Last year's acclaimed Leelanau encapsulates that turn. After a rocky experience releasing her debut full-length – 2008's Oh Skies of Grey prompted a re-recording of much of the album as Halletts two years later – Falconberry settled into a sextet that matches the gentle beauty of her songwriting, with fuller arrangements that shade and expand her approach to oblique revelation. Leelanau moves amid an unhurried charm, with lulling strings accenting the singer's enchantingly coy vocals to evoke an idyllic aura.
"Our stage setup had become so complicated with instruments that we needed to figure it out," she admits. "One thing we immediately fell in love with was the magic that happens between [Lindsey Verrill's] cello and [Christopher Cox's] electric bass. The band is just so good at knowing what the song needs. A lot of times we don't even talk about that. It's just an understanding and respect for the songs." – Doug Freeman[page]
Already a triumphant year for Shakey Graves, 2013 currently finds the one-man band, informally known as Alejandro Rose-Garcia, quickly becoming a cornerstone of the Austin concert scene. His workhorse schedule of local shows keeps pulling in such audiences that he's become one of the most reliable draws in town.
Called on at home, the Austin-raised electric bard packs for an upcoming tour. The old, off-yellow suitcase sitting in the middle of his living room floor isn't full of clothes. It's his drum set. Graves beats the antique Samsonite, outfitted with a floor tom head, a tambourine, and a honeycomb of sound holes with drum pedals under his heels.
"I used to sit on it when I played," he explains. "Then I got drunk one time and stood up and it just changed the dynamic of the show, so I've stayed standing up in front of it ever since."
His percussion became a kinetic dance of subconscious reflexes: "Because I'm playing guitar, singing, and drumming at once, I can't really think about what I'm doing, which is great because I can just let my body do the work while my mind gets far out."
Graves attributes his unique guitar style, a herky-jerky fingerpicking of short, chromatic phrases, to not knowing how to play music traditionally.
"I'm still a retard when it comes to playing music in a learned way," he admits. "Which has ended up being good, because I'm not held back by any particular style."
Instead, his stomp-and-shake beats find harmony in his cranked acoustic guitar for a signature groove that underlines his mellow vocal rasp. Dipping his pen into a well of ghosts and illusions, Graves lyricizes his own experiences with mysterious perspective.
"I've had a lot of brushes with the unexplainable in my life, and that's redefined the boundaries of what I consider reality," he reveals. "I feel like there's a lot of spooky shit going down all the time that you can either focus on or forget. I choose to focus on it, and I encourage other people to focus on it too."
The next frontier for Shakey Graves is parlaying his local success into national recognition. Preceding his busy South by Southwest week with a Southern tour, he'll hit the road hard this year, including dates at international festivals. Graves also plans to record a follow-up to his home-recorded debut, 2011's Roll the Bones, which has garnered over 25,000 downloads to date.
The novelty of one-man bands wears quickly, and after that, they must succeed by the same standard of quality as any other act. Close your eyes and listen. Shakey's got it. – Kevin Curtin[page]
Eastern Sea frontman Matt Hines completed a monthlong East Coast tour earlier this year, returning home to a four-year relationship. After spending a considerable amount of time trying to catch his corgi in Zilker Park, he worries that their long stretches apart made her wary. He professes that being away from the city and people he loves takes its toll.
Yet Hines remains eager to leave.
Tracking over 4,000 miles, 24 stops, and eight sold-out shows, he's chomping at the bit to get back out there. The co-headlining tour with Nashville's Kopecky Family Band, who gained national recognition opening for pop-folk superstars the Lumineers, brought in the capacity crowds these former Austin weekend warriors have been waiting for.
"We were a great fit because we're not similar musically, but I think both our audience and theirs could appreciate the other," posits Hines. "Depending on the tour stop and who has an audience where, we could be playing for a crowded room that had never heard us, or vice versa."
Transitioning from Downtown-venue hoppers to national mobility, the group's core quartet – Hines, Kevin Thomas, Charley Siess, and John Rawls – began by upgrading their equipment. The bandleader, for one, bought a hollow-body guitar suited for both performance and writing on the road, where cramped quarters leave no room for an acoustic. The Eastern Sea also shopped for musicians after losing two of its founding members to last summer's sophomore LP, Plague, and another whose full-time job doesn't allow for months on the road.
