The 37-year-old is nearly as soft-spoken as his intricate and achingly pretty compositions. Yet this Louisiana native's relaxed nature should not be interpreted as dispassionate. Like so many others who express their emotions quietly, bitterness and anxiety brew underneath Gautreau's calm exterior. Much of that subconscious spite is channeled into his second album under the Crushed Stars moniker, Obsolescence, an opus of romantic gloom, and a dreamy, whispered collection that presents the dichotomy of soft music/hard feelings as succinctly as any manic-depressive can.
"My wife always asks me, 'Are you really this sad?'" Gautreau says, smiling. "But I think some sadness is constructive."
With downtrodden musical touchstones such as Big Star's Third and Nick Drake's Pink Moon to guide him, Gautreau's filtered musings offer melody and enough of a pulse to qualify as minor-key pop. The mere use of standard song structures was a leap for Gautreau's work as Crushed Stars; his previous musical projects focused on ambient electronic compositions a la Brian Eno and Steve Reich.
In 1994, a year after graduating from LSU and moving to Dallas, Gautreau created two sonic alter egos, Tear Ceremony and Sonogram. Under those names, he issued six CDs on a variety of record labels, mostly overseas, and his music was used in films and television.
"Ambient music--at least mine--was a reaction against grunge, the commercialization of alternative music," Gautreau says. Yet after creating a significant body of instrumental work, Gautreau felt the need to change, to connect to a different audience.
"It got too heavy being heavy," he says. "I needed a way to decompress, to allow for a different kind of creativity."
With Obsolescence, along with 2001's Self Navigation, Gautreau created a band concept without a band, all the while writing beautifully depressive songs that yearned for the fullness that a few friends might provide. So in January, Gautreau put together a full-time group, and his once-solo project is now shining with a communal creativity and agreeable instrumental interplay that suggests a Southern Yo La Tengo. But the new Crushed Stars is more than just a few hired hands--the band coaxes Gautreau into examining the redemptive aspects of unhappiness, wringing dejection out of every phrase in songs like "Sleepyhead" and "For Someone With Amnesia" and bringing him closer to catharsis.
"Luckily, I've found people who are perceptive enough to understand what that the song should be," Gautreau says, although he admits that he is still trying to marry the live show with the intent of the studio versions, and he even yearns to broaden the band with elements like trumpet and cello.
Restless in a low-key way, Todd Gautreau wants to take Crushed Stars into a new realm, wants to see his quixotic vision exposed to a larger audience. His eyes widen as he talks of a possible late summer tour.
"I'd leave this day job in a minute," he says, before adding, "but I might have to check with the wife."