Buxton's new album, Half a Native, comes out today, a little more than three years after its previous effort, Nothing Here Seems Strange. About half of the new songs carry on the line of contemplative, finger-picked acoustic tunes that characterized Strange and its predecessor, 2008's A Family Light. But "Good As Gone" crunches in plenty of electric fuzz, "High Tones" is a snug country shuffle, "Miss Catalina 1992" and "Icebreaker" are outright rockers and the lonesome-sounding midtempo tune "The Heart Won't Bend" would make a perfect single for Americana radio.
Overall, the result is progress, which makes sense. The five-piece is so modest you'll never hear it from their own mouths, but Buxton is actually one of the local indie scene's longest-tenured bands at this point; they celebrated a ten-year anniversary show at Fitzgerald's a little more than a year ago, when, singer/guitarist Sergio Trevino says, Native was about half-finished. But while this album may be more textured and diverse than earlier Buxton records, Trevino cautions against reading too much into it.
"Tonally it's very...I don't know, honest," he says. "But there's no obvious message to the album, like, 'This is what we're trying to put across'; 'This is about America" or 'This is about me, or love." It's just an album of songs."
That said, Trevino says he's proud of Native, which the band recorded in Hollywood last year with producer Thom Monaghan, who has also worked with Devendra Banhart, Vetiver and Fujiya & Miyagi.
"Honestly, I'm thrilled with the way everything turned out," Trevino says. "We were really excited about working with a producer this time around that we felt could push us in the right direction. We're basically like, we had all these songs, but we had no real direction for the record. We had a big ball of clay and were trying to figure out how to mold it to make the record."
However it came about, the result is still a good look for Buxton. We recently sat down with Trevino over breakfast at the Tel-Wink Grill in Gulfgate, not far from a few of the remaining clapboard lounges left over from Telephone Road's heyday as the axis of Houston's rough-and-tumble nightlife, and asked him to comb through a handful of the songs from Native for us.
"WHAT I DO"
Sergio Trevino: It started off just like an acoustic song, very ballad-y. I felt really excited about it. As soon as it was written we were getting some pretty good responses about it. Then we went into the studio to record it, and it just sounded so lame. You know? We were like, "this is weird. We feel like we're sitting on a good song, but it doesn't feel good or interesting or innovative how we're doing it."
So we basically were considering scrapping the song, because we were battling with what to fit onto the record. But I was like, "I think this song is a keeper. Let's try something." We put together a few different arrangements for it, and we ended going with this kind of ambient sludge-folky approach. It's much more ambient and slow and [we] cut out half the lyrics of the song, just to create this more spatial mood.
I'm really happy with the way it came out; I like the acoustic version and the version that came out equally. I couldn't be happier with that track, and I feel like it being the opening track it's really telling of the album, like where things are going to go.
Houston Press: How so?
Sergio Trevino: Well, it's really sentimental and kind of rocky but not really rocky; it has a kind of ambient element. So I feel like all of things are kind of touched on in the album, even if they're not all at the same time.
"GOOD AS GONE"
ST: I don't know if it's a problem, but I've got a really strong habit of writing in a very folky style . Like, I have to really push myself to not write folky. "Good as Gone" originally, I was playing it on guitar and I had a couple of lyrics that I really liked and I was like, "This could be cool." I thought it was cool but I just felt like it was too simple, you know? And it was too folky, like everything else.
Something about me is that I'm not very much of a musician. Like, I can write music pretty easily, but I basically know enough guitar to write music with. And so what I was wanting to do was give this a different feel. I was working on this on the piano, and instead of following the bass notes...if you're playing one part, my instinct would be to play the same chord on the bass note, like with the other hand.
So me not being much of a musician, I'm like, "OK, let me explore these notes over here," and I just kind of came up with...[a part that] sounded a little more soulful in the lower end. Taking that approach, it basically built from changing the bass line from that to more of a soulful thing, and it just completely changed the shape of the song.
"HALF A NATIVE"
ST: The song is basically about a sailor that's out at sea; it's painting a picture and slowly explaining what's happening. [It's] about this guy who can't stand being around the sea or the rain; or he talks about he wasn't made for the blood. Basically, he says he's half a native. To me, it's...I don't know. When I write something, I don't always fully comprehend what I'm writing. I know that sounds kind of weird, but I feel my way out a lot of times.
Sometimes logic isn't exciting. To me, creating a mystery through language is one of the most exciting things you can do with songwriting. So in a song that has a pretty heavy narrative, when you inject something that's kind of cryptic, like, "I'm half a native and half alone," I feel like it makes you dig deeper into the song. And that's where I kind of have trouble explaining what I mean, because to me I feel like I don't completely know what I mean, but at the same time I have ideas about what I mean.
Do you know what I mean? I love songs that are completely clear and narrative, and I think that's very powerful, but I also think songs that are a little mysterious or a little strange also are equally effective.
HP: Does that have anything to do with the coffeehouse? [Note: Buxton and the Washington Avenue java joint/musician hangout recently partnered to produce a limited-edition brand of coffee to promote the new album.]
ST: It wasn't meant to, but maybe it does. I know exactly where it came from, and it's kind of silly. I don't even know if I talked about this with the guys. I'd been looking for a drum kit for a while at the time, just a small drum kit to put in my studio. Gretsch makes this kit, it's called a Catalina kit. It's like a Catalina jazz kit; a small drum kit. So I've been obsessing over this kit for a while [and] I was in the middle of writing words and lyrics for this song, and that came to mind.
And then I started thinking about more of the story about Miss Catalina, an aging beauty queen. Catalina's a place in California; that's where the name came from. I had the beginning of it, like "Miss Catalina 1992, throwing pennies in a wishing well." I had just that, basically.
I met up with Craig Kinsey and showed him the song. He really liked it, and had some suggestions about putting a much more upbeat chorus, or a heavy chorus. I'm very sensitive toward choruses; like, I don't even like going to choruses very often. Like, I'll do it out of obligation, but he had some ideas. He had some suggestions and I kind of tweaked them to meet halfway between his idea and my idea.
ST: That one's kind of funny. We were going into the studio, and we had to be in the studio in a week. We were trying to finish as many ideas and have 'em ready to go to L.A. and give 'em a chance once we got there. We were doing pre-production in L.A. for three days. So in those three days we were planning on showing Tom Monaghan as many songs as we could and say, "Hey, what do you think about this? Do you want this to be on the record or not?"
I just wanted every song to be at its best and in tip-top shape, [and] that particular song was a mess. Me and Chris thought it was a great song, and we were really pushing for the song. We were arguing over whether this song was too silly for the record, or had no place. I thought it had integrity, I thought the song was cool, so we basically were working on it up until the day we left and it still wasn't ready.
When we got to L.A., during pre-production we kind of worked on it a little bit there at Thom's studio, and it actually just came together while we were there, a day before we started recording. He liked it and we liked it, and we just ended up tracking it down. It was probably one of the last songs we expected to make the record.