The Pleasure Principle
The Light at the end of the Tunnel: Austin's Eighties-inflected Nerve-rock
Before local clubs started closing, before the war and 9/11, before people got stabbed for enforcing public-smoking bans, there was this thing called fun. Feeling the music throttle you, bleeding guitars and black-ice keyboards wrestling over a nest of pulsating bass and drums, brings a certain peace of mind -- a seductive lull that makes music the premium anaesthetic in a world otherwise gone awry.
Every so often, musicians' desire to cut loose and party thrusts a long-dormant rock subgenre back into vogue. Austin is currently in the thick of one such revival, as Zykos, I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness, Masonic, Coco Candissi, Dead Whale Tide, a Tiger Named Lovesick, and a number of others are rapidly coalescing into a cadre of bands who satisfy brain and booty alike. They do so by tapping a most unlikely source: the brooding, overcast sounds of early-Eighties Britain.
Punk rock left jolly olde England economically and culturally exhausted. Lads on the dole had little else to do but sit around, get pissed or high (or both), and play music. Since their world was monotonous, dreary, and generally lacking in hope, that's what came out of their guitars. Joy Division, Wire, PiL, Gang of Four, the Fall, Suicide -- bands that combined the hollow nihilism of their dying industrial hometowns with punk's anyone-can-play aesthetic and a disco-rooted beat as steady as the mail. America, satisfied to self-medicate its own malaise with Reaganomics and feel-good FM rock, paid little attention.
But gradually, a little more pop filtered in, and Joy Division, Wire, and PiL became New Order, the Cure, and U2. By the mid-Eighties, even most suburban Texas high schools had one or two dozen students who dressed like the Smiths and made really good grades in art and English. Now they've all grown up and started bands of their own.
"I would never say I'm in a post-punk band, ever," says Eddie Robert, bassist for I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness. The band, together about a year and a half, is working on songs for a debut EP.
"If we were making the same music five years ago, no one would think we were post-punk," concurs drummer Tim White. "Music styles are like Rorschach inkblots -- if there's something going on, then it's easy to impose this template on a lot of other things."
With Chosen Darkness' members coming from arty area groups Windsor for the Derby (singer/guitarists Jason McNeely and Christian Goyer), Glorium (guitarist/keyboardist Ernest Salaz), Paul Newman (Robert), and Salute the Curse (White), making contemplative, temperamental music is nothing new to them. What is new, and not altogether welcome, is the idea of being part of some flash-in-the-pan, media-generated "movement." They would just as soon play an informal get-together as a club gig, so the group takes extra care to write songs people can move to.
"When you create an environment where people are dancing and having fun, everyone's involved," explains McNeely.
Austin quintet Zykos makes another interesting study. Singer/guitarist Michael Booher, keyboardist Catherine Davis, bassist Michael Roeder, and drummer Jerod Cykoski all grew up together in the Klein area northwest of Houston. Bringing college friend Jarod Harmeier aboard, they reconvened in Austin in 2001 after Cykoski graduated from Texas A&M. Even though they've known each other since childhood, the group's divergent tastes are what drives its dynamic, multitextured sound.
"I think each one of us brings something totally different to the table," says Davis.
"There's a lot of different things going on, but not too much different stuff going on," qualifies Harmeier. "We get a bunch of things that might not seem to fit together to fit."
Zykos' May 6 debut, Comedy Horn (Post-Parlo), pairs Cykoski's precise cymbalwork with sprawling shoegaze guitar, Davis' classicallike runs with slashing rock chords from Harmeier and Booher, and Roeder's up-and-down bass with Booher's conversationally flowing vocals. The result is a mélange of disparate yet concurrent strains, evoking both first-generation post-punk and later U.S. indie bands like Superchunk and the Afghan Whigs.
"It's kind of comforting, not really having our specific sound yet, because we've already made an album that we're happy with," admits Davis. "Once we do, it's hopefully going to get better, or at least be different."
A handful of recent albums, most notably Interpol's Turn on the Bright Lights, have begun to awaken a wider interest in atmospheric rock. But that sound has been lurking around Austin for a while; Chosen Darkness' McNeely traces local post-punk back to Tim Kerr's Big Boys. More recently, Spoon and ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead have parlayed their edgy, original creations into lasting success and influence both at home and on the road. Local groups like Coco Candissi and Masonic, who've been around a bit longer than Zykos and Chosen Darkness, are grateful for the rekindled interest -- however it came about.
"When we got together, the whole concept was that we really liked that early-Eighties, New Wave stuff," says Coco singer/guitarist Brandon Tucker. "What blows me away today is how many of the younger bands are catching on to that."
"It's still a classic sound, but it was ignored for a long time," offers Masonic guitarist John Mason. "You think, 'What can I do that's interesting? This hasn't been touched in 20 years! Let's do this -- but let's do it in a bit of a different way.'"
And so it seems this sort-of-new style is taking root for one of the oldest reasons on the books: because it feels good.
"I got so tired of going to droney shows where you felt like nothing was driving it," says Tucker's wife and bandmate Melissa. "I want people to have fun, and I think that if you're having fun and you're moving and that element's there, it's gonna entice people to be more interested."
I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness opens for Spoon at La Zona Rosa, Friday, April 25.