Buck Jones would make a good subject for a rock 'n' roll fable as cast by O. Henry: Genie grants struggling young band a wish--say, a mention in some major publication--and a couple of months later, they're still sitting around the garage. Nobody new seems to know about them, and their gig schedule is still spotty, so they finally reach the genie on his mobile phone and ask him: "Where's the gigs, the fame, the fortune, and all that stuff?"
"Hey, babe," the genie says. "You didn't say anything about that."
When Buck Jones received a favorable mention in Billboard magazine last summer, people held their breath, waiting for the glorious ascent. After a while, they started breathing again. In the winter it was heard that Buck Jones had signed to steve records, but for the most part they continued to be a band more folks had heard of than heard.
Breaking down after a rehearsal in south Arlington, the band--husband-and-wife team Gabrielle and Burette Douglas (both sing, and they play bass and guitar, respectively), guitarist Tommy Meador, and drummer Cody Lee--reflects on that time. "When it was happening, it didn't seem like that big a deal," recalls Burette, sitting on the floor wiping down his two Gibson SG guitars. "At the time, we were like, 'eh,' but now it seems really cool."
"But it didn't open any doors, clubwise," counters Gabrielle. "Clubs don't care about who you are in the press; they care if you can get people to show up."
"It did do us some good, though," Burette insists. "We had a handful of labels call wanting us to do something for them, and that got us to making demos again."
About a month ago, posters started appearing around town announcing the band and Shimmer, their debut for steve. On it, band members crowd together while Gabrielle leers up at the camera as if secure in some secret, slightly twisted knowledge. Luridly colored, the poster makes them look distant and more than a little decadent--you know, like rock stars.
Little of that carries over in person, at least not tonight; they're a surprisingly handsome bunch. Meador, clean-shaven with short hair, looks more like he works with a calculator than with a Les Paul; Burette, with his long, shaggy locks and glasses, seems the hippie artist, an impression his gentle, thoughtful demeanor reinforces. Lee, tanned and wiry with close-cropped hair, has all the focus of his profession, and Gabrielle--in cutoffs with her blue-tinted hair done up in two ponytails--looks a lot more like the resident of some post-punk Li'l Abner comic strip than the depraved rock waif on the poster.
They're an affable bunch as well. Together for approximately three years, the quartet is talkative, each reacting to the other, finishing each other's sentences, and occasionally all speaking at once when a particularly important point needs to be made. Burette is obviously the leader--he and Gabrielle write all the songs--but not at the expense of anyone else. All in their early 20s, the four seem just the band that you'd expect to put out Shimmer, a fine slice of post-Nirvana pop and the logical follow-up to their first, independently released album Shoegazer.
Shimmer is a collection of elements balanced against each other: screaming guitars and gentle strumming, loud and soft passages, guitar convention and odd, squonking noises. Chunks of noise crash across an underlying sense of flow, sometimes almost dreamy, which lends the album exactly the quality that the title implies. The lyrics back up this dreamy quality, sometimes specifically concerned with a subject, sometimes a collection of seemingly unrelated phrases that might be passkeys to other events, if only the listener knew what other events.
"Wasted" starts off the album with a blocky, falling-down-the-stairs rhythm reinforced by thick guitar chords. The song's downward cant matches the subject, which is a kiss-off to someone who has self-indulgently screwed up for the last time. The rancor of the verses--"Just leave me alone"--matches the roar of the guitars, balanced by a chorus that flows more smoothly. Although that mellower chorus ends with "I love you anyway," there isn't much ambivalence in Burette's delivery, which plainly is that of someone on his way out.
Buck Jones' balancing act lends their songs--like "After Today"--a sense of being composed of movements, almost like a mini-symphony for pop instruments. "Night and Day" is a Beatles-y number, while "Aged" starts off with a (Grand) Funky boogie guitar line that supports poppy vocals. "Underground Crown" shows off the group's appreciation for the harder stuff with a metallic sheen that's nicely bombastic--thumping, not thudding, and garnished with a good ol' shrieking-feedback guitar lead. Burette's vocals keep things direct and grounded, while Gabrielle's more ethereal voice constantly tugs skyward. "T.J.'s Rocket" first appeared on a demo about a year ago and is reprised here more fully fleshed out. Propulsive, without a clear subject, "T.J.'s Rocket" provides an insight into the band's songwriting process.
