All About Guitars
By Kim Mellen
APRIL 19, 1999: Listen to the black birds in your front yard this morning. There are two of them in the tree, calling and responding to each other and to distant, unseen birds. They buzz and build tension, puffing themselves up then letting out a rising cry as they bend their necks back, splaying neck feathers, one buzzing, the other getting ready to. It's not all out until their open beaks are nearly buried into their backs where their wings meet. They deflate and start over, the layered cries echoing through the treetops.
Reese Beeman, singer-songwriter, guitarist, bassist, and original Seven Percenter, has birds outside his front door. Maybe he has black birds in his trees, too, but these are peacocks. Lots of them. Even an albino one. They make their own noises. "It's mating season," he explains with distaste. He says residents of this South Austin neighborhood have been known to shoot these peacocks, because they make such a horrible noise. The upscale Green Pastures restaurant is home to the grandiose, cacophonous birds, and also employs Beeman and his bandmate/guitarist James Adkisson. Somehow, though, the band just doesn't fit their surroundings.
It's an aggressively nice spring day, among cherry blossoms, peacocks, and a wedding procession, but Beeman and Adkisson -- the band's two core members -- are wearing a lot of black, as are guitarist and backing vocalist Julian Capps and their new rhythm section, bassist Mike Sherrill and drummer Sean McGee, both of the now-defunct local band Cling. Among the band members there is long hair, there is short hair, there is hair gel. There are long fingernails, there are short fingernails, there is nail polish. The quintet, the members of which are all hovering around 30, is like a grown-up version of your high-school AV Club: charming, intelligent, just more comfortable in darkened rooms. They're not particularly goth or scary, they're just self-admitted hermits who don't look like your typical Austin indie rockers.
Similarly, the band is an anomaly on the local music scene. Seven Percent Solution hasn't gotten much notice locally, despite the fact that blurbs, reviews, and features on the band are rampant in the national music press and have been since they self-released their first CD, All About Satellites and Spaceships, in 1996. The album peaked at #25 on the CMJ charts last summer in its second pressing, while no less than Rolling Stone's David Fricke has taken an interest in the band and has mentioned them in the publication three separate times. All the big indie mags -- Alternative Press, Option, and Magnet among them -- are equally keen on tracking their movements. Members of Guided by Voices and Pop Will Eat Itself showed up this year at Seven Percent Solution's South by Southwest after-hours party at Movements Gallery. Not that this attention radiated out from hometown buzz. It didn't. Moreover, it hasn't yet managed to trickle down to Austin audiences.
Strange, because Austin loves its guitar bands, and guitars are Seven Percent Solution's raison d'être; there are countless layers of them on both All About Satellites and the recently released Gabriel's Waltz -- three guitars with plenty of loops, which also define the group's cerebral, ambidelic live shows. Therein lies part of the explanation for their marginalized status: They aren't, by any stretch, a blues-rock kind of guitar band that packs the house every night of the week. And while Austin boasts a healthy undercurrent of young, independent, not readily classifiable -- even revolutionary -- bands, it's difficult to draw a large, steady live audience within this scene. Beeman theorizes that operating in a town with such an overwhelming amount of music tends to work to his band's disadvantage: "People start getting the attitude where it's, 'Oh, well, we can see them any time, why go? They'll play next week.'"
In years prior, Seven Percent Solution played locally nearly every week, but it started to hurt them. Now their in-town gigs, with a backdrop of abstract film images or computer-generated psychedelia, are much rarer. When they do play, they try to make it "a big deal." National tours, on the other hand, are a big deal; the national press and widespread college radio rotation Seven Percent's albums have received aren't falling on deaf ears, as Beeman notes that the group has much larger fan bases everywhere from Baton Rouge to Chicago.
"When we went to Atlanta, there were way more people there to see us," Beeman exclaims. "People singing along who knew everything. They were pressed up to the front -- mashed up to the front of the stage, yelling and singing and screaming. That was a strange experience. And when we went to New York, this girl recognized the band at an ATM. That would never happen to us here; it only happens when we go somewhere else."
