They Got the Beat
Pop Music Is Back in Vogue in Austin -- Big Time
Oh. My. God. How did "pop," a mere three-letter word, cause this much havoc? Could there be a more misunderstood and misapplied musical classification? Little wonder: MTV, the WB, Coca-Cola, the Gap, and Maybelline, not to mention the handful of tax shelters masquerading as major labels, are all much more interested in selling pop than defining it. But more than ever, as Men Without Hats noted in 1988, pop goes the world.
That goes double for Austin in 2001. This, though, is one instance where "pop" is not necessarily shorthand for "popular." Still largely overshadowed by the city's long-running roots devotion, the lingering effects of the Nineties alternative/indie upheaval, and the funky rock juggernaut spearheaded by Bob Schneider and current Band of the Year Vallejo, the number of local pop practitioners has nevertheless risen sharply since the Backstreet Boys asked America to quit playing games with their hearts in mid-1998. Not that there's any connection.
A much more obvious, and more appropriate, flashpoint would be Austin's own Fastball's chart-busting single from the same year, "The Way." The song's runaway success more than hinted there was still plenty of room, both locally and nationally, for pop in the pre-Total Request Live sense of the word -- catchy choruses, indelible melodies, trenchant lyrics. Three years on, a cluster of enterprising, tenacious Austin musicians have laid the foundation for what used to be called, in simpler times, a "scene." These days, you can call it whatever you want to.
Shane Bartell's favorite pop songs are the ones that make him think of "putting down the top of the VW Cabriolet in 75-degree weather and driving out to Mount Bonnell." Hard to believe he once sat in his room transcribing Morrissey's lyrics. Even stranger, he's one Radiohead fan who hasn't a bad word to say about Britney, Backstreet, or anyone else teaching the snack-food industry the meaning of mass consumption.
Verse 1: Shane
"If it weren't for Britney Spears, what the fuck are you gonna have?" he wonders. "Slipknot? Limp Bizkit?"
The Kerrville native, 27, is not without ulterior motives in defending Ms. Super Bowl Pepsi Commercial, whose unearthly record sales he ascribes to "12-year-olds and music critics." Like any aspiring pop star, he's looking out for number one.
"I think that it's a great thing that kids that are 12 and 13 and 14 are buying N'Sync records," he winks, "because when they hit 15 and it's not cool to like boy bands, but they're weaned on pop, they're gonna start listening to people like me."
Bartell's vision of pop is music you can listen to once you're past puberty yet "don't want to rock out so hard you're huffing paint in the garage, but want to smoke cigarettes." After moving to Austin in 1992, he played guitar in the 4AD-ish cling during the mid-Nineties, moved to Portland, and came back to pursue a solo career. His maiden release, the seven-song EP Reference, came out about two weeks ago. A suite of diary-personal lyrics set to foot-tapping melodies, Reference is a well-crafted example of pop at its most intimate and universal. Even so, Bartell can't help but wonder how it'll go over in the current cash-driven climate.
"I don't know how commercially viable we are," he admits, "but then again, look at this big British smart-rock movement coming on. You've got Coldplay, that are just doing gigantic movements right now; David Gray, doing just gangbusters; Dido -- it's not a guy with a guitar, but it's definitely a pop respected by people in the mainstream and not in the mainstream at the same time. Travis, these kinds of bands."
Anglos duly excused (save S Club 7), if today's conventional wisdom holds pop synonymous with dumbed-down, Bartell cites "Every Breath You Take" as evidence it ain't always necessarily so. Songs where the lyrics penetrate as deeply as the melody often resonate the longest in popular memory. Think of "I've Got You Under My Skin" or TLC's "Waterfalls." But at the same time, the most poetic lyric in the world could be boring if the tune isn't right.
"It sucks because maybe we're making the music too smart," he offers. "I don't think so -- if it's a fucking great melody it's a great melody, and people are gonna get into it. If you look at a song like 'The Way,' it's kind of a creepy song, but at the same time you've got this melody that can sit alongside 'Genie in a Bottle.'"
