Can't Make You Stay:
Buxton steps into the Family Light

Buxton pic #1
(l to r) Chris Wise, Jason Willis, Justin Terrell, & Sergio Trevino.
Photo by Byan Schutmaat.
Acoustic folk band Buxton, from La Porte, TX, releases its second full-length album, A Family Light, on Saturday, January 19th at Houston's Walter's on Washington. Before they hit the stage, I got a chance to sneak a listen to the album and emailed some questions off to the band -- made up of Sergio Trevino (vocals/guitar), Jason Willis (lead guitar/mandolin/tons of other instruments/backing vocals), Chris Wise (bass/organ/backing vocals), and Justin Terrell (drums) -- who were kind enough to answer them.
For its part, the new album is quite impressive, with well-thought-out lyrics, smooth, expansive sounds that seem to be coming in off the Great Plains, and even some rowdier songs where the Buxton guys show the energy they bring to their live shows.
Buxton plays their CD release show at Walter's on Washington (4215 Washington Ave, Houston, TX. 77007), with By The End of Tonight, Papermoons, & Ghost Mountain. You will receive Buxton's new CD A Family Light, their previous album Red Follows Red, and an unreleased EP featuring B-sides and demos with the price of admission, which is $12.

SCR: How would you compare the new album, A Family Light, with your other album Red Follows Red? I notice a bit more twang, but I'd say it's definitely still your sound; no radical redirections. How different was the recording experience this time?
Chris Wise: Well, the most noticeable difference definitely is that we have a drummer now. However, none of these songs were written with drums -- there were some ideas, but for the most part all of the songs were all done before we even tried to get drum parts written. Plus, Red Follows Red was recorded about three years ago, so naturally we sorta grew out of that sound and just tried to write better music.
The recording process for A Family Light and Red Follows Red were pretty different. Red Follows Red was recorded in a house with a friend of Jason's. It was basically just a collection of songs we had, and there was no real cohesive theme, or at least nothing that I would call an album. A Family Light was different in that we knew what we wanted; we were a little bit more comfortable in the studio and generally in the music that we had written. There was a long gap between recording the demos for the album and the actual recording because Mia Kat Empire had moved downtown from Kingwood, so we had a lot of time to really think about what we wanted, and I think that helped a lot.

You guys seem to be doing your own thing. To me, A Family Light is a cohesive album where the songs need each other and build on each other. It seems most artists just fill up CDs with three-minute singles hoping for radio play or single downloads. What are your feelings about albums versus singles? Does an album give you more freedom?
Chris: I think when aiming to make an album, you're a little bit more restrained in what songs you choose to involve. We had written a couple of songs that we loved, but it didn't make sense to have them on A Family Light. Fortunately, a lot of the songs went very well together, because it could've just as easily have been a bunch of singles. There was no collective agenda to write something cohesive or have a theme; we didn't figure that out for a while.
I still buy CDs and have felt a little disappointed in how it seems a lot of bands generally don't care what song goes where, but when a band does, you can tell, and that album generally sticks with me longer than a really good single.
The lyrical content is deep on A Family Light, as on all of your stuff. The lyrics seem to be related from song to song. Is there a storyline throughout the CD? I notice some themes of leaving and being left and all the troubles, feelings, and suspended relationships involved with that. Am I way off on that?
Sergio Trevino: There are definitely intentional themes within the album, but they are in no way linear -- there's no storyline throughout. You're dead on about leaving and being left; in that way, the album is pretty personal. I also felt inclined to analyze the family structure, as I was drawn to write about the relationships between mother and daughter, father and son, and, I think most importantly, son and mother. Why? Not sure, but that's where I was for two years, and now I think I've laid the topic to rest, and I'm ready to move on.
How did the songs on A Family Light come about? What's the songwriting process? Does it start from words in a notebook? Or does it start by strumming a guitar? Or something else?
