Brooklyn

Heavenly Beat is the musical project of John Pena, one of the founding members of Beach Fossils. Pena released Prominence, his second album as Heavenly Beat, last fall and is already close to completing the follow-up for a tentative summer release. 

Pena grew up in Austin and moved to Brooklyn when he was 21. The Daily Texan spoke with him about his new band and coming home for SXSW.

The Daily Texan: How has your experience been from playing SXSW to just going and watching shows?

John Pena: I mean, both experiences are kind of the same. You kind of try to find as much free booze as possible and chill with your friends. It’s kind of the same thing. 

DT: I know you used to play by yourself with Heavenly Beat but have a live band now. How long have you been playing with this group of people?

JP: I have four dudes that I play with besides myself. My first show with them was August at the Captured Tracks five year anniversary festival. It’s been a dream playing with them. Before them, I hated playing live. It was such a goddamn nightmare for me to get up there and just bomb every time. It’s a lot less stressful now to have four other dudes on stage with me sort of taking that stress off. 

DT: Have you begun to work on any new material? 

JP: Yeah, I’m wrapping up the next record now that’s probably coming out during the summer time. The music’s kind of done, so I’m just laying down vocals. Hopefully I’ll have it wrapped and turned in by the end of this month. 

DT: What would you say the new album sounds like? Is it similar to Prominence?

JP: No. The drum programming is better. The songs are a lot catchier even though they’re darker in both tone and theme. They’re more propulsive. I got really candid on Prominence, perhaps too candid about things going on in my life that had some real life consequences I had to answer for. The new record is about the fallout of all the horrible stuff I was doing on Prominence. Even though it’s a darker record, it hits harder than Prominence

DT: You grew up in Austin?

JP: I lived in Austin until I was 21, and then I moved to New York. I’ve been here for about seven years.

DT: Did you play in bands when you were in Austin?

JP: No. The first band I was ever in was Beach Fossils. I didn’t even move to New York with the intention of making music. It was sort of an accident. 

DT: Why did you move to New York?

JP: A friend actually asked me to help them move here, so I didn’t actually intend to move here. I came up here intending to stay for two weeks and help a friend settle in. In those two weeks, I spent all my money and had to get a job. Seven years later, here I am.

DT: When you come back for SXSW, do you have a lot of family you see?

JP: Yeah, I have my mom and my father and sister. My sister, she works for the La Quinta there that I stay in when I’m in town, so it works out nicely.

DT: Do you think it’s easier to make it as a band in Brooklyn? Did you join Beach Fossils when it started?

JP: I was the original bassist in that band, yeah. With Brooklyn, all this sort of infrastructure for being in a band is here, so it definitely does make it a little bit easier to get started. That’s assuming that you have a band that people are interested in. You could live in Brooklyn and still be the worst goddamn band of all time. If you have talent and you’re here, the structure exists that makes it easier to be heard. In the end, it’s all about songs and talent, though. 

DT: What was the highest amount of shows you’ve ever played at SXSW?

JP: With Beach Fossils one year I think we did 14 or something like that. It seems really obscene now, but at the time it didn’t really feel like anything.

DT: Did you enjoy doing that or was it stressful?

JP: No, we were all really good friends so there wasn’t a lot of stress involved. We were just having a really good time. 

DT: You hear a lot of stories about people who hate SXSW so it’s good to get different points of view. 

JP: I’ve never really understood that vibe. You understand what you’re getting into whenever you sign up for SXSW. You’d have to be really naive to go into that situation and expect some great experience where you’ll be able to perform your art in the best possible experience. If you go into it with a mind frame that you’ll get to play some chill shows and chill with friends in a warm environment, it’s really easy to have a good time. You’re only going to have a bad time if you want to have a bad time.

Widowspeak, the great dreamy, hazy, indie rock group from Brooklyn, N.Y., just released Almanac earlier this year and have another EP titled The Swamps due out on Captured Tracks by the end of the month. The Daily Texan spoke with band members Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas about writing songs and touring through the South.

 

The Daily Texan: Are you used to playing big festivals like ACL?

Molly Hamilton: We’ve done a couple of them but mostly we play a small stage at the beginning of the day, which honestly is really cool because you are a part of this festival where are a lot of people are there because of bigger acts and then they get to accidentally discover you, which is a really cool experience.

Robert Earl Thomas: We had a bunch of people come up to us today and say, “I didn’t know who you were, but now I’m a fan,” and that’s awesome. We couldn’t ask for anything better, and then I get to see other bands I want to see. Being a band at a festival is the coolest.

MH: Exactly, it’s like being the opening band on the sickest bill ever. It’s 100 bands long. 

