Nice Guys Not Finishing Last
It's an old, yet savvy,media trick: air your dirty laundry before somebody else does. A couple of Austin musicians have video of two 13-year-old boys folks would no doubt like to see. In it, a pair of Beaumont youths don cock-rock attire and lip-sync to classic Ratt. The pair spin, strum, and sing like their MTV heroes -- no doubt cute then, but potentially embarrassing 10 years later. Let it be known the kids in question are Sunflower guitarist Tate Farrar and Heath Clark. But to hear Clark voluntarily cop to the tape, and furthermore offer it as evidence of Sunflower's early ambition, strangely defuses an inevitable media timebomb. "We were a couple of kids acting and talking like we'd made it... like we were rock stars," Clark says. "But that's what we wanted, both then and now, which is why it's so overwhelming to watch it now. It was genuine."
Sunflower's first genuinely savvy business move came just after moving from Beaumont in 1993 as five childhood friends with a band concept, a few songs, and absolutely no live experience. Still teenagers, Clark, Farrar, singer Robert Becker, and drummer Sonny Sanchez had followed incoming UT freshman and bassist Sam Deleo to Austin, a city Becker admits was like "New York for a couple of Beaumont kids." After playing a few shows in a town with less discriminating resumé standards, San Marcos, Sunflower showed up at Steamboat's front door for a carefully planned acoustic serenade. As legend has it, Steamboat doorman David Cotton was impressed enough to grab manager Danny Cooks, who not only booked them but also dropped a $10 bill in their guitar cases. "We made like $30 that night, got a gig, and then had [Black Cat owner] Paul Sessums see us at that gig and book us for a residency," says Clark. "A pretty good night."
As Black Cat resident success stories are known to do, Sunflower's had more than a couple of pretty good nights since. Well-crafted hooks, a positive message, loose musicianship, and a strong stageshow have made Sunflower a band of the fans. When they moved from Beaumont, Sunflower were friendless. Now, they actually know most of the 400-600 people that regularly show up at their gigs by name. As such, Sunflower often come off as so damn nice it can be annoying. But nice works when you're new in town and playing two-hour sets twice a week. Not only must a Black Cat resident count on repeat customers, but they've got to count on those fans bringing new ones to meet their "nice" friends. Sunflower call their fan base a "family," and things have gotten to the point that a healthy crowd doesn't indicate success unless there's a few odd unrecognizable faces in the mass.
So nice guys don't finish last? For reasons unknown, Sunflower's live success does appear to fly in the face of Austin live-music conventional wisdom. Firstly, they're a hard-rock band who bypassed the Back Room. That they're such a radio-ready commodity drawing the same jam-oriented fanbase that supported their Black Cat predecessors Soulhat, Little Sister, and Joe Rockhead is perhaps even more ironic. "At the Black Cat, it was the music that drew people," Becker says. "If you have songs people are going to want to hear, they'll be willing to hear them even if you don't fit the mold of the club's past bands."
While Sunflower's crunch, dark melodies, and murky rhythms may not have much in common with their aforementioned precursors, they did get to follow the others' lead when they made the downstreet trip to a Steamboat residency last year. At the Black Cat, the band learned to communicate while stretching songs and battling the oft-troubling Black Cat sound system. At Steamboat, they're learning how to tighten their sets and dabble in recording and touring with a less demanding schedule. Either way, you can see the benefits of both clubs on Roundtrip, their new independent CD. Their first, New Territory, may have been a promising start, but the shaky balance between upbeat lyrics and textbook Alice in Chains texture never seemed quite right. And perhaps it shouldn't have, considering the band had only been together two months before recording it. "I'm not even sure we could have said we had started developing at the time," Becker says of the record. And with an average age of 19 at the time, it's no surprise they came off sounding like Austin's Silverchair even before we knew who Silverchair were. But with Roundtrip they've again done something with which many of their predecessors have struggled: made a record that's both radio-ready and yet remains reasonably akin to the live experience.
"This time we had the luxury of pre-production, recording rehearsals, and considering our options on producers and studios," Clark says. "We had three days last time and a week this time and we still can't imagine how much there is to learn in a studio with real money and real time. But even at this stage, we feel we've been able to get the sound right to the point where we're as good of a band on record as we are live."
So although it's clearly the music itself that's made Sunflower a front-runner in the local radio, sales, and live draw departments, there's an obvious personality spill-over onto Roundtrip that also makes the record a good barometer of Sunflower's future -- the type of spillover that can only come from bands with drastic cases of internal conflict or mutual admiration. Given their track record for mild-mannered niceties, winsome serenades, video confessions, and childhood friendship, Sunflower's clearly, first and foremost, a mutual admiration society.
"We've been happy with everything that's happened in Austin so far," says Clark, "but we left Beaumont talkin' shit. We know we want hugeness and we know we can't ever be half-assed about it. So when you're talking about a band that has the confidence, trust, and friendship we've got with each other, that too can be explosive when the elements mix together. People are always trying to make comparisons, talk image, or pull bands apart, but when you're friends first and a band second, and you know what you want as both, we believe the fans are going to unconsciously embrace that and help you get where you want to go." n