La Porte quartet Buxton are fresh off their most successful tour to date, a weeklong all-Texas jaunt that took them as far west as Marfa, as far north as Lubbock and as close to home as College Station. Seated at a table at the Black Lab five days after that tour ended, the band seemed to be getting along together remarkably well.
"This one was fun," says multi-instrumentalist Jason Willis. "Some of our other tours have been real downers. One time we rented a van and it broke down on the way to our first show, so we ended up doing that tour with three of us in three different cars."
"Then there was that one we did with By the End of Tonight," the 21-year-old adds. "It was fun, but a lot of stuff happened. It was like, 'God hates us.'"
Buxton perform as part of the Westheimer Block Party on Saturday, April 12. Their set will be on AvantGarden's outdoor stage (411 Westheimer) at 3 p.m.
"The four original members of By the End of Tonight all broke up on that tour," says 24-year-old singer-guitarist Sergio Treviño.
"I don't mean this in a bad way, but they replaced their guitarist with our drummer, while we were on tour with them," chimes in bassist Chris Wise.
Man, that's pretty pimpin', like somebody stealing your date at the prom. But it's unlikely that Buxton will be on the receiving end of such indignities ever again. Since then the band has added a full-time drummer (with more dedication) in 19-year-old Justin Terrell. (Terrell, the only non-La Porte native in the band, is from the little town of Tarkington up by Lake Livingston.) What's more, the band's sound has blossomed into a rich, textured and dynamic glory, and their full-length debut A Family Light is a very strong album from a band that just happens to be local.
There's a theatrical Decemberists vibe to some of singer Justin Treviño's lyrics and vocals, though he doesn't share Colin Meloy's Morrissey fascination. (That lack of Morrissey mania likewise helps set them apart from the broadly similar Baytown band Scattered Pages.) "We do like the Decemberists, but only through Picaresque," says Treviño. "None of us really liked The Crane Wife."
Elsewhere on A Family Light, the barn-burning "Holy Water Revival" and "Mothers" each recall early Violent Femmes at their most hell-bent and creepy. (Think "Country Death Song.") "Each Horse with a Name" has a distinct M. Ward feel, and A Family Light also sports more than a twinge or two of twang: "Blood on the Streets" opens with a lovely little stone-country pedal steel riff, while "Westward" is a straight-up mountain music hoedown.
One of the things I like about Buxton is that they both shoot for grandeur and better yet, attain it, as especially exemplified by "Each Horse with a Name." Better still, they don't try to call down the angels' wrath on every song, as do all too many bands in this post-Arcade Fire era.
"If the song doesn't call for it, don't put it in there," says Willis. (Willis plays a dizzying array of instruments including pedal steel and lead guitar, mandolin, and keyboards. "I did a little bit of banjo on the album too," he says. "But I don't do that live.")
Treviño's voice is an angsty yelp, but it's not overdone, and he uses it to deliver odd, memorable little lines like these, from "Blood on the Streets": "There's too many mothers that name their daughters after towns and names of streets, there's too many fathers that name their sons after heroes on TV" and "There's too many whispers and too many secrets in the town of Cypress Creek."
Themes of parent-hatred run through much of the album. Take these from harrowing album-closer "Living Room": "How can I respect someone who would look upon his only son as only a failure for the things he'd never done." Though they sound autobiographical, Treviño insists that they are not.
"My parents are so nice" — until last week, they owned and operated the now-closed La Porte indie venue The Forum — "so I am trying to justify myself where stuff like that comes from. I don't set out with the intention of writing anything in particular. I just write. So I really think this is me looking at other people's parents. My family, everyone was really close. My sister and I were best friends for years and years, and I've always had a great relationship with my parents, and now I grow up and see other people's relationships with their family, and it was just an eye-opener."
When you rip A Family Light into iTunes, it is one of those albums that pops up in the CD Database as "Unclassifiable." Another local record of note in the same category is Jug O'Lightnin's Nuts N' Bolts, and while A Family Light is neither as bluesy as that record nor not quite as groundbreaking and original, it is likewise a neo-roots record that is devilishly hard to pigeonhole. More than a few critics have described Buxton as a folk band, so I asked them if they were comfortable with that.
"Sure, but we have also been called 'new-grass' and I don't really like that," says Treviño. (New-grass? Buxton has about as much in common with the likes of Béla Fleck as Slayer does with Jack Johnson.) "But I guess I would be more comfortable in saying that we are not a folk band, but a band that made a folk album."
"The new songs we are writing now have more of a Yo La Tengo feel," says Wise.
That's one current. Here's another. Though the band is not overtly religious, Treviño is heavily into mountain gospel. "My wife [Amanda] and I are writing some stripped-down folk-gospel tunes," says Treviño. "Kinda Gillian Welch, John the Revelator-type stuff."
And here is a third. Treviño is also a big fan of fellow neo-roots music enthusiasts Sideshow Tramps. (Formerly known as Medicine Show.) "I love them," he says. (Like them, the band sports the occasional odd touch of quasi-Russian, Gypsyesque sounds.) "Their live show was a huge inspiration for me. I would go see them at Helios two or three years ago at that Monday night thing. They would go until crazy-late and they would have these huge sets, people would dance the whole time, and I was like, 'Wow, I wish I could do that. I wish I had that power of suggestion. Or talent.' I'm really excited that we are playing one band away from them at our show at Westheimer Block Party."
Now, people do dance at Buxton shows, especially to the hoedown song "Westward." "Mostly they do it sarcastically," says Willis. "Kind of this exaggerated hillbilly stuff."
"Yeah, that's what pisses me off," says Treviño. "They are not seriously dancing."
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That they can and do make fun of themselves is one of the most heartening things about Buxton. This is not a band to rest on its laurels, nor one to rush shoddy music onto the Internet or disc. Jorge Luis Borges had a pithy path to becoming a great writer: "Read a lot. Write a lot. Never rush into print." The same goes for music. Many bands would do well to do as it seems Buxton does — to listen more, practice more and not rush their recordings out into the open.
"The CD we did before this one [the EP "Red Follows Red"] is bad," Treviño says. "I always tried to explain to these guys that I wasn't proud of that album. They would tell me it was good, that it could have been better but it was still good. Nope."
Willis adds that the band takes the opposite approach to most young bands today. Instead of throwing a bunch of demos up on MySpace, they take their own sweet time. "We spent a year working on A Family Light, and we are really proud of it."
As well they should be. This might just be the best thing to come from La Porte since the Battle of San Jacinto.