By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Awake and alert on a Sunday afternoon, Rhythm of Black Lines frontman Clint Newsom interviews like every unfamous rock musician should. He's enthusiastic about the music and answers without any misunderstanding or aloofness. I don't have to ask the stupid questions about how the band started and their influences, as he supplies the answers at the beginning of the conversation, without request or complaint.
That taken care of, he leaves plenty of time for explaining the dynamics of the band, an act that sounds and works drastically different than the usual fare. The Austin trio plays inconsistently structured, long-winded, danceable rock-jazz, a sound hard to categorize or describe without bringing to mind images of indulgent noodling and college hippies. Newsom, a 21-year-old El Paso native, is clear to point out that he's not in a jam band, or at least, not that kind of jam band. "We're kinda proggish, but to me, I'm a real fan of dark music. I'd like to have a jam band that can be dark and moody. The Cure was a pop band, that's for sure, but on these pop albums, there was this wonderful depth and range of emotional content."
The Rhythm of Black Lines' barely verbalized music--only one track on their new six-song EP, Set A Summery Table, features decipherable vocals--comes off like a rough, slightly deconstructive take on a vintage television soundtrack, cranked to Eleven. It was questionable how audiences would take to this decidedly different rock. Newsom talks about the band's apprehension when opening for their almost-famous hometown friends At The Drive-In last summer on the notoriously cold--in more ways than one--East Coast circuit: "The best thing about At The Drive-In is that they're pretty well known in that hardcore, emo, whatever you want to call it, scene, but they're so open-minded. The suburban-style hardcore kids are really not open-minded at all. We played shows with them in these places in New Jersey and, y'know, Philadelphia, and I was so surprised with how the show went," Newsom notes with relief. "We had these kids dancing, clapping their hands."
In the short time since the band's inception, Rhythm of Black Lines has been aided by the advice, expertise, and success of several old friends; Paul Newman, leader of the act of the same name and a former member of the band, has clearly been a driving force. "Musically, I think if there's anyone we're very related to, it's the band Paul Newman," Newsom says. The act formed in February 1999 from the ashes of Newsom's and drummer Tim O'Neill's old band, The Hades Kick, with Newman as a charter member. "Paul came in, played guitar, it was working out," Newsom says. After another member moved out of town, Newsom recruited bassist Kiki Sollis, a childhood friend from El Paso. "My friend Kiki, who I've known for about 15 years--we've been playing together since we were like, 13--came in," he continues. "We wrote songs in about four months. We played our first gig at Emo's, opening for Paul Newman."
The group recorded its debut, a self-titled, four-song EP soon after. As a four piece, they toured the West Coast in January. Shortly after, Newman announced he was relocating to New York, and the group faced a crossroads. Newsom recounts the event, one in a series of hurdles: "Paul was moving to New York, and told us in March that he couldn't tour. We knew that if we were going to be as serious about this band as we wanted to be, we'd have to do something else." Adding to the pains of Newman's departure, Newsom's, O'Neill's, and Sollis' efforts at writing in the new formation proved to be tougher than they'd expected. "We started writing as a three piece for a new EP, and it was so hard," Newsom says. To fill the void left by Newman's guitar, Newsom began to experiment, and he found a solution in a change of equipment. "Now I play with two amps," Newsom notes, "so it sounds like two guitars." And although he no longer plays with Rhythm of Black Lines, Newman is still considered a guiding hand in the band's development. "We don't consider him to be out of the band. I take his point very seriously," Newsom says.
The new configuration, in preparation for last summer's tour--the band's biggest yet--recorded the new material in June. The songs were shaky--Newsom wrote lyrics only for one, because of both time constraints and the nature of the music--yet the three felt confident enough to invest in better recording. The band booked time at The Bubble, the Austin recording studio run by members of Sixteen Deluxe, and hired Chicago-based producer (and erstwhile Austin resident) Jason Ward. As a sign of his continuing, if not permanent, role in the band, Newman played guitar on two tracks.
The finished product, Set A Summery Table, was released in October by the Austin-based label Sixgunlover. Although far from representative, it more accurately depicts a band still transitioning. "We weren't extremely happy [with the first EP], but it sold well on tour. Well, for us," Newsom says. "We still listen to this new record and we cringe all the time...This record is already out of date." The three still face difficulties in songwriting. "We got back from tour in September," Newsom begins. "Kiki and I are both in school, and I'm doing this computer science stuff. In the past three months, we've written probably one thing that's finished, that we're happy with, that you could consider a song."