When it comes to Texas and music, Austin typically grabs all the glory. But the “live-music capital of the world” might need to watch its back, if a recent article in UK newspaper The Guardian is any indication.
Writer Jude Rogers, who spent a few days following the lads from rising-star band Midlake around their hometown of Denton, declared that the North Texas city is “fast becoming an American musical heartland where something is happening.”
And it’s true, judging from the parade of buzz bands the city has produced of late. Yet Denton, despite its deep musical history, has not yet exploded into the American consciousness. Until it does, here’s your guide to the sonic revolution that’s building to a crescendo there.
The lowdown: This quintet of former University of North Texas jazz students has been the leading edge of the new Denton wave, especially in Europe, where their recent album, The Trials of Van Occupanther, has won glowing reviews and their tours have drawn big crowds. The group’s sound has evolved into a throwback approach to the days of `70s folk that has been compared to the likes of Grandaddy and the Flaming Lips. But it also has made namedropping America and Fleetwood Mac OK again in trendy company.
On the Denton scene: Guitarist Eric Pulido thinks Europeans like Midlake in part because the band’s rustic sound fits in with people’s sense of stereotypical Texas. “One of the first questions I get (from Europeans) is about Texas, about Denton,” he says, just a few days before heading off to Europe again earlier this month. “There’s still this idea that these guys are from Texas and this is a very folky type of sound, there must be a connection—there’s a mystery that people want to connect with.”
Pulido says that the English appreciation has given him a new perspective on the city and that he doesn’t believe Denton will become overhyped as “the next Seattle.”
“I’ve felt more responsibility for being a Dentonite because there’ve been people coming over from England to do stories on our town,” he says. “I feel a sense of pride more than ever. ... (Denton’s) not just a city that we’re just trying to make music in, it’s home. It’s where you buy a home and have children and all that. ... I’m not sure we’re going to be spawning Nirvana and Pearl Jam and the like. It may stay in a zone that is more immune to that.”
The lowdown: Like the guys in Midlake, guitarist Gomez was a UNT jazz student who found his calling wasn’t the avant-garde instrumental style but a more lyrical brand of soft pop. Also like Midlake, he’s signed to the British label Bella Union and has a growing European audience.
On the Denton scene: In the early `90s, even though he studied jazz in school, he found himself increasingly attracted to Denton’s indie-rock scene. “I thought it was the greatest thing ever,” he recalls. “It was really people who cared about music and dedicated their whole lives. That’s when I first met (Midlake frontman) Tim Smith, and later on I met (Midlake drummer) McKenzie Smith.”
He sees Midlake as role models. “I could only hope to have the success they have,” he says. “There just seems to be a spotlight on Denton and a lot of that is because of Midlake. ... When you become a town that gets to be known for music, which brings great musicians into town, it produces better art.”
Style: Goofy, literate pop
Recordings: Tim Fly’s Because He’s Having Fun (out of print); The American Friends of Carlos Velez; Zipbangboom; Little D
Web site: www.myspace.com/fishboy
The lowdown: Armed with weird, witty and whiplash-inducing ditties, Fishboy (led by Eric Michener) channels the zany vibe of fellow Texas artist Daniel Johnston, running vaguely Kinks-ish tunes through a cracked filter. He’s written acoustic tributes to a Dallas mayoral candidate (“The Ballad of Zac Crain”) and songs with dizzying titles (“Talking to the Doctor After Pressing the Elevator Button That Grew on Your Forehead Overnight Causing Your Legs To Grow Uncontrollably”).
On the Denton scene: Michener can’t quite put his finger on what it is that gives Denton its creative spark, aside from the obvious. “It just has a good reputation for music,” Michener says. “There are about six or seven venues in such a small town—they’re all great. Dallas or Fort Worth doesn’t have that many, and they’re huge towns.”
Fishboy’s last full-length album, 2005’s Little D, was a conceptual homage to the home of UNT. To hear him describe it, the current of creativity coursing through the college town is strong—and unpredictable. At work on the as-yet-untitled rock-opera follow-up to Little D (likely out later this year), Michener is sanguine about Denton’s future. “I think anything could happen,” he says.
Style: Progressive hip-hop
Web site: www.vortexas.com
The lowdown: The fusion of hip-hop and jazz is practically inevitable in Denton; for all of the Duke Ellington disciples forming low-key trios, there are just as many A Tribe Called Quest fanatics joining forces to drop mind-expanding rap upon the North Texas masses. Vortexas, a sprawling sextet led by producer Juicy the Emissary, is one of several outfits blending rhymes, beats and a distinctly improvisational feel that lends tracks like “The Great Pilgrimage” a unique sound. Persian folk singers and Count Basie are equally sample-worthy.
