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."
The band took to an almost completely instrumental sound on the last tour, but Newsom feels that was only a stage in the metamorphosis that's still not complete. "That's one of those things I don't want to think about us at all. I do not want to portray the image of an instrumental band." Newsom adds, "Lyrics are important."
The music on Set a Summery Table is cleaner, more proficient, and more complicated, yet, according to Newsom, it's a result of immersion in the peccadilloes of rock culture, not an effort of studied musicianship, a discrepancy that is key in their difference from Newman's band and the current crop of instrumental acts. "They [Paul Newman] come from a different school than we do," Newsom says. "I love repetition in music, but I'm not up to that sort of repetition in [our] music." According to Newsom, Rhythm of Black Lines is much more unlearned and unstructured: "If it comes across as being tech-head, it's a fluke. Tim, Kiki, and I are not musicians."
In recording, as opposed to attempting to capture the band's blisteringly loud live sound, the band is a quieter model, in hopes of bringing a more complete picture to a live show. "With a record recorded kind of quiet--when we play live, and you hear the songs--it gives you a chance to pick up on the melody in a different way," Newsom says, clarifying a concept he claims to have gleaned from The Who. "If you listen to Magic Bus, or any of their studio records, the vocals are clean, the guitars are quiet. Then, you see the live videos, and they're The Who."
Rather than trying to recreate an outdated sound, the band has looked to rock standards for a purer take on the methods of music-making. "For us," Newsom declares, "we've tried to throw away the whole contemporary music thing." To Newsom, the clubs of Austin aren't necessarily the best places for nurturing those sensibilities. "Growing up in El Paso, I got into the concept of a tight knit scene. Kiki and I and all the guys in At The Drive-In spent a lot of time in warehouses, playing music because there wasn't much else to do." To Newsom, Austin has been less of a scene experience and more of an inevitability due to the University of Texas and the youth culture industry surrounding it.
"There are a lot of music critics here," he says, not just referring to the ones that work at the Austin American-Statesman or The Austin Chronicle. "There are a lot of people who will just write you off. The rent is extremely high, but I came to Austin without thinking about that, or about the music now. But Austin is so interesting--those garage groups, the Tim Kerr stuff, all stuff that really changed punk. It's not a city like New York or Chicago or Seattle, where people go to be part of this huge happening, but Austin's already on the map." He supplies, with only a slight local scoff, "There are bands like Spoon and [And You Will Know Us By the] Trail of Dead, not bands that I would personally endorse, but they're out there and working really hard."
Rock's intellectual history, the components of scene culture, commercialism, and their effect on musicians, fascinates Newsom, a University of Texas history major. "I'm writing a paper on the history of the MC5 right now, how they and the other bands that were in that Detroit scene got pulled into the corporate record label, David Geffen trap." Incidentally, he's taking heed of his eminent El Paso friends. "I'm writing about At The Drive-In in this paper," he says. "They're really similar to the MC5, if you think about it, both in the way that they reached fame and the way that they put together their sound." Seeing fame and being part of a scene as mixed blessings, he adds, "Any good band develops in a vacuum, not thinking about what they're doing."
Like their friends in At The Drive-In, Newsom, Sollis, and O'Neill continue to dedicate themselves to furthering their band, including more recording and their third full tour in less than two years of existence. "We're really serious about this," Newsom says. "We just bought this van, and we're playing shows [outside of Austin] as much as we can now, because we have this new, super-fast van." Touring has been beneficial, and almost essential for the band. "We broke even and made a little money on the tours, and we've come back knowing more what we wanted to do," Newsom says.
Rhythm of Black Lines may or may not know what they want to do yet. The process of learning what exactly that is has proven to be the most fruitful part.