Jason Willis: For the most part, all of the songs on A Family Light were written the same way. Usually Sergio has the foundation of the song, consisting of his guitar part, vocal melody, and lyrics. Then we listen to it as group and try to get a feel for what else the song needs to be complete. Once we establish the direction of the song, Chris and I will write our parts and any other parts that we feel could be complementary or provide more depth.
But now that we have a drummer, our songwriting has changed a little bit. During A Family Light, when we would write a song, it normally would not include drums, and they would be added later. Having Justin in the band gives a whole new element to work with, dynamics. So now when we work on something new, we write the whole song together and try out new ideas as we go.
Buxton record cover
The song "Blood On The Streets" has a different sound, with that driving organ beat. It's cool. However, it makes me want to do deep knee-bending dances that aren't of my cultural background. How did this song come about? I love that electronic squink that comes in to pronounce the changes later in the song; who's idea was that?
Jason: "Blood On The Streets" has quite a story with it. Sergio and I were at a pawnshop when we saw this old Kurzweil organ set up in there for $200. We ended up getting it, and "Blood On The Streets" was the first song we wrote with it. We were really excited about the song; it was something different and fun for us. Mainly because Chris and I got a chance to experiment with instruments we weren't exactly comfortable with at the time -- Chris on the organ and me on the mandolin.
We wanted people to hear this new song live, but the problem was that we didn't have anything that replicated an organ like the Kurzweil -- it was always something really churchy-sounding, and the Kurzweil was just too big to carry around. So we cut it in half. Literally. The top portion of the organ was a double set of keys; the bottom part consisted of the bass notes, played by the feet, the volume pedal, and the internal speakers. We decided that all we need is the keys, because we ended up modifying the output to be used through another amp. That idea worked for about three shows. The portion with just the keys was still huge. It would take up the whole back seat of my car. Eventually, I bought a keyboard that we now use for any piano or organ parts.
So, for the "squink," there wasn't anything electronic going on with this song. What you might have heard was the mandolin. Near the end on the chorus, I throw in an octave of a note to change things up a bit. If that's not what you're talking about, it could have been some of the noisy high stuff, which was also on the mandolin.
On the first song, "Mane of Gold," there is a like a distant alarm or whistle at the end of the song -- what's the story with that? Later in the album, on the song "Each Horse with a Name," you sing, "Siren whistle blows / In case you don't know / I'm falling for you"; are these related? Or am I thinking too much? Or not enough?
Jason: The alarm thing you hear is, yet again, the mandolin. It's actually for the beginning of "Westward." I originally wrote the song with the slow strummed intro doing the chord progression that the song has, but we felt it sounded too dry by itself, so we added what you hear now. The sound is made from looping a strumming pattern on the mandolin strings before the nut over the headstock, where there is no pickup. This vibrates the body of the mandolin and allows its resonance to make the strings above the fretboard vibrate and kinda gives a strange harmonic tone to it.
As for the connection between the two songs, there isn't one. I wish we could tell you some really deep, meaningful, and creative explanation. But it's honestly just a coincidence. Good job on pointing that out, though.
I guess my favorite song so far is the smooth, heartfelt song "Flame." I've listened to it many times, and it goes by so fast, I can't believe it's a 6-minute song. To me the song is representative of the Buxton sound. It's a sad song that somehow makes you happy. The backing vocals are beautiful. The bassline, drums, guitars, and pedal steel are perfect. And I like that I like the line, "There's nothing wrong with love / If you've got enough." Which I guess is the key to everything? Any comments on any of that?
Sergio: "Flame," "Mothers," and "Holy Water Revival" were all written within a week right after a difficult break up. I was angry, but I didn't want to make angry music. I wanted to make music that expressed how I felt, but also have some hope or optimism. So, those songs come off as fun and upbeat.
I've only seen Buxton live once, at the Proletariat last September. It was a great show. Actually, I was moved to write a review, the first time I'd ever thought of doing something like that. Your set had some technical difficulties with feedback and such, but I was surprised by the band's energy. I've never seen folkies that were about to jump out of their skin.