On the Denton scene: Juicy isn’t shy about drawing comparisons between Denton and the king of Texas’ music mountain. “A lot of people say Denton right now is like Austin was 20 years ago; the college vibe definitely influences a lot of the scene,” Juicy says. “I think the fact that it’s separated from Dallas and it’s kind of building its own scene gives it a bit of a fresh perspective, especially on hip-hop.”
As Vortexas allows disparate genres to bleed into one another, Juicy is keenly aware of Denton’s almost-catalytic power in lowering sonic barriers and letting the music take its course, a flexibility that extends to the scene and the people packing the clubs. “I think the (whole jazz) scene in Denton kind of carries the whole thing,” Juicy says. “I think that all the music in the Denton scene benefits from being around (jazz).”
Style: Atmospheric “noise-folk”
Recordings: At Elevated Windows (EP); Envy of the Wolf; Si J’etais un Chat (EP); Skulls and Other Things We Used To Decorate (EP); Kill a Deer (EP); Amanda Lane (EP); 89 (forthcoming)
Web site: www.myspace.com/bryceisbell
The lowdown: Austere and intimate, Isbell’s idiosyncratic sketches are mesmerizing—the singer/songwriter eerily evokes Nick Drake trapped in an echo chamber, a slight nod to British Invasion pop as glimpsed through the haze of Devendra Banhart’s freak-folk fireworks. The forthcoming full-length album 89, which Isbell describes as the best thing he’s ever done, should continue in the vein of such haunting cuts as “My Guns My Guns” and “Death Rattle of the Aristocracy”.
On the Denton scene: For Isbell, what makes Denton unique is instantly identifiable. “It’s a very `off’ city—it’s very, very different,” Isbell says. “Denton has a really, really thick history of obscure, weird stuff that goes on there. There’s ... a lot of popular music out there, but a lot of what you hear from Denton is very weird, obscure stuff. It’s just a breeding ground for something different.”
As proof, Isbell points to the eclectic Fry Street area, much of which was recently purchased by a Houston-based developer. The acquisition of several lots in and around the funky district spurred a “Save Fry Street” campaign that counts UNT alum Norah Jones as its honorary chairwoman. “There’s a ton of people who are open for anything, and everyone’s connected,” Isbell says. “I think there’s a real willingness ... to be open; to be cliched, it’s a very bohemian city ... at least down in that core (Fry Street) area.”
Is Denton ready to elbow aside the flashier, bigger Texas cities of Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston and, yes, Austin, to take its place atop the Texas-music food chain?
Could it be a town on the verge? Is the next Seattle or Omaha (home of Bright Eyes and the whole Saddle Creek label scene) brewing up Interstate 35?
It’s a knotty question and one that gives many people pause. Most observers familiar with the scene speak of a special, specific intangible “something” they feel in Denton, a vibe that’s readily apparent to anyone who lives there or merely pays a visit.
“(Denton) reminded me, in a funny way, of Brighton here in England, which is a small, seaside town and they have ... their own thing going on,” says Simon Raymonde, former Cocteau Twin and founder of London-based Bella Union Records, home to several Denton-based acts. “Everyone is playing in a load of different bands, and I liked the vibe of what everyone was doing.”
There are some who would say that Denton, home to an estimated 104,000 people and three universities, including the well-regarded University of North Texas with its acclaimed music department, already enjoys a national reputation as a music mecca. Certainly the considerable roster of past and present Denton residents lends credence to the notion. Artists such as Roy Orbison, Norah Jones and Don Henley have spent time in classrooms on the UNT campus.
“The (UNT) music school is a major influence, and with that type of influence, so many people are attracted to our community—not just students but professional musicians,” says Kim Phillips, vice president of the Denton Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Yes, it’s a college town, but you have a very significant artistic and intellectual ambience that really permeates the community as a whole, and that’s what attracts so many people to stay here and come back here.”
Former Denton resident Will Johnson, the brains behind acclaimed indie country-rock outfit Centro-matic, moved to Austin five years ago but holds fast to the music and the magic conjured by Denton’s myriad artistic outlets.
“I’m still very much invigorated and inspired by its cultural offerings,” Johnson says. “It’s definitely something that’s been a huge part of my soul for the last ... 18 years. Denton has maintained this really productive and diverse output ... it seems like it’s a hydra or something—you can’t kill it. It’s a really beautiful thing.”
