Singer-guitarist and co-frontman Sam Anderson took a breath and recited the band’s latest descriptor, the one that goes out in PR e-mails to writers like me who love it when a publicist does a lot of the creative lifting. “We’re sci-fi-obsessed ZZ Top enthusiasts who have a record coming out May 20 on Lightning Rod Records.” As if to reward himself, he took a drink of his beer.
“Dave’s pukey sick, so he couldn’t make it,” said Anderson, referring to co-frontman David Matsler. Along with bassist Pat Adams and drummer Aaron Haynes, Anderson met me at Finn McCool’s the other night to talk about El Astronauta, the band’s new full-length. Adams told me they were trying to all be on the same page with this new genre-specific brand expectations.
“We’ve been trying to figure out which science fiction we like,” said Adams.
“Turns out there’s a lot of it to sift through,” said Haynes.
“I think I’m more of a science fact guy, actually,” said Anderson.
What the press release logline means to say is that El Astronauta is about a shady character named Queso Blanco who lives in Mexico but works in space.
“He’s a space coyote,” said Anderson, meaning that this guy smuggles people of various species across the cosmos. “He works both sides of the law, but in the end he chooses one.”
In a lot of ways, Queso Blanco’s trajectory parallels the band’s own. They’ve finally made it to space, but the road to the launch pad had a lot of turns. However, as is typical with the band that sells branded air fresheners in the shape of Texas, printed in the state flag, it started in a house by a swamp near a tiny town in Harris County called Anahuac. The band spent two weeks in early 2014 tracking the basics to 11 or 12 songs at the home studio of engineer Grant Jackson Wilburn.
“I think we were really into the experience of recording down there, when we should have been more into how the songs were turning out,” Adams said.
Though the band had a blast –– Anderson said they “shot blowdarts at beer cans a lot” –– they were ultimately dissatisfied with the product. Anderson said the band figured out that recording individual parts for all the songs all at once (rather than song-by-song) was no longer working for the band.
“We’d just always done it that way,” he said.
Adams said the four-piece had to make a difficult choice. “We finally had the conversation that it just wasn’t working. But to make that call was tough.”
About half the songs on El Astronauta are rerecorded versions of the songs from the Anahuac sessions, tracked song-by-song with Beau Bedford at Modern Electric Sound Recorders in Dallas and mixed by Jordan Richardson at Electric Barryland. How they made it onto Bedford’s schedule is kind of a funny story.
“Around the time we were having that conversation about bagging the Anahuac sessions, we got an offer from Logan Rogers, who’s the owner of Lightning Rod Records,” said Anderson. “He was doing a Bruce Springsteen compilation and offered us a spot on it. And the way the timing worked, we ended up doing it with Beau.”
The band was tasked with recording Springsteen’s “Darlington Road,” learning it and recording it two days after getting the e-mail.
“Getting into a real studio … we had more fun recording a Bruce Springsteen cover than we’d had recording music in over a year. It was a no-brainer to just start over,” Adams said.
The resulting sound is still built on the band’s trademark blues-based heavy rock, but unlike the scrappy, classic rock crunch of the debut Torquila! Torquila! and the country-leaning roots rock of Honcho, El Astronauta sounds … hazy. Sure, there are plenty of stonerriffic effects on the mix, but it’s as if torpid air and sting-happy creatures of Anahuac’s bayou managed to steal away in the songs anyway, leaking out of the speakers like some weird sweaty, sonic vapor –– bongwater boiled in a witch’s cauldron, heavy on seasoning from a couple years’ worth of current events that get ever more troubling and surreal every passing day.
Sticking to their creative guns has paid off, because El Astronauta’s odd vibe is coming to record stores across the country. Thirty Tigers and Sony Red will be distributing the album on CD and vinyl (in addition to the usual streaming services) nationwide, and a support tour is in the works for later this year. In addition to deals with Lightning Rod and Thirty Tigers, the band signed with mega-huge talent agency William Morris Endeavor to do its booking.
Through all of this, Anderson’s attitude hovers around “just glad to be here.”
“I feel pretty good so far, because the people we’re working with found a narrative that feels more representative of us,” he said. “Before, it was like, ‘This is the best new Texas Country band.’ Now I’m pretty sure they went with ‘These guys are really weird.’ ”