On a sweaty Sunday night in July, Fort Worth indie labels Dreamy Soundz and Lo-Life Recordings threw a party at the Where House. For Panther City music fans, the Where House is more or less the locus for boozy, large-scale, late-night DIY throwdowns. One of the two stages was set up outside in a spot normally reserved for a quarter-pipe, where skaters can drop in from a second-story catwalk. Among the bands playing out here was Dallas four-piece Sealion, who couldn't have been any more at home.
Shows like these, where the only line separating the band from the crowd is the demarcation of monitors, mics and pedal boards, are more or less Sealion's wheelhouse, and the fans responded. A crowd of about 50 people were already waiting before their set had started, and by the middle of the first song one could barely see the band through all the people.
"I'd much rather play on a floor than a stage," says guitarist and lead vocalist Hunter Moehring, an unmistakable fixture of local punk shows with his black-framed glasses and mess of dirty-blond hair. No doubt Sealion feed off that energy: At the Where House show, they blasted through 30 minutes of jangly, surf's-up punk rock, their intensity such that they could have probably powered a city block.
This is not to say that Sealion are averse to playing more traditional venues and stages. It's just that they thrive on the immediacy of playing with fans in their faces.
"Our first show was a Halloween party at [guitarist] Cole [Denton]'s house," Moehring says. "We just invited friends to party at a practice, pretty much, and that's kind of always been our favorite type of show."
Moehring and Denton, along with drummer Alex Poulos and Denton's then-roommate John Warwick on bass, formed Sealion in 2010 after dissolving a folk ensemble they'd formed called Hats and Statutes. Moehring and Poulos give a regretful chuckle at the mention of the band name. "Yeah, exactly," Poulos says. "We did this folk band where we all played instruments that we didn't really know that well. It was fun, but we kinda decided to write songs with guitars and drums -- the things we were actually competent on."
"We were all into punk and garage rock, and stuff by bands like the Ventures and the Trashmen," Moehring adds. "That's sort of where we started, jamming on ideas that came from those places."
The band soon started working on jams at Denton and Warwick's house, somewhat freeform practice sessions that started with them sitting around listening to records and then riffing on ideas. Eventually these songs turned into the nine tracks on Kenneth, released on Dallas Distortion Music in May 2013. While the DDM cassette edition's cover features a hard-partying trio of a goat-man, shark and dimetrodon, the band's digital release has some dude wiping out under the crest of a wave littered with beer cans. That image makes for a pretty accurate depiction of Sealion's sound.
But by the time Kenneth had been released, Warwick had departed the band. "There weren't any bad feelings," Denton says. "After that run, John figured out that touring really wasn't for him, and he stepped aside because he knew that's what we wanted to do." Thereafter came a succession of replacements that didn't stick long-term. First came Paul Hernandez, who currently plays guitar in his own band, Bummer Vacation. Hernandez held down the low end for a few months, including a two-week run with Lo-Life label friends War Party, but split soon after. Then came War Party bassist Tyler Moore who, due to his own band's schedule and, in the words, of Poulos, "this one sucky outdoor show on a really hot stage we had to play," was destined to be another casualty.
Fortunately, Hunter had met a multi-instrumentalist named Samantha Villavert when Sealion played Novemberfest, an annual house-party-cum-camping-trip at The Porch in Romney. Villavert wasn't really a bass player, and in fact had only recently picked up the instrument to fill out the reception party band when her aunt and uncle renewed their vows. But she can pretty much play anything, and prior to Sealion, she had been writing material for a solo record.
"I got a text from Hunter, who I'd been friends with since I saw Sealion at Novemberfest," Villavert says. "It said, 'Wanna join Sealion?' I was a big fan, and so of course I said yes." She eventually joined late in the summer.
Besides anchoring Sealion's low end, Villavert's talents extended to singing, which is perfect given the debts that Sealion's sound owes to Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes. Villavert's dreamy, cooing background vocals underscore Sealion's reverberating nods to retro, but she also sings lead on two tracks on Heavy Fizz, the band's new LP that was given a cassette-only release in July.
On the surface, Heavy Fizz bears all the hallmarks of the contemporary garage rock revival -- buckets of reverb, scuzzy distortion and double-picked Dick Dale leads over a drum sound that's nicely on the trashy side. But when you listen a little deeper, you'll also hear the thread of ideas spooled from classic post-punk statesmen like New Order.
In fact, if New Order had come from Orange County or Santa Cruz, they'd sound exactly like "Wet Jeans," Heavy Fizz's penultimate track. The guitar amps' echo takes a backseat to chorus pedals, and even Moehring's vocals bear more than a passing resemblance to Bernard Summer's, though Moehring's timbre almost sounds playfully tongue-in-cheek.
Heavy Fizz's 11 tracks showcase a band on solid footing, ready to tour behind a record that has all the markings of indie-rock greatness. Sealion's latest might nod to Link Wray and the Ventures, but think of it more specifically as "Walk, Don't Run" on Pavement. Better still, Sealion want people to hear it, and are prepared to go the extra miles; they just wrapped up their longest tour, a three-week West Coast jaunt with War Party, and they're planning on going back to Cali in January with Fort Worth's Son of Stan.
"The West Coast is really more conducive to our sound," Poulos says. "It's not like the East Coast was bad, it's just that in the places we played in California and the Northwest, kids would come out on a weeknight, and we were a better fit with those West Coast bands."
Luckily, Sealion are already making a mark on the Third Coast -- or at least five hours north of it -- one sweaty show at a time.
SEALION open for Froth, Mr. Elevater and the Brain Hotel, Corners and Wyatt Blair at 9 p.m. Saturday, August 30, at Double Wide, 3510 Commerce St., double-wide.com.