Justin Nava is a difficult man to interview.
One Tuesday night, I went to meet him to talk about his band, thelastplaceyoulook, over a drink — by which I mean one drink. Instead, I ended up bar-hopping with him for nearly four hours. Along the way, I also met a number of people who were thrilled that Nava had come out. Band practice had been canceled, so he had the night off to entertain himself and his countless friends and acquaintances. With the recent show of love from Houston's 94.5 The Buzz, one of the nation's most listened-to radio stations, for his band's industry-decided single, "Band to Save Me," it isn't hard to figure out why everyone wants to be around him right now.
On top of being one of the hardest-working musicians in town, Nava is also as honest as they come, unafraid of telling it like it is and saying exactly what's on his mind. In an industry inundated with the kind (and wicked) words of bloggers and critics, getting caught up in a new trend and labeling it either the next big thing or the worst thing ever to happen to music is easy. Nava doesn't pay attention to any of that. He and the rest of thelastplaceyoulook are content with being sincere and straightforward, both with themselves and the music they make.
9 p.m. Saturday, November 12, at Warehouse Live, 813 St. Emanuel, 713-225-5483.
It's barely 11 p.m., and Nava is playing us a track off thelastplaceyoulook's next album. It's in-your-face and powerful, but also melodic, straddling the line between radio-friendly alternative and honest-to-goodness rock and roll. Nava's voice has the timbre of a tree trunk, but his lyrics are angsty, riddled with torment about his current predicament. He sings of wanting more, of wanting something else, but he sounds immovable, resolute even. It's this thin line between cookie-cutter alt-rock and earnest musicianship that thelastplaceyoulook have been balancing for years now, gaining them the respect and admiration of many, but also the disregard of local music lovers who would prefer our city's scene be more like Austin's. Nava is the first to admit that his band isn't the "hippest" act in town, but thelastplaceyoulook's fan base has slowly but steadily grown, and now that "Band to Save Me" is getting played almost every day on The Buzz, it's safe to assume that the group's about to receive a big bump.
The band's now-hit song was released on See the Light Inside You in 2009. It sounds fantastic and continues to resonate. Mixed and mastered with a professional polish, the album is also raw enough to placate lovers of heavy hard rock. It combines heavy bass and guitar riffs with even heavier percussion, which is a strong backbone for Nava's sincere baritone vocal lines. Two years later, it's still getting people's attention.
The band's lyricism is simple and intricate at the same time. That might not make sense at first, but the group itself is a paradox. Nava's vocal lines and lyrics are a big draw for the band, but the group was also once told that they would have been signed by now if only they had a different singer. So it's appropriate that Nava's lyrics are a near-contradiction of brash emotion and rich, poignant metaphors.
The band's heavy-hitting sound is often laced with soft, sweet melodies and sometimes even incorporates piano, violins or a synthetic drum beat for effect. One track on See the Light consists of only vocals and piano, and it follows the heaviest song on the album. In general, though, the members of thelastplaceyoulook try to find a middle ground for their music.
Nava's voice is like a wool blanket; fans wrap themselves up inside and find warmth there. Coupled with bassist Kevin Pool's surprisingly soprano singing voice, the dynamic is beautiful. It ranges from heartfelt and intimate — as on "Hopestar" and "Band to Save Me" — but can also work when guitarists Richard Sherwood and Derek Young are shredding their guitars all to hell as Mikey Garcia wails on his drum kit.
At first listen, it almost sounds as though it shouldn't work. But it does.
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Just six months ago, thelastplaceyoulook went on tour with Unwritten Law, and from what we heard, Houston's own held their own, in spite of being the first band to perform every night, usually to a pretty small crowd. One woman even approached Nava and told him that his lyrics had saved her life, and that it was amazing to finally meet him and hear thelastplaceyoulook perform. In a time when people's interests are fleeting, these gentlemen aren't afraid to put in the legwork to get and maintain fans. Since then, they have played Buzz Fest XXVII, and now they're co-headlining our very own Houston Press Music Awards.
Most bands this honest don't strike a chord with everyone. They can come off as gimmicky, juvenile or watered down. But thelastplaceyoulook seem to connect with just about everyone who hears their music. And while they perform a decent amount, work their merch booths and push their album on potential fans after shows, they aren't spamming Facebook, Twitter or anyone's e-mail inboxes with notice after notice, begging everyone to continue paying attention. Instead, these alt-rockers spend most of their time together writing and practicing music, ensuring that their live performances are worth the time of their fans and good enough to attract new ones.
The only real question thelastplaceyoulook have to ask themselves is what to do with all the new material they've been writing and recording. Since The Buzz is pushing See the Light as if it were released this month, it doesn't really make sense to put out a new album while that one is still amassing new fans and pleasing longtime enthusiasts.
For all this, the band's overall message is both simple and admirable. Life is tough, but no matter how hard it gets, thelastplaceyoulook implores listeners to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and keep on keeping on, bettering themselves as people. "We're guilty, too tired of not being better, but oh, how we wish we were," Nava sings in "Don't Make It So Easy." "So try to find the light you know you want to be. We'll all change the world some day, just don't forget what we're fighting for."