By Christopher Gray
JANUARY 20, 1998: A few weeks ago, Robert Hughes, the Australian-born art critic who contributes essays to TIME and documentaries to the BBC, said on 60 Minutes that television was the number one purveyor of reality in the Western World (or something like that). Mostly that means people who can afford television sets spend a lot more time watching them than those who can't (I think). But if Hughes can get up on 60 Minutes and declare that television equals reality, and yuppies from here to Dell valley make computers that are supposedly better than reality, then why can't rock & roll do more than substitute for reality? If you're going to have your senses invaded, why not do it with something fun, something you're passionate about, right? "Easier said than done," sings Sixteen Deluxe's Chris Smith on "Wrist Rocket." And he's right; this is still a world where someone is always asking you to turn it down. But Sixteen Deluxe play rock & roll, anyway, because they can -- because they want to. They're serious about it, too. Like when they give "Pale Blue Eyes" a run for its money, imbuing it with Smith's elegiac electric-guitar beauty, and Carrie Clark's heart-melting voice. Or check out "Mixed Up," which, except for the hidden track (an even woozier version of the already bleary-eyed "Lullaby") closes their major label debut, Emits Showers of Sparks.
But reality does intrude -- even in the lives of Sixteen Deluxe, which still fields three of its four members (in addition to Smith and Clark, there's also bassist Jeff Copas and drummer Steven Hall) at the venerable Austin boho grocery and hippie shrine, Wheatsville Co-Op. Actually, today, January 16, is the day the band stops punching their time cards at Wheatsville, because starting next week, when Sparks fly, another "W" will be signing the band's paychecks. That's Warner Bros., the same "W" wesponsible for R.E.M., Casablanca, Batman, and dat wascawwy wabbit.
Sitting at a picnic table near the Wheatsville receiving bay so Copas can keep an eye on incoming produce shipments, Smith says the album's advent means Sparks knuckle-dusters like "Purple" and "Large Animal Clinic," long part of the band's live repertoire, will finally be new. "People out on tour still want to hear songs from Backfeed [Magnetbabe, their first album], because the new album's not out," says Smith. "They think those tunes are all brand-new songs, but we've been playing 'em for a year and a half or two years."
The January 20 release of Sixteen Deluxe's major label bow also means that trades from Billboard to CMJ and every weekly newspaper between the Village Voice and San Francisco's Bay Guardian will get a copy of Emits Showers of Sparks in exchange for some ink. The band, who can already assemble their four-year history into a stack of 100-word blurbs sure to come through in any lack-of-scratch-paper crisis (a good deal of it thanks to local pundits alone), will be happy merely if more people show up for their shows -- gigs like a recent one in Greensboro, North Carolina, where attendance registered a big fat zilch.
"The only people that were there were the hippie band opening up for us," recounts Smith. "We were about to start setting up our stuff, and then the band left."
"It was like the owner and his dog," reflects Copas.
"It was obvious no one had paid to get in," Hall remembers, "And it was obvious we weren't going to really make even gas money or anything."
"At times, we've been in that situation before," says Copas, "where we've gone ahead and played just to have the practice playing -- just what the hell."
Fortunately, the local band showed a lot more caution in signing to Warner Bros., being less interested in behind-the-scenes number-crunching machinations than a label that would pay them to record music and otherwise stay out of the way.
"We were like, 'We're not going to sacrifice any freedom at all just to be on a major label,'" says Copas. "Luckily, we were in a position where we didn't have to. For a while there, there was three or four offers on the table, but they all had little catches."
"And if that's how it was going to be, we were gonna put records out on an indie label," adds Smith.
They certainly didn't rush into anything, only opting for Warner Bros. early last year -- some two and a half years after their first shows in the autumn of 1994. Their debut, Backfeed Magnetbabe, an ambitious blend of sprawling, squalling guitars and melancholy melodies came out the following spring (1995) on legendary local indie Trance Syndicate and garnered much praise from the press and instant interest from parties such as Warner Bros. Which prompts the obvious question, "What took so long?"
"It wasn't that we were like holding out for Warner Bros.," says Clark. "It wasn't like, 'Oh, we're not going to sign anything until Warner Bros. pitches a deal and then we're gonna take it.'"
"We wanted a relationship with a label that was as cool, and as real, and benevolent as our relationship with Craig and King at Trance Syndicate," says Smith. "That was the only thing we were going to settle for. We couldn't have some A&R guy or gal coming into the studio and pointing at stuff. They're business people and they do what they do, respectfully, but we're musicians and we do what we do...