Is it tough for a band like Buxton with thoughtful lyrics and stories to get a good mix at clubs, so that people can hear the vocals? To me it seems like clubs jack everything up and you can never hear the lyrics. How do you approach playing clubs and playing live in general?
Sergio: Yeah, that was a tough show. Yeah, I personally hate it when I go to a show and I can't understand a thing the singer is saying 'cause he's being drowned out or the sound system can't really support too much volume. I do feel like I have something to say, and I do feel our shows are better when I can get that across.
We're generally concerned about our mix anytime we play, so we'll ask the crowd what they think of the mix. That's pretty much all we can do.
Jason: Usually we like to play a little loud, because we lacked dynamic before we had a drummer. So now, I guess you can say we get excited about hitting the extremes of opposite ends of the spectrum. I know I like to have my amp at a certain volume to get the right tone I want. I imagine that's the same for Chris.
Usually the big problem we have is with Sergio's acoustic. It has a very rich, resonant tone acoustically, [and] when you combine that with a loud live situation, it can cause quite a bit of feedback on his part. Sometimes it can depend on the venue and the way the room is set up. Room size and shape can do funny things to the way stuff sounds. So oftentimes, before a show, we'll figure out what we want to do for that. Our usual solution is to bring this small PA setup that we use for practice, and we'll run Sergio's acoustic through it.
This is great for us and the crowd for a couple of reasons: 1. we can hear more of the acoustic on stage in addition to the monitors that we already have; 2. the crowd can hear more of the acoustic, because the speaker is pointing right at them; and 3. we can control the tone of the acoustic on stage to our liking, we won't have to worry about a sound guy EQing us a tone we don't particularly want.
Every now and then we'll try some new ideas out, like different amps, running [Sergio] directly into the house system, micing the amp, micing the amp AND running him direct. But it can be pretty tough sometimes to get things to mix well. It's a broad spectrum of tones we deal with and they can clash, especially the electric vs. acoustic. As for vocals, we do generally like the vocals to sit on top of the mix. Sometimes that can happen, sometimes it can't. It can depend on the venue and what kind of equipment they have. As for me, if I can at least hear the melody of the vocals, I'll be all right.
I gather y'all are from La Porte and did some time at La Porte High School in your younger days. What was it like growing up in La Porte? And what is The Forum in La Porte? (I noticed some bands playing there...) When I think of La Porte, I think of chemical plants and that wave pool -- I went to it once there. But it looks like some bands are popping up in La Porte; is there something in the water?
Chris: I guess growing up in La Porte is just like anywhere else; you tend to forget you're surrounded by chemical plants until someone points it out.
There are a lot of good bands coming out of La Porte. Giant Princess and The Alsace Lorraine are my favorites out of the area; they're extremely talented musicians and people we've known for a pretty long time. Luckily, we have a place to play, The Forum, thanks to Sergio's parents. We used to do shows in a Knights of Columbus hall, and that was never convenient. It got too crowded and it was a lot to maintain. The Trevinos have put a lot into The Forum, and it's doing really well, the kids in there have been extremely supportive of the place.
So, are you guys ready for the CD release show on Saturday? That's cool that upon admission, you're giving everybody the new CD, A Family Light, plus your previous CD Red Follows Red and an EP of unreleased songs. What a deal! How are you pulling that off, and what made you want to do it?
Chris: We released Red Follows Red independently, so we were able to make our money back and sell enough to feel comfortable about giving the rest of them away. As for the EP, we're only going to have it at the CD release show -- they're songs that we've been sitting on for a while now along with some demos and songs that didn't make it on the album when we started recording A Family Light. We didn't have a CD release show for Red Follows Red, so we really wanted to do something special this time around.
Also at the CD release show, what song are you going to open with? I think you could go straight from the new album and could start with "Mane of Gold," "Westward," and then "Flame." And are you going to play your old song, "Noncommittal Blues," that the people love?
Justin Terrell: We actually used to open up with the beginning of the album -- "Mane of Gold", "Westward" -- pretty frequently, and I really enjoyed that, but I'm sure we'll do something different because of that. We will be playing "Noncommittal Blues"! END