old school era
There’s a scene in Nathan Christ’s documentary Echotone, about the state of the Austin music community circa 2009-2010, in which Joe Lewis talks about the cultural transformation in what Austin audiences want from music: Specifically, indie rock, the Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears frontman says, and not so much the Texas blues and roots rock that the city’s “Live Music Capital of the World” reputation was built on.
He’s right, for the most part. UT’s Cactus Café, once the exclusive domain of folky locals, nearly closed its doors until a plan was devised to re-brand the venue as a place friendlier to the type of music that students at the university actually listened to—the following season’s calendar was booked by newcomer Matt Munoz, who loaded it with acts like emo heartthrob Jarrod Gorbel, harder-edged rockers like Stereo Is A Lie, and a special set for NPR by indie stalwarts Okkervil River. When Antone’s announced its slate of official ACL Fest afterparties, sets by more traditional acts like the North Mississippi All Stars and Gary Clark Jr. failed to sell out; only the indie pop of The Head And The Heart didn’t have tickets available a day in advance.
With some perspective, it’s easy to look back and see where this shift started happening: in the early 00s, it seems like half of the indie rock bands who were buzzed about and whose names were seen in the listings for Emo’s, or the venue that’s now the Parish, or the inside stage at Stubb’s, ended up getting famous. Austin produced alt-rock hits before then—Fastball, Cotton Mather, etc.—but the indie rock class of ’01-’03 looks a lot like the NFL quarterback class of ’83, with a little bit of perspective. Here’s a look at some of the acts that dominated the conversation as the conversation about Austin bands started to change, and what they’re doing now.
In 2000, Okkervil River was the house band on the porch at Flipnotic’s on Barton Springs. Five years later, they belonged to the world. The band’s Black Sheep Boy was a major hit, and they haven’t looked back. They’re not local anymore—frontman Will Sheff calls Brooklyn home now—but a quick look at their gig history traces the band’s rise in the local scene.
Knife in the Water.
“I’m back in Austin after skidding around for awhile,” explains former Knife in the Water frontman Aaron Blount, who has shows on October 4th and 5th at Red 7. The band was a fixture on Red River (also the name of its best album) and hung around until 2007. “Knife in the Water didn’t officially break up, but we’ll probably never play again under that name,” Blount says, but if you’ve missed them – and anyone who heard the band’s “I Sent You Up” or “Red Bird” probably has – he adds that “All members of the last incarnation of the band played on [his new] recordings,” which are available on Soundcloud. (Other players include Austin Jenkins from White Denim, Dave Colvin & Mark Nathan from Heartless Bastards, and Kevin Lovejoy from Spoon.)
Explosions in the Sky.
The stalwarts of post-rock still call Austin home. The band’s rise has been well-documented, initially ascending on the strength of its live show and with the help of assists from friendly locals like former Emo’s booker (and current Transmission Entertainment head) Graham Williams and …And You Shall Know Us By The Trail Of Dead’s Conrad Keely, who invited the band to join them on tour after seeing them play a house party. Explosions in the Sky played rooms that are now The Parish and Halcyon in the early 00’s, and its most recent Austin show was a sold out appearance at ACL Live.
I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness.
The goth-tinged rockers in I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness were a staple at Emo’s in the early 00’s, which led to the band signing to hot-shit Bloomington indie rock label Secretly Canadian; the group’s first album, Fear Is On Our Side, was well-received (Pitchfork gave it a more-than-respectable 7.6), though they subsequently got quiet. The band played a SXSW showcase in 2010, and told Spinner that they were working on a new record which has yet to surface. They didn’t respond to interview requests from CultureMap, though there’s been some activity on the blog on the band’s website recently, so who knows? At the very least, they got an episode of One Tree Hill named after them.
Spoon formed in the early 90’s and signed first to indie mainstay Matador Records before jumping to the majors in 1997 by inking a deal with Elektra. The early incarnation of the band wasn’t exactly a commercial success story, though, and by the early 00’s, they were back home and as likely to open for Denton rockers Centro-Matic at The Mercury (now The Parish) as they were to headline a show on their own. The band’s third album, 2001’s Girls Can Tell, brought them to new listeners, and things haven’t really slowed down since, though frontman Britt Daniel moved to Portland in 2007.
Circa 2003, Canoe was a strong contender for “most likely to succeed” – the band’s debut, I Give You Canoe! was a frenetic, catchy piece of exciting, danceable indie rock with strong pedigree, thanks to production from Pavement’s Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg. So what happened? “Around 2005, I moved to Dallas,” explains vocalist and keyboardist Justin Preston. “We didn’t really formally disband, but I was burnt out on playing music and the lifestyle that accompanied it.” Preston focused on visual art and became an art teacher in the six years that followed, before a surprising reunion at the Mohawk this summer. “We were a little rusty, but the show was great, and it was a lot of fun,” he says. It still sounds much more like a hobby these days than anything Preston or the others harbor much ambitions for, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still playing: the band’s next gig is at the Mohawk this Thursday, September 29th with fellow reunited 00’s-era Austin indie act The Arm and New York art rockers Les Savvy Fav.
Did we leave out one of your favorites? Want to tell us about the best show you saw What Made Milwaukee Famous, or …And You Shall Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, or Rhythm Of Black Lines, or Zykos, or [your favorite Austin band of the era here] ever play? Let us know in the comments.