"We've never had that reality. We don't have any interest in having that kind of reality. That's not why we started our band. When we started our band, it was just because we had ideas about how we wanted to play music together, and that's all we know how to do. That's how we know what to do in this band. That's how it operates, and we're not gonna change that."
They do seem downright pleased at the way things are breaking, though. Then again, life aboard the Warner wagon isn't much different from before. And hey, there was a catch, after all; the catch is it couldn't have worked out much better. "The catch is that people like Paula Cole sell all the records, so we can hang out and have fun," says Clark.
"They can have freaky bands like us," observes Copas, listing a few of his less Triple A-friendly labelmates. "They have the Boredoms, they have the Flaming Lips, they have Built to Spill, which aren't bands that sell a whole lot of records, but there's plenty of other bands on that label selling truckloads of records. That's a good situation."
"We still retain a lot of the same band that put their first record out on Trance Syndicate," says Smith. "We're still coming from that same place. If our record sells a lot of copies, cool, then it'll help us make more records. I think it's cool that our record is about to come out, but I'm personally thinking about our next record."
"That's the whole thing," adjoins Clark. "Right now we're not thinking about, 'Oh, wow, we've got this album coming out in January. We just wrote a whole bunch of songs and we're recording them in our practice space. It's been just like it always was; we still do all the things that we do. We're definitely excited and we're definitely impatient to have the thing actually out, but that's not what the band's focused on. The band's focused on just keep on keepin' on -- doing what we're doing."
"It's a great reality," says Smith. "Being in a band -- there's a lot worse things you could be doing. It's a pretty silly, cool reality. It's hard to find anything to be bummed out about, for me personally. It's hard to wake up and go, 'Oh, this is really fuckin' lame. I'm gonna go on tour a bunch next year, maybe go to Europe, meet a bunch of fans, play a bunch of rock shows, do pick scratches in the Fillmore, drink a bunch of beer. It's really gonna be a drag, you know.'"
"It's hard not to be motivated to work hard when it sounds like that," Hall agrees.
The topic of "keep on keepin' on" comes up again later.
"We never had this goal and this master plan," says Clark. "When opportunities came up it was like, 'Well, do you want to do this? Do you want to make a single?' 'Yeah.' 'Do you want to make an album?' 'Yeah.' 'Do you want to go on tour?' 'Yeah.' 'Do you want to sign to a major label and get more money to make a record?' 'Yeah.' 'Do you want to get paid to be on tour?' 'Yeah!' The questions just come up and we answer them how we feel is right."
Like Ice Cube, Sixteen Deluxe just couldn't say no -- they were too busy saying, 'Yeah!' And so was everyone else around the time Backfeed Magnetbabe appeared. No sooner had the Trance Syndicate label released it than the accolades and hyperbole started flooding in, and soon the band's name was as ubiquitous in Austin music circles as Johnnie Cochran and Marcia Clark were on CNN. The hype was so tremendous that this newspaper commissioned a story not on the band per se, but strictly on the amount of "buzz" it had stirred up (I know -- I wrote it). They had no idea.
"We shit a brick when King gave us money to make a record," says Clark. "That was the most silly thing in the whole world. We were like, 'This is amazing,' that someone would give us money to make music.
"We didn't start [the band] to have records," she continues. "We started it so we could play shows and open up for cool bands."
"We thought Ed Hall was the greatest band in Austin," says Copas, "and the biggest thing we could ever be would be to pack Emo's and that would be it. It wasn't a reality that, 'Oh, wow, you can actually make a record the whole country might hear.'"
It was also a reality that, for a while, they couldn't go out without creating a higher profile than the Secret Service. "We'd go out to clubs or whatever and people were like, 'Hey, rock star, what's going on?'" says Copas. "All of a sudden your friends are treating you differently, and talking to you differently -- door guys are treating you differently, bartenders are giving you drinks, all that crazy initial stuff that happened. But you have to make a decision. It's like, 'Am I going to live that or am I gonna realize it has nothing to do with me? It's what some writer or somebody else is creating, creating this public thing that really has nothing to do with me.' I'm just me. We're just us making our music."
Plus the band could always count on its friends and co-workers to keep it real. "Anytime any local paper would write something about us," says Smith, "my buddies at work would cut my head out and wear it on their shirts."