"We don't have to worry about getting mobbed," jokes Adkisson wryly. "When I go to HEB, nobody bothers me. Austinites are great that way, they really will leave a celebrity alone!"
The band is far from bitter about their relative hometown obscurity, however. Really, the Seven Percenters have little to complain about; if anything, the situation has kept the national praise from going to their heads. Beeman and Adkisson are no more cocky today than they were upon the release of All About Satellites, recorded with bassist Dwayn Moore and drummer Scott Sasser. In fact, the first pressing of All About Satellites, packaged in handcrafted, letterpressed cardboard, included an extra copy of the CD with the instructions to give it to a friend, "because we didn't think we'd be able to get rid of 1,000," laughs Beeman.
Actually, the free CD was more a power-to-the-fans maneuver; people recommending the band could back up their words with the actual product. "We liked the idea that for every one we sold, two people had it," Adkisson explains. And they were pleased with the response; fans would come up to them at shows and say they were turned on to them because someone gave them the extra copy. As a sort of veiled reference to their clever distribution method, the album's second track, "Built on Sand," drifts in and out of R.E.M.'s "What If We Give It Away." This homage, however, goes uncredited in the the first pressing's liner notes. "We didn't think anyone was gonna hear it!" cry Adkisson and Beeman in unison.
"We didn't think it was necessary," exclaims Beeman. "We figured our friends would have it, our family would have it."
By what they attribute to pure, dumb luck and word of mouth, more than just their inner circle of friends and family and second-degree converts got their hands on All About Satellites. Way more -- all with DIY distribution and without label support.
"I met a guy that had a mail-order catalog," says Adkisson, "and I sent him our CD because I thought he might want to buy 5 or 10. He liked it so much that he was like, 'Send me 100.'"
Soon, favorable reviews were coming in from as far away as Europe, while stateside, still no threats of lawsuits from Stipe and company. No trouble from lawyers at all. As a matter of fact, the band has had nothing but good luck with them. In New York, for instance, an attorney sauntered into a record store where All About Satellites was playing. He liked it, bought it, and brought the band to the attention of his friends at MFPR, a well-connected publicity firm. They were so impressed, they sent representatives down to SXSW 97 to see Seven Percent Solution -- even though the band wasn't showcasing at the festival. No matter; non-festival shows at the Public Domain Theatre and the now-closed Coffee Plantation hooked the company, which is still advocating the band pro bono.
"They're working for us just because they like us," says Beeman in amazement. "They're really great people. And they know everybody."
Along the way, the Seven Percenters also picked up local manager Ron Suman, who, when he saw how well All About Satellites was selling, encouraged the band to make another pressing of the album. No longer able to afford the inclusion of the freebie disc or the homemade packaging, the group produced a jewel-box version of the CD. And this time around, the liner notes credited R.E.M. The liner notes also thank the Hole in the Wall, Liberty Lunch, and the Electric Lounge, but these days, the five members of the band can't fit on the Hole in the Wall's stage with all their equipment, and we all know the fate of the latter two venues. On the eve of their last show at Electric Lounge, then, the mood is somber.
The early success of their new album Gabriel's Waltz is tempered somewhat by the closing of the Bowie Street club, the only downtown venue, they note, with its own parking lot. Indeed, Seven Percent Solution is the type of band who will be most hurt by the loss, though they remain hopeful that venues like Stubb's and Emo's will absorb the Electric Lounge bands. No way around it, though; the loss of a supportive venue makes their already uphill battle to cement themselves in the local scene a Sisyphian quest. "For bands like us, the Electric Lounge is the only friendly place," Beeman sighs. "The Electric Lounge is our home. I hate to see them go."
You know the sound when you rub the rim of a partially filled wine glass? You gently circle your wet forefingers around and around, but you don't hear anything at first. The sound sneaks up on you: a tone that doesn't seem to come from the glass at all. Where does it come from, though? From the floor? The walls? From inside your own head? It comes out of nowhere and fills the room.
Seven Percent Solution can make that noise, too. With guitars.
