The Austin Chronicle

The Final Frontier

Space Is the Place

By Greg Beets, December 6, 1996, Music

illustration by Jason Stout
Proclaiming the dawning of a new musical era is as smart and easy as nailing jelly to your forehead. Despite the chronologist's dire need for some sort of working definition, creative energy isn't kind enough to stand still for a snapshot. It's like a virus that re-invents itself just when you think you've got it all figured out. Nevertheless, when you listen carefully, there's no denying that a stylistic shift of undetermined significance is taking place in the annals of the Texas music underground.

Which brings us to "Space Rock," a catch-all term that bands shy away from quicker than you can say "New Sincerity." Sure, categorization can be confining and at times misleading, but then, how confining is "space"? Whatever you choose to call it, a goodly number of up-and-coming acts in Texas have muscled their way to the stage with an expansive and exploratory form of music that doesn't quite reside in the same universe as older staple genres like collegiate pop and snotty garage punk.

More and more bands are oozing forth with an unbridled enthusiasm for phase-shifters, feedback, and free-form song structure. Though many of these bands are future-forward in their outlook, there's a near-universal appreciation for the work of their progressive forbears; they point to recent acts like My Bloody Valentine, Stereolab, Mercury Rev, and Low (see "Roadkill"). Others find inspiration in the late Sixties/early Seventies Krautrock of Can, Neu, Faust, and Amon Düül. From there, the musical base explodes into everything from classic rock to trip-hop to ambient to jazz. Although the music's wide-open spaces and stabs into uncharted territory leave plenty of room for tedium (or "snore-core," as its detractors might call it), in the hands of the consummate, the result is pure and positively magical.

"Whatever's happening is definitely good," says Craig Stewart of Trance Syndicate, home of fellow travelers like American Analog Set and Furry Things. "But I don't know about this term `Space Rock.' It's an incredibly broad category. When I think of `Space Rock,' I think of just dropping out a lot of the normal elements of whatever makes up rock. It goes back a lot further than most people realize. Spaced-out music is kind of like all the gray areas."

Austin, with its long history of coddling "gray areas," is well-represented in space exploration. At the surface, you have a band like Sixteen Deluxe combining a psychoactive wall of noise effects with the appeal of pop songs. American Analog Set and Furry Things have also cultivated followings with their respective forays into ambient and post-psychedelic dance music. At the same time, Windsor for the Derby actively recalls the work of their German forbears with a quiet mechanical urgency. Newer bands such as Kitty, 7% Solution, and Stars of the Lid are garnering raves from their contemporaries, and we would be remiss not to mention elusive veterans such as ST-37 for largely unrecognized contributions in the late Eighties and early Nineties.

Stewart also points out that Houston, in its relative musical isolation, has once again proved to be a prime breeding ground for psyched-out experimentation with bands like Schrasj, Charalambides, and Buddha on the Moon. This makes perfect sense, given the legacy of H-Town vanguards such as the 13th Floor Elevators, Red Krayola, and Jandek. "If you ask me, Houston is a lot closer to the myth of San Francisco than Austin could ever hope to be," Stewart asserts. "They don't seem to be so obsessed with getting signed there."

However, if sheer numbers are any indication, the unlikely center of the "Space Rock" universe in Texas is Denton. The North Texas prairie town plays home to about 75,000 inhabitants and what may be the highest per capita rate of active space bands anywhere. Although some of these bands claim residence in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex proper, their home scene and center of music-related activity is a 40-mile commute north on Interstate 35.

According to Wanz Dover, guitarist for Mazinga Phaser and booking agent for the Argo in Denton, the city's scene really took off nearly two years ago. "We've got a scene history you could write a book on," Dover says. "A couple of years ago, if you weren't a funk band, you didn't play in clubs. It's like a big, weird accident."

Dover says MK Ultra, who have since broken up, were the band that really spearheaded the movement in Denton. At the same time, Comet was coalescing in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite. "For a long time, every bill would be MK Ultra, Mazinga Phaser and Comet," says Dover.

For Comet, the migration toward Denton was more a result of being shut out of Dallas than anything else. "We played the re-opening of the Bronco Bowl with Tripping Daisy in February, but that was the last time we played Dallas, because we really can't even get shows there," says Comet guitarist/vocalist Jim Stone. "We've always been able to experiment in Denton. People just booked us, they didn't care. We even got good nights. All we had to do was ask."

