"Pedals, decibels, food... " Guitarist Chris "Frenchy" Smith is listing the manias he shares with his bandmates in Sixteen Deluxe. "Also, 2we like to go to different trashy American culture monuments... and to places like the wetlands, the Dakotas. It's really a treat to drive around America."
Breakroom, Friday, February 20
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Smith is calling from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a town with a 24-hour Wal-Mart that sells vegetarian frozen food—one of those only-in-America idiosyncrasies that delight him and his fellow psychedelic popsters. The guitarist also 3admits unabashedly the Austin band's fascination with television—particularly the output of producers Gary Marshall and Aaron Spelling, not to mention South Park and The Simpsons. "Homer Simpson is the best American anti-hero," he enthuses. "That show just penetrates American culture so deeply—and it's a great way to get through holidays with your family."
Sixteen Deluxe doesn't just watch television, it's on television—at least, its music is. 4The theme for MTV's Austin Stories is a song from the band's first record, Backfeed Magnetbabe (Trance Syndicate). To hear Smith tell it, the situation happened by chance: "We just heard about [the show], and we were comfortable with it, and the label was comfortable with it. The show is totally hilarious—it's so bad, it's great."
The smoothness of Sixteen Deluxe's Austin Stories experience carries over to its career. Any bumps have been minor since 5the band formed in 1994, after the break-ups of Smith's previous group, Warm Jet, and guitarist Carrie Clark's Swing Set; the two bands had shared a practice space. Clark enlisted her friend Jeff Copas to play bass, and the first of several drummers signed on. It helped the fledgling Sixteen Deluxe that 6Butthole Surfers' drummer King Coffey, who owns Trance Syndicate, was a Swing Set fan. "King was already into Carrie's band," Smith says. "He had been wanting to release their material, so a lot of that enthusiasm he enlisted into us."
When 7Sixteen Deluxe made its debut at Chances, an Austin lesbian bar, Coffey was there. Barely a year later came Backfeed Magnetbabe, a noisy confection that garnered critical acclaim and major-label interest. The band's follow-up EP, Pilot Knob (on another indie label, Genius) appeared just as it began recording in San Francisco for its recent Warner Bros. debut, Emits Showers of Sparks.
8Titled from the caution label on a fireworks package, the new record is full of unexpected and transfixing bursts of light, each track managing to be both simple and magical, like a 10-cent sparkler burning in a starless night. Among the standouts are the heavy, rainy-day hypnotizer "Lullaby" and the warped, lurching "Honey," a new recording of the band's first B-side. Other notable songs impart an almost physical sense of heaviness, as if the band were playing in a pool full of syrup. Its Velvet Underground influence shows on "Let It Go," while less opaque tracks like "No Shock (in Bubble)" and "Wrist Rocket" gain power from drummer Steven Hall's relentless pounding, revealing Sixteen Deluxe's pop skeleton.
9Relative to the noisy layers on the band's previous efforts, Emits could almost be called restrained; this time out, Smith's and Clark's vocals are even allowed to float to the top of the mix. According to Smith, this more accessible and radio-friendly sound is a happy accident. "It has to do with the group of songs that we did for the record, the general vibe; where our heads were," he explains. "There a lot of people who think it's more psychedelic to have all the noises, but we decided to strip the songs back. We're not afraid to throw different things out there. If you're in a band with the same people for more than a year, it can get really boring. I mean,10we only have a couple of chords in each song"—he laughs—"so we don't want to repeat ourselves. Like R.E.M.—they never do the same thing."
In fact, 11many of Sixteen Deluxe's influences are bands that, like R.E.M., broke artistic ground at the same time they sold a lot of records. Yet Smith also names favorites with less mass appeal, like the group's labelmates from
Oklahoma City, the Flaming Lips. Smith thinks the noisy psychedelic pop developed by Southwestern bands like his own, the Butthole Surfers, and the Lips might be due to geography. "We're out on our own island in Austin or Oklahoma City," he notes. "We're removed from big rock business, and everyone's trying to out-freak each other."
This 12competitive weirdness might explain Sixteen Deluxe's over-the-top performances. The band is notorious for playing shows with projections, film loops, unusual lighting—and of course, lots of feedback. "The studio and the live show are two different things," Smith says. "We try to put on a really big, classic rock show—it's like, 'What would the MC5 be doing now if they were on stage?'"
13All four members write the music, with Smith and Clark collaborating on the elliptical lyrics. "One of the main things about really dramatic, alt-rock bands now—they're so literal," Smith says. "There's no imagination, it's just this guy yelling at you."
If radio airplay follows as smoothly as the rest of its career, Sixteen Deluxe will be sharing stages with these bands. And that's no problem, Smith claims; 14from the beginning, Sixteen Deluxe had goals that went beyond maintaining indie-cred. "The good thing for us is that we had a life before we were on a major label.... To have that association is OK, as long as they spell it right.15We don't like our name to be a number—we're not One-Six Deluxe, we're Sixteen Deluxe."
So Sixteen Deluxe has no moral dilemmas about making videos, signing to a major label, or working with MTV?
16"We would do pretty much anything that had to do with TV," Smith says with a laugh, "except a commercial—I mean, we've duct-taped over the Marshall logo on our amps, so I don't know about advertising."