It's Still Timbuk Time

"The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades," the sardonic send-up of the skewed values of the 1980s by Austin's Timbuk 3, was quite possibly the most commercially successful record to ever come out of a home studio in Texas' capital. For several months in 1986, it was impossible to hop in your Beamer and turn on the radio without hearing Pat MacDonald and Barbara K -- the happy couple that then and now constituted the core of Timbuk 3 -- making fun of everything your slimy, junk-bond-flipping, S&L-looting self stood for, and doing it so well that you couldn't help but sing along.

Nine years later, some of the people who were flipping junk bonds are flipping burgers instead, and the S&L crowd have "Rush is Right" stickers on their Infinitis. But before you pick up that car phone and hit the speed dial to rant on the air that the whole country is going to hell in a hand basket because nobody has any values any more, be advised that Pat and Barbara are still one of the happiest couples in Austin -- and they're still making melodic, hi-tech fun of your hypocrisies.

They're also likely getting a little tired of being polite to people who ask them whatever happened to their band after "The Future's So Bright." Truth is, what happened to Timbuk 3 after is pretty much what happened to Timbuk 3 before. The main course for Timbuk 3 has always been using recording technology to state their personal and artistic beliefs. Getting into the Top Ten was just a side trip. Still, once you've had a hit, people do tend to wonder, "But what have you done since?" To judge from Timbuk 3's latest CD, A Hundred Lovers, the answer is a simple "having a very satisfying relationship -- and feeling sorry for people who don't."

Like their four previous CDs -- beginning with their Welcome to Timbuk 3 debut -- and last year's Looks Like Dark to Me EP, A Hundred Lovers is thought-provoking social commentary that you can boogie to, an editorial page with a dance track. The target of MacDonald's latest hypocrisy-alert air strike is the cultural schizophrenia of an increasingly puritanical society dripping with sexual imagery. "Sex and religion have kind of collided," MacDonald says over the phone from Austin, "and they are engaged in some kind of a battle." To Timbuk 3, a family-values senator investing in porn-movie production isn't surprising -- it's just a sign of the times we live in.

From the title track of A Hundred Lovers -- MacDonald's valentine to Barbara K, his "hundred lovers rolled into one" bride -- through the eminently danceable "Just Wanna Funk With Your Mind" to what MacDonald describes as the "bookends" of "Legalize Our Love" and "Prey," Timbuk 3's latest message is that an honest attitude about sex leads to a healthy attitude about life, and denying the one thing we all have in common is a sickness -- and an epidemic among the control-freak crowd. "Prey," with MacDonald gleefully singing the every-mother's-nightmare role of "You pray to God each day / That your son won't turn out gay / And your daughter won't bring home / someone like me," is his reaction to a talk-radio program he heard one day on which a caller was "some mother talking about her teenage kids and how afraid she was for their morality; she and her friends would get together every week and pray ... at the heart of their fears was just intolerance."

The other "bookend" of A Hundred Lovers -- "Legalize Our Love" -- is a plea for tolerance and ideological deregulation. MacDonald explains that "Calling all our fellow criminals / The lovers who are still at large" is a lyric that "could be sung by a gay person. It's about freedom, ideological freedom. Lack of freedom for one person affects us all. People are afraid to speak out because they are afraid ... people are afraid to speak out for a reasonable drug policy -- instead of drug hysteria, which is what we have -- because they are afraid they'll be called a drug abuser. It's the same with the sexual issue; they won't speak out for gay rights for fear they'll be called gay themselves."

And to think you can dance to all this musing. Timbuk 3 is, at heart, a balance of extremes: bouncy rhythms and heavy lyrics, Barbara K's melodic breeziness and MacDonald's near-spoken-word vocal delivery, computer-generated beats and wailing blues harmonica. The heart of the band, after all, is a long-term, committed relationship -- which by definition is a balance of extremes. The MacDonalds, whose musical and personal relationships have always been intertwined, met when they were both in a late-'70s Madison, Wisconsin, band called The Essentials. They found shared musical influences, in addition to whatever else it takes to make a happy couple; MacDonald recalls fondly that "J.J. Cale was the soundtrack of our early romance."

Timbuk 3, for all practical purposes, began when Pat and Barbara decided not to break up when The Essentials did. After a few years of performing as a duo around the Midwest, the MacDonalds spent the summer of 1984 roaming "all over the place" -- including a street-busking stint in New York -- before lighting in Austin. That locale was Barbara's pick; like every other San Antonio native, she had always wanted to live in Austin. Still, it was a choice that Pat went along with willingly. They found steady work at the Hole in the Wall, which soon waived the five-year minimum regular-residency qualification for a framed sketch on the wall for the MacDonalds, and hung them up there with all the old-timers. Two years later came the indie release of Welcome to Timbuk 3 and temporary celebrityhood -- a celebrityhood that required them to perform under goofy names such as "Fred and Wilma" and "The Armadillians" to escape the crowds and play for their friends.

The appeal of Welcome to Timbuk 3 was the MacDonalds' trend-setting use of pre-recorded, dubbed and re-dubbed and stretched-in-every-direction rhythm tracks -- the fodder for the legendary boom box that rounded out the "trio" when they were honing their craft on the streets of Manhattan -- and the irony of using that technology behind the intensely human guitar-and-vocal delivery of their harmonized screeds. It was heady stuff at the time. "It put us in a unique little niche at one time, this high-tech, high-touch thing," MacDonald says. "But now the world has caught up to our home-studio approach. What we were doing was too much trouble for most people [then], but now it's easy."

The technology that went into recording Timbuk 3's latest may have gotten easier to use over the last decade, but they're obviously not just knocking product out on a moment's whim. Their home studio has become an industry testing ground -- when discussing the finer points of his digital toys, MacDonald frequently uses the phrase "we had one of those before they were really available" -- and a place where bumps and thumps coming out of the computer suggest new lyrics to be written. More bumps and thumps were added by expanding Timbuk 3 to include funk-bassist Courtney Audain and drummer Wally Ingram for the 1991 Big Shot in the Dark CD and A Hundred Lovers. Audain still tours with the MacDonalds, but when the band took a break about 18 months ago, Ingram decided to pick up a few gigs with a then-unknown female vocalist named Sheryl Crow. In his absence, Audain and the MacDonalds supplement Timbuk 3's trademark recorded rhythms with what MacDonald calls "different forms of percussion at different times."

And that's part of what Timbuk 3 has been up to since their last big hit. There's also MacDonald's annual trip to England to write lyrics for Punjabi friends who play the Indian-flavored "bangra" dance music. "Kitchen Fire," from A Hundred Lovers, began as a MacDonald-penned bangra tune that protested the high number of "accidental" collect-the-dowry-and-kill-'em immolations of women in Bombay. A project that's still on the back burner is Little Walter Concrete and the Bluescasters -- MacDonald's alter ego since the days he sat around the house driving his mom nuts playing what she called "that old blind-man's music." At some point, says MacDonald, Little Walter may actually make it to the stage. But not right now. Right now, he and Barbara K will go on doing what they've been doing since their moment of high fame -- having a happy and productive marriage, and making music they like. But be careful; if the MacDonalds think you're being a hypocrite, they might take a break from fooling around to write a song about you. Just to funk with your mind.

Timbuk 3 plays at 9 p.m. Friday, June 23 at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $8 and $15.50. For info, call 869-

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Sherman