Sink hole, uh

Austin's great alt-rock hope swings for the empty bleachers

If one were to design an ideal new rock band for the current alternative Zeitgeist, one couldn't do much better than Austin's Sincola. This co-ed, multi-ethnic, democratic quintet includes women both gay and straight, and at least one guy (hetero) who's been known to wear a dress and even drop trou on stage at the drop of a hat. And their music is equally embracing, a passionate mixture of punkish aggression and pop appeal where the guitars alternately chime, shriek, and power chord; the bass slips into the edges of funk; and the drums drive it all along explosively.

Sincola plays music you can mosh to, dance to--or merely stand and listen to while their sylphid, bug-eyed singer Rebecca Cannon prowls the stage like some mutant combination of Chrissie Hynde and Squeaky Fromme, spitting out songs that straddle the razor's edge dividing sensuality and violence.

Until Sincola, no band had risen more quickly and forcefully from the Austin alternative scene--one that has yet to yield even one of those modern-rock buzz bands that have cropped up like a plague of weeds, sending record company A&R executives scrambling for their checkbooks to add more zeros to their advance offers. Despite Austin's highly vaunted ambitions as a music capital, despite the fact it has long overshadowed Dallas as Texas' premier music town in the eyes of the national media even though Dallas has sent more bands to major labels in the past three years, the last time Austin spawned a moderately successful so-called alternative band was in the late '80s...with Poi Dog Pondering.

Sincola, from the moment they first played in front of a live audience less then two years ago, promised to provide that one thing Austin has desperately needed for almost a decade--a bright new thing, the Next Big Thing. Since forming in 1993, Sincola quickly won favor with both Austin's hipsters and its high schoolers, released an EP on the canny upstart Rise Records label, landed a tune ("Bitch") in regular rotation on Austin's modern-rock radio outlet K-NACK (KNNC-FM), and appeared on a slew of local artist compilations. The New York-based independent Caroline Records snatched up the group, making the same kind of noise about long-term commitment and development that the major labels do, and put them into Austin's Arlyn Studios with producer Brian Beattie (ex of defunct Austin darlings Glass Eye) for the band's first real album.

The result, What The Nothinghead Said, is an amazing piece of work. Sincola has crafted a disc that eschews, perhaps even subverts, the trends sweeping through so-called female-fronted modern rock--the sing-song pop underneath the music of the Breeders or Belly or even Veruca Salt, the loud and dirty post-punk of Hole or Babes in Toyland. Sincola probably has more in common with the angular new wave of Romeo Void or Gang of Four; the music is heavy, filled with unexpected shifts and turns in melody and rhythm, catchy and dense all at once.

And the lyrics, which Cannon sings like she's chewing on a snake and spewing out the venom, are the sort of nightmarish, twisted stuff of which William Burroughs might approve. From an opening whisper about "circumcision," the images tumble out with a pungent, chilling effect: "I've got a secret in a box beneath my head / It contains the severed tongue of every lover I've ever had" (from "Bitch," the would-be single); "My girlfriend / She sits on the toilet reading magazines / What she reads leaves a stain beneath her" ("Girlfriend"). In "Hey Artemis," Cannon tells of disappearing into her television set only to have a friend change the channel; the same song also contains a line about a friend who "has this father [who] used to, like, visit her late at night, but not in a Dr. Seuss way, you know what I mean?"

The album enjoyed a more than respectable sales surge in the band's hometown when released earlier this year, moving briskly out of the doors of such University of Texas-area stores as Sound Exchange and Tower Records. The disc received a handful of national reviews, and Caroline Records initially shipped about 8,000 copies of Nothinghead--a tiny figure, though respectable enough in indie terms. (By contrast, during the heyday of former Austin would-be heroes True Believers, the band was considered a total wash if it didn't move more than 25,000 albums.)