"I've always been interested in playing music with people who aren't full-time musicians," says Hines. "Those people have the perspective that I want in my music, but at this point, every opportunity that comes at us we have to take.
"It's hard if you have too much baggage."
While searching for a new multi-instrumentalist and prepping a tentative April tour of the West Coast, the band loaded into the studio to cut demos Hines wants to begin recording this summer.
"You can't make money sitting in your hometown playing every other week at Beerland and make it," he stresses. "It's just a necessity – I have to be on the road. It's now, more than ever, important for me to be out and spreading the gospel of the Eastern Sea." – Abby Johnston[page]
"For a lot of people the word Jerusalem represents a sort of spiritual utopia. It's considered by many different cultures as their religious birthplace/epicenter. The closest thing I have to any kind of religion in my life is rock & roll. This band is my own 'Jerusalem.'"
That's Jeff Klein. He kicked up some dirt here in Austin as a solo act before moving to New Orleans to work with Greg Dulli and the Twilight Singers in 2006. While in Louisiana, he started My Jerusalem, releasing Gone for Good in 2010. Returning to town afterward, late last year he produced Preachers, overseen by Jim Eno of Spoon. It finds Klein loosening the reins and turning My Jerusalem into a band to admire. It's won them opening slots on separate tours with the reunited Wallflowers and X.
"It's more of a band since making the new record," admits the frontman. "The first record was that world between my solo career and having a band. It was more disconnected. This record was rehearsing the songs before making the record. We've played 70 shows in the past four months, and we've seen the work pay off."
Klein, whose reputation includes laying his guts out in the music, admits there's less blood this time around, the band's unremitting ferocity offset by a slight pop edge.
"It's less introspective, less me, me, me," he says. "Since I've made so many of those kinds of records, I just wanted to write songs that were a little more general. I wouldn't say the words aren't important, but they're less deliberate. I gave myself more leniency with writing lyrics than I have in the past. I wanted to be creative and not be so literal about things. That's easier to do when you're not writing about yourself."
Amid the thunder and gloom of My Jerusalem, a bit of sunlight peeks through in the form of bassist Geena Spigarelli. Her constant smile offers a welcome contrast to Klein's bleak moods.
"The music makes me happy," the Austin na-
tive explains. "Jeff's finally got his smiley face."
Adds Klein, "There have been shows where I'm having a hard time and I look at her and then I can have a great show because we interact so well and she's having so much fun." – Jim Caligiuri[page]
It happens at a moment's notice. A slight nod or gesture, and they're off, as if racing to the county line with a busted headlight. On stage, Black Pistol Fire choogles with the Southern tenacity of Creedence Clearwater Revival and rave-up elasticity of early Yardbirds, all hot smoke and sassafras. Guitarist/singer Kevin McKeown stomps and hollers, while drummer Eric Owen bashes his drum kit like it's Whac-a-Mole and he's down to his last quarter.
"We've been friends since we were five years old, and beyond that, we've been playing music together maybe 14 years. That's a lot of history," acknowledges Owen. "Sometimes we go on tour and it's just the two of us in the same car, the same hotel room. You really get to know a person and the way they think. I can tell with a glance from Kevin where he's going musically."
BPF performs as if it's got something to prove – and with good reason. They're Canadian expats ladling out some of the greasiest modern blues this side of the Mason-Dixon Line, where the shadows of other power duos loom large.
"We're not doing something that's never been done before," McKeown concedes. "We're two guys onstage, turning the amps up and hitting it hard like everybody who's listened to Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, early Stones. You can't even control that, but I really do believe that when people come see us live and hear the catalog, they'll see something else going on."
At a time when the Black Keys are dominating radio, television, and the Grammys, such lofty comparisons are more a blessing than a curse. BPF has landed major spots with Braun's, MTV, and Pepsi, among many others, a feat that's led to a co-publishing deal with Razor & Tie. And the band's third LP, tentatively due early summer, received financial backing from the Canadian nonprofit FACTOR, the same organization that footed bills for Wolf Parade, Metric, and K'naan.
