Blackbeard Recording Studios off Kuykendahl Road in Spring isn't the easiest place to find. There's no eye-catching sign on the plain, box-shaped concrete building behind a strip center, which also houses a mechanic, tattoo parlor and some sort of kids' play facility.
Then you have to drive around a dumpster before reaching the studio's single-door entrance. The surrounding bare lot of dying grass is instantly familiar to anyone who has seen a "Dateline" murder mystery crime scene photo.
But inside, you'll find owner Darr Nieuwoudt shuttling between rooms and around equipment and mixing boards as local band Vagrant Sons lay down some tracks for an upcoming project. In the corner on leather couches and chairs surrounding a table are the rest of Nieuwoudt's own group, the variously hirsute Vanilla Whale.
The hard-rocking quartet -- Nieuwoudt on drums, Andy Stewart and Tyler Lucas on guitars and vocals, and Alex Iannuzzi on bass and vocals -- has just released their debut record, a not-ambitious-at-all-sounding double CD entitled Greatest Hits. Its 20 tracks were recorded both at Blackbeard and at Nashville's Sound Emporium over the course of last year.
It's a powerful, crunchy, classic rock/blues/psych/garage/metal maelstrom with the occasionally softer tune, featuring standout tunes like "Paintbrushes," "Hello Hollow Town," "Black Mamba," "Hastings," "Coffee & Biscuits," "She Don't Know" and "Dead Man's Bones."
One other great cut, "Juan DeLeon," was named for a player whose name they heard announced over the loudspeaker at Nieuwoudt's little brother's football game.
So...no thought at holding back a few cuts for Greatest Hits Volume II?
"We had nothing to lose, and just thought 'let's put it all out there and show everybody who we are and all of our styles," Nieuwoudt offers. "And we know we could write another ten in six months. These guys are just spitting out songs!"
If you've ever had a dream that you and your buddies from high school would start your own band, jam, play gigs around the country and make records. And then years later, some female classmates would come to your concert and literally bow down...then the guys from Vanilla Whale are living that vision for you.
Nieuwoudt, Lucas, and Stewart originally met as students at Oak Ridge High School in the class of 2007 (go War Eagles!). They bonded by both participation on the football and basketball teams (Lucas' dad was the pigskin coach) and a love of PlayStation 2 games.
This led to each teen playing musical chairs with musical instruments as each tried their hand variously at different ones, while practicing. Band names for these amalgamations included such, um, memorable monikers as South African Hippies, Placebo Effect and Transit Authority.
After graduation, Lucas moved to California while Stewart and Nieuwoudt ended up rooming together and attending Sam Houston State University. Not surprisingly, they were spending more time on music than studies. Even less surprisingly, they both ended up on academic probation.
"We failed history class," Stewart says. "But everybody failed!"
Stewart and Nieuwoudt's educational and life paths would split again, but they always kept playing music, with the eye at putting a real band together. New Jersey transplant Iannuzzi saw their ad on Craigslist in 2012, and the three started jamming with a variety of other second guitarists.
"Their ad was a lot better than most bands on Craigslist!" Iannuzzi laughs. "But they also had a video, and I thought they had something different."
"Alex was definitely our ace in the hole," Nieuwoudt adds. "We almost ended up hiring someone else and making a bad life decision."
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Finally, at a 2012 New Year's Eve party at Stewart's house, there was discussion about asking Lucas -- who had moved back to Houston -- to fill the fourth slot. They called him in the waning hours of the year to make the offer.
On January 2 -- "The day of the Jadeveon Clowney South Carolina hit!" is how the band remembers -- the four played together for the first time. After considering names like Devil's Dudes and then the Devil's Doobs, the did a few open mikes as Juan DeLeon. Finally, they settled on calling the band Vanilla Whale, after a favorite font style.
Their first gig certainly gave them a sporting chance at making it: it was at the Woodlands Boxing Gym on March 23.
"We had all of these songs and wanted to try them out live. We didn't really know about how to book shows at that point," Iannuzzi says. "So we played in the center of the ring, and about 50 people showed up!"
As for the songwriting process, Lucas says it's very collaborative, with each member coming in with riffs that are then developed by the four. "And whoever writes the lyrics, ends up singing it," he says. In May, the band released a six-song, self-titled EP.
On New Year's Day 2014, they began recording Greatest Hits at the legendary Sound Emporium in Nashville, where artist like Kenny Rogers, Johnny Cash, John Denver, R.E.M., Alan Jackson, Sugarland and Robert Plant and Allison Krauss laid down tracks. Stewart and Lucas took particular glee in using the exact same mike that Plant sang on to record Raising Sand.
But the unknown act also had an in. The Sound Emporium is owned by former NBA New Orleans Hornets owner George Shinn. Current Miami Heat star and former Hornets player Chris Andersen was once coached by Stewart's dad at Iola High School. And Shinn's son and Andersen's friend, Chad, is the studio's current President and CEO. Andersen made the connection.
After recording some in Nashville, the album was finished at Blackbeard, mixed and mastered by Mike Silva. All of the Vanilla Whale EP songs were re-recorded for inclusion in the resulting 20 tracks. And Chris "Birdman" Andersen gets a co-producer's nod.
Last year, the band has also notched up live dates locally at Dan Electro's, Fitzgerald's, Last Concert Café, House of Blues, Scout Bar, Rudyard's and Acadia in Houston, along with the 19th Hole and Scout Bar nearby.
They were also excited to open for Living Colour at Warehouse Live last October, a makeup date after their previous show had been cancelled. Paolo Nutini was playing the venue's big room and Vanilla Whale's music in the smaller room next to it was deemed "too loud" by the Scottish folksinger's people.
"We had about 15 of our friends just slam [Nutini's] Facebook page after that," Nieuwoudt says. "I felt kind of bad and apologized."
They also set out to learn how to use social media to get their music and name out there. A page on Reverb Nation with MP3s led directly to a booking and live radio show in Denver. But the band is still honing its computer presence.
"Things like those pages are great because we can put out bio, photos, press kit, and music on it and just send the link to [club owners and promoters]," Nieuwoudt offers. "And our Instagram is doing great right now. We are all just whoring ourselves on social media!"
Currently, Vanilla Whale is playing five or six shows a month. Greatest Hits is available in most local independent record stores and downloadable on the iTunes and Bandcamp sites.
On the cover is a drawing of, well, a whale. On a moped emblazoned with a peace sign, and listening with headphones to an iPod-looking device. The concept and drawing was originated by Lucas' girlfriend, Kasey Hersperger, and embellished by Nieuwoudt, who then did the rest of the cover.
In a show of huge confidence -- or what might be seen later as severe ink regret -- Stewart and Nieuwoudt got permanent tattoos of the drawing. Lucas did not. And somehow, Hersperger still has kept him.
"Ha! Yes, we must be confident. Very confident!" Nieuwoudt laughs. "It's a message to our friends and peers that we are serious about this band thing!"
Vanilla Whale plays Friday at Last Concert Café; Feb. 20 at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar and Feb. 26 at the Acadia Bar and Grill. For more information on the band, visit vanillawhale.com
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