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..."
"Grocery store workers," Clark finishes, laughing.
"Yeah, or mowing someone's yard," Smith says. "We just went to San Francisco and said, 'Let's be artists and just do this and focus on it.'"
Freed from the myriad of distractions that Austin can provide, the band spent a month in the studio with Croslin--a notable choice, since many other bands in Sixteen Deluxe's position have opted to go for "name" producers like Ric Ocasek. Clark says the band wouldn't have had it any other way.
"It can be really stressful doing a recording at that level--trying to make a record the way we wanted to make it," she says. "It was really good that we were in there with a friend that knew how to guide the process as a producer, but was also a friend and was concerned about us as people, and us as a band. That was important for what we were doing at that time."
"He was really like a fifth member of the band or an extension of the band instead of being like the director or whatever," Copas adds. "He was in there, doing stuff, coming up with ideas."
Warner Brothers submitted a list of potential producers to the band, but the band stuck with its gut feeling. "We checked out all the names," Copas says. "But ultimately, it just came back to 'none of these guys know us, and we don't know them.'" Apart from submitting the list of producers, the label has stayed out of the band's way, letting them do what they want.
"It's more artist-friendly than your average major label," Smith says. "You know, they're letting us be ourselves, and that's the only thing we know how to do. None of us is really that comfortable with a record label leaning on us too hard, like (mimics gruff record-exec voice) You guys need to get a little more Jewel-esque."
In a perfect world, Emits Showers Of Sparks would garner Sixteen Deluxe the kind of commercial success that less deserving bands like Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind have enjoyed. Unfortunately, this is the kind of world that lets MTV and alternarock radio act as its eyes and ears. Whether this record shoots up the charts or languishes in a dusty cutout bin at the local Schlockbuster, the band--already in the process of readying demos for its next record--has a different idea of success.
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"The kind of band that we are, where we come from, you get your fans by playing and playing and playing and playing. You don't get your fans by having a record out and having a record company shove the song down people's throats and getting radio play. That doesn't last!" Clark says defiantly. "Like Spiritualized. That was a huge, packed show. Do they have a song on the radio? No. Luna, did they have a song on the radio? No. But they were playing sold-out, thousand-seat places. That's a real fan base.
"That's nothing that anybody created except for the band, and that's the kind of thing that we're going for. And you know, if something cool happens and something's on the radio, or the record does really well, that's all the better."
"But that's not the be-all, end-all of being a band," Copas adds.
"The goal is to pack the house because people dig your rock show," Clark continues. "And to be on Beverly Hills 90210."
Sixteen Deluxe performs with the Tomorrowpeople at Rick's Place in Denton, Saturday, February 14.