An eight-hour van drive within the state of Texas sans air conditioning in late spring, no less is hardly an ideal way to travel. But that's just the scenario Sound Team guitarist Sam Sanford faces during a recent interview, right as the sextet begins a U.S. tour in support of its major-label debut for Capitol Records, Movie Monster.
Sanford sounds a bit bummed about the intense heat he'll likely soon experience as they drive although now that he and his bandmates have tour support from an established label in their pockets, such less-than-ideal conditions will hopefully become the exception rather than the norm. Which, from what he describes, is a refreshing change from past Sound Team treks.
"Having a little bit of tour support is really nice," Sanford says. "Not being afraid we're going to run out of gas between one gig and the next. Having more than one hotel room. Or having hotel rooms at all is a big change from the way we used to do it. The first times we were touring, we'd have to find someone at the show to let us crash on their flea-infested floor. "All we'd be eating was whatever they would serve us at the club," he continues. "I can remember driving back from Portland to Salt Lake City to Tucson, where we were down to rationing one peanut-butter sandwich apiece for the whole day. We're not traveling around in a jet and eating steak dinners every night, but a lot of times we each have our own bed to sleep in, which helps when you're playing shows every night."
Indeed, the Austin band has built a sterling reputation based on its live concerts, which are known for their improvisation and experimentation. These gigs were also the only place fans could find most of the Sound Team's initial recordings a couple of cassettes and a full-length, Marathon, the latter of which they released in small quantities on the Secretly Canadian-associated, vinyl-only label St. Ives. (2005's WORK EP, however, received wider distribution via Capitol.)
So how has the buzz around the Sound Team grown so loud? Shows with indie-quirk darlings the Arcade Fire and Walkmen have certainly helped. But while Sanford says he isn't someone who "reads a lot of blogs and shit," he won't disagree that the Internet is also having a major influence on his band's visibility.
"Yeah, I'm sure it's huge, MySpace.com and everything," he says. "I'm sure that's the main way that most people are finding out about us right now. No one listens to the radio, and we're not on the radio anyway. Going around the country playing shows is a really slow way to get the word out. It took Black Flag, like, five years before they were well known.
"And now with the Internet, it just accelerates the spread of information. One person at your show really could equal hundreds of people, if they are spreading the music on the Internet. I'm sure no one at the label likes to think about it, but illegal downloading is probably a huge factor as well."
Even still, for most people Monster is basically their first taste of the Sound Team. And as first impressions go, the disc is hard to top. Diverse sounds and genres melt seamlessly into one another, in a way that should be scattered, but instead feels like a well-sequenced, free-form radio show. Fuzzy, tick-tock indie rock á la fellow Austinites Spoon ("No More Birthdays") collapses into a burble of perforated synthpop ("Movie Monster"); stomping Krautrock with surround-sound clashing guitar ("TV Torso") begets Walkmen-esque angst-roars ("Back in Town"); and the one-two punch of "Your Eyes Are Liars" with "Afterglow Years" nods to melodic '80s Britrockers and Bowie's towering space-glam, respectively.
Unsurprisingly, Sanford reports that Monster's fluid mix of genres was intentionally constructed like their shows.
"We felt we had really great songs," he says. "We wanted to achieve a recording that would take full advantage of being in a recording studio. We wanted to get great sounds for everything, but wanted to capture the energy and feeling of the way that it is when we play the songs live.
"This band has always been about trying to...translate recorded songs into live performance. They always change; they don't sound exactly like the original recording. A lot of times something will start out in the studio, and then we'll rearrange it for live performance and then we'll re-record it to reflect those new changes. A lot of the album is kind of like that."
Ground zero for the construction of Monster was actually two places: Austin's Wire Recording Studio, and the band's own Big Orange, a converted record-pressing plant which they've been renting since 2003. Sanford's quick to set the record straight about the fanciness or lack thereof of these latter digs: "It's basically a shitty old warehouse with a lot of holes in the ceiling. It has a corrugated tin ceiling and a concrete floor, and it's all one big room." But the Sound Team spent two solid months there tweaking and perfecting Monster's songs after their initial Wire sessions (although Sanford notes the bulk of this work fell on the shoulders of vocalist Matt Oliver and bassist Bill Baird, who appear to be the studio heads of the band).
What's most apparent listening to Monster is how visually arresting its songs are. Even if one doesn't have synaesthesia a condition where people can involuntarily equate hearing music with seeing colors it's impossible not to notice how the songs burst with vibrant, photo-like flashes of movement. With this in mind, the Sound Team's artistic roots are no surprise; Sanford's an oil painter by trade and designed the album's artwork which is itself culled from a movie Baird filmed. Elizabeth Abrams, a friend of the band, is also filming the group for an ongoing documentary. (Both Baird's film and previews of Abrams' flick come with the iTunes version of Movie Monster.)
Still, anyone thinking that these indulgences are out of the ordinary for the Sound Team or in any way signal that they've sold out would be dead wrong.
"We're doing everything exactly the same as we've always been dong it," Sanford says. "Anybody who takes the trouble to talk to us and find out any facts about us...I don't even know what it means to sell out, anymore. It seems like an incoherent concept. If it is coherent, we're not doing it, I don't think. You have to listen to the music, and that's what it should be about, you know?" 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 28. Hi-Pointe, 1001 McCausland Avenue. All ages. $8 to $10. 314-781-4716.