Local Musicians on Avoiding the Sophomore Slump

Five trending Austin-hatched acts that sidestepped recording’s biggest pitfall


Photo by Shelley Hiam

Xetas

Art-punk through trial and error

You can learn a lot about people from observing how they fidget.

For instance, the whole time local art-punk trio Xetas speak about their insanely good new 12XU LP The Tower over breakfast on the patio at Kerbey Lane on South Lamar, lead screamer/guitarist David Petro stares into space, tearing his straw's paper wrapper into four pieces of equal length. Eventually, he arranges them into Black Flag's iconic four-bar logo. Then he obliterates it into a lumpen mess.

There could be no greater visual manifestation of Xetas' mix of the physical and cerebral than Raymond Pettibon's genius graphic.

On one hand, Petro, bassist Kana Harris, and drummer Jay Dilick attack their instruments with brutality. The result resembles the chain-drive power assault of Black Flag's SST Records roster. Picture Greg Ginn's explosiveness mixed with Hüsker Dü's harmonic pop.

Then try to make sense of the lyrics to The Tower. Bomb bursts including "The Gaze" and "The Burden" detonate an obtuse logic akin to post-punk haikus from Wire or the Fall. Xetas clearly love entangling the visceral and intellectual.

"Why can't we be both?" smiles Harris.

Most bands choke on their second full-length. The cliche remains that musicians have their entire lives to write the first album and 10 months to compose its successor. Xetas cut debut 45 "The Silence" b/w "The Knife" one month after their live debut in 2014, with producer Ian Rundell at the board. That set a template for the following year's debut LP, The Redeemer, another smart/angry/resonant outburst of passion also manned by Rundell. All the same elements are at play on The Tower.

Stamped with Harris' tarot card cover of rats diving out of what looks to be Trump Tower on fire, the April platter sounds driven – bigger and clearer sonically. Progression comes in loud and clear on the digital release, containing the first single for handy comparison.

"We figured out what we wanted to do more with this one," nods Petro.

"We were a lot more focused this time around," adds Dilick. "You can use the old LP as a reference point: 'Oh, I don't like the way that sounds. How do we do this?'"

Harris elaborates: "It's a lot easier to edit something that already exists than to edit an idea that's in your head, but you don't know how it's going to sound yet. So once we had the first record, it gave us a chance to regroup and look at what we had already done and how we could improve on it.

"Which is just how we do everything: experience through trial and error."

Tim Stegall


Alex Napping

Dream-pop colored by uncertainty and reverie


Photo by Shelley Hiam

Alex Cohen knows what she wants.

Last year, the guitarist/vocalist relocated from Austin to Brooklyn, a place where even the tiniest of tasks has to be done with deliberateness. The new locale suits her disappearing into music for hours a day, weeks at a time, anonymous and immersed. And it's working out well for her musical brainchild, Alex Napping.

She already has 14 songs written for album No. 3.

The band began in 2013 amid the confusing tangle of postcollege adulthood, but even then Cohen knew she wanted to approach music seriously. After recruiting drummer Andrew Stevens, guitarist Adrian Sebastian Haynes, and bassist Tomas Garcia-Olano to cement the lineup, Alex Napping released its 2014 debut. This Is Not a Bedroom fluttered six glistening tracks of bedroom pop.

Mise en Place, the quartet's sophomore re- lease, takes that world and turns it on its head.

Released in early May via San Francisco/Miami indie Father/Daughter Records, Mise en Place is colored by uncertainty in even the dreamiest parts of the disc. Cohen's wispy sigh of vocals ride airborne guitar lines into a reality-based reverie. She wrote it while navigating the fallout of a relationship, figuring out both her space in the world and how that fit into what she wanted out of life.

"I don't think I'm experiencing anything new," says Cohen, laughing. "And that's what I wanted to communicate and make an album about. Especially as I was putting the songs together and editing to make them cohesive, I definitely wanted it to feel like a relatable record."

Recorded with Erik Wofford at Cacophony Recorders in East Austin before Cohen's move, Mise en Place also came together the way its driving force always wanted to approach her musical output. Ahead of Alex Napping getting into the studio, the band had only played two or three of the tracks live.