Johnson’s not alone in his admiration of the creativity that flows freely in Denton—the municipal powers that be are also proud, particularly the Convention & Visitors Bureau, which runs a Web site (www.dentonlive.com) devoted to concert listings and information about arts-related events.
“Our tag line for tourism is `Denton and all that jazz,’” Phillips says. “It’s a part of everything we talk about. The bulk of what people are asking about may include some element of music. They want to know what special events are coming up, and almost without exception, the special events incorporate music.”
Nearly everyone agrees that Denton’s unshakable artistic integrity and unique aesthetic will remain intact, should bright lights and big names come calling. The reliably hyperbolic music press is fickle, easily swayed by the promise of the new and exciting and just as easily disenchanted and bored.
“Attention is arbitrary—it will come and go,” Raymonde says. “There are waves and cycles, and people say Denton is the next Omaha or whatever it is, and the next year it will be on to something else.”
Whether the next-big-thing-obsessed music scribes will descend upon Denton in droves remains to be seen. If nothing else, it remains a town free from just one “sound”—its music ranges from polka-playing Grammy winners Brave Combo to hard rockers Faktion. VH1 reality-show stars Flickerstick, award-winning jazz pianist Lyle Mays, and “Schoolhouse Rock!” composer Bob Dorough have all called Denton home.
As for those who think that new development along Fry Street, where so many UNT students hang out and which gave birth to the legendary Fry Street Fair, will stifle the music, Phillips says nonsense. “It’s stronger than a piece of geography,” she explains. “It will survive. ... The music scene has been alive and well for 100 years. It’s not going anywhere.”
The Denton scene didn’t spring fully formed onto the world stage just this year.
Like any other healthy scene, it has risen and fallen, turning out a solid stable of talent over time. Plenty of high-profile types have roots in the town—some well-known (Norah Jones, Meat Loaf), others less so (Lift to Experience, the Baptist Generals). Here’s a list of notable musicians who got their start in Denton County.
Chomsky: Renowned for their live shows, Chomsky, though they released only three albums, had a far-reaching local and regional impact in the late `90s. Former guitarist Glen Reynolds is still making music; his solo debut, In Between Days, is due out in June.
Slobberbone: Another late, great group from that era. Smashing together rock, folk, gospel, punk and pop, singer/songwriter Brent Best earned voluminous critical raves for the band’s four albums. The band begat the similarly acclaimed Drams, whose debut, Jubilee Dive, was released last year.
Brave Combo: The only still-active band from Denton to have both a Grammy award and an appearance on The Simpsons to its name, this veteran polka quintet’s last record was 2004’s Let’s Kiss; Brave Combo continues to tour and plays frequently in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
Deep Blue Something: Yes, the minds behind inescapable `90s single “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” founded the group in Denton. The quartet hit it big with 1995’s “Home” but soon drifted into a seven-year hiatus. According to reports, they’re active again and working on new music.
Lift to Experience: One of the first bands Bella Union founder Simon Raymonde signed to the fledgling label, the trio of Josh Pearson, Andy Young and Josh Browning released only one album, 2001’s The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, then dissolved the band not long after. Pearson is at work on a solo project and is touring the UK.
The Baptist Generals: Formed by Chris Flemmons and Steve Hill, these folky/alt-country rockers released a lone album on Sub Pop, No Silver/No Gold in 2003 and continue to perform around the Metroplex, including an upcoming gig at the Hailey’s 10th anniversary show in May.
Pat Boone: The man who would come to be known for his squeaky-clean pop and gospel singing spent a year at North Texas State University (now University of North Texas) in 1954-55.
Don Henley: The drummer/singer from Gilmer, Texas, went to North Texas State for a couple of years in the late `60s before heading off to L.A. to form the Eagles.
Lyle Mays: The celebrated and Grammy-winning jazz pianist is known for his work with the Pat Metheny Group.
Meat Loaf: The singer, born Marvin Lee Aday, who found “paradise by the dashboard light” attended North Texas State in the mid-‘60s.
Norah Jones: Born in New York and now based there, Jones is UNT’s most famous alum currently on the pop charts. Her latest album, Not Too Late, is double-platinum.
Roy Orbison: Vernon, Texas-born Orbison dropped out of North Texas State after two years in the mid-‘50s to sign with legendary Sun Records. He went on to have such smash hits as “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Only the Lonely” and “Blue Bayou.”
Sly Stone: The lead singer of the pioneering funk-rock band Sly & the Family Stone was born in Denton in 1944.