Loud Is the Night
It's an old saw: "I'd rather be lucky than good." But for exploding San Antonio rock band Hacienda, which makes its Houston debut Thursday night, being both is even better.
The fledgling band had been together only long enough to compose and demo six original tunes before a chance meeting with Dan Auerbach at a Black Keys show in Austin. Within days, the Keys' guitarist had become Hacienda's patron and recording guru.
"We just ran into him on the sidewalk," says Abraham Villanueva (age 26), vocalist, pianist and songwriter for the band, which includes brothers Jaime (21, drums/vocals) and Rene (24, bass/vocals) and cousin Dante Schwebel (30) on guitar. "Dan's very approachable, very down to earth, and we just got to talking."
Auerbach ended up with a copy of the demo, and the rest is Cinderella rock and roll history.
Within weeks, under Auerbach's direction and encouragement, Hacienda began writing and demo-ing 20 songs for a debut LP. Not bad for a brand-new band that had played only "a few scrub gigs" around Austin and San Antonio.
And not only did they end up with Auerbach producing 2008 debut Loud Is the Night, he also hired Hacienda (along with My Morning Jacket's Patrick Hallahan) to be his backing band for the world tour in support of Auerbach's first solo album, 2009's Keep It Hid.
"Dan sent us his CD and some other material and said, 'Think you can learn this in three weeks?' Touring with him was a huge break for us, just dream exposure," says Abraham from the tour van as Hacienda heads north to New York City for a week of dates with My Morning Jacket.
While preparing for the trip to Auerbach's studio in Akron, Ohio, Hacienda began to play in Austin, which Abraham describes as being "very kind to us."
"Austin is a pretty accepting town because they're exposed to so much," he says. "We first discovered we could actually be a working band there. We learned real quick [that] Austin will pay back what you put in.
"Alejandro Escovedo came to see us, and he's been very encouraging," Abraham continues. "We played with him at Floore's Country Store this summer after Dan's tour ended. Then we did a free surprise show in Austin over the summer and got great buzz from that. We've finally gotten to a point where we can probably draw about as well as anyone there."
But success in Hacienda's home state had to wait. Once Auerbach set the recording wheels in motion, the band left Texas behind very quickly.
"Hooking up with Dan really put the cart before the horse," recalls Schwebel. "I think we played Chicago six times before we ever played a serious gig in San Antonio."
Rock and roll was not the band's first musical choice. The Villanueva brothers were deeply involved in classical music before deciding to form a rock band.
"We all took music in school," says Abraham, who has degrees in technical writing and American literature from UT-San Antonio and is the band's principal lyricist.
"We got involved with a lot of classical music competitions, played with the city and state orchestras, that kind of stuff, mostly to have something to do after school so we weren't bored."
No wonder the band seems to channel Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys so effortlessly. Since the Auerbach tour ended, the band has been traveling in support of its second Auerbach-produced album, Big Red and Barbacoa. The album expands on the classic-rock and soul sounds of Loud Is the Night, and has already surpassed it in sales.
Many tracks are wrapped in a '60s musical aura; some of the beats don't stray far from Doug Sahm's Texas garage template, with songs like "Whose Heart Are You Breaking Now" glorying in the Black Keys' trademark thick low-end haze. Auerbach just laughs when asked about the new album's title.
"Food and home cooking are big things to those guys. Really big," he says. "I went down to San Antonio and stayed a couple nights with them, and their dad made some of the most incredible barbecue I've ever eaten, some of the best meals I've ever had in my life. And they just have this big, cool family."
Abraham reasons that it's almost impossible to separate South Texans from South Texas food.
"We've been all over the country, but I love coming home to the flavors and dishes we have down here," he says. "No other cuisine is quite like it. And we really wanted to show Dan the real thing. We invited our friends the Heartless Bastards over for one of dad's barbecues a few months ago, too."
Villanueva also wants to correct something the Austin Chronicle reported about Auerbach turning the band on to Doug Sahm.
"You can't be from San Antonio and not have heard of Doug Sahm, so of course we knew about him," he stresses. "But Dan is like a Doug Sahm superfreak. He told us some great stories and had us listen to Doug tracks we'd never heard, and it was an important part of our education. Dan gets it, the whole Doug spirit."
Auerbach, who says the band is probably ready for a different producer, marvels at their musical ability: "To be so young, they're all great players, and that lets them do things that would come very hard to lots of musicians."
One possible producer for the next album, which Schwebel says Hacienda plans to start working on shortly after Thursday's Houston gig, is White Stripes engineer Jim Diamond. The band, which is currently completing a home studio in Boerne, has already done some sessions at Diamond's Ghetto Recorders in Detroit.
Diamond, who worked on the Stripes' first two albums, is a huge fan.
"I love their musicianship, the ability to blend some rock, some soul, some Tex-Mex à la Augie Meyers and Doug Sahm or classic Sunny and the Sunliners," he says. "They do all of those so well. I'd like to explore the soul/Tex-Mex vibe a bit more."
Schwebel says one of the benefits of touring with Auerbach has been the exposure to other studios, producers and engineers. "We were just in Nashville checking out Adam Landry's Playground Sound, and that's a great facility. We're big fans of Pete Molinari, and he's recorded there.
"You pick up something in every studio," says Schwebel, "what to do and, a lot of times, what not to do."
The guitarist also notes that with Hacienda's building buzz, labels are calling frequently.
"I don't know how many times we've been wooed, but lots of offers just don't make sense for us," he says. "Most of the people who've approached us are of the attitude [that] 'We're gonna make you big, so we need to own everything.'
"We want to work with a label, not for a label."
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