Once the foundation was laid, other trance-inducing bands began to appear on Denton bills. Among them were Sivad, a jazz-leaning ensemble whom Dover describes as "[My Bloody Valentine's] Kevin Shields jamming with Miles Davis." Lubbock-to-Denton transplants Light Bright Highway also made waves with three-hour instrumental shows where the shortest song was 30 minutes long. "They bring along about 30 pedals and tympani drums," says Dover. "The frat daddies come in to get a beer and wind up just standing there, salivating at the front of the stage."

The flowering of Denton's scene culminated with this spring's Melodica Festival -- three days of peace, love, and at least 158 pedals among the 18 bands that played. In addition to Texas bands like Transona 5, Skiptracer, and Furry Things, Melodica also hosted Tortoise and Spacemen 3 founder Sonic Boom.

"I hate to admit it, but the idea of a festival came to me after smoking too much of the green one night," says Dover, Melodica's main organizer. "Later on, people started asking me when it was happening, so I had to go to work. The fact that we got Tortoise was a big draw for the other bands. Then I got Sonic Boom's phone number. I called and explained to him what we were doing. We talked about the long tradition of psych music in Texas and he agreed to do it. He flew in from England to do one American date in Denton!"

In fact, Boom was so impressed by the breadth of music at Melodica that he decided to put out a compilation of festival bands on his Space Age label in England. Meanwhile, Dover is planning a sequel to Melodica for 1997. "I don't know if it was a turning point," says Ken Gibson, guitarist-vocalist for Furry Things, "but it sure brought a lot of good music together."

Since the festival, Mazinga Phaser has released Cruising in the Neon Glories of the New American Night while Comet has released Chandelier Musings. The former showcases a pleasantly fluid tribal jazz ethos heavily influenced by Krautrock, while the latter has its roots in the elegantly arranged classic pop masterpiece. Meanwhile, Austin's own Furry Things are busy adding a disco bottom to the distorted, wall-of-noise approach that characterized last year's The Big Saturday Mission. "We've been listening to a lot of Blondie lately," admits Gibson. "Our next album has some elements that are definitely disco, but not in a cheesy way. We're using disco beats and disco bass lines because we want people to dance at our shows."

Given these somewhat disparate approaches, there's some apprehension among the scene's bands regarding the whole thing being tagged with what American Analog Set guitarist-vocalist Andrew Kenny half-humorously calls "the
s-word." The bands view the term "Space Rock" as an anathema to their craft. "I hate to categorize," says Gibson. "We're trying to not stick with one thing and throw people off a bit. Maybe open people's minds to different styles of music."

Nevertheless, there is enthusiasm for the notion of a scene. "There's some solidarity in this movement amongst the bands and the fans of this type of music," says Electric Lounge booking agent Mike Henry. "Because there's a movement of sorts going on, these bands can match up with each other and work together in terms of their draws. They can build bills of like-minded bands and have fans that are going to come and watch the first band and stay until the end. It makes for a really solid night. Even the new bands, groups like Kitty and Maximum Coherence During Flight, are already having a good draw because people are interested in this type of music right now."

One of the most interesting elements among space bands is a tendency to view the studio and the stage as two entirely separate entities. Even among the neophytes, the focus is more on production aesthetics than just going into the studio to perform the set list note-for-note. "I think we definitely pursue trying to make it a different world on record," says Comet's Stone. "We never thought about how we wouldn't be able to reproduce stuff on stage. The more stuff we could get on there, the better."

Indeed, Chandelier Musings may be the best regional example of a band establishing a distinct studio identity. Produced by former Mercury Rev leader David Baker, Comet's album is full of delicate nuances and lush string arrangements that bring out a whole new dimension in the band's music. "When we did the record, I was really trying to make the songs stand out instead of all flowing together," says Stone. "I wanted a strong record with strong songs.

One factor that may be steering more young bands in this direction is the falling price of recording. A summer of mowed lawns in the suburbs will just about cover the cost of a four-track recorder/mixer these days, and the freedom of not having to record by the hour enables bands to explore the medium with more creative tenacity than previously possible. In the case of American Analog Set, home recording has allowed the band to avoid the pitfalls of studio jitters and cultivate a sound which is truly their own.

"When it comes time to record, I'm the first to take advantage of the medium," says Kenny. "You might as well be choosy and restructure things if necessary so it will be what you want to hear 10 years down the road."

The live performance arena also presents its own unique set of challenges for space bands. A good sound system and an attentive soundperson are important for any band, but the need becomes even more critical as the level of unconventional instrumentation increases. While a group like the Furry Things needs a sound system that can stomach their earth-shaking volume, the American Analog Set needs to get their quieter, more ambient sound across.

