Labor of Love

Texas-tourism flacks like to call Austin the live music capital of the world, but the city's learn-as-you-gig musical ethos suggests that "live rehearsal capital of the world" might be a better description. Yet on this Friday night, the members of the punk/pop foursome Sixteen Deluxe have assembled at their remote south Austin practice space to actually rehearse, as they do four times a week, every week, when not on the road.

While waiting for his bandmates to show up, singer/guitarist Chris Smith fiddles with a track in the band's porta-studio. "Kinda sounds like 'Heroes'," he says with a smile as the melody surges and swirls.

The release of Emits Showers of Sparks, Sixteen Deluxe's Warner Bros. debut, is just two weeks away, but Smith is already well into the creative process for the band's next release. A poster of Mr. Hero himself, David Bowie, hangs on the wall nearby, as do posters of My Bloody Valentine, Flaming Lips and the Butthole Surfers. While such influences figure heavily into the group's sound, Sixteen Deluxe also boast pop smarts and a fervent (and loud) punk kick that, if not exactly their own, still distinguish them as an act to be reckoned with.

Sixteen Deluxe has led an almost blessed existence since forming in 1994. At their very first gig, Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey offered them the chance to record for his Trance Syndicate label. The group's live shows quickly made them darlings of the Austin scene, while their Trance effort, Backfeed Magnetbabe, paved the way for their move into the national arena. Major labels descended on the band with the usual promises of love and fortune, but Sixteen Deluxe took their time before signing with Warner Bros., which is also home to their friends the Flaming Lips.

"We've had a lot of really good fortune," says Smith. "I don't think any of us have any doubts in our minds that we're very fortunate to be where we're at."

Such positivism brims from all quarters of the band during an hour-long conversation that's as much an impromptu chat as it is a formal interview. As four believers amped on the spirit of the First Church of Rock and Roll Fun, the group's stories and recollections have an unmistakable joie de vivre. In a music business where being morose, arch and gloomy can enhance a career, the members of Sixteen Deluxe are counting on sheer joy's effervescent rush to take them where it will. Put simply, they're four of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet. Granted, that may not offer much in the way of rock myth-making, but there's something so infectious about their enthusiasm that it makes it hard not to be won over by their lust for life.

Like countless folks before them, all the members of Sixteen Deluxe arrived in Austin ostensibly to attend college, but actually had their sights set on music. "I bought my first bass rig with a student loan check," recalls bassist Jeff Copas, who attended high school in Houston.

Sixteen Deluxe's King Coffey connection was established before the group's inception, when singer/guitarist Carrie Clark came to know the drummer while writing a college term paper on the Butthole Surfers for her history of theater class. Clark earned an "A" for the project -- in which she contended that the group carried on the traditions of Antonin Artaud and the 1920s French Theater of Pain -- as well as a mentor, in King. Meanwhile, credit for part of Sixteen Deluxe's genesis goes to Lyman Hardy, drummer for Austin's unsung punk anarchists Ed Hall. Hardy introduced Clark and Copas to each other in the late 1980s.

Later on, Smith and Clark were in bands that shared a rehearsal space, and when they eventually united their affection for high-volume guitar antics, lots of foot pedals and effects boxes, Sixteen Deluxe was born. While Copas was the natural bass choice, the group experienced a dizzying succession of drummers until Steven Hall -- another former Houstonian -- joined.

"When I first joined the band a year and a half ago, people were like, 'Man, you're getting into the Spinal Tap seat,' " Hall says. "I thought about it and figured, not really. It takes a lot of bands longer than three years to find the right lineup. It just happened that this band formed in the public eye."

Copas agrees: "We totally grew up with people writing about us and talking about us before we recorded our first single."

The last Austin indie-rock sensation to evolve under similar public scrutiny was Sincola, who were plagued by bad breaks after they went national. Certain Austin pundits like to raise the notion of a curse when attempting to explain why the town has failed to yield one real modern-rock success story, but the truth is, Austin artists, for all their innate musicality, aren't known for their feats of motivation.

"There's a lot of great musicians here," Smith notes, "but a lot of them would rather go to the pub...."

"Or do another bong hit," adds Copas.
And even if Sixteen Deluxe aren't saying anything all that new and different, they're ready to counter the long odds with hard work and a commitment to their craft. Leftover money from the advance Warner Bros. gave them to record Emits Showers, for instance, has gone toward a van, stage gear and recording equipment. The group's work ethic also shows in their fierce live attack, which has all the raw energy of a conversion experience. A budding master of six-string sonic squall, Smith is the mad professor of the bunch, while Clark throws off taut, stinging leads and slashing chords. With Hall and Copas acting as the band's hard-pumping rhythmic pistons, the entire unit locks in to make music that registers on any number of levels.

"We try to keep this whole thing kinda fun and lighthearted, and the day that it becomes something we have to do, we've lost what it means," Smith says. "Because playing music is ultimately something to do instead of...."

"Instead of going to work," laughs Copas.
Clark interjects, "It was all about wanting to play live. We'd all been going forever to live shows and helping out. It's like, I wonder if I can do that? I know those dudes. If they can do it, I can do it."

That, of course, is the ultimate clarion call for any diehard rock and roll believer, and it seems Sixteen Deluxe may have already glimpsed their paradise.

"This is our entertainment," says Clark. "Practicing is fun. We're playing for the same reasons we played when we started. It's like, I worked today, and I don't want to go home thinking that the last thing I did today was sack groceries. I want to go to bed thinking the last thing I did was play guitar. So let's play."

Sixteen Deluxe perform Friday, January 30, at Emo's Alternative Lounge, 2700 Albany. Doors open at 9 p.m. Cover is $7; 21 and up, free. Tomorrow People open. For info, call 523-8503.

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Rob Patterson