"The last two records were done in just 14 or 15 hours," McKeown notes. "This allows us to take our time and see what the songs need, to not be so rushed in the studio.
"It's really the first time to sit things down and think it over." – Austin Powell[page]
When the Preservation ducked into Jim Eno's Public Hi-Fi studio to record its debut album Two Sisters in 2011, the band tracked 13 songs in a whirlwind 15 days. Last summer, the local fivepiece stole away to Danny Reisch's studio in East Austin to cut an upcoming EP, only they took the same amount of time to work on just five tracks. Then they continued working on them for another six months.
"I'd stay in there forever if I could," says multi-instrumentalist and co-captain of Operation: Band Songwriter, Andy Bianculli, who in the past six months has rarely talked to me about anything other than the recording process. "There's got to be something wrong with me. In my mind, the songs are never done."
Bianculli's affinity for obsessing over the pursuit of pop perfection embodies the differences that brand his three-year-old band today. What was once a vehicle for pushing the inherently disparate songs of Bianculli and the more roots-centric output of husband-and-wife duo Mario and Cayce Matteoli has developed into a tightly wound wheel with a clear focus, one that pulls mightily from Phil Spector's Wall of Sound.
"We put sleigh bells on everything," explains Bianculli of the new recordings, which the Preservation plans to release in mid-April. He says the band also worked to beef up the new batch with a double dose of drummer Josh Wienholt's floor kit, eschewing cymbals for a deeper beat and leaving that newfound ceiling space for the band's four-part harmonies.
The results left Bianculli content but not altogether complete.
"That's my biggest fault," he says. "I know Woody Allen doesn't watch movies when he's writing. You shouldn't be paying attention to anything else when you're making a record, because it fucks your head up. We were finishing a song and Brad [Bell, engineer] brought the new Tame Impala record in and goes, 'Hey, listen to this.' I'm like, 'Fuck!'
"I just wanted to throw it all out and start over again, but you've got to keep going." – Chase Hoffberger[page]
Paul Waclawsky has a love affair with space. "It goes back to the original Star Wars trilogy," he admits. "It just really affected me. Space sounds like a synthesizer."
Waclawsky's maintained the Boxing Lesson since 2002, when he was still living in Los Angeles. Relocated to Austin nearly a decade ago, he's shifted through several different lineups, April's Big Hits being the first album from his latest trio: Lacy, synth warrior Jaylinn Davidson, and 14-year-old drummer, Ben Redman.
Yes, 14. After previous drummer Jake Mitchell was sentenced to five years for conspiring to manufacture marijuana, auditions were held, and Redman stood out.
"We have such synergy toget-
her, which is unlikely considering he's a kid," says Waclawsky.
"I'm pretty tired of talking about my age," sighs Redman, also the beat keeper for local grunge trio Residual Kid. "I don't want to be the little kid on the drums anymore."
"He tried out against other grown ass men," injects Davidson. "We didn't hold it against him that he was 14, and we didn't choose him because he was 14."
Waclawsky's old-school, claiming "Indie Rock Is Dead" a few albums ago. Big Hits has been in the works for several years with producer Chris "Frenchie" Smith. He writes music that pays attention to archaic rules: guitar solos, what makes sense on side A and side B. We joke about putting a sticker on the new album that simply reads: "Don't listen on shuffle."
"We wanted to do the Bowie Low thing, where one side is all rockers and the other side was all slow stuff," explains Waclawsky. "Instead, we put the two long epics on either end and filled the middle with more rock-y, punk-y stuff."
Is there a conceptual framework? Some grand universe-arching narrative in the liner notes? Not really. Running time shakes out to 47:47, but that's just a happy accident. If there's any saga to his music (and his worldview), Waclawsky says it's simply possibilities.
"The first two songs are called 'Endless Possibilities' and 'Eastside Possibilities,'" he points out. "We want to take it from outer space and bring it back to East Austin, where they're sipping on the sidewalk."
The Boxing Lesson constructs scorching, Seventies-imbued psych/prog/space rock in an era where it couldn't be less in vogue. "It's genuine goofiness," laughs Waclawsky. – Luke Winkie
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline: 2,000 Light Years From Home.
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