"Every time we play live, it's just a crap shoot," says Stone. "Sometimes, we play with different amps and different cabinets to get specific noises and the soundman won't even bother to mike it. Or if they do, they don't bother to turn it up. There's all this stuff that doesn't get in, and then some stuff gets in too much."

At the same time, the loud, beer-fueled atmosphere of nightclubs doesn't always lend itself to the appreciation of this form, particularly the more intimate strain. "The environment is really important to bands like this," says Henry. "A lot of them even go to extremes to make sure it happens for them. 7% Solution will bring in big rugs and pillows so people can sit down in front of the stage and they light the stage with lamps and candles, so you have to look. It gives you some place to sit there and vege out and watch the band. Of course, then there are bands like Stars of the Lid that kind of realized the same goal by bringing in a tank of nitrous and some balloons."

It's impossible to pinpoint the reasons for the somewhat sudden proliferation and popularity of the space/psych movement, but a partial explanation may be that longtime cult bands have finally reached a critical mass of wannabe rock stars. A band like Stereolab may only play to 1,000 people at a time, but if 10 of those people go home and start their own band, their influence can be quite a bit more formidable than any number of platinum-sellers. "I think there have been a lot of really influential bands that people have been listening to for years, and now the people who grew up listening to that kind of stuff are trying to do their own thing," says Henry.

Another element of space rock's prominence may lie in the relative complacency of other genres. "The time has come," Henry asserts. "People are always looking for a different way of doing things. I think also that people got tired of listening to just obliteratingly loud, grungy shit. This is a little more interesting."

Dover's assessment concurs with this notion from a slightly different tack. "There's only so much you can do with funk, and there's only so much you can do with punk," he says. "This genre allows for a lot more diversity."

Of course, just because there's room for diversity doesn't necessarily make it fact. While Dover can quickly name off a number of unique Texas bands that do push the envelope, he also notes with disdain that a number of clueless bandwagon-jumpers have popped up. "They think they can just plug in a few pedals, get a girl singer, and call themselves space rock," he says. "The Denton paper's music poll actually has a category for `Best Space Rock Band' this year, which is really offensive if you ask me."

In spite of the inevitable copycats, there are plenty of promising musical directions looming on the horizon. As has been the case many times before, Stewart points to the Detroit scene as a hotbed of innovation. "I think the scene happening in and around Detroit -- mostly around -- is much more together in terms of focusing on free-form music," he says. "In Texas and Oklahoma, the bands may have a lot of wah-wah pedals, but it's still rock & roll. Detroit bands like Füxa and Wendy & Carl are a lot more experimental."

Gibson sees the next wave of inspiration coming from the trip-hop being purveyed by artists such as New York's DJ Spooky. At the other end of the spectrum, Henry sees the space sound coming to terms with a certain degree of traditional structure. "The longer it lasts, the more people will demand from it," Henry says. "Right now, people are excited about the organic process of watching these bands evolve, but I always feel like people will be demanding songs. Eventually, they're going to not only want these bands to produce a sound they like, but also better-crafted songs. That's what people are always going to want in any movement."

Henry may have lowballed it if Sixteen Deluxe is any indication. Their forthcoming Pilot Knob EP features a Kinks cover, and come January, the band will head out to San Francisco to record their Warner Bros. debut with noted popsmith John Croslin at the knobs. "The first year we were together, bands like My Bloody Valentine and Spacemen 3 were kind of like the guiding light," says 16D bassist Jeff Copas. "But all of the stuff we've written lately has been in the vein of making the best pop song we can as opposed to just blowing people's minds."

Indeed, this music's greatest asset may be its unpredictable direction. Unlike the "paisley underground" of a decade ago, this generation of psychedelic music is not about revisitation. "That was more about staying true to a style of music," says Henry. "This really does seem like it's more about forging ahead with a new sound."

But is it "Space Rock"? Hard to say when the space designation has been applied to everyone from Sun Ra to Joe Meek to Hawkwind to George Clinton. The concept of space has been used to sell everything from newly developed polymers to Tangreg., so it shouldn't come as too big a surprise when the term is used to signify an evolutionary shift in rock music. Certainly there's plenty of room for misinterpretation, but confusion and exploring uncharted territory go hand in hand. Perhaps the one truly significant common thread between these disparate acts is a compulsion to smash through boundaries -- a firm belief in the absence of limitations on creativity. If that's an accepted working definition of the genre, then maybe space is the place after all.

Copyright © 2024 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.