Swirls of string instruments, horns, percussion and piano arose to the high ceilings of multipurpose downtown venue North Door in early June as a towering projection screen lit up with desert landscapes from the Big Bend region of Texas. Such geography-themed audio-visual presentations are central to the art of Montopolis, an Austin collective that has been performing and recording for more than a decade.
The brainchild of pianist, composer and arranger Justin Sherburn, Montopolis — named after the southeast Austin neighborhood he calls home — has carved out its own distinct niche in a city known for its breadth and commingling of musical styles. The players in Montopolis have backgrounds ranging from classical to jazz to indie to punk and beyond. Under Sherburn’s direction, their talents combine to create evocative soundscapes transcending the typical concert experience.
Our Austin360 Artist of the Month for August, Montopolis will unveil its latest work, “The Living Coast,” on Friday at Stateside at the Paramount. Bolstered by a recent $15,000 Innovations Grant from the Mid-America Arts Alliance, an organization that covers six states, this new project digs into the history of the Texas coastal region. It also addresses present challenges of “the conflict between industry and our changing environment,” the MAAA noted in a July statement announcing the grant.
New this time around: Local jazz musician Robert A. Kraft, who sings most weekends at the Continental Gallery with the Lost Counts, will join the nine Montopolis instrumentalists onstage as a narrator, adding a layer of storytelling to the musical backdrop. “We’re developing it right now,” Sherburn said on a recent afternoon at Donn’s Depot, after workshop performances at the Townsend in mid-June and Carousel Lounge in early July. “He'll be telling the story about the Galveston hurricane of 1900, a very devastating weather event.”
The book “Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History,” author Erik Larson’s 2000 New York Times best-seller, partly inspired this new production. “It’s a really beautiful, interesting, complicated story,” Sherburn says, noting that the hurricane portion of the program will have archival photography from the aftermath of the Galveston storm.
“Over the last month, we just decided to just put (Kraft) on stage and have it be this more theatrical thing. In a lot of places we perform in Texas, the audience wants more of that interaction: They want a voice on stage, and a story. And I think this is going to really provide it for them, so I’m excited about that aspect.”
Montopolis first ventured into geography-centered projects when filmmaker Anlo Sepulveda commissioned Sherburn to create music for “Yakona,” which was “essentially an art film and nature documentary about the San Marcos River,” Sherburn says. “Yakona” won an audience award at the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival, spurring Montopolis to follow up with projects that focused on Enchanted Rock and Big Bend.
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Sepulveda returns as a visual collaborator on “The Living Coast,” along with drone pilot Reagan Jobe. Musically, the cast at Friday’s premiere will include Sara Nelson (Sherburn’s wife) on cello, Leigh Mahoney on violin, Blake Turner on viola, Michael St. Clair on trombone, Derek Phelps on trumpet, Andy Beaudoin on drums, Einar Pedersen on bass and Gray Parsons on guitar, with Sherburn’s keyboards in a central role.
Raised in Fort Worth, Sherburn moved to Austin in the late 1990s to get an English degree at the University of Texas. But he’d played piano for years, learning the basics from childhood lessons and from watching the pianist at a Fort Worth restaurant where he waited tables.
In Austin, he ended up living down the street from keyboardist/composer Glover Gill, an accomplished and highly respected Austin musician who’d transitioned from the early 1980s punk scene toward old-school jazz and tango with projects including the nationally renowned 8-½ Souvenirs.
Gill befriended Sherburn and eventually asked him to join 8-½ Souvenirs. After touring with them and working locally with current Shinyribs singer Alice Spencer in a group called Victrola, Sherburn eventually ended up in Austin indie band Okkervil River, playing with them for 10 years. “I just kind of bounced all over,” Sherