Trey Johnson didn't say much when he took the stage at the Sons of Hermann Hall, just launched into the music--catchy roots-rock with a twinge of the high and lonesome. The band was opening for the Old 97's that night, and though the place was humid and clattering with people much more interested in the headliners, Sorta isn't exactly a hard sell. Their songs are snapshots of boozy and bruised lives, of being crazy, craaaaazy for you. Not bad, a frat boy said to his friend in the drink line. Audience members started to tap and nod, turned toward the band and away from the chatter. High school girls perched near the stage whispered to each other, arguing over which band member was the cutest.
But Johnson didn't see all that. His eyes were closed as he sang; his shaggy, dark hair swished his shoulders as he swayed. When the band reached the climax--a wild, improvised keyboard solo by Carter Albrecht--Johnson turned his back to the crowd and faced drummer Trey Carmichael. All eyes skittered stage right, where Albrecht straddled his Nord Electro, cigarette dangling Cool-Hand-Luke from his lips. As his hands pranced impossibly across the keys, a guy turned to his friend. "Man," he said, pointing at Albrecht, "that guy's a badass."
Though front men tend to covet the spotlight, Johnson gladly gives it away. He's a terrific singer who won Best Male Vocalist in last year's Dallas Observer Music Awards. And he loves performing; he'd just rather it came without the pressure to be charming or, like, dance around. "I don't consider myself much of a front man, to be honest," Johnson told me later, "except that I sing the songs." In his first band, Spam, he played guitar with his back to the audience almost all the time. He likes to listen to the music. He's easily distracted. His band members deserve the attention. And, well, he's kinda bashful.
"It's just not who I am," he says. "I don't have any jokes to tell or clever little things to say. That's not me."
"Does that bother you?" I ask.
He smiles. He answers in a low-slung Dallas drawl. "Not at all."
Fortunately, Johnson is many other things. As proven by the band's latest CD, Little Bay, he is a great songwriter who keeps getting better, with an easy sense of melody and a strength for simple, somewhat opaque lyrics inspired by a late discovery of his idol Bob Dylan (who was never exactly known for his stage antics). "And I'll wear your crown/Till the sun sets you down," he sings in "Sweet Little Bay." Or the album's opening lines, flush with contradiction: "Try switching from north to south, making a wave/I just found it all works out, even though it'll break." He's not a sad person--he's happily married, and he just found out he's going to be a father. But he sings of suicide and abuse, though these are more character sketches than autobiography. Like the writers he admires--Dylan, of course, and Dave Eggers, whose two books he just finished--he's drawn to the moony and melancholy. "I love life, but it's sad," he says. "And if my songs have a theme, it would be: How are you going to function in life, knowing that it's so sad?"
The title of the band's first full-length offered a suggestion: Laugh Out Loud. With finely crafted tunes and an impressive musical backbone, the album placed Sorta in the upper echelon of Dallas bands, alongside Sparrows, which feature three of Johnson's bandmates. But lineup changes and an eight-month hiatus during recording took a toll--Laugh Out Loud sounds more like a great mix CD than a great album, with songs that leapfrog through genres and styles. Little Bay, on the other hand, has a mature, distinctive feel. Recorded with producer Paul Williams at Last Beat Studios and distributed on Summer Break Records, Little Bay progresses from its sweet ballad intro to the album's raucous closer, "Tidal Wave," bursting with spirit and sound.
"It's by far the thing I've done that I'm most proud of," Johnson says of the album, out February 17, "which is encouraging, because I'm not quitting anytime soon."
In a near-three-hour conversation in the dark afternoon smoke of the Lakewood Landing, Johnson kept returning to this idea: He just wants to make music. At 35, he's too old or too interesting to care about "making it"--not in the MTV, stadium-rock sense, anyway. "Maybe I should feel more desperate," he says, "but for now, I was just desperate to have a good band. And boy, I've got one. What else is there?"
The Sorta/Sparrows connection makes for one of the city's more compelling musical brotherhoods, and the two bands often share gigs at Hermann Hall and the Barley House, where they all met. Set changes look more like a game of musical chairs, with Ward Williams switching from pedal steel to guitar, Danny Balis shaking off his bass for a guitar and Albrecht taking center stage, all rock swagger and 6-foot-god-knows-what. From an outsider's perspective, the bands could seem a snarl of egos: almost neck and neck in accomplishment and exposure, with Sparrows showing up in D magazine as the city's "Coolest Band" while Sorta's "Crazy" gets play on a 2002 episode of Road Rules/Real World. Which of those is better--or more embarrassing? "It's not competitive," Johnson insists. "It's encouraging. "
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After all, Johnson attributes much of this album's success to his bandmates' ability to flesh out his songs. "They're the most professional band I've ever played with," Johnson says. Take "Sweet Little Bay," for instance, which Johnson named for a childhood vacation spot near Rockport where he used to fish and swim. He wrote it while the band was laying out the album. "The guys had never really heard that before it was recorded," he says. "I played it twice, we decided on a bridge, and we played it. Perfect. That's exactly how I would want that to work. It sounds fresh, and there isn't time to overthink things." He doesn't like belaboring decisions, band conflict, all that blah-blah. It turned out to be one of the album's best tracks, with Balis adding a lovely Byrds tweak with his 12-string. "This is a band that isn't gonna have more than two or three takes," Johnson says. "Here are the songs, they all know them, and if they don't know them, they can wing it, and it'll still sound great."
But with both bands on the verge, will one have to die in order for the other to survive?
"That may be inevitable," Johnson says, "but I don't worry about it that much. If it falls apart, so be it. The last thing I would try to do is keep the band together if it's not desirable. What I'd really like to do with those guys is tour with them."
That's the next step. Their sound is good; their band is tight -- but until Sorta steps outside Big D, no one's gonna know that. So they hired a booking agent, and they'll make their SXSW debut on March 18. Maybe he's being idealistic, but Johnson sees this as his future--trotting the globe with wife and kid in tow, scribbling more songs, better songs. "Music is the best thing that I've ever found in life, aside from my wife," he says. "I don't want to work in a cube, and I don't really look forward to retirement. Golf doesn't sound exciting to me. What I'd really like to do is be 60 years old and play and sing."