Sincola Adds Life

Paused and Refreshed...

Two years ago, the Chronicle ran a piece on a certain Austin modern rock quintet. It was titled "Sincola Sells Out!," and at that time, the still-young band was already considered fair game for potshots from former fans, scenesters, and of course, local music 'zines, because they'd joined the list of bands who just weren't Austin anymore: the villainous musicians who had thrown aside their art just for the sake of playing to crowds of more than six people. Sincola's particular crime? They had signed a deal with Caroline Records, an indie label owned by a major, and they were going to make records for them. Worse yet, they had previously dared write and record an EP for local indie Rise Records that people seemed to like, and local radio stations were wont to play the song "Bitch" from it. This meant that Outsiders began to come to their shows, daring to order beers from the same bar as the Regulars who had "been there" for the band (on the guest list, most likely, but there nonetheless) from the beginning. All this despite the fact that the band was barely known outside of the state.

"It's funny," points out singer Rebecca Cannon, "that in Austin, a lot of bands are considered sellouts even though that particular band is only known in the region or in Austin and even though they've sold out, they're still out delivering pizzas! Those sellouts!"

By the same time the following year, the naysayers had changed their tune. Oh, they were still saying nay, but in a different manner. You see, at that point, Sincola had gone from sellout to wipeout. It was obvious. The signs were all there. The album, What the Nothinghead Said, had come out, but there was no fanfare. Why wasn't the band touring? Could it be that they had bombed out like everyone had predicted? They dared try for fame and ended up in the "Where are they now" file, right? Well, no.

"I think there was this perception that Sincola got everything handed to them on a plate," says drummer Terri Lord, "but the truth is we really had to work through a lot of stuff." The most incapacitating "stuff" at that particular juncture of the band's career was Lord's spine. No, she hadn't lost her courage. A long history of back problems culminated in her immobility just as the band's Caroline debut was released. So, instead of embarking immediately on tour, the band was forced to wait while Lord first tried non-surgical methods, and later went under the knife -- two months after the album's release. Things were at a standstill.

Well, not completely. For one thing, at the time of ...Nothinghead's release, the band still didn't have a booking agent -- a situation they were able to correct during Lord's convalescence. The band also used its downtime to write songs at Lord's bedside ("Happy M.F.," the UK choice for the first single off their current album, was written while she lay "flat on my back with a guitar"). When the band finally did hit the road that summer their reception was good, but by then a comparatively long silence after the album's release had diminished the group's buzz. Combine that with the fact that the record "didn't come out as it could have," according to bassist Chepo Peña, and the first album was a comparative disappointment all around.

Today, Lord says it was perseverance that got them through the experience -- something that, along with frustration, the band has been through before and since. Consider their shaky beginnings; before assembling the current, steady lineup (Cannon, Lord, Peña, and guitarists Greg Wilson and Kris Patterson), the band went through several drummers and had to replace original vocalist Kasey Smith. Consider also the last couple of months; the release of their second album, Crash Landing in Teen Heaven, seemed earmarked for another series of disasters. After the album's May 14 release date, Sincola was set to join the 3X5 package tour, which put together several three-band bills that would tour the country hitting the same venues as the previous leg of the tour. Unfortunately, the tour fell apart after the first leg of bands hit the road.

This time though, the delay seems to be a positive. The band had been worried about having to rush a video out between dates, fearing it would turn out a sloppy mess. Instead, they now have a date for the video (June 19), a producer (Paul Anderson, who's worked with Poe and others), and the time to do it right. Meanwhile, their new album's getting better reviews than the last (as one Chronicle music writer is fond of saying, by putting out the Rise EP first, their Caroline debut was technically their "sophomore slump") and is doing well on the Gavin and CMJ music industry charts: on the former, Crash... is 27 with a bullet, and on the latter it debuted as the third highest add at 147, hopping up into the 50s in the two weeks since.