 

DT: You have a new EP coming out at the end of the month called The Swamps. Were these songs recorded after Almanac?

RET: We were sick of touring, but we really didn’t want to work either, so we worked out this thing where just the two of us opened for Jason Isbell.

MH: It’s always cool to be exposed to new people. We started writing songs about being stagnant and cooped up. The swamps are a still and creepy place, and that permeated throughout all we were writing about.

RET: We have the lyric in the song “The Swamps” that goes “Read the listings in Southern towns.” I would drive through town and get on Craigslist and find a house for $500 and say, “Why don’t we live there!” 

 

DT: You get compared a lot to other bands. Is that something that you think is cool or do you get tired of it after a while?

MH: I don’t necessarily get tired of the comparison because for a lot of people, it’s like they love that band so if they see something that they’ve always loved in our music. The one thing I don’t like is when people assume it’s our influence. A lot of people say “Oh, Molly’s obviously influenced by Hope Sandoval’s singing,” and I think it’s more that I coincidentally sing similarly to her, and I think we come from a similar place in terms of our stylistic leanings.

Q&A: Mike Wexler

Mike Wexler's Disposession has acclaimed more attention than his works from the past. His dark side emerges through both spiritual and material worlds (Photo courtesy of David Black).
Mike Wexler's Disposession has acclaimed more attention than his works from the past. His dark side emerges through both spiritual and material worlds (Photo courtesy of David Black).

When it comes to freak folk singer songwriters, Mike Wexler cultivates a sound like no other. His psychedelic and nasally vocals create a completely otherworldly experience. With a busy agenda as of late, the Brooklyn-based musician released his sophomore album this month before stopping by Austin for SXSW. Wexler spoke with The Daily Texan about his artistic community, his musical influences and his s new record, Dispossession.

Daily Texan: Do you feel like you’ve gotten more press because of SXSW?
Mike Wexler:
It’s hard for me to say, there’s been quite a bit of press with the new record. I hope that going down there will generate some more interest

DT: What’s it like to be an upcoming artist from Brooklyn?
Wexler:
It feels pretty normal; I’ve been a lot busier in the past month. I’m happy to have that stuff to do.

DT: Do you feel the Brooklyn scene aids you in any way to emerge as a musician?
Wexler:
I think the scene is a very nurturing environment. There are aspects that make it hard to live here, like having to scrape by and still have time to do this sort of thing than elsewhere where the rents are cheaper. I like the energy here; there are so many different things going on and different circles. What people do is really cutting edge in all different genres, so it’s inspiring to be around that for sure. 

DT: What musical artists made you want to start a band?
Wexler:
When I was a kid it was probably Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen. It’s hard to say. Ever since I could remember I picked up a guitar and I never had the intention of learning other people’s songs, I always used it as a tool to write my own material. I don’t know if I can think of an artist who would be directly responsible for my music. I just like writing songs. 

DT: Was it a conscious decision to go solo?
Wexler:
It’s the way I’ve always operated. I’ve been in bands but I never felt I’ve met anyone who’s an ideal match for my music. It’s easier to write the songs myself so I can put a band together based on what I feel like I need in terms of instruments. I know a lot of musicians and I thought long and hard about the band for this record. It seemed like a no brainer for me that they should be involved in a project together to make that happen.

DT: As a solo artist, do you feel it’s more difficult to rouse a crowd when you perform?
Wexler:
It’s hard to make a definitive statement because every show is so different. Depending on the venue and the crowd and some kind of unquantifiable something in the atmosphere, there’s so many things happening at any given performance. You feel lucky when the stars align and everything goes right. It’s interesting how things pan out.

DT: You said through a Word Press blog that when someone writes something about you feel the need to set the record straight. Would you like to set anything straight for now?
Wexler:
I feel that everyone who I’ve seen write about this record has been more in line with how I was thinking about it. When you have something in mind that you’re hoping to come across and see people get out of it what you think you’ve put into it, it makes you feel like you’ve succeeded on some level.

A New York City taxi is stranded in deep water on Manhattan’s West Side as Tropical Storm Irene passes through the city on Sunday in New York. Although downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, Irene’s torrential rain couple with high winds and tides worked in concert to flood parts of the city. (Peter Morgan/AP Photo)

Editor's Note: Amber Genuske is a former Texan Life and Arts editor who recently moved to Brooklyn, New York for an internship. Here's her account of Hurricane Irene.

Though her presence was brief and her might overestimated, Irene’s predicted power was enough for New Yorkers to recognize the humanity of the other 8 million people they share the city with.