But Sincola's local buzz has tapered off astonishingly and surprisingly quickly; the album has fallen far down the local record-store sales charts. And now it appears that nothing more is to happen with Austin's latest--and, for now, best--rock hope. And once more, history repeats itself like a needle stuck in a record's groove, success eluding another Austin band that truly deserves it.

One reason why Sincola has been so silent can be found lying on her back in her bedroom in one of a thousand typically battered Austin band houses, this one on the fringes of the city's ethnic East Side. Drummer Terri Lord is slowly recovering from back surgery inside this house, and her convalescence was responsible for putting live shows on hold just as Sincola's album was hitting the streets. Since they can't share the stage right now, her fellow bandmembers settle for gathering around Lord on her bed.

With a giant Rock Hudson and Doris Day Pillow Talk poster on the wall and one of teen porn star-turned-celebutante Traci Lords on the door, the setting is an ideal one for Sincola, whose music embodies the torpid stew of sexuality, pop culture, and post-adolescent angst that fuels the alternative rock movement.

The Sincola personnel lineup seems not just politically correct, but all perfectly cast for alternarock stardom. Seated at the feet of the pretty and athletic (and recumbent) Lord is the band's burly, happy-go-lucky bass player, Chepo Pena, son of noted Mexican-American artist Amado Pena and also a member of the hellbent Austin punk rock trio Gomez. Seated next to Lord at the head of the bed, back straight against the wall, is guitarist Greg Wilson (a.k.a. Wendel Stivers), looking like so many other thousands of smart-minded rock geeks in hundreds of other bands.

Nearby is guitarist Kris Patterson with her ever-present baseball cap, bill backwards, atop her head, looking ready to rock with the best of the boys, yet still very much one of the girls. Singer Rebecca Cannon lies on the bed behind Lord, rolling from her side onto her chest and back again, burying her head into the mattress and then lifting it up to stare intensely at the interviewer with her doe-like, almost alien eyes as she offers an occasional comment.

Even though Lord's recuperation is the main factor for Sincola's stall-out at the starting gate, the band knows that it's now put-up-or-shut-up time, especially with Austin's fickle underground cognoscenti, who (in the grand Austin tradition) seem ready to slay their latest heroes as soon as they start to transcend the Travis County borderlines. Happened to the Reivers as soon as they signed with Capitol; happened to Poi Dog Pondering, which was dropped from Columbia, underwent major personnel shakeups, and moved away to Chicago.

"I think the Austin scene is healthier and bigger than it's been in a while, but it's still not the big scene," Stivers says. "Plus, we've been big in this town for a while, so we're not this year's new thing."

"It's like we've been pushed out of the nest," says Patterson, who grew up in Dallas. "I already feel like we've moved onto the national scene, so Austin's given us their all and pushed us out of the nest and we're out there...and we haven't quite done the national thing yet, so we're kinda like in that limbo, and Austin's focusing on new things."

"I have a different view on that," interjects Pena, opening up a recurring theme of friendly disagreement that seems to connect these bandmates. "I also play in another band that's more in the punk underground thing, and I hear so much crap, there's so much talk and gossip going on. One day, you're great and everything and you play a club and you pack it and you're the big thing, and then here comes this band with a buzz and..."

"It's the inevitable backlash," interjects Lord. "It happens to every band in this town." Last week, Sincola possessed the buzz; this week, it has already been passed to Sixteen Deluxe or Starfish. "Even they're already getting it," observes Stivers of the latest hot local picks.

"It's ironic," chimes in Cannon, "because once you move past the local factor, you lose your cool."

"We haven't played recently, but we still draw as well as anyone else," says Stivers, reeling the discussion back into the realm of sheer facts. "For me, I'm just looking forward to this tour coming up. Austin's treated us well, as well as we could hope for." And with much of the material found on What The Nothinghead Said being already familiar to Sincola's fans in the local club, radio and indie label scene, as Patterson points out, it's not like the album offers anything new to Austin audiences. Yet on one Chicago radio station, Sincola reportedly won its listener call-in contest for a few weeks running, beating out The Muffs and even Pearl Jam.