Underlying a chorus of reverberating bells that seem to be undulating lazily in a heavy, humid wind, that noise is an envelope which, when opened, unfolds a sad letter to the dead poet Anne Sexton. "Dear Anne," sings Beeman on the prelude of Gabriel's Waltz, "spare me the hardest things." His high voice, barely breaking through a whisper, is like static electricity, passing over and through you. Or is it the other sounds on Gabriel's Waltz lifting the hair on your arms, the dynamic electricity of the 22 strings -- three guitars, one bass? It's all of it, really, and there's no use in trying to separate them all out, as the vocals mutate into something guitar-like and the guitars warp into textures that can't possibly come from guitars.
"Honest to god," Beeman insists, "No keyboards."
He and the band know more about aural physics than you do. They can make you feel like you're sharing in that knowledge, though, just like your drug of choice -- which you might choose to accompany your listening experience -- seems to reveal the secrets of time and space, life and death. Originally, the band had the idea of putting together an all-waltz album; the circular motion of dancing the waltz -- one, two, three, one, two three -- is said to be a metaphor for birth, life, death. But just as the guitars don't sound like guitars, the waltzes don't sound like waltzes.
"They're not very typical," Beeman says. "They're all in 3/4 time though, except the opening. It doesn't initially hit you."
Making Gabriel's Waltz into an imaginary conversation with Sexton didn't initially hit Beeman and Adkisson, either, but the poet's inspiration and the idea of an all-waltz album clicked together like they were fated that way.
"Once we were looking at what we had song-wise," explains Adkisson, "it seemed like everything we had was about life and death, big changes in relationships. ... What I got from [Sexton's] poetry was that she had a hard time making it through every day just because it was another day closer to death. And she eventually committed suicide. My deal was to not be that way, to not live your life like that."
An album of waltzes, the ghost of a departed poet passing through the walls -- put that together with Pink Floyd- and Spiritualized-inspired psychedelia, and it's tempting to call Gabriel's Waltz a "concept album." It's a term, like "space-rock," that Seven Percent Solution meets with an equal mix of nods and groans. Qualification, then.
"We use themes to try and make the overall mood go together and give us ideas what song should go after the next," says Adkisson, "but people don't necessarily need to know any of that to get the CD."
"Our albums are very thematic," adds Beeman. "They're not Red-Headed Stranger. It's not a story from beginning to end. But it helps us to put together a cohesive album if we have an idea behind it all. Even if it's just our idea and nobody else knows what it is. ... That's just a better work of art to me if you do it that way than if you just throw together a bunch of songs. We're definitely not trying to push some specific message across to anybody. We don't feel like we're that smart. We're just relating personal experiences."
OK, so these aren't rock operas. Nor is the band prone -- as many in the psychedelic and space-rock camps are -- to drawn-out, self-indulgent noodling and improvisation. Live, Seven Percent Solution is maybe 7% improvisation, 93% structure -- there's little in the way of unscripted surprises. What is surprising, though, is how adeptly the band re-creates its recorded, non-guitary noises. With guitars. And effects -- lots of them -- thanks in large part to Julian Capps' programming wizardry.
"When we write, we don't write thinking, 'How are we gonna play this live? We've gotta be sure to keep this to a minimum,'" explains Beeman. "There's a process where after the song is written we learn how to play it live. I think people are generally surprised at how good we do it."
The band's zero-tolerance stance on keyboards arose not from snobbery, but more from a sense of challenge, and as Adkisson explains, necessity.
"I wanted to play keyboards; I wanted to play violin, but I had a guitar," he says. "I've always liked that Brian May from Queen sounded like violins. Adrian Belew sounded like everything else; Robert Fripp had unbelievable sounds. ... The thing I like about a guitar doing it rather than a keyboard is I like hearing that the guitar is trying to do that sound. There's something I like more about, 'Wow, that guitar kind of sounds like seagulls' more than, 'That's a sample of a seagull.' There's something more creative about it, more satisfying."
In the middle of the night, crickets chirp out veiled mathematical odes to the weather. A meteor streaks through space, only making sound when it escapes the vacuum of space and penetrates earth's atmosphere. Still, it's too far away to hear. You imagine what it must sound like.
Seven Percent Solution can make these sounds.
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