Austin Music Goes Beyond City Limits
Music journalist David Brown of KUT and KUTX joins us to talk about the latest new music out of Austin, Texas.
- Danny Malone, “Spiderlegs” off the album “Balloons“
- Sam Baker, “Ditch” off the album “Say Grace“
- Wiretree, “In the City (Rail)” off the album “Get Up“
- The Boxing Lesson, “Better Daze” off the album “Big Hits!“
- Not in the Face, “Brass Tacks” and “Always Tonight” off a forthcoming EP
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. And there is already a lot of excitement in Austin, Texas, about the Austin City Limits Music Festival coming in the fall. The lineup this year includes Phoenix, Roadkill Ghost Choir and Max Frost.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NICE AND SLOW")
MAX FROST: (Singing) Girl, you can trust I'm on my way. I know you've come and called my name. But don't stress my stride, no rush. I'm moving nice and slow.
HOBSON: That's "Nice and Slow" by Max Frost, who is actually based in Austin, which is sometimes called the Live Music Capital of the World. But it's not the same Austin it used to be, at least musically. For more, we're joined by David Brown, a music journalist with HERE AND NOW contributing network station KUT and KUTX in Austin - also, by the way, a former host of the public radio show MARKETPLACE. David, welcome.
DAVID BROWN, BYLINE: Hey, Jeremy. How you doing?
HOBSON: Doing well. So, first of all, just set the scene for us. What is Austin's music scene right now? How would you describe it?
BROWN: Well, you know, here in Austin, there's - they call it the velvet rut for a lot of musicians. There are about 10,000 musicians. That includes a lot of people who have day jobs, obviously. But in terms of, you know, per capita density of music, they call it the live music capital of the world for a reason. And I was going to ask you, I mean, seriously, Jeremy, if someone says Austin music, what do you think of?
HOBSON: I think it's one of these edgy places that sort of - it's not like Brooklyn. It's less hipster than Brooklyn. It's got probably a little more of a country sense than that. But it's not like Nashville. It's more rocky than that. Am I close?
BROWN: Yeah. Actually, I think that's a pretty sophisticated perspective. A lot of people, I think, are still stuck in the Stevie Ray Vaughan-Willie Nelson, you know, outlaw country thing, because that's really what put Austin music on the map. And I think that the artists that I wanted to tell you a little bit about, that represent the music scene, in my opinion, they definitely don't come from the Willie Nelson-Stevie Ray Vaughan sort of school of Austin music, if you will, although that is still alive and well.
HOBSON: Well, let's hear some of it. This is from Danny Malone. This is a song called "Spiderlegs."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPIDERLEGS")
DANNY MALONE: (Singing) I'll let you climb, climb, climb up to my window sill, baby, when nobody will, baby, when nobody will.
HOBSON: Well, David, tell us what we're listening to here. And we should say, this is - now that we've set this up as a taste of Austin's music scene, a lot of people are going to be making a lot of judgments about it based on what we just heard.
BROWN: And that's totally understandable. But just to give you a sense of what Danny Malone is doing here - he's originally from Dallas, and he now lives in a barn in Austin. I was talking with an entertainment lawyer based in L.A., and out of the blue, I kid you not, he said: You know who the best singer-songwriter is in Austin today? And I said, yeah, Danny Malone. And he said, yeah, you're right. And as I was saying, in a town of 10,000 working musicians, for two total strangers to agree on something like that, I think that says something. I mean, basically, from a singer-songwriter tradition, it sounds a little rootsy, but also very sort of cosmopolitan and urbane, as well.
HOBSON: And he's not your typical indie act. He has two backup dancers. He does these elaborate, almost dance dramas. What is the story with the dancing that he does?
BROWN: I think he's just being himself, and that's one of the things that Austin's known for. I mean, you know, the cliche is keep Austin weird, and this is a town that embraces a lot of people who are willing to just be themselves. And Danny Malone just - he goes his own way.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Well, let's move on to Sam Baker. Here is "Ditch," from his album "Say Grace."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DITCH")
SAM BAKER: (Singing) I'm crawling back down in a ditch today. I got a crazy-ass wife, got a baby on the way. Glad I got work. I'm glad I got pay. I'm crawling back down in the ditch today.
HOBSON: See, now this one I definitely hear more Nashville than Brooklyn.