Asked what percentage of pop is driven by marketing, Bartell answers the whole hundred. Nobody's saying "Say My Name" isn't a great pop song, but by and large, if a label spends money on an artist -- "servicing" songs to radio, hiring A-list video directors -- they sell records. If they turn off the cash tap, sales likewise dry up. How else to explain Crazy Town? But a better question might be how this goes over in the clubs, where Austin musicians toil when their songs aren't on the radio. Here, the answer so far is a mixed review, and Bartell knows it.
"[Locally], people tend to go and see bands not based upon what they're listening to, but based upon what they've heard from friends or what they've seen," he says.
Don't tell anyone, but in Austin it's possible, even common, to go to live music shows for reasons other than aesthetic fulfillment. (Shocking!) The opposite sex, mainly; friends, booze, and being on the guest list, to name a few others. Seen The Chris Isaak Show?
"My shows are all right represented by girls," Bartell acknowledges. "We're just not the Scabs. Maybe I should take off my shirt."
Ever the good sport, Bartell expresses nothing but admiration at the "ass bomb" the Scabs have managed to drop on Antone's. What could be more pop than ... population enhancement? He can name one advantage right off the bat:
"If you're playing an ass-shaking song, you'll be like, 'I don't feel like talking about my dead cat.'"
Spoken like a true Smiths fan. Looking to the future, Bartell displays most un-Morrisseyan levels of optimism.
"I mean, Coldplay is played on KHFI," he points out. "If you can marry that sort of melodic songwriting to [Scabs-style] showmanship, there's no limit."
Question: What is pop?
Chris Hillen, Bedbug: No distortion, a lot of keyboards and the like. A lot of it is soft and happy.
Save Hotchkiss, The Real Heroes: For me and our band it is a mission, it's an exorcism, it's psychotherapy, it's a mating ritual.
Stefanie Crock, Media Kreeps: Sometimes by saying something is pop music you're saying that it's meaningless and won't stand the test of time.
Evan Dickson, Hidden Speaker: The perfect medium to communicate our own personal, intangible aesthetic. A pop song can communicate a realm of the personality that books and film cannot.
Subset: The cherry.
Matt Kinsey, Li'l Cap'n Travis: Built to Spill's "Dystopian Dream Girl," Destiny's Child's "Say My Name," and Roger Miller's "King of the Road" are all pretty perfect pop songs.
Coco Candissi: Played out poo-poo. Pop used to be something between punk and New Wave. What happened?
Pop singers will talk your ear off about melody, so it's refreshing to meet one who'd rather be keeping the beat. Where would Madonna and Janet Jackson be without rhythm? Or Buddy Holly?
Verse 2: Darin
Darin Murphy admits he's happiest behind a drum kit, but he's no slouch up front or on guitar. UK über-rockmag Mojo favorably reviewed his first solo album, 1999's Solitarium, and he's played L.A.'s International Pop Overthrow festival a couple of times. Still, it's not unusual for his band to play a Wednesday night indoors at Stubb's, provided he's not drumming for Shane Bartell or the Love Supreme. Just as well; he wasn't that impressed by what he heard in sunny California anyway.
"I didn't hear anything that was going anywhere," he says. "I didn't hear anything that didn't sound like the Monkees or outtakes from the Big Star archives."
Murphy's musical talents extend to re-creating Beatles songs down to the last handclap on his four-track, and his friends rave about the uncanny results. (Relax, Ringo, he doesn't sell them.) For him, a great pop song is all about surprises.
"My favorite pop songs are songs that can take you in a couple of different places," he says. "You get a hook that's pretty firmly established, and just when you're starting to maybe get a little tired of it, there's a chord change or a break that takes you somewhere else for a minute. As long as it comes back to that essential hook by the time you're done with the song, then you're in pretty good shape."
