The Medium Is the Music

Photo of Courtney Audain

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

To hear Courtney Audain's speaking voice is to be charmed by its musical cadence, a lilting tone whose gentle volume turns to beatific praise when raised in song. A man of leonine beauty accompanies this voice, black, shiny braids cascading over his shoulders and the dark walnut polish of his skin gleaming like his eyes. The smile that comes with both the voice and the man is accompanied by a set of dimples whose merry presence in no way undermines the message. "I believe," he says with deep conviction, "in the unification of people. I've always been a rebel with a cause."

A message must have a messenger, though, or a medium, and for Courtney Audain, music is the medium. To that end, he's played in a panoply of bands as colorful as the island of Trinidad, where he was born and raised. A percussionist and bassist proficient in numerous other instruments, Audain's roots playing in steel drum bands in Trinidad are audible in every musical project he's ever undertaken, from his tenure in the early Eighties reggae band Pressure and later MTV darlings Timbuk3 to personal projects. Growing up on an island was quite unlike the crush of mainland life, and Trinidad's location in the Caribbean provided an exquisite playground for a child, especially one with musical inclination. He grew up in a family of nine brothers and sisters, and his parents enjoyed music, listening to a wide variety of acts such as Miriam Makeba, Brook Benton, and Ace Cannon. Audain's affinity for music was apparent early on.

"At Christmas, all our presents would be under the tree unwrapped, and you'd just choose one," remembers Audain. "I was three years old, and from all the games and stuff there, I choose a ukulele. By the middle of the afternoon, I was playing two Christmas carols and dancing and singing on the table for my mom and her friends."

When he was seven, Audain's elder brother joined a steel band, bringing his drum home to practice. When his brother wasn't abroad playing with the band, he was at work, so young Audain would cut school and go home to play the drums. Trying to master the music he heard his brother practicing at home, it wasn't long before Audain was actually playing Mozart and Tchaikovsky -- by ear. That, combined with the fact that Trinidad was such a melting pot of different cultures -- East Indians, African, Syrian, Chinese -- informed Audain's musical vision.

"I knew what I wanted to do was be a musician," he asserts. "I was playing in a steel band by nine and I joined my first professional steel band -- the one my brother played in -- when I was 13. The first year, I just played steel drums, and moved from instrument to instrument. I learned about 12 songs. The following year, I became the drummer in the band and later won three musical competitions, the ones before Carnaval. The first time I came to the United States was with them, in 1974. We played in Atlanta."

Performing with the steel drum band in the States was inspiring to Audain, who found himself living in New York by 1979. A few months later, a neighbor and fellow Trinidadian told an Austin reggae musician by the name of Kad-I-man about Audain's talent as both a player and musical arranger. Kad-I-man wasted no time in calling Audain and asking him to come to Texas to do arrangements for his band, talking up the town and the club he claimed he ran. Audain arrived in Austin in 1981. One week later, Kad-I-man left town. The smile in Audain's voice can be heard at the near 20-year-old memory.

"It was all a con."

Despite having no to place to stay, Audain fell in love with Austin, and Steve Carter at Recycled Records helping talk him into staying. "I got myself a job at Lamar Volkswagen -- the Friday before the Big Flood."

The casual mention of the devastating Memorial Day flood of 1981 identifies Audain as having deep roots in the local music scene. Not only was the natural disaster unsettling to Austin, it happened at a time when the music scene was in flux. The Armadillo was history, Raul's had just closed, and the Home of the Blues, Antone's, had moved north. Cosmic cowboys were unhip and punk was dividing itself into New Wave and hardcore without much of the old DIY middle road. It was into this changing and uncertain scene that a band called Pressure, headed up by Steve Carter and Claude McCann, was birthed.

