Fergus & Geronimo
It seems like every other band playing the annual SXSW Festival in Austin this year can be described as lo-fi or garage, but Fergus and Geronimo take inspiration from the other half of the ‘60s. “Tell It (In My Ear)” and “Powerful Lovin’” sound so much like old Motown singles you half expect them to show up to shows in snappy suits and skinny ties, while “Turning Blue” has a surf-pop vibe that could soundtrack a game of beach blanket bingo.
The two sounds are part of the band’s appeal. “The interesting thing about Fergus and Geronimo is that it’s not a band per se, as much as it is two people’s solo projects,” says one of the two members, Andrew Savage. The band only happened because Savage and Jason Kelly both had songs they needed help recording. “We both work on our own respective songs completely separately,” says Savage. “I play everything but drums and Jason plays everything. So on one of Jason’s songs he’ll record and track everything himself and I’ll do maybe back-up vocals for him, and on one of my songs I’ll do pretty much everything myself and he’ll do drums for me.” The songs are cohesive because both members are part of the tight Denton music community—Savage fronts Teenage Cool Kids and Kelly the Wax Museums. The member-sharing has caused Denton to turn into a musical hot spot. “I think that’s really good for defining the sound and attitude of a region,” says Savage.
Even their name reflects the dual songwriting. Fergus and Geronimo are the leaders of rival Irish child gangs in the movie War of the Buttons. “They’re both kind of at odds with each other but they both hold the other in very high regard,” says Savage. He and Kelly are still on opposing teams, but the band is an exercise in mutual respect.
They’re not the only ones with respect. The handful of songs they recorded in their first week together turned into two EPs and a heap of accolades. With all the attention coming their way, the two had to figure out how to translate their multi-track recordings to the stage. “We don’t really play live a lot because we don’t really think of ourselves as a band,” says Savage. “When we do these recordings, we’re not thinking about how we’re going to play them live.” At SXSW they’ll be enlisting the help of Teenage Cool Kid Bradley Kerl and friend Landon Odle, plus some to-be-decided others, but Savage is setting the bar low for success: “To not totally bomb. That’s all I can really hope for.”
With a soon to be announced label already putting out their just finished full length record, and positive reviews for every song they’ve released, bombing’s not really something they have to worry about.
Big. For all the words critics struggle with to describe Balmorhea, big is the one that fits. “I don’t think we sat down and said ‘Hey, we just want to make something that’s really large and open,’” says composer and multi-instrumentalist Rob Lowe. “It just kind of happens that way.”
Consciously or not, Lowe and his co-composer Michale Muller, with help from their string section and drummer, have created a record that reflects Texas just as much as Willie Nelson does. “I grew up and spent the majority of my life in a town in West Texas [Midland] where everything was very wide, open, spacious,” says Lowe. “People’s environments definitely affect their aesthetic, the things that they enjoy, the things they can appreciate.” Lowe appreciated his environment enough to name his band after the springs he played in as a kid.
It may be hard to see how the classically influenced orchestral music Balmorhea makes reflects the home of honky-tonk, but their two newest LPs were both inspired by different parts of Texas life. All is Wild, All is Silent takes its name from pioneer William B. DeWees’s description of Texas’s western frontier. “Coahuila” starts lonely and sparse and builds gradually to the fullness and noise of many instruments and wordless vocals—silent, then wild. Constellations, released in February, looks upward for inspiration, finding it in Texas’s endless skies. Its songs are minimalist and full of longing, stretching out to fill greater spaces with fewer notes.
Balmorhea’s more spacious songs, however, don’t always translate live. The band must constantly change its set list to fit different venues and different crowds. “At SXSW we’re playing a day party outside,” he says. “We’re not going to sit down and play the nine-minute solo piano song, just because it probably wouldn’t hold people’s interest in that setting.” Constellations’s simpler songs will likely lose out to songs that can compete with audience chatter. “We used to really, really have to contend with that bar sound,” says Lowe, “but I think as we’ve grown a little bit the types of people who come to our show come because they’re interested, not just because we’re some cool band they want to go out and drink to.”
Volume isn’t the only thing that holds instrumental bands back. So much of modern music is lyric-based that there isn’t a vocabulary or existing community for what Balmorhea does. Critics tend to lean on words like post-rock, which Lowe dislikes, or terms like cinematic, which reference the band’s work doing scores for movies and commercials. “There’s definitely a perception of the genre as a whole,” says Lowe. “If we can just get out in front of people, I think that people are a lot more willing to like it.”
Three SXSW shows will give Balmorhea a chance to prove that compositions as compelling as theirs don’t need lyrics to convey ideas.
Michael Coomers is already a rock star. When I call to talk about his band they’re in the process of filming music videos for their first three singles off of April’s Hippies. This is not his first interview of the day, and he’s not much interested in answering questions about his new record or why he moved to Austin. He thinks it’s a waste of time. “We might be the worst band of the whole entire festival,” he says. When you’re insanely talented, press is something of a joke.
