Chris Plavidal is raving about the view from the windows of his new apartment. Over the phone, he sounds positively joyous. "On one side, I can see the Empire State Building," he nearly shouts, "and out this way is the Statue of Liberty!" So much for Denton's glowing "Corn-kits" sign and the old, looming courthouse.
Just as Plavidal--a beloved Denton musician for the last half-dozen years--releases his first full-length CD, he steps from the definition of "fixture" to "transplant." Stumptone is now a Brooklyn act. Following a quiet trend of Denton artists high-tailing it up to Metropolis, Plavidal is the latest loss in Denton's otherwise thriving music and visual-arts scene. Sooner or later, those creative minds that graduated from the University of North Texas in the mid-'90s grow restless with that town's scruffy, humble leanings, its three modest rock venues, and its reluctant association with the big city nearby. Why move to Dallas when you can move to The City That Never Sleeps, the city with more venues and musicians and artists than the entire state of Texas?
"I'm just making a change," Plavidal says. "A bunch of my friends have moved up here in the last couple of years, and they're having a great time. It was time for a shake-up." He's been there for only five days, and already he has unpacked, preparing for the big job search ahead. His voice sounds a million miles from stressed-out and tired; the bustling, gritty energy of Brooklyn suits him. And his music--a constant project-in-the-works that employs various musicians but always pivots around Plavidal's songwriting--is the last thing he's anxious about.
He's undaunted at the prospect of continuing Stumptone alone (his most frequent collaborators didn't make the move with him), and he's confident in Stumptone's eponymous debut, an hour-plus epic recorded over a span of nearly three years. Out in a few weeks, the CD already has distribution in North Texas through Denton's 2 Ohm Hop label, and Plavidal is certain he can find a place and an audience for it in his new stomping grounds. "Oh, I'll figure something out," he insists. "It'll get it in stores here. I'm not too worried about that."
His tone isn't so much cavalier as it is thoughtful and self-assured, an attitude that lightly anchors Stumptone's 16 cuts. Meandering, echoing, exquisitely melodic but never predictable, Plavidal's sensibilities blithely step right off the indie rock ship and into Oz. He's a fantasist who loves the warm texture of acoustic guitars, a traditionalist who loves tweaked-out sound effects and new recording technologies. That he manages to balance these two conflicting camps has much to do with his sticking to very personal and connective themes. Travel, exploration, weather, organic transmutations--things that evolve and take you with them. The record comes off like nearly three years of deep meditation, like reading a person's private travelogue.
"It's not in chronological order, but it's really a long-running journal," he says. "The oldest song on the record, 'Welcome Home,' is from around spring of '96. The newest, all the live-recorded stuff, is mostly from fall of '98." Not surprisingly, the recording process took place everywhere--from Plavidal's own living room to Dave Willingham's studio in Argyle to the stage at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton. "On the CD, certain ideas are touched upon at different times, over the course of its recording--they just change and get reinterpreted," he says. "It's really an encapsulation of time."
But since it's all springing from the same person's mind, the resulting cohesion keeps the music from spinning off into cold space like a cut-loose astronaut. Unlike the experimental offerings of so many self-indulgent acts who think you need to read their diaries--and, you know, the kind of projects that alienate a listener by the 14th minute of some spacey sonic drivel--Plavidal's presence is a soothing, generous one. It's a compass that keeps the listener from feeling lost even during the record's most esoteric and trippy moments.
As with so much of the strongest music out these days, it's impossible to cleanly define the sounds he makes. In his self-penned bio for 2 Ohm Hop, Plavidal hesitatingly describes his music as "Noisy Psychedelia"--he loathes categorization as much as the next songwriter. But the record is full of surprises: Ninety seconds into "Coming Home," a series of tiny bleeps segues into a luscious, sleepy trumpet passage--mid-career Miles Davis channeled through Sivad trumpet player Karl Poetschke. The raucous electric scramble at the end of "From the Sociable Harbinger" suddenly evaporates into the quietly hypnotic "To a Departing Comet," which is just more than two minutes of subtle longing for a life off this planet. Next up are simple staccato hand claps layered to match military drum-line exercises, which give way to "Drugs on War," a tune replete with cathartic guitar bombs and seriously reverbed vocals. There's Plavidal nobly straining to meet his own compulsion to "change the world...Let's melt the gold out of empty icons!"
This is delicate, beautiful music often pushed to even more beautifully raw agitation, constant restlessness dosed with gentle goodwill. During his live sets--which for the past few years he's carried on as both a three-man endeavor (alongside bassist Miguel Veliz and drummer Mike Thronberry) and a solo act--the rangy, smooth-faced Plavidal is all lazy smiles and openness. Nothing unnerves him; he's got the temper of a saint and the brain of a wanderer lodged between the ears of a curious musician. By the end of a set or a listen to the record, you've hitched a ride on his quirky journey, and you've heard some of the best, most complex work to come out of the ever-prolific Denton scene.
"I started all this around '91," he says, referring to his move from Houston to Denton to attend college. "I started out with MK Ultra, but then my own thing kinda started as Vernilla Stump," he says, laughing. "Then we called it Marfa Lights. Then, for a while it was the Young Pioneers, until we found out some other band had that name."
The Young Pioneers, in fact, were perhaps the biggest and most inbred outfit ever attempted in Denton, boasting members from Mazinga Phaser, Comet, Mod Lang, Whitey, and more; a dozen or so musicians were in and out of a revolving door, with only a few live gigs to show for it. Logistically, the band was impossible to maintain, while musically it was brilliant: richly textured songs of unexpected instruments and voices weaving together with breathtaking instinct. It was the first sure sign of Plavidal's--acting as the point man--songwriting gifts, sonic ambition, and knack for collaboration.
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By early '97, Plavidal had scaled his project back to the far more streamlined three-piece and rechristened it Stumptone. The band and various guests recorded a 7-inch vinyl release for 2 Ohm Hop. In the meantime, the college-graduated Plavidal worked as an aerial photographer and honed new songs that would, one by one, snake their way onto the tapes that would finally form the full-length album. This is the modern process of a guy with a decent day job, energy to burn, and a literally elevated perspective of life on this earth. And his apparent ambition is always tempered with plenty of patience.
"But there's always new stuff, always new material to work with," he says. "I've got all-new songs that I'll be ready to record soon enough."
But, he is asked, won't he have to go it alone now that he's in New York?
"Well, yeah. I mean, it's not such a big deal," he offers, sort of tossing out the remark. You can almost picture him waving off the thought with a flick of his hand. "I'll continue to go down and play shows in Denton sometimes, with Mike and Miguel if they're available. But, you know, this thing is constantly changing, loose-knit, always shifting and...it's nice to mix it up every once in a while."
Like moving 1,500 miles away to Brooklyn?
"Sure," he chimes, absently. He must be gazing out his window.