On a cold Saturday night in March, the four fresh-faced members of synthpop spinners Speak waited backstage at the Austin Music Hall, preparing to collect the 2010 Austin Music Award for the coveted category of best new band. As they shuffled toward the stage, they were introduced to three fellow musicians dignitaries from the Austin Chronicle, assumed drummer Jake Stewart.
More wide-eyed was guitarist Nick Hurt.
‘They were sort of standing a little ways behind us,' says Hurt. ‘And I was like ‘Do you know who those guys were?' And I think that's when it clicked.'
‘Those three guys' included two guys — Chris Frantz and Jeremy Harrison — and one gal, Tina Weymouth, all of whom once played in a little band called the Talking Heads. Hurt, a self-confessed ‘fanboy,' recognized them immediately.
‘Only in Austin,' says bassist Joey Delahoussaye, ‘could you meet the Talking Heads and have them introduce you for a local music award.'
That distinctive honor served to legitimize a moment, says keyboard player and singer Troupe Gammage, that the band could have easily taken for granted (‘Oh, it's an AMA. That means we had a bigger Facebook group.') and revealed Speak as one of Austin's most attention-worthy young pop bands. The quartet occupy a cozy local slot in the second-wave of synthpop — like loose national contemporaries Passion Pit or MGMT, they use walls of synths and bumping beats as a foundation for vocal hooks that burrow their way into the brain and take hold.
Throw in Hurt's hard-rock riffs and coy lyrics that both sweeten and sting, and you have the Speak sound: ‘An electronic foundation with some acoustic sensibilities,' in Stewart's words. That sound made debut EP ‘Hear Here' one of the best local releases so far this year, garnering Speak increasingly large local shows — including a headlining slot at the Parish tonight and an appearance at October's Austin City Limits Music Festival.
That increasing success — a level beyond the group's popularity in an earlier, Delahoussaye-free incarnation known as Jupiter 4 — is the culmination of a longer trip than you'd expect from a band with such apparent youth. Gammage, for instance, has 11 years of music composition experience and two decades of playing under his belt — and he, like very other member of the band save Delahoussaye, is 22 (Delahoussaye is 25).
‘I literally got my first drum set at age 2. Which was really dumb of my parents to give me,' says Gammage, son of local musicians Ernie Gammage and Christine Albert. ‘I actually shattered all the keys on my dad's piano because me and my brother just pounded them with the drumsticks. So I was playing drums at age 2, piano before I can actually remember, and guitar when I was 7 or something. All my parents' friends were always debating which instrument I would wind up playing — nobody, of course, wanted me to play synth.'
His first dalliance with music composition came at age 11, when Gammage began crafting the music for videogames he was making with a close friend. He also gigged in bands all through middle and high school, running afoul of fellow drummer Stewart.
‘I played with a band in middle school that I was promptly kicked out of, thanks to Troupe,' says Stewart. ‘They were called Xenophobia. I, with the other two band mates, was plotting to replace the singer, unaware of the insidious takeover being plotted against me.' (Gammage: ‘It was some real Risk stuff.')
Middle school band politics aside, they fell into a friendship, eventually roping in Hurt — whose blues and rock band the Misspent Youth won the Austin Music Award for best teen band three years in a row — to form Jupiter 4. The band stuck together even when Gammage trekked to the University of Southern California for a year, eventually returning to Austin to pursue video game production and voice acting. Jupiter 4 was re-christened Speak when Delahoussaye, like Hurt a guitar performance student at the University of Texas, joined.
After years of getting songs in the can, Speak recorded their debut EP at the Bubble, the Hyde Park studio of local producer Chris ‘Frenchie' Smith, whose experience with bands like Jet and the Dandy Warhols added an extra layer of guitar crunch to the band.
With the band planning to release a full-length this fall, Gammage has no intention of losing touch with his roots. He continues to find inspiration in the fiendish hooks of classical video games — which goes a long way toward explaining just why Speak is so memorable.
‘There's so much to learn from game music, because it's so limited, especially in the old days, You'd hear it 50,000 times on a loop. It has to be catchy,' says Gammage. ‘But it can't be so bubblegum that it gets boring. I feel like that era of game music is some of the best pop music that's ever been heard. There are more people who know the theme to Mario at this point than know Ke$ha songs.'
With the Frontier Brothers, the Eastern Sea and Marmalakes
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, June 17
Where:The Parish, 214 E. Sixth St.