To Coomers, who trades guitar, vocal, and drum duties with Curtis O’Mara, most journalists only ask dumb questions and shower his band with backhanded compliments. “Garagey, sloppy, lo-fi, those don’t necessarily sound like compliments to me,” says Coomers, “but you know, I like it when women have big teeth. Does that sound like a compliment to you?” No. But garagey, sloppy, and lo-fi are all words for what Harlem does. Harlem sounds like the kind of band three 13-year-olds with Fender starter packs would form—loud and tinny. The sense of humor fits too. They named their first record Free Drugs 😉 and put a song on it called “Psychedelic Tits.” Which would be a backhanded compliment, except Harlem combines all the grit and bravado of adolescence with the song structure and melody of the Beach Boys.
Despite their distaste for the industry, they’ll be hitting SXSW hard, with a half dozen shows listed on their MySpace profile and more to come. “We were hoping to play a couple good ones and give us time to chill and watch friends’ bands and stuff, but we ended up getting roped into more shows than we were expecting to agree to,” says bassist Jose Boyer. There’s not much need for the heavy show schedule given their multi-record contract with Matador. Coomers treats the Matador deal with his usual degree of reverence: “We’re one of the best bands in the f—king universe. And Matador just happened to be the ones to pony up the dough for any dumb ideas we have,” he says. “We’re hoping to bankrupt them by the end of the year.” He doesn’t think finding a label is that important. “As much as we love those guys, they’ve had records that have failed too,” he says.
Coomers is also over Hippies. “I’ve worn that suit to six funerals,” he says. “We’ve been inside that record for so long.” He can’t give a real description of the sound, aside from it not sounding like Free Drugs 😉, but still sounding like Harlem, so he passes the phone to Boyer.
Boyer’s job is to answer all of the questions Coomers is uninterested in. He can’t say what the record sounds like either. “It’s kind of like if you paint a mural and you’ve been standing too close to the painting,” says Boyer. “You can’t even see what the mural is anymore.”
Boyer also can’t answer the big question Coomers takes a pass on—why they moved to Austin in the first place. He joined the band after Coomers and O’Mara ran out of money in Austin and decided to stay. Boyer says there are plans to leave, but Coomers seems too taken with the Texas clichés to move. “There’s something very real about Texas blondes,” says Coomers. “I’ve thought about them a lot. You meet these big-haired Texas blondes and they’re loud and brassy. I think there’s a thing of that that’s really, really appealing about Texas.” Appealing enough that Austin may not be rid of Harlem for a while longer.
Houston’s tight indie-pop community has been quietly growing for the past few years, and Wild Moccasins are at the center of it. “There’s pretty much a new band every week,” says vocalist-guitarist Cody Swann. “Being around a ton of peers it really gets you excited about other people’s music, and in turn gets us excited to make music ourselves.”
The shiny, shimmery pop songs of Wild Moccasins are worth getting excited about. Swann and girlfriend Zahira Gutierrez trade vocals and harmonize sweetly enough to force a smile with lyrics intelligent enough to keep it from being twee. A bouncing rhythm section and interesting guitar riffs wind in and out of the vocals and Gutierrez’s keyboard, giving indie depth to their pop half. But with all the mass appeal, Wild Moccasins are still sticking to a DIY ethos, unless something really great comes along.
“We know how to put out a record and we know how to support it,” says Swann. “There’s no reason not to just do it ourselves, unless it’s something we can all be really psyched about.” They’ll be self-releasing their first LP this May, and they’ve just finished a marathon recording session to get it done before a big April tour.
The long process had a big effect on the sound of the new record. “We had a lot of time to think about it, and we decided, well, let’s add all these harmonies and layers of instruments and extra percussion and things that we wouldn’t normally do live,” says Gutierrez. “It sounds like a studio album, but it still sounds like us.”
Not having a label does have its downsides though, as Swann points out. “We all had to move back in with our parents though, because going on these tours means we’re not going to have any money for rent.”
Gutierrez is a little more practical about staying DIY. “We can do it, but only for so long until we’re like, man, we’re so broke,” she says. “We would love to do this as our actual full-time job instead of having to hold other jobs to make this happen.”
They all agree that SXSW will probably not get them signed. “There’s so many shows going on during SXSW with so many bands that have way more press that we’re not really worried about the whole dream scenario,” says Swann. Just like they are with their self-released records and self-booked and financed tour, they’re realistic about SXSW’s potential. Wild Moccasins will be on the road all of April and most of the summer, so they’re using the week to meet bands from around the world and help them find shows in the hopes that they’ll return the favor. “I mean if a record label was there I definitely wouldn’t complain, but touring bands can always help you,” says Zahira.
More proof that practical people can make fanciful music.