"It embarrassed me," admits Clark. "Not in a bad way, not like, 'I wish people wouldn't do this.' It's just that I didn't think we were worthy of that, because there were so many other bands that I looked up to that had been around for so much longer. It was like, 'Cool, people like my band, but why is everybody paying so much attention to my band when there's all these other kick-ass bands around? Why hasn't Austin appreciated this other round of musicians?' It made me feel weird."
Even now, their recording and touring budgets might have swollen a little bit, but neither their heads nor their bank accounts have. "Here we are, on a major label, but we all still have jobs," says Smith. "We're still living in the same world. I don't think people completely know that, but the guys who used to be in Poi Dog, they know. There's a few cats around town who see us clockin' in and they're like, 'Ha ha ha! All right, rock star! Hey man, where's the peanut butter?'"
Indeed, though Backfeed's "Shanesong" unrolls over the opening titles of MTV's Austin Stories, the thing Sixteen Deluxe likes best about the music channel seems to be how many times veejay Matt Pinfield, er, scratches himself during an average episode of 120 Minutes. ("You could play a drinking game from that and get fucked up," says Clark.) They save the Chamber of Commerce act for listing all the local bands they're fond of.
"There's gonna be a lot of good records coming out of Austin this year," says Smith, aka "French Fry" or "Frenchie." "There's a lot of good bands in Austin. Paul Newman and Trail of Dead are cool bands with records coming out. I hope maybe the Prima Donnas will get a record. Spoon's gonna have a record out this year, maybe Ian McLagan will put one out this year. Abra Moore's doing really well. There's a lot of things happening here. Dah-Veed's happening, the Derailers are doing great, Dale Watson's doing great, everything -- the whole ecosystem of Austin's music is in an amazing time right now."
And despite all the accolades and good company, both here and abroad (they've toured with Medicine, Luna, 7 Year Bitch, Long Fin Killie, Little Red Rocket, and of course the great and powerful Ed Hall) plus the instant-veteran status conferred upon them as many of their once local peers (Cherubs, Crust, Andromeda Strain, Motards, Sincola, Gomez) have fallen by the wayside, Sixteen Deluxe are quite clear that they have yet to accrue any laurels, and thus have a hard time resting on them.
"I don't even think we're veterans," says Smith. "I think we have so much more to do. I feel that with this album we're a brand-new band again, like this is a whole new reality. I'm not complacent with any of our past history. Whatever happened in our past is the past; I want to achieve new things, I want to reinvent ourselves."
Adds Clark: "You're not really a veteran unless you have something to rest on and go, 'Oh, man, don't you know who I used to be?' We're not somebody yet. We're still trying to be somebody."
"There was many times over the past few years where we could have gone either way," says Copas. "We could have gone, 'Well, fuck this. We're tired of being broke all the time.' Or tired of being away from home or this and that. But something kept us together, kept us going. I think a lot of it is the motivation of having some sort of future and going out and seeing the world. Doing stuff outside of Austin made us realize, 'Oh wow. There's a whole big world out there that knows a little bit about us.' That kind of gives you motivation to strive to keep doing it."
For now that's exactly what they plan to do, tour behind this record, learn from the last one, and think about the next one. Smith, for his part, already has at least one new idea; he says he wants Sixteen Deluxe's next album to have a stronger lyrical bent.
"Really, the vocal delivery is quite important," says Smith. "I'm not worried about if the drums, or the guitars, or the bass, are going to sound cool. Those things kind of seem like that's what we do now. The lyrics are the things I'm starting to think more about."
"Rock's cathartic, and rock's therapy, and rock's confessional," says Clark, "but it should, you know, at least be interesting."
"There should definitely be some kind of escapism," says Smith, "because with that confessionalism, in this town especially -- there's so many students who have jobs -- there's already reality when you wake up. When you listen to music, it should hopefully take you someplace, not bury you deeper in reality."
"There's plenty of bands doing that already," notes Copas.
"A lot of times, music is something to help you better relate to your reality," Clark says. "That's why kids listen to music."
And by making it possible for its audience to possibly better relate to its reality, Sixteen Deluxe has created a reality of its own. And here's the best part: Since this reality was born of rock & roll, there's a lot of leeway in there.
"The longer that you play music," explains Clark, "the longer you've
been afforded the opportunity to, hell, go to San Francisco, make a record, it's
like, gosh, it sure makes working eight hours a day seem really, really strange.
When you experience a lot of the cool stuff that can happen to you when you're in
a rock band, it puts your tolerance for the normal world a lot lower."
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