Photo Credit: Courtney Chavanell
There is often a wide gulf between the perception of a place and the reality of living there. Austin, TX has a reputation as a weird, sleepy pocket of creativity, home to bizarre musicians like Butthole Surfers and Daniel Johnston. Richard Linklater’s slice-of-life portrait of the city in the 1991 film Slacker still resonates, but present-day Austin’s resemblance to Linklater’s laconic burg is fading rapidly.
Nowadays, the city routinely pops up in publications like Forbes and Bloomberg Businessweek as a top American boom town. As the population swells, as tech companies proliferate, as the behemoth South by Southwest festival grows even more unwieldy, the face of the city is, inevitably, changing.
When Amanda Ribbons of Tele Novella moved to Austin five years ago, she found an environment that differed greatly from that of Sacramento, CA, where she had been living. Speaking to Flagpole by phone, Ribbons describes having to adjust to the “competitive arts and music scene” in her new town.
“Some people think that Austin is full of all these slackers that don’t do anything,” she says, “but I don’t think you’re able to pigeonhole Austin like that anymore.”
The heightened level of intensity helped Ribbons, then heading the group Agent Ribbons, to better handle the business aspect of her music. “I became a lot more focused on what I need to do when I moved here,” she explains. But the boom-town atmosphere took its toll. “[It] can be really strange and difficult, especially when you’re trying to create a home out of a place and it changes every year.”
Some people think that Austin is full of all these slackers that don’t do anything, but I don’t think you’re able to pigeonhole it like that anymore.
After Agent Ribbons disbanded, Ribbons formed Tele Novella with bassist Jason Chronis and drummer Matt Simon of the bands Voxtrot and Belaire, both Austin natives; keyboardist and vocalist Sarah La Puerta joined later on. The group released its debut EP, Cosmic Dial Tone, last March on Lolipop Records. If the EP’s six tracks are any indication, however much Austin may be changing, the quality of music coming out of the city is undiminished.
The EP's second track, “Trouble in Paradise,” slinks seductively along, spring reverb coming off Ribbons’ guitar like sparks from a busted street light. The lyrics exude a cool menace, with a few deliberate images setting a dark scene. Ribbons sings, “Birds cry, eyes open wide/ Spiders heavy with their poison/ I’ve come from the wilder side/ Bringing trouble to paradise.” Elsewhere, on “Don't Be a Stranger,” tight harmonies and intricate melodies recall the baroque pop of Belle and Sebastian circa Dear Catastrophe Waitress, or the tube-amp cool of Holly Golightly.
Chronis wrote the music for “Trouble in Paradise;” his role also extends to arrangements on Ribbons’ songs. On the whole, Ribbons says, the band’s approach to songwriting is fluid. “Sometimes I’ll show [Chronis] a song, and he’ll manage the band closely; but other times everyone will kind of just figure out their own thing.”
Sharing compositional duties is a welcome change from Agent Ribbons, where, “I did manage every aspect of the music and everything pretty much did ride on me,” Ribbons says. “Now, I have the luxury of having someone who’s better at that part of it than I am.”
This collaborative approach might explain the cohesive feel of Cosmic Dial Tone; recorded just three months after the band formed, the EP sounds surprisingly mature. Ribbons speaks of the close attention the band pays to atmosphere, citing as inspiration the work of filmmakers like Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger. As part of her process, Ribbons describes thinking about artists she admires. “I think about who they are, or how they might have dressed, or how they might have decorated their room.”
After wrapping up a tour this fall, Tele Novella will head back into the studio in February to record a first full-length. The challenge for Ribbons and her bandmates now is to build momentum and notoriety around the country, not just in Austin.
“Despite the fact that it’s the live-music capital of the world,” Robbins says, “the music industry is not here.” Playing sets at South by Southwest can help, she adds, “but for the rest of the year, you should probably go somewhere else and just be on the road as much as possible, which is what we’re trying to do.”
WHO: Tele Novella, Sunbears, Fake Flowers, DieAlps!
WHERE: Caledonia Lounge
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 15, 9:30 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $5 (21+), $7 (18–20)