The 37-year-old Murphy grew up in the Houston area. He played drums by junior high, loved the Who, wasn't into punk because "I was too busy having fun to be pissed off," then joined his younger sister Trish in folk-rock duo Trish & Darin. They developed into a reliable draw in local clubs, but critics weren't always impressed; Murphy himself will now cop "all my songs sounded like songs that didn't make it onto an XTC album."
Eventually, he tired of the scene's "negativity," with a front-row seat to winners being heckled like a slumping right fielder at 1994's Houston Music Awards coming as the last straw. So he decided to move to Austin for a reason less and less common these days: It was more like a small town.
"Houston's always been that way," he says. "It's always been people just picking at each other and taking potshots at each other in the press and journalists that would sucker-punch artists just for being somewhere, being where they didn't think they belonged. There came a point where I said 'Fuck it, I don't want to be a part of this anymore.'"
Murphy says moving to Austin was the best decision he ever made. Trish also moved here; see "Department of Hope," Feb. 28, 1997. Pop runs in the family: Her 1999 CD Rubies on the Lawn was itself one of the year's best. As pop was virtually dormant here in the mid-Nineties, Darin took several years to get fully assimilated. Today he can name off musical friends and acquaintances from all over the local map, Spoon to Goudie to the Real Heroes.
"Everybody is into what everybody is doing," he says. "You can't go too many places where you're gonna find someone that just sits around and talks about how much people suck."
Murphy confesses a fondess for "any music that sounds fun," even the Presidents of the United States of America. While pop and rock are often at odds, one thing his songs most convey is how a certain rock & roll-bred exuberance is now equally crucial to great pop music. Because if music isn't fun, why do it at all?
"Whenever I find myself putting too much energy into a song and really getting frustrated over what I'm writing, I just go back and sing 'a-wop-bop-a-lu-bop-a-wop-bam-boom,'" he says.
"It all came from somebody getting up there and spouting out a bunch of nonsense as a celebration of freedom. And also as a direct signal not to take themselves too seriously."
Question: What separates "pop" and "rock"?
Scott Garred, Silver Scooter: I think [our] melodies are very "pop" and the beat is rock. Maybe?
Chris, Schatzi: There is no line, because punk rock can be just as pop as the Beatles.
Hillen: I would bet that most bands playing this music would prefer not to be classified either way.
Subset: Fred Durst is so fuckin' hot -- rock is nasty like that.
Crock: Rock music can be extremely guitar-driven.
Bradley: Weezer -- their first record was full of fun, even silly songs. Then came their second record, still melodic and catchy but definitely darker and more edgy. I liked the second record more.
Tim Lasater, Pop Unknown: I guess we swing both ways.
Hotchkiss: People that sing rock are generally more upset, I think.
For two guys yet to see 30, Jason Garcia and Byron Westbrook could well be considered pop lifers. Keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Westbrook says he discovered Tom Petty's Damn the Torpedos at all of three years old, and Garcia can still go him one better.
Verse 3: Household Names
"I think I was like 18 months old -- my parents swear by this," begins the frontman/ songwriter/guitarist. "My dad was a big Paul McCartney and Beatles fan, he had the records and we'd listen to them on the radio. We were driving one day, me and my parents, and I was in the back in the car seat. The radio was off, and my mom says she suddenly heard this humming. They turn around and it was me humming 'Let Him In' by Wings. I think being in a pop band was always in the cards."
Household Names holds the distinction of having a record out before becoming an actual band. Garcia recorded The Trouble With Being Nice in 1999 and posted it on MP3.com. Garcia was already a fan of Westbrook's band at the time (who he declines to name, saying only "we didn't market ourselves very well"), and the two got to talking. Since Westbrook had already bought Garcia's CD online, and wound up liking it so much he says it became his favorite record, the two quickly interpreted their mutual admiration as some sort of omen.
"Jason kept calling me saying 'What do I do with this thing?'" remembers Westbrook.
"You were like, 'Well, maybe we can start a band,'" replies Garcia.