"It's really about, like, four different things," Burette explains. "The verse was 'I hear this melody,' and that would inspire some lyrics. Then I'd hear a different melody and work that in, with words to match--"
"It was like, 'That sounds like a song,'" Gabrielle interjects.
"Some of it's pretty literal. That part about 'facing a room full of faces that couldn't care less' is about being in a band. The part about T.J.'s rocket comes from when we were out at the lake," Burette explains. "We were shooting off fireworks with our nieces and nephews--one of whom was called T.J.--and we'd be saying, 'Hey, T.J.--here's your rocket.' It really doesn't mean anything."
"It's like, by telling somebody what a song is about, you get in the way of what it might mean to them," Lee offers, fitting a shiny black drum into its case.
"Right," says Meador, sipping a can of Budweiser on the floor. "It reminds me of something I was reading about Paul Simon, where he was talking about 'Mrs. Robinson' and how it was just a bunch of words thrown together, then it became a big hit and all these people were trying to read all this extra meaning into it." Meador--who's the newest member of the band, having joined early in 1996--was a welcome addition. Prior to his coming on board, Burette had to cover all the guitar chores.
"I was playing most of the leads and really doing a bad job," Burette says with a chuckle. "I was doing the best I could, but I'd mess up all the time live. Tommy's a much better player."
"But we don't really divide things up like 'you're rhythm guitar, so you play this,'" says Meador--who is just one of the millions brought to the altar of the electric guitar by Mr. Edward Van Halen, but also places Neil Young and Bob Mould on his short list of faves.
"It's whoever has the best feel for a part," Burette confirms, mentioning their common love of Queen and Billy Gibbons.
In a world about to be buried beneath an avalanche of wacky, quirky, crappy three-piece power-pop bands, Shimmer's density bucks the trend. In a world about to induct the word "electronica" into the Hall of Tedium--where it will sit alongside such plagues as "Madonna" and "Seinfeld"--the band is almost fiercely analog; even the odd squeaks, blurts, growls, and screeches that decorate Shimmer like sprinkles on a doughnut are "mostly just guitar noises," according to Burette. "It's all organic, except on 'Orbiter,' which is sort of a gadget-like track. [Producer Dave] Castell had this digital box that messed with the guitar part."
Castell was a major influence during the recording of Shimmer, introducing the band to the wonders of the Echoplex (a vintage reverb unit) and tricks like using a tiny Pignose practice amp in the studio for what Meador calls "that really high-pitched fuzzy sound."
"We love power pop," Burette explains. "But we love bands like Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and all that, too. We just try to write pop songs and be as noisy as we can and still be listenable."
"Castell really helped," Lee agrees. "He'd just sit there watching this little computer monitor, and when we were done, he'd say 'OK, that was good. Now let's try it through this amp.'"
"We really wanted to experiment with different sounds, and he was real excited about that," Meador says, remembering the ubiquitous local producer (Course of Empire, Funland, and cottonmouth, texas) going "from amp to amp and pedal to pedal, looking for that exactly right sound."
The band would spend six months working on the record. "We wanted to make a work of art," Meador explains. "An interesting pop album that you could put on and go, 'Wow, what cool sounds'--like the new Radiohead album [OK Computer]. Every time you listen to it, you hear something new that tickles your ear."
"We like noise bands--" Burette begins.
"But as a part of the song," Meador interrupts. "A cool noise added to a certain spot. Some of those really noisy songs, if you strip away all the sounds and effects, they're really just chord changes. There's nothing left that you could just play on an acoustic guitar."
The band took their time--Shimmer was originally due out in February--with Castell fitting them in between his other clients. The band had a roster of songs that they'd been doing for months, and it was a bit hard at first to regard those worn-in arrangements as anything but gospel.
