Sound Team's 'Movie Monster'
"Be real. Baby, be real. That's all I ask you. Baby, be real."
A mop-topped Bill Baird sits at the electric piano, crooning homage to the late Doug Sahm as Sam Sanford harmonizes. It's eerily quiet in the dark club, a cloud of confusion and discomfort hanging near the blue-and-red lights. Word has spread quickly of Clifford Antone's death this afternoon, and by early evening Austinites have gathered outside his world-renowned namesake to pay tribute.
Inside the double doors of Antone's, where the club once welcomed legendary bluesmen and shredders, hipsters now stand. New York City retro-rockers Elefant bring something more familiar than finger-picking to this crowd of black-clad twentysomethings and ass-shaking fashionistas: openers and local favorites Sound Team. Baird, normally the band's bassist, and guitarist Sanford's impromptu and heartfelt salute to Antone reiterates an ancient entertainment adage: The show must go on.
"It felt weird," singer, guitarist, and piano-man Matt Oliver says later of the Antone's show. "We're part of this thing happening in Austin. You could call it a new musical vanguard. To come back to Antone's, where this guy of the old school had Albert King and Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker playing, it felt interesting, for sure."
Although Sahm's staple is fitting, it's the furthest thing from the serious bounce of Sound Team. Formative shows at Emo's, after Baird and Oliver moved from Portland, Ore., in 2001, witnessed packed front rooms of spastic youths jumping and dancing to a sound more eccentric. Keyboards jogged with rhythm as much as the bass and drums, as everything exploded around the band. Now the Team is tighter, every burst of measure catapulted by psychedelic pop rapture. A tide of piano and thump let loose by the moon's gravity.
Putting Sahm to bed, the sixpiece Baird, Oliver, Sanford, drummer Jordan Johns, and keyboardists Gabe Pearlman and younger Baird brother Michael dives into the set, opening with the bombastic closing track of their major label debut for Capitol Records, Movie Monster. "Handful of Billions" swirls in and chugs out, gaining momentum. "One more time before this is over!" they holler in unison. It's their last night of a 17-show trek with Elefant, and Oliver's a little raspy, a million nights of smoke and blacktop crouching in his throat.
Songs ebb and flow, each more inventive than the last. As "TV Torso" begins its slow ascent into throbbing melodrama worlds different from its recorded cousin Bill Baird collars himself with a tambourine, creating a spontaneous one-man band. He bounces in between beats, the tambourine clanging down on his shoulders, without missing a note. Stage left finds Pearlman's body rock and Sanford's hyper-rhythmic bobbing. Sound Team is feeling it, bringing beat and echo together into a surreal wave of sound. Clifford Antone would beam.
Bowing to the crowd half of whom are doubtless unaware of Antone's history Sound Team relinquishes the stage. Another show under their belts. Time to head home, there's unpacking to be done. And laundry. This will be a banner year for their suitcases.
"Are we optimistic? I don't know," says Oliver, shaking his head. "We're probably scared shitless, but isn't everybody? If we seem happy and optimistic, it's because we know that we're going to be doing this together no matter what happens. We really like doing this."
Optimism often serves as a blindfold to a trusting band newly signed to a major label. When creating something as delicate as a perfectly balanced song, a grainy Super-8 video like the one to accompany first single "Back in Town," or a dreamy oil painting like Sanford's covers to Movie Monster and last year's Work EP, that bandana over the eyes can be the only thing between the harshness of reality and the intricacies of the mind. That Capitol Records has granted Sound Team both trust and confidence, giving them creative control over their product and the way in which its marketed, speaks well of the partnership thus far.
"They're giving us a lot of freedom and leeway to come up with our own ideas," nods Baird from the control room of Sound Team's Eastside studio, Big Orange. "And we're responding. We're working really hard to try and define our future and take control. There aren't too many people who are going to better represent what we want than us."
The music industry bears little resemblance to its grunge-era counterpart. Standard record label evolution has all but collapsed, majors giving way to indies birthing micro-indies and finally digital subscription services, meaning that acts like Sound Team navigate a dangerous landscape. There's no room for failure at a major, only growth, even in a time when singles have been replaced by "emphasis tracks," and the push for radio-play has given way to a more grass roots approach to building a fan base.
"If we knew how to write a big radio hit," Oliver joked during a pre-Austin City Limits Music Festival interview last year ("ACL Music Festival Interviews," Music, September 23, 2005), "we would probably go into writing jingles."
In fact, Sound Team enjoys the best of both worlds: a huge corporation with enough capital to support them (although contractual discussion is declined), and enough cajones to take a big risk on a little band without a "mainstream" sound. Already, successful tours with the Walkmen and an unforgettable Central Park show with the Arcade Fire have laid the groundwork for a national fan base. While Sound Team's first releases, 2000's countrified debut from Baird and Oliver and 2002's coloring-book soundtrack, Into the Lens, define DIY complete with hand-drawn trading cards, CD-R art, and the aforementioned coloring book the band obviously doesn't hand-ink hundreds of albums anymore. Where they used to record songs on a whim and put them to cassette, now a producer is always in order Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Trail of Dead) this go-round.