Coming together over a shared love of XTC and Elvis Costello (among others), Household Names, the band, played its first show in February 2000. Westbrook helped Garcia -- previously a self-proclaimed "kid dorking around in the bedroom with the four-track" -- shed his lack of live experience, even as Garcia's influence helped him finally fully appreciate the Beatles.
The Trouble With Being Nice appeared in Austin record stores last summer, drawing favorable reviews, radio play on Chronicle writer and 101X deejay Andy Langer's Next Big Thing show, and space on a few year-end Top 10 lists in the bargain. Packed with melodically charged, uptempo would-be singles ("We write in singles," notes Garcia) with a sprinkling of thoughtful ballads, the CD deserves widespread radio exposure, which -- surprise, surprise -- isn't likely to be forthcoming any time soon. The band has managed to secure distribution in Australia, and is now tentatively feeling out the UK market, further illustrating the sometimes absurd lengths to which independent-minded U.S. pop bands must venture in order to get recognition back home.
"We're looking for what we feel is our best bet for getting exposure here," says Garcia (with a straight face, no less), "which is getting exposure first in Europe."
In the meantime, Household Names is also turning its attention to a sometimes equally daunting task: carving a niche in the Austin club scene. Though they admit it's difficult to adapt some songs for the stage -- the word "arrangement" comes up a lot -- mostly they're pleased at the progress they've made so far. Considering their material was originally conceived in the studio, and intended more for stereo speakers than club PA systems, they have ample reason to be.
"Basically we've decided 'Well, we like playing.' So we're just gonna play," asserts Westbrook.
And the last thing they want to do is sell their souls to some record company, at least not before they're good and ready. They've already seen what happens when someone they admire has the misfortune to release a high-dollar record at the wrong time.
"Neil Finn had a record on Sony in 1998, that didn't do very well, they didn't promote it very well, so he's considered damaged goods," Westbrook says. "It is a different situation for us because we're not damaged goods yet."
"I'm sure we'll be in that position at some point," laughs Garcia. "It's only a matter of time."
Question: Is Austin a good pop town?
Garred: It's a good eclectic town, but not good at any one genre except Willie's.
Crock: I think there are some truly great pop bands here. Until recently, I thought these bands would never get any attention, but thankfully I'm being proved wrong. Austin is ready for something new.
Coco Candissi: We need to reclaim what has been literally destroyed by big-time producers of teen pop bands. Do you want a screaming, sticky, and soulless sound to be the highlight of your music culture?
Hotchkiss: I believe people will get tired of not thinking and something will break.
Hillen: Absolutely. Right now there are a lot of really good bands that definitely have their own sound. That makes for a nice, wide variety of people to play with.
Chris: There's always too much going on here for everything to get the recognition it deserves.
Swedish-born Lars Goransson is the enigmatic yet plainspoken link between the other artists profiled in this story. He engineered Darin Murphy's Solitarium and produced Reference (he's known Bartell since cling), The Trouble With Being Nice, and the Love Supreme's first EP last year -- Austin's own pop princess Mindy LaBernz dished all the dirt in "The Ego Has Landed," April 28, 2000. Most recently, he and Darin Murphy just finished Solitarium's follow-up.
Verse 4: Lars
Additionally, Goransson has also manned the boards for Austin pop godfathers Cotton Mather and Swedish Sabbath savants the Cardigans on Gran Turismo. Yet he comes off as the opposite of "name" producers like Babyface or Dr. Dre. Instead, he describes himself as an "idea cannon" and "errand boy," working almost entirely off instinct.
"I hear the music and I hear shit in my head -- stuff, I hear stuff in my head -- and I throw it all out," he says. "In some cases, dealing with the whole band, it causes conflict, and some cases it's all readily accepted right away."
Goransson, who says Sweden was "too cold," eventually took to producing because he found himself preferring the controlled studio environment to the sometimes chaotic nature of club gigs, where "if the beer wasn't cold enough, the band sucked." For someone from a country that has made ear-grabbing music a specialty like Switzerland has timepieces or Italy shoes, he's reluctant to define pop as anything beyond "what's popular." Or was that pillaged?