It is amusing and slightly disheartening that it takes a natural disaster for residents to identify their mortality, and in turn, the mortality of those around them. When New Yorkers are forced to slow down for one damn minute and focus on preparing hurricane “go” bags full of basic survival gear, they take off the blinders that guide their daily lives, and become actual humans again.

On Friday and Saturday, people purchasing nonperishable food items, bottled water and batteries packed grocery stores. As people stood in lines for up to 30 minutes, they removed their usual public-space bubbles and cross-checked their items with others, offering advice on the most secure place in an apartment, and always saying “be safe” before they parted ways.

Around 8 p.m. on Saturday before the storm started to really pick up, I walked to my neighborhood bodega, Smith’s Grocery, to get one last round of supplies before dedicating myself to a three-person hurricane party of pasta, cookies and Irene cocktails in my apartment in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

I don’t know how many times I’ve bought a six pack or a snack from that corner-store bodega. As most convenience-store conversations go, the cashier and I never extended past an exchange of requests for items and cash. This night though, the cashier said his boss required the store to be open all night despite being located in an evacuation zone.

Because the cashier was going to have to brave the storm alone, it made me take an extra moment to ensure he was going to be OK. The “wall of water” catchphrase in the media and the look of pure distress in his eyes made me recognize the frailty of a street-level bodega in a hurricane, and it made me recognize the frailty of the cashier.

Back at my apartment, my roommate, my friend and I tracked the storm’s progress through various news outlets as we listened to the wind pick up and the rain grow stronger outside my living room window on the third floor of a four-story brownstone.

When the death toll reached eight, the storm became real. Our Irene cocktails that swirled in our martini glasses started to taste bitter at the thought that we would be weathering a storm that had already taken lives.

I began to question my choice of sustenance which consisted of animal crackers, nuts and hummus and various soda bottles, bowls and pots filled with tap water. I doubted the longevity of the lemon-scented candle that we began burning hours before it got dark because we liked the smell.

Thankfully, my sub-par preparation worked in my favor when Irene turned out to be a glorified rain storm with wind gusts up to 65 mph. Really, it was more of a disappointment to not be able to use the candle for its intended purpose or to rely on a tub filled with water to flush my toilet. More importantly, though Irene made me question my sub-par preparation, it didn’t make me regret it. Now, I have animal crackers and cashews to last me two weeks.

Sunday afternoon when the storm had passed, I walked around my neighborhood to observe the destruction but was instead met with streets filled with fallen branches, the occasional busted tree and people with similar hopes of post-hurricane-carnage.

I made it a point to go check on my corner bodega cashier. The man at the counter was not the same who held down the fort for Smith’s Grocery and was confused when I asked how his fellow employee’s night was. Though, when he assured me that the other cashier was okay and I turned to leave, he said thank you for checking and I could see the sincerity in his eyes.

Some dedicated bodega employees stood their ground, other people overcompensated with fully-stocked go bags, though, most, like me, prepared just the basics and sipped on a version of an Irene cocktail as the hurricane degraded into a rain storm. But, at least for this weekend, Irene came to town and whipped New Yorkers into a state of altruism. As temporary as that state may be, I can only hope that in place of those ensuring “be safes” will be a heightened sense of the humanity of this city.

Printed on Monday, August 29, 2011 as: Threat of hurricane brings out humanity in New York citizens.

CD Review - Matt and Kim

Brooklyn-based duo Matt and Kim do not know what restraint is; stuffing drumbeats, major chords, piano melodies, synths, lyrical hooks and shouting vocals into a blender and sticking whatever comes out on an album. It sounds like one hell of a time, and the duo keeps the good times rolling with its third album, Sidewalks.

If there is one major difference between their second album, Grand, and this album, it’s that this one is catchier and more immediate. On the first song “Block After Block,” the synthesized beats do not sound too far from a Top 40 hip-hop infused pop song, especially with the “yeah”s that jump in and out of the song. No matter what any hipster tells you, Matt and Kim make pop music, but their best songs always had an off-kilter, hard edge to them. The exuberance and the joy of their debut album get lost with Sidewalks because the tracks begin to become indistinguishable. They all sound almost too perfect and too calculated to be fun songs.

Oddly enough, the songs that stick out the most are the slower ones that build up to something more than ear candy. On “Northeast,” singer Matt Johnson longingly sings for his favorite part of the country over restrained synths, tambourines and piano chords. With songs like that, Matt and Kim lose the guise of being only about jamming out.

Sidewalks provides a little more than 30 minutes of ear candy, but Matt and Kim would do well to stick something a little rougher and substantial to the blender on their next album.

For fans of: Sleigh Bells, Blink-182 and Discovery