In The Sting, the triple-cross setup at the end of the film is one of the greatest ruses ever depicted on screen. Every component of the scene's reality - the betting facility, the passage of time during the race, the allegiance/betrayal of Newman and Redford, the glorious and murderous climax - all of it is a hoax. It's one of Paul Newman's finest moments - a scene in which nothing is what it seems. Austin's Paul Newman, the newest members of the Trance Syndicate family, are equally not what they seem. They're not necessarily a new band; they've been in existence for about four years, and each of them has played in at least a few bands in addition to that. Their debut CD, Frames Per Second, came out in January, but it was recorded nearly a year ago. And what of the name?
The real Paul Newman is the band's 26-year-old bass player from Lake Charles, Louisiana who was apparently coerced into giving up his name for the greater good. He along with guitarist Craig McCaffrey are also members of Brick, a local hard-core band whose songs average about 20 seconds in length.
"One of them is a little over a minute," explains McCaffrey, who, along with Newman and bass counterpart Edward Robert, was involved in local band Andromeda Strain. "That's our anthem."
"That was a long-term love affair," says Robert.
Newman was in Gomez and Yuck. Robert is also known as Cyrus Rego. McCaffrey was in Switch Hitter for a month. Then there's drummer Tony Nozero, who has done time in a number of local bands since moving here from Madison, Wisconsin, including Polio, Big Horny Hustler, Noodle, and Liquid Mice. In addition to Paul Newman, Nozero also mans the kit for Drums & Tuba. He also drives a cab.
"I keep wanting to get out," says Nozero, "but I can't get out. I don't know, it's very weird. Hard to explain. I think maybe I'm sort of addicted to it, to driving. If I have a night off I kinda freak out. It's weird, but I'm sure it will pass."
You can get addicted to driving, and it is hard to explain. Whether a cross-country ramble or a 12-hour shift spent inside the city limits, the compulsive attraction is there just the same. The subtle rises and dips of the road beneath you, the slight but constant shift of dead-ahead focus, the little rituals we create for ourselves as we work through a long night in a car. Some people find it uncomfortable, repetitive - even boring.
Some might say the same about Paul Newman. Much like labelmates Bedhead and The American Analog Set, this music is not for everyone. It has a basis in repeated sections, sometimes as short as a single measure, others much longer and more involved, but in the repetition of these sections is where the heart of Paul Newman's music beats. From that foundation, the music spreads outward and upward, growing in a riff slightly modulated or in a sudden burst or collapse of energy.
If you dislike the blues, all blues sounds the same. Same for jazz, speed-metal, reggae, zydeco, and so on. But if you try, if you devote a little bit of time and energy to the listening, the differences spring from where there was nothing in dizzying succession. Like the way McCaffrey's guitar jumps up in the third portion of "Elements of Style" to reveal Robert's Fender 6 bass defining the melody where before it seemed a straight guitar/bass duet. Or the way the basses and the drums rattle softly off each other in "Carl Sagan."
Sometimes it seems that the compositions on Frames Per Second could only have been born from a calculator - or at least from careful charting and plotting on tabulature. And if not, then solid improvisational skills and an innate, telepathic sense of what each band member is going to play would seem necessary. But here again, things are not as they seem.
"Most of the songs are set, and they're fairly simple," says McCaffrey. "For the most part we write stuff and then we simplify it and then we finish it. We strip it down a little and then put it back together. There will always be some surprises, things that can go different ways, but there's not much improvisation."
McCaffrey, 25, is not only Paul Newman's guitar player - he also sings on a couple songs. Most of them don't have words, though, and the ones that do are not exactly narratives. The lyrics are for the most part unintelligible, more to complete the feeling behind a song than to set a story to it.
"I tried to ask Craig about the lyrics to `Empire of the Ants,' and he kind of gave me the gist," says Newman. "But he won't tell me exactly what it says."
McCaffrey just smiles, offering nothing. He's just returned from a trip to England, and afterward he shows off a very cool coat he bought over there.
"Did you see all the Trainspotting guys?" asks Nozero.
Newman laughs, then asks, "Did you see any Bruce Dickinson books?"
Bruce Dickinson, the banshee-voiced lead singer for the seminal heavy metal band Iron Maiden, has apparently turned author. And Newman has just shown his roots.
"I know at least Paul and I were very into metal," McCaffrey says. "And Eddie's got some metal issues, too."
"Probably not to the extent that these guys do, but it's there," agrees Robert. "We were all metal kids in one way or another."
[Author's note: About midway through the interview, I stopped tape and excused myself to use the facilities. In transcribing the tape later, I found an interlude provided by Paul, in which he sang the chorus to WASP's "I Wanna Be Somebody" in his best Blackie Lawless impression.]
Considering the stuff these guys listened to as they learned their trade, their overwhelmingly understated stage presence is another surprising contradiction. Nowhere are there rock postures, metal theatrics, head-flailing solos, or backbreaking screams. On stage, for the most part, Paul Newman don't move.
"I think we're all just concentrating on what we're doing," says Nozero.
"Sometimes I get conscious of everyone standing still, looking at their guitars," says Robert. "Sometimes you don't feel the need to rock out or anything, and if you start to, you feel self-conscious. Craig shuffles his feet a little."
"I twirl my sticks when you're not looking," adds Nozero.
"Ever see the Cars?" asks Robert. "The Cars were apparently deliberately into standing still and not doing anything - looking as cool as possible, just looking around. That's the way I like to think of it, instead of concentrating. Looking as cool as possible. That works better for me."
With this Paul Newman, nothing is what it seems.
Paul Newman's SXSW showcase is Saturday, March 21 @ the Atomic Cafe, 10pm.