"I think that was just the reactionary vote," Stivers says of the victory.
Sincola's roots go back to the mid- to late-'80s days of the so-called New Sincerity, Austin's last great failed musical movement that spawned such local heroes as Zeitgeist, True Believers, Wild Seeds, Glass Eye, and even Timbuk 3. During that time, Stivers and Patterson played in the band 100th Monkey--best known for yielding Kris McKay to the Wild Seeds. Years later they decided to get together and jam, and happily found they both wanted to make music with "that sick guitar sound," says Patterson.

"We knew we wanted to do that," she recalls, "and have a female singer."
They discovered Pena through a musicians' classified ad in the Austin Chronicle, and found Cannon playing trumpet with punk revivalists Stretford, but were actually impressed by her manic caterwauling on the one tune the band let her sing. Sincola had already started making a name for itself in the clubs when they finally recruited Lord, an Austin veteran who has drummed with scores of local bands.

Talking with Sincola is akin to attending a family therapy session. Barbs are traded, quips are tossed about, and interjections are made with the gloves off. Yet the atmosphere is one of laughter and even a twisted form of love and mutual respect, almost as if the band were a new kind of nuclear family for its five members.

As Stivers observes, "I love doing interviews with this band because when we get asked a question, somebody says something, and someone else will jump in going, 'Well, I think...,' and we'll end up arguing."

"Disagreeing," argues Lord.
Yet it's precisely that dynamic that drives Sincola's collective vision and serves as the source of their group-written material. "When you don't have one primary songwriter, it's got its assets and its drawbacks," Stivers explains. "The asset is that you have a lot more input and you tend to be less stale, I think. The drawback is that everyone has something invested in it, and it makes you feel like a full unit," adds Patterson. Since the band functions as a creative collective, song ideas "fall in any way they can, every permutation imaginable," Stivers says.

"It's constantly evolving," Patterson adds.
"It's really nice, because everyone writes differently," notes Cannon. "I think Kris writes really poetically, like literature, with a lot of metaphor, really pretty. And Greg writes these really angsty, bitter love, heartbroken songs, and I do, too. And Terri writes really good pop songs..."

"And I don't write any songs," Pena interjects.
"Yes, you do!" Lord insists.
"Well, not lyrics," Pena shrugs, "because all my lyrics are about suicide and death, and Rebecca doesn't want to sing them."

"You just have to trick her," Stivers says.
But given Cannon's eerie knack for delivering the blood and guts of a song, suicide may not make a suitable subject. Although all five members play their integral roles in Sincola--"If one person leaves, that's it," insists Cannon-- their singer is definitely the band's secret weapon, being a commanding stage presence and an arresting vocalist.

"It's definitely an outlet to do what you can't normally do in public," Cannon says. "It's a really good outlet. I don't know what I'd do without it."

"Masturbate," suggests Pena.
"Yeah, probably," giggles Cannon. "Singing and sex, that's all I have to live for."

But right now, all of them clearly live for the band, which translates into an esprit that should help carry them through the coming months on the road. After all, they've already got a pretty good take on dealing with the opinions of music critics.

"It's weird," notes Lord. "Some reviews say we're being too arty. And other reviews say we don't take enough chances. On those reviews where they say we don't take enough chances, I really wonder if they listened to the last half of the record."

But Cannon thinks she knows the real score. "I decided that that reviewer needed to get laid--the Alternative Press one. She seemed bitter."

And even though the Austin buzz on Sincola has abated while a national one has yet to catch fire, Sincola's not bitter about being last year's model on the local scene. "I really appreciate what Austin has done for us," insists Cannon. "They've really given us everything they could."

"My basic impression is that we swung for the fence and hit a double," concludes Stivers of Sincola's recorded entry into the major leagues. As they come from a city where some of the biggest stars and legends seem stuck playing sandlot ball, that's not bad at all for the first time at bat.

Rob Patterson is a senior writer for the Austin Chronicle.

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