Pressure was one of the primary leaders of world beat music in Austin, which took off during the Eighties. Along with local acts like the Lotions, Killer Bees, and Dan Del Santo, Pressure proved remarkably popular, enjoying nearly eight years of success. Their sole album -- pressed, quaintly enough, on vinyl only -- was produced by New Wave songwriter/producer Patrick Keel, and featured guests Eric Johnson and Tomas Ramirez. Audain calls himself just a player in the band when it was recorded, and identifies himself as such perhaps because he was already a recording veteran by the time Pressure put out its debut; he had recorded five albums in Trinidad, some live and some studio. His desire to write was increasing, also.

"I started songwriting around '83 or '84," says Audain. "I had learned so much about arrangement from the steel bands, that being with Pressure, I started feeling stronger. When one of the main songwriters, Claude, left the group, I started writing and just continued it."

Five years under Pressure was enough for Audain, however, who wanted to explore other rhythms. He played briefly with Lissa Hattersley in the Midnight Angels, then in a popular cover band called Trik Trax. He also did some recording with Chris Thomas. About that time, Pat McDonald and Barbara K decided to expand Timbuk3 from a duo with a portable tape player to a band with real supporting musicians. The versatile Audain assumed the role of bassist. Timbuk3 never again matched the splash of "The Future's So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades)," but it wasn't for lack of good if not better material. And the lessons he learned: invaluable.

Audain's five-year tenure with Timbuk3 and his subsequent two-and-a-half-year stint with the Killer Bees directly influenced the three-year making of Audain's first local solo release, Fuze. Released last fall, Fuze is an exotic hybrid of the tropical beat found in Audain's native Trinidad and the sophisticated rhythms of the big city, boasting a distinctive reggae base that has less to do with the smoky haze of ganja than with the pure and simple celebration of life.

"I learned about the importance of sequencing songs from Pat and Barbara," explains Audain. "It wasn't something I paid attention to when I was doing other projects, but for this album, it was important to make sure the sequence of my songs followed each other. They're connected by being crossed with R&B and pop and influenced by world beat, but there's a story that flows along with them."

Had Audain not grown up with such cultural diversity, the disparate influences of his music might not blend so well in Fuze.

"It's almost like group therapy," he says half in jest. "Very motivational kind of stuff. God has blessed me so much with this album. I always wanted to chart my own path; for me, the way I grew up in Trinidad in a dysfunctional family, I always wanted to make things spiritually correct. It's the way I give myself freedom, the way to get away from the 'isms' and 'schisms' -- a good place to hide out."

More than that, Fuze is ultimately a lifetime's worth of dreams and efforts, realized in an intoxicating blend of sensual soul and undulating reggae. What few mentions it received in print were full of praise for Audain's ability to wrap a warm blanket of spirituality around the 10 tracks, less do-it-yourself than do-it-right. His choice of covering the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out," featuring the mighty MC Overlord, was questioned, however, by a fan.

"'We Can Work It Out' was me wanting to touch on something from my past, and touch on a song people would know and could identify with. Since the entire album is a message of unification, it's the perfect song. Someone asked me why I didn't choose a song from a black artist, but I wasn't choosing color. Having been born in 1960, it was the right song."

When he's not writing or playing, Courtney Audain is busy working in his own Coinhead Studios, recently mixing albums for Sexiple, a group from Budapest, Hungary who are hot on Euro MTV, as well as for Sara Hickman. He has also toured and performed with Ian Moore, Kris McKay, Charlie and Will Sexton, and Kurt Nuemann of the Bodeans.

"The name Coinhead comes from a local wine in Trinidad, Gold Coin Wine," explains Audain. "My friends and I would go to parties, and you brought your own bottle of wine to the party as admission. Our favorite kind of wine was Gold Coin Wine. Whenever you got drunk, you had a 'Coin' head. Since it always gave everyone a laugh when I mentioned it, I thought it would be a good name for my own label. And my own studio. And my own publishing company."

And Web site. But what if the next frontier is not as lush and tropical as Trinidad, nor as mundane as Austin? Can "One World" apply to the colorblind environs of cyberspace?

"Oh yes," says Audain. "It allows people to be even more connected. It's the great possibility."

Courtney Audain's SXSW showcase is Wednesday, March 17, 11pm, at the Flamingo Cantina.

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