BROWN: Well, now, that's interesting. I wouldn't say Nashville. I mean, Nashville approaches it, I dare say, in a more formulaic fashion. You know, the truth is, the title of his new album is "Say Grace." Sam Baker has tons to be grateful for. Thirty years ago, he survived a terrorist attack on a tour bus in Peru, and the little boy sitting beside him was killed, along with six others, and Baker himself nearly died. And he never really got over that experience, and it profoundly affected what he writes about and how he does it.
He takes fragments of poems and hymns and discarded memories, and he weaves them together for a sort of a different - yeah, it's country music, I suppose, but it's way more authentic than what you normally would hear on country radio today.
HOBSON: What is "Ditch" about?
BROWN: He might say it's about a woman. But more than that, it's a working class song. It's about a guy who gets his hands dirty, working day in and day out. But it's sung in a way that just hits you like very few songs do.
HOBSON: You've told us you're really excited about the band Not in the Face. What should we know about this group?
BROWN: Well, if I were to say there's any one band that you really need to have on your radar out of Austin today, I would say it's Not in the Face. This is a band that started out as a two-piece, and their original aesthetic was sort of Bruce Springsteen meets Johnny Cash and the Black Keys in a back alley, right. The front man, his name is Jonathan Terrell, and he has mutton shops. And when he sings, it's like he's preaching. You know, he's just bashing away on that guitar.
They have - they recorded, actually, as a four-piece unit. They brought in a new drummer and a bass player. And they sent me a sneak peak at some of the tracks, and I've got to tell you, it just blew my head off. The new version of a song called "Brass Tacks" is this great foot-stomper.
HOBSON: Well, let's listen to "Brass Tacks."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BRASS TACKS")
JONATHAN TERRELL: (Singing) We get down to the brass tacks. (unintelligible) I'm going to (unintelligible). I'm going to show you exactly what I mean.
HOBSON: David, a very different sound than the others we've heard today.
BROWN: Yeah, for sure. And they made a huge impact at South by Southwest recently, as well. I have to say that there's another track called "Always Tonight" that is a kind of yang to that yin. It's kind of a rock anthem that I, frankly, wish there were more of. It's sort of got the swagger of old school arena rock, but without any of that, you know, sort of '70s earnestness. And, in a way, it's kind of a perfect antidote to the ho-hey school of indie rock.
HOBSON: Well, let's listen to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALWAYS TONIGHT")
TERRELL: (Singer) I lost my faith, and when I turned around, sweet Lord, I was rock and roll bound. Never thought that it would feel this good. Always wondering, never knew that I could.
HOBSON: David, you're also interested in a group called The Boxing Lesson. Here is their song, "Better Daze."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER DAZE")
HOBSON: How would you describe this?
BROWN: They call it space rock, because there are all these layers that kind of build to these climaxes. And they incorporate a lot of guitar effects and synthesizer effects that frame what are basically melodic rock songs. But what they're really trying to do is create a sort of wall of sound that you can get lost in. If you look at the label of their new album called "Big Hits," it says: play loudly, do not shuffle. Right?
And, I mean, how many people do albums? Everyone's, you know, focused on the song. But this is about the album. This is about getting lost in a vibe and a feeling. This is one that you can put on in a traffic jam, and you just get completely absorbed by the experience, sort of transported.
HOBSON: How often do you listen to albums in total, in full as opposed to just song - one song here, one song there?
BROWN: Generally, I will listen to an entire album one time through, just kind of skipping through to see if it grabs my ear. And if something grabs my ear, I'll listen to it as an album. The last album that did that for me was The Boxing Lesson's new album. People just aren't making albums like that anymore.
HOBSON: So, David, in your job, how often do you get to go out and actually see these live bands perform in Austin?
BROWN: Alas, not nearly as much as I would like to. You know, you have a couple of kids and all that kind of stuff, and that definitely takes its toll on your personal time. But happily, we get so many of these artists in our own Studio 1A here at KUT and KUTX, I get to see a lot of these guys. It's a terrific community. It's a great place to enjoy live music.
HOBSON: David Brown from KUT and KUTX, and you might remember him as the former host of MARKETPLACE. David, thanks so much.
BROWN: Hey, thank you, Jeremy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE CITY (RAIL)")
KEVIN PERONI: (Singer) You're calling out on a Saturday night. (unintelligible) nights of searching for the right message to the people and the sound on a radio.
HOBSON: And we leave you with another one of David Brown's Austin picks. This is "In the City (Rail)" by Wiretree.
YOUNG: I don't know which I like more, hearing this great music, or hearing David Brown's voice.
HOBSON: Or just David Brown. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.