"We thought they were perfect," Burette says, referring to the songs that they brought Castell. "Like 'Wasted,' which used to be a fairly straight-ahead, upbeat song. He didn't think the music matched the lyrics--'too happy,' he said--and he made some suggestions."
"At first, we were like--" Gabrielle makes a face that's pure appalled disbelief. "But we tried it, and it worked; it was right."
Signing with steve was the logical next step after the Billboard piece ran. "We could've recorded another album on our own," Burette says, "but we couldn't promote it."
"On our first album, we couldn't afford posters, or a full-color CD booklet, or Castell," notes Lee. "They pay for stuff, but the trade-off is that you don't just look out for yourself--you have to consider the interests of the label, too."
"Our first album sold about 1,500 copies last year," Burette says, noting the advantages of steve's distribution system. "Shimmer sold four to five hundred copies its first month."
Like Shimmer, Buck Jones' live sound is sort of an anomaly on the local scene. "We don't really sound like many other bands," Burette says. "There are lots of bands that are a lot harder than us, and then there are lots more bands that do the pop stuff and are really sappy."
Their atypical approach works, though, providing a change of flavor that turns out to be welcome at many different kinds of shows; early on they started playing a lot of One Ton Records showcases. They don't sound like many One Ton acts (possibly Doosu, although that is less true today), which tend toward the raucous, like Caulk. "Some of the bands that you might not think would be very compatible with us, their fans have real open minds," Gabrielle notes. "The first time we played with Slow Roosevelt, I thought 'My God, this crowd's gonna eat us alive,' but they were really cool."
Although they've kept a low profile prior to the release of the new album, people and the press are already busy applying labels to the group, and not all of them fit. Gabrielle in particular receives a lot of attention, and many think she fronts the band, even though she and Burette are obviously both lead singers. Putting her in the foreground of the new poster probably won't help. Even though she goes to great lengths to avoid the one-fingered 'do-do-do-do' style favored by so many of her peers, the condescension behind the 'chick bass player' label still rankles.
"I hate it. I've been playing bass for five years," she says, mentioning that her dad was a classical pianist and that she somehow managed to avoid the lessons her sister had to take. "I got a book and a bass, and it was just real easy. A few months later, Burette and I got together and started writing songs, and then we formed Buck Jones. I saw the Smashing Pumpkins open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and [Pumpkins bassist] D'arcy really inspired me. She wasn't really fancy--although to keep up with [former Pumpkins drummer] Jimmy Chamberlain, you had to be pretty good--but she was there. Kim Gordon [of Sonic Youth] is also a big inspiration."
The attention many give the almost-too-adorable-to-be-believed pairing of Gabrielle and Burette--married four years at the end of this October--also wears thin. "Too many times, people pay more attention to that than they do the music," groans Burette. "Nobody talks about Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon as a married couple, or expects Kim to be the lead singer; they just are what they are."
"We had a friend in the audience once who saw us look at each other--" Gabrielle says.
"I probably made a mistake or fucked something up," Burette interjects.
"--and after the show she said, 'When y'all looked at each other on stage, it was just so sweet that I almost cried!'"
"We just laughed," Burette says, shaking his head and laughing again.
The surest test of marital bliss is coming up, when Buck Jones--who have played out of town only sporadically--take to the road in support of Shimmer. Band members already have the essentials in place--disposable jobs that they can drop when required--but steve records has again allowed the band to contemplate action on a higher level. "It's just so hard when you have to book yourself," Lee says. "You do everything yourself, and you take off work so you can drive down to Austin for a Thursday-night show, play to 12 people and make $20--for the band--and then have to drive right back because you don't have anywhere to stay."
"It's nice to have somebody else handle that," Burette says, no doubt realizing that if they play their cards right, Buck Jones--positioned in post-grunge pop at that unlikely intersection of Sonic Youth and pop ambition--should have more and more help in making their music.
Buck Jones plays in Fort Worth at the Impala Thursday, August 21, and as part of a One Ton Records showcase Saturday, August 23 at Trees.
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