"We had more time in the studio," says the singer, "which made it feel more comfortable to make, and a lot more time to experiment. Our first record – even though we tried not to do it this way – is a recorded representation of our live show, whereas what I would prefer is to make a record and then say, 'Okay, how do we play this live now?'"

The focus on building intricate sonic textures and melodies helped Mise en Place emerge with a quiet momentum. The strange, visually immersive video for "Fault" premiered via Bob Boilen's All Songs TV on NPR, while Paste named them amongst "The Best of What's Next." Cohen and company's upward trajectory remains meticulously steady, in part because the group retains its original personnel.

"Being in a band for me isn't because I wanna have a band that sounds a certain way, but because I like playing music with this group of people," concludes Cohen. "As we grow as musicians, I want our dynamic and the sound we're able to create together to grow and shift."

Libby Webster


Suspirians

Quantum progression post-punk and cosmic psychedelia


Photo by Shelley Hiam

Few bands boast a vision as clear as that demonstrated by Suspirians on their debut. Released in 2014, the Austin trio's vibrant blend of post-punk onslaught and cosmic psychedelia sounded fully formed. Which makes the quantum progression of sophomore LP Ti Bon Ange all the more noteworthy.

"We didn't have time to think about it too much," says singer/guitarist Marisa Pool. "We had the opportunity to go into the studio via Super Secret, and we felt an urgency to do it quickly. Looking back, I don't know why. [Maybe] because it had already been over a year since we put out the first record.

"So we took the material and worked it. We were really open to experimenting and seeing what we could do with what we had. We didn't overthink it. We spent a lot of time shaping it, but we also just had fun with it – like a piece of art."

Bassist/keyboardist Stephanie Demopulos pinpoints another reason for the exponential growth.

"We were already writing songs in a different direction, but we did replace a band member, which changed a lot of stuff."

She's referring to the exit of original drummer Anna Lamphear, off to study law, and the addition of veteran Austin drummer Lisa Cameron, who brought a new edge to the threepiece.

"One thing I've noticed is that we've gone more into improv, experimental tinges," says Cameron, whose powerhouse résumé includes membership in roots blowout Brave Combo, indie rock first-wavers Glass Eye, and Lone Star legends Roky Erickson & the Aliens – not to mention a long-running stint with homegrown psych pioneers ST 37. "I think I'm encouraging them somehow even though they were already there. That attracted me to the band. They would get these trance-y, drone-y, garage-y kind of throwdowns, which I really enjoy."

Cameron also credits the band's ability to absorb and reflect its influences for Ti Bon Ange's wider appeal.

"We have somehow developed this uncanny sense of being able to evoke different sounds without having to actually play like that person," she continues. "Like just a little tinge of this or that is enough to remind people of the Butthole Surfers or Neil Young or Siouxsie Sioux. There's an influence of surf. I even hear girl groups, the Ronettes or the Shangri-Las, in there. We're not trying to sound like those people. It's just part of our natural diet."

Unsurprisingly, for a band that gives interviews en masse, Suspirians credit their sophomore triumph to tight chemistry.

"Stephanie and I have been playing together for years," says Pool. "Once we started playing with Lisa, that just expanded the vision and it went on its natural path. It just keeps changing to something better, hopefully."

Michael Toland


Phoebe Hunt

World Americana now emanating from Brooklyn


Photo by Nicola Gell

"I don't even really think of this as my second album," admits Phoebe Hunt at the outset of discussing June's Shanti's Shadow. "Each of the recordings has just been a completely unique recording experience, and done with completely different motives and from a different point of view of what's happening in my life. For me, each album is a mark along this journey I'm on."

The journey to Shanti's Shadow runs through Los Angeles, where the singer recorded her eponymous 2012 debut EP with Matt Rollings, circles back home to the Cactus Cafe for a live album, and initially came to rest on the debut with her band the Gatherers for 2014's Walk With Me, made in collaboration with her former Belleville Outfit partner Connor Forsyth. Following her move to Brooklyn, and a retreat to India last year, the fiddle virtuoso allows that her sophomore full-length – a sort of world Americana as soft and supple as Norah Jones in places, and as tart as the Dixie Chicks in others – feels like her true debut.

Credit also her experience over the past four years with the One Village Music Project, a nonprofit bringing together teenagers from around the world to write and record their own songs, which outfitted Hunt with the expertise to helm Shanti's Shadow herself.