"I'm just not scared," claims Baird. "If the record flops, I'll be giving away vinyl singles on the Drag again and selling tapes. I've been happy all along. It just doesn't matter. The album exists. It doesn't even need to come out."
Recorded at Big Orange, Movie Monster was a laborious effort of sweat and tears. Tracks like "TV Torso" were conceived during mixing, and seeing as this is the band's first proper full-length the other two burned from personal computers the tiniest tweak of a knob served an aural lesson.
"We basically put everything into this record that we could," says Oliver, who along with Baird acts as the band's official mouthpiece. "It almost killed me, but in the end, if it flops, I can know that we did that."
"I think that a lot of this label stuff is really beside the point," rejoins Baird. "If you're doing something right, then that will take care of itself."
"There are so many great musicians who never even thought about being on a label or any of that crap," Oliver adds. "We're lucky, I guess. Daniel Johnston never tried to get signed. He just wanted to write great pop songs."
"Trust the process," Baird insists. "Put faith in the process. You have to let go to a certain extent. Trust that everything is going to be okay if you just take care of each little individual step. It definitely requires trust."
Baird is the brain of this institution, the creative genius, the mad scientist. He spins in his chair, eyes following the molding along the walls, excess energy finding its way out. Thin and excited, Baird exudes the youthful exuberance necessary for undertaking the task of creation. He's a musical poet, dreaming up measures of infinite imagination.
Oliver, meanwhile, is Sound Team's ringleader, the type of maestro that takes suggestions from the class and interpolates the succeeding outcome. His walks the thin line between honesty and assurance. Regardless of his responsible nature, he knows that all this fun, all of these creative outlets, can be gone in a heartbeat. There's no time like the present. With most of the six growing up together in San Antonio, this single frame of mind comes naturally. Big Orange is their clubhouse.
Sound Team came across the abandoned record-pressing plant on Austin's Eastside soon after releasing a handful of self-recorded cassettes, and nowadays it's a comfortable, air-conditioned, high tech studio where the crew spends most of its time. It's their oasis from the road, the room where ideas work unfettered. A sculpture of gridlocked TVs stands against one wall. Sanford's original canvas for Work hangs on another. Big Orange is half studio, half art gallery, and all inspirational haven.
"You have to be experimental," Baird stresses. "Even a guy playing by himself on a guitar has to be experimental. You have to be experimenting all the time and testing the limits of what you think you can do, otherwise you're going to ossify like the boring Stones."
A pop album on the surface, Movie Monster is all in the details: Tape slipping off the reel creates a natural song ending for the short "Get Out," a typewriter serving as drum machine on "TV Torso," one-sound drum machines affected by new technology on "Movie Monster," banging on walls, busting up plastic tubs, tossing around piano benches. This is anything but a normal, power-chord pop band.
In fact, as the band continues writing their next album ("You really do have your whole life to write your first," they admit), the sad reality is that the new album will have them on the road more than in the studio. Touring will take up the majority of 2006, three weeks a month on average. The days of casually coming into the studio to lay down a track they heard in a dream last night are long gone. The road is now a full-time job. Their trusty whale van hand-painted by Hotel San José sign-maker Greg Jones will rack up some serious mileage.
"When you're on tour, food is pretty much all you've got," chuckles Baird. "It's the only thing that makes you feel really good and comfortable a lot of the time. We're actually compiling a big list of health-food stores. We got a list of batting cages, beaches, state parks, and health-food stores. I'm a vegetarian, so I compiled a list of veggie-friendly restaurants."
"Food is terrible!" yells Oliver. "Food is the biggest musical influence we have."
Who ever heard of indie rock health nuts? For a band so concerned with living in the present, taking it step by step, when it comes to well-being, those notions go out the window. It's not all vegetables and exercise, however.
"We party," Baird laughs. "But my definition of a party is two people and a block of tofu."
Bill Baird and Matt Oliver serve as the mouthpiece for the band, but Sound Team is nothing if not a sum of its parts. The other players:
1) Michael Baird: Moog man and synthesizer master, Bill's little brother has gathered a collection of vintage keyboards, drum machines, and any noisemaker you can think of. The grinning, shy boy was still in high school when his big brother tapped him for the band.
2) Jordan Johns: The hair behind the drum kit grows on Johns. Bonding with Michael Baird in high school, the skinny youngster took over for former drummer Willis Deviney now of the Lemurs in 2002.
3) Gabe Pearlman: Somehow Pearlman always seems to be on a trampoline. The keyboardist has a lot of fun on stage, and his vertical is in top form. Pearlman met Baird and Oliver in the Northwest and, like all good things, wound up in Austin.
4) Sam Sanford: The story goes that Sanford joined the group when Bill admitted that he only had two arms. The two go back to high school, and Sanford actually adds a very necessary element to Sound Team: echo guitar.