By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It was an odd, unexpected sight at the Christmas party thrown this year in Austin by Hamstein Publishing and Lone Wolf Management: the four members of Sixteen Deluxe--Austin's great white (pop) hope--gushing about their brief encounter with ZZ Top's Dusty Hill at the shindig.
In an era dominated by unabated sarcasm, when young bands like Sixteen Deluxe are only supposed to celebrate rock icons in a kitschy manner (see Nerf Herder's "Van Halen"), it truly was refreshing to see a band excited about a random encounter with a man whose cartoon-like appearance and participation in some of the lamest videos ever to grace MTV (and that's saying something) certainly made him a ripe candidate for parody.
Not that the scene wasn't strange enough already. Sixteen Deluxe looked out of place at the Lone Wolf party, wearing their thrift-store best, perched around a table at Austin's nouveau honky-tonk Hang 'Em High Saloon--a cleaner, shinier version of the kind of place where Miss Kitty could set you up with a nice whore for two bits once upon a time. Sipping complimentary Cape Cods amidst a clutch of bearded Urban Cowboy rejects and their scantily clad significant others, they wore facial expressions that seemed to say, "We are seriously getting away with something here."
And maybe they were, although that's a little far-fetched, as admission into the affair required only answering in the affirmative when asked if you were with the Lone Wolf party. The party did, however, serve as a well-deserved pat on the back to the band. With the recent release of Emits Showers Of Sparks on Warner Brothers Records, its first album for a major label--Sixteen Deluxe has delivered one of the most exciting national debuts in recent memory.
Containing more hooks than a bad Amateur Night at Harlem's Apollo Theater, Emits sounds markedly different than anything Sixteen Deluxe has ever attempted, shifting focus from over-the-top, acid-drenched guitar antics to timeless pop anthems. That's not to say the band has abandoned mounting twin-guitar sorties aimed at the heart of a song; far from it, as songs like the album closer "Mixed Up" prove. It has, however, toned down a bit, turned its amps from 11 to 10, and let magical little three-minute gems step out from behind the curtain of feedback. Psychedelia still informs Sixteen Deluxe's music, but it no longer overwhelms it.
"That batch of songs seemed like they wanted to be pop," guitarist-vocalist Chris "Frenchy" Smith allows later, sitting around a picnic table at Stubb's Bar-B-Q. "So we just let the songs be what they wanted to be, instead of just having stuff going 'wheww-wheww-wheww' the whole song. We went ahead and let some songs that were obviously pop songs be a pop song."
"Our first record had a lot of pop songs in there," bassist Jeff Copas chimes in. "But it was all kind of covered up by a lot of psychedelic flavoring and icing."
"But we did that. We achieved that," Smith continues.
"Yeah, we did that album," Copas agrees. "So on this one we were like, 'Let's strip the songs back to what they are.' "There's still plenty of that stuff going on. We just wanted to do something different."
The biggest change on Emits is the vocals. Lost amid the whooshing noises of effects pedals working overtime on Backfeed Magnetbabe--the quartet's 1995 debut album on Butthole Surfer King Coffey's Trance Syndicate label--the impassioned vocals of Smith and guitarist-vocalist Carrie Clark's Deborah Harry-like warble are now front and center. The result is a sound that recalls Velocity Girl's noisier side or the Pixies when Kim Deal sang lead, especially when Smith and Clark's voices come together on songs like "Burning Leaves" and "No Shock (In Bubble)." The harmonies the duo create are sweeter than anything the band has ever put to tape.
"That's something we definitely want to do more of," says Clark.
Emits also showcases much tighter musicianship from the band. Smith's and Clark's shimmering, shimmying guitar parts seem to drift back and forth across one another, intertwining over Copas' loping bass lines, as new drummer Steven Hall lays down a beat straight from the school of Bun E. Carlos, unobtrusively adding character to the songs.
Hall's presence in the band also seems to have solved Sixteen Deluxe's Spinal Tap-like problem with drummers. "We've had a couple of drummers, but now we've got the right one," Smith states. "I don't think signing to a major label...I don't think that was as intense as not having the right drummer."
The band's revolving cast of stickmen included Medicine guitarist Brad Laner, who played one show with the group. "The actual show really bit, but the rehearsal was so fucking good," says Smith.
The recording of Emits was another departure for the band--literally. Deciding for the first time to record away from their turf, the band set up shop in San Francisco.
"That's our second most well-received city," Smith says. "Austin and San Francisco totally have a lot of lineage. There's a lot of history back and forth. Janis Joplin left Austin to go to San Francisco."
"The Thirteenth Floor Elevators did that [too]," adds Copas.
"Our producer [noted Austinite John Croslin, who in addition to being one of the town's premier knobmen was also in essential '80s Austin bands the Reivers and Glass Eye] wanted to do it there. So we went and checked out the studio [Hyde Street Studios], and it was really great," Smith continues. "A lot of American psychedelic music was born in those rooms. We wanted to be a part of that kind of history. We wanted to go in that kind of place. We could have recorded in Austin, but in Austin we're not just artists, we're..."