"I've produced four of those albums, really learning how to work with people, learning how to pull out their strengths, how to utilize the time in the studio so you're not wasting any time, and just how to facilitate for a creative environment," she outlines. "Being in the studio and producing, really wearing that hat fully and being comfortable in that position was very freeing, because actually I realized what I'm doing is creating this opportunity for other people to have their voices heard fully. So when I finally got into the studio to do my own album, I thought, 'Now I get to do this for myself and my own voice.'"

For Shanti's Shadow, Hunt cultivated a uniquely creative recording experience to achieve the connection among the band for the stylistically eclectic flow she envisioned. She found that space just around the corner from her New York apartment in Evan Felts' studio, previously home to 14 Tibetan monks. That spirituality of the environment infused Hunt's focus, lending the album an energy that breathes both meditative and frenetic.

"We'd start every day with a 10-minute mediation in the morning and just zone in," she says. "I'd make a big vat of a vegetarian dish, and snacks, to bring in. Food is part of the environment you're creating. That's part of the flow. We didn't have to leave the studio all day and were able to just stay in the zone.

"I feel like everything leading up to Shanti's Shadow were learning experiences that have taught me how to produce an album," she continues. "I hope I feel the same way about the next one, too."

Doug Freeman


Kiko Villamizar

Biodiverse Colombian birdsong


Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

"Do you smoke medicine?"

The gentle offer comes from Kiko Villamizar in a back room of his South Austin bungalow. Two hours later, we've burned enough healing herbs to raise the dead, though, truthfully, only one of us is fazed. The thoughtful singer-songwriter remains chatty and perfectly lucid.

Born in Miami Beach, Villamizar grew up on a coffee farm in the Colombian Andes outside of Medellín, halfway between the rugged highlands and the Caribbean coast, where the emerald green mountains still burst with lush vegetation. He returned to the farmhouse where he grew up – perched on the mountainside – to write his sophomore album Aguas Frías.

"The first three notes or so of nearly every song on the album are birdsongs," he explains. "When I was growing up on the mountain, I never appreciated the biodiversity there. I might hear 67 birdsongs in an afternoon that are different, just laying in my hammock.

"Traditionally, the first songs that people play on the gaitas are birdsongs."

A traditional flute from the region, the gaita takes center stage on the new album. He's become so enamored with the instrument that he keeps bees whose wax mixes with charcoal to form the head of the flute. The beehive sits on a plot of land the singer recently bought along the San Marcos River where he plans to farm, hunt by bow and arrow, and perform small spiritual ceremonies with his partner and 7-year-old daughter. Aching ballad "Yaku Kawsai" was inspired by time spent alongside Lakota water protectors at Standing Rock.

"The four elements are our sacred spirits that we need to take care of, and right now we need to focus on our water," emphasizes Villamizar. "If you change the rivers and fish, that's the end of that society. It's genocide."

His 2015 debut La Remolacha was a bold mix of cumbia and klezmer colliding with reggae and merengue on any given song. Aguas Frías is firmly rooted in traditional Colombian music. Inspired by the self-made festival of local hip-hop duo Riders Against the Storm, Villamizar launched the inaugural WEPA (Cumbia Roots Festival) in June, bringing his gaita maestro and several traditional Colombian bands to Austin and San Antonio.

"With my music I have two goals – to educate and to perform," he says. "WEPA is a combination of those things. I try to educate through my music but not be annoying about it. I'm trying to make it a party. I don't want to be preaching at anyone. I want everyone to have fun like, 'Weeeeeeeeeeepa!'"

There's been plenty of rough waters on Villamizar's journey to this point. At 16, he dozed off behind the wheel and lost control of the car he was driving. His baby sister was killed, and titanium rods now hold his femur bones together.

"I was suicidal," he recalls. "It was really bad, but a song by Richie Havens made me not want to kill myself. It really healed me. I owe my life to music, and I'm singing for anybody who needs medicine."

Thomas Fawcett

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Xetas, Alex Napping, Suspirians, Phoebe Hunt, Kiko Villamizar, Kana Harris, Alex Cohen, Marisa Pool, Super Secret Records, Lisa Cameron, WEPA

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