Getting a replacement tour assembled is not something that has them worried either, as the chart support generally translates to club interest, and they're currently looking at possibly joining former Cult leader Ian Asbury's band the Holy Barbarians on their upcoming tour. There may also be some gigs with Aimee Mann; Lord says that their booker told them with an absolutely straight face that they wouldn't know for sure "til Tuesday."

So, what does this all mean? Only that it looks like it's almost time to restart the "sellout" backlash. And that's not bad for a band whose members, two years after that first article, still have their day jobs, have yet to really break nationally, and seem perfectly happy with the way things are going for them. Oh, and there's another thing that may have inspired the original backlash against Sincola -- their look.

Individually, there's not much about any particular band member that would make your jaw drop if you passed them on the sidewalk. Together though, any major label A&R whiz with a PowerBook and a yearning for the perfect "alternative" act couldn't have done a better job of assembling a band. On the left of the stage there's the big, grinnin' Hispanic dude (Peña), on the right, the nebbishy, quiet white guy (Greg Wilson aka Wendal Stivers), and in between there's the big blonde (Lord), the tomboy (Patterson), and front and center there's the strange, big-eyed waif in her garage sale clothes (Cannon), flailing earnestly through each song like she's auditioning for her first high school play. "We are cartoon characters," admits Lord, and it's not surprising if the uninformed might mistake the quintet as a prepackaged Monkees for the Nineties.

The band is also somewhat baffled over one local writer's accusation that they are now "playing the lesbian card"; though Lord and Patterson are longtime companions, the band has yet to use their songs as a platform to deal with the issue of sexual preference. Lord says she was happy to see a noticeable gay crowd at a recent Houston show after a local weekly described them as having a "mix of gay and straight" members, but doesn't consider Sincola a "gay band" by any means. Cannon further points out that her personal sexuality takes a back seat to her role as front person for the band in that she sings lyrics that may have been written by any member. "In one song I'll be singing from my heart; during another, I'll be singing from Greg's heart," says Cannon.

When it comes down to it, Sincola is just another combination of local musicians who fell together from the same Austin music family tree. Lord has the longest pedigree, stretching back to the Raul's era with the Jitters and continuing unabated through innumerable others from Virgin Machine to the Mind Splinters to Power Snatch to... well, you get the picture. Guitarists Wilson and Patterson first came together as members of Hundredth Monkey, and when Wilson decided to move to Seattle for better prospects, Patterson found herself calling Wilson from a roadside pay phone on the eve of his departure to insist that he stay in town and form the band that would later become Sincola. Singer Rebecca Cannon, she of the Peter Lorre eyes and the onstage reserve of Pee-wee Herman, comes mostly from Drama Club, but for a while played trumpet for Stretford.

And what about the band's sound? Have they sold out by changing their music to make it more "accessible"? In a word, no. Unlike the case of say, Charlie Sexton, whose debut album marked a significant change in style from what his hard-core fans were accustomed to (and for that matter sold a zillion more copies than Sincola is even hoping for), Sincola has changed their overall sound little if at all since they first began to play. "If anything," says Peña, "I think we've got more of a kick in the ass [sound] than we used to."

Peña probably has more to gnash his teeth about than any of the other band members; he also plays with the Peenbeets and Gomez, both of which rate high on Austin's "no-sellout" approval chart. Besides the behind-the-back chatter that inevitably occurs, he gets it full frontal as well, and grows especially irritated at those who assume Gomez is his band and Sincola is his job. "Why are you telling me this?" is his standard reply. "I wouldn't be wasting my time on this band if I didn't like it... it's not like `I'm just doing this for the money.'" ("What money?" chimes in Patterson.) As a rule however, the band shrugs off the disses it gets.

"You know, we're going to get criticized a lot," posits Cannon, "and it's because we get a lot of attention and we are still together, but in the grand scale of Sincola, it's okay. In a way, our whole attitude is tougher because for a couple of years we always got good press and everything was just great and now we have to work really hard and it doesn't let us slack off -- it's made us get better and we can't slack off and say they will like us."

Which is a good attitude to take, because in the cycle that is the music industry, that backlash is probably going to come back around again -- maybe several more times. n

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