Life is a carnival

The musical midway of Citizen Lane

Citizen Lane may well slay audiences with their three-ring-circus approach to music and performance--incorporating ska, white-boy funk, salsa, Cole Porter, Dada, and P.T. Barnum--but in this age of The Pitch, the hard sell is going to be to the record labels.

To envision the average A&R stooge trying to describe to a record company mogul--in 30 seconds or less--the hydra-headed musical beast that is Citizen Lane is to invite impatience and disbelief. These people, after all, want concise, moron-friendly, proven formulae: "Give me Korn with a Courtney Love front-babe" or "We need a cross between Marilyn Manson and the Spice Girls, with a little Mark Eitzel-style angst."

The good news is that Lane Eubank, the ringmaster and head muse behind Citizen Lane, isn't particularly concerned about whether his music readily fits any "hit molds" being fashioned by major labels at the moment. Should a record label recognize and appreciate that Citizen Lane has a quantifiably unique sound and bonds with their devoted and growing legion of fans in a magical, Widespread Panic-Robert Earl Keen-Grateful Dead kind of way, well, so much the better.

"I can't say," Eubank says by phone from the band's Austin headquarters, "that if we never got any attention from the recording industry specifically, I wouldn't be disappointed. I would. There is one side of me that has to be able to look at it in [the major label] context. But Citizen Lane didn't come about because I said, 'Hmm, there's this void in music that I think I can fill.'"

Besides, who can tell what corporate executives are going to do anymore? As society barrels toward the millennium in an across-the-board sweep of homogenization, the odd, compelling tunes of Citizen Lane might well create a buzz in record-label land in the near future. It wasn't quite a decade ago, after all, that Poi Dog Pondering leapfrogged out of Austin with a contract to record their peculiar bag of tunes for Columbia. (Granted, the vision of their leader, Frank Orrall, melded with the plans of the label in the same fashion as butterscotch topping on tuna salad, but every day promises a new, possibly successful recipe in these crazy times.)

In the meantime, Citizen Lane is an ever-growing, ever-changing work in progress, a concept that occupies its core members (multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Eubank, guitarist Nate DeLacretaz, bassist Bob Amonett, drummer Konrad Meissner, saxophonist-vocalist "Reverend" Pain Hernandez, and trumpeter Isaac Pena) in cheerful and challenging fashion. A reasonably up-to-the-minute representation of this process can be found on Lion's Mouth, the band's latest CD, recently released on their own Pagan Gospel label.

An ambitious, gleeful, carnivalesque record, Lion's Mouth comes off like nothing so much as a Slip 'n' Slide tournament between Fishbone, Bertolt Brecht, Ruben Blades, Salvador Dali, and the Specials--with everyone winning. Which is to say that Lion's Mouth provides many things demanded of contemporary rock music, not the least of which is a helluva good time.

For the dance throng, there are "Angry," "Allday Just For You," and "Citizen's Arrest." "Circus," "Dear Darwin," "Dream #23," and "Express Myself" represent the band's White Album tendencies in a fresh and original fashion, and "Big Noise," "Maria Jane," and "Mister Death" dabble in jazzy pop, Caribbean cabaret, and tongue-in-cheek King Crimson, respectively.

The idea of all this presented onstage is a heady and winning concept--and it's something Citizen Lane pulls off with chops, theatrics, and a gentle, self-effacing humor.

"There's definitely a fun factor to being in this band," Eubank says, "but we're all on the same plane. We all have a bunch of different influences and backgrounds that we want to bring to the table, and it turns out that this mix of things works well in this configuration."

That the group exists at all is probably proof of divine intervention of some sort, inasmuch as it wasn't exactly the sort of situation where Eubank put ads on music-store bulletin boards saying, "Yo, dudes. Needed: two screaming guitars, a cookin' bass player, and steam-hammer drummer for kick-ass rock band! Must dig Scorpions, Priest, and Ozzie!"

Instead, in 1994, Eubank--who'd grown up listening to Walt Disney soundtracks, Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown music, and his big sister's Beatles and Stevie Wonder albums--dropped out of the exalted music program at the University of North Texas and moved to Austin. Despairing of finding like-minded musical compadres, he was moderately content to hang on Sixth Street, playing his djembe (a particularly tonal African percussion instrument) and singing his own multi-faceted songs to bemused passersby.

He graduated from there to open-mike nights and gradually attracted the attention of other musicians. One by one, stragglers joined the burgeoning group, and eventually Eubank woke up to realize he was ensconced in a living, breathing musical entity--more or less of his own design. Before long, Citizen Lane, as the group came to be called, was amazing Austin club audiences and causing keg pile-ups on the lucrative fraternity circuit.

From the outset, though, the band kept a steady eye on the future--as in original material--and Lane has consistently responded with a wellspring of songs from which to explore and delight. But to say Eubank is the end-all creator for the outfit would be unjust.

"I come into rehearsal with a basic idea," he explains, "but everybody definitely has freedom. I write verses and choruses and lyrics and melodies--which sounds finite--but some of the guys in the band are much more educated than I from playing jazz and more complex musical forms. So I have these ideas out of which will come bass grooves or horn lines or vocal concepts. In the most basic sense, I write 'em, but I can't stress enough how much these guys really help take the music to a new level."

Reaching new levels has been a constant part of the band's development, despite a bit of a revolving-door membership roster in the early years. A self-titled debut CD in late '95 helped refine the band's direction and membership, and, as the pieces began to fall into place, their status in the Austin music scene began to solidify. They found themselves opening for such artists as Dah-veed Garza, Little Sister (now Sister 7), the Ugly Americans, and 8 1/2 Souvenirs. They also began touring more, too, and now spend a great deal of time out of state.

As the current lineup manifested itself, and the Lion's Mouth sessions came and went, it was obvious Citizen Lane was creating discernible attention in a town obscured by buzz. Then the CD came out, and Citizen Lane reached the plateau where their recorded work equaled the outlandish and irresistible stage show. All the resultant notoriety makes Eubank a bit fractious.

"I think one thing is that I'm not in a hurry," says Eubank. "I've heard a lot of horror stories about bands I really respect that got a buzz going and got their deals--and then were thrown up against the wall to see if they would stick. Well, there are a whole lot of musical factors that dictate whether or not a band sticks, and then there are a whole lot of factors that have nothing to do with the band."

Though no specific big-shot management types or major labels have come calling--yet--Eubank's plan is and always has been to nurture the creative core that is Citizen Lane. To do otherwise would betray the whole concept. Besides, life under Eubank's big top is, at present, a thoroughly enjoyable thing.

"Originally," Lane says, "the new CD was going to have a bit more of a circus vibe than it does. As the songs came together, that changed a bit, but there's still that flavor to it. The title's Lion's Mouth, after all."

He pauses, then adds, "I like circus imagery: seals, tightropes, the guy that gets shot out of the cannon...There's definitely a freak-show element to Citizen Lane, not only on the record, but absolutely to the live show. We're probably sillier onstage than we sometimes should be. I can't always figure out if we're making fun of each other as a band or are being made fun of by the audience--though in a positive, participatory way. And in any case, there's a circus aspect to that, too."

And everybody likes it when the circus comes to town.

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