"It's all about stealing," he jokes (maybe). "You can't write a new pop song, it's all been written. Anything original will sound weird."
After playing in Swedish pop bands since his midteens, Goransson, now 36, has lived in Austin some 14 years. He worked as a sideman, and even started his own group, but stopped after realizing it was "really mediocre ... I thought it needed to be amazing." He says Hank Williams, George Jones, and Willie Nelson all sang great pop songs -- "three minutes, verse, chorus, bridge that's even better than the chorus, there you go" -- a courtesy he also extends to these bands he's worked with (and that's about it). Outside the studio, he's as much a fan as anyone else in the audience at their shows. More, even, because he's probably heard their songs more often than anyone save roommates and girlfriends. And he still won't take any credit.
"Has nothing to do with me," he swears. "Absolutely nothing. There's just great bands that happen to be here, and I'm really grateful for that, because I can go out and see bands that I like."
As much as he's behind them, Goransson can still sound as skeptical of Austin pop bands' chances to successfully crack the wider marketplace as some of the musicians. He agrees the bean counters would rather spend money on proven commodities, however bland, than on unproven, unsigned upstarts, no matter how talented. He may be able to hear housewives in Marfa humming Darin Murphy or Love Supreme songs, but knows that hardly means some executive vice-president at Capitol or Warner Bros. will agree. Corporate logic strikes again.
"It might just make more sense to give another $500,000 to the next Fuel video," Goransson says. "The stockholders will really like this much better than 'Hey, let's put $100,000 into this great band that we've signed and we've made a record with.'"
Question: Are we in the middle of a "scene"?
Lasater: I feel one percolating. There are clusters of bands that are doing multiple shows together and combining their following, and each cluster is somehow incestually linked to every other pop band in Austin.
Kinsey: Orange Mothers, Adult Rodeo, Fivehead, Pajamacus, and all sorts of other cool bands play pop songs at least some of the time, all with different approaches.
Coco Candissi: The 'scene' will eat itself. I think pop bands will have to experience a lot more than Austin to evaluate their own calling in the world.
Dickson: I see Dynamite Hack as a good example of how community can be achieved. They have gone out of their way to use their success to support bands they feel are deserving. But this is where I get cynical: So far, I have seen zero evidence of that goodwill being reciprocated.
Subset: All scenes suck.
Should the unthinkable happen and one of these bands win the major-label dice game, what then? Maybe enough national attention to help update Austin's musical image, still overwhelmingly associated with styles that, to put it politely, grow more antiquated by the hour. (Sorry, Willie.) Or maybe not -- either way, it's unlikely clubgoers will notice anytime soon.
Outro (Fade Out?)
Besides the performers already cited, there's Kissinger, Playdoh Squad, Fast & Far, Cruiserweight, the Riddlin' Kids, Ringer, Halley, the Golden Apples, Tuna Helpers, Masonic, Playthings, Peenbeets, the Sleepwalkers, and Girling, and that may be just one weekend on Red River. Some are poppier than others, to be sure, but precious few would be asked to play a Big Black hoot night.
Elsewhere, local label India Records (home to Dewato, Kitty Gordon, Jeff Klein, and Will Sexton) has begun fostering a distinctive blend of esoterica that deserves its own article. Spoon's most "pop" album yet, Girls Can Tell, appears set for a near-eternal run on college radio. Fastball can currently be located on the road with the likes of Collective Soul. Even warhorses like Cotton Mather, Davíd Garza, and the Wannabes still put on electrifying, if increasingly infrequent, performances.
Encyclopedia. Exchange floor. Road map. Newsgroup. Village green. Jungle. A hog blowing by you at 80mph on 183. Rev. Dial-a-Phone. Leslie the cross-dressing ex--mayoral candidate. Pop.
If you live in Austin, and have anything at all to do with music, do yourself a favor: Memorize this definition from page 772 of my American Heritage Dictionary: "A situation or surrounding substance in which something originates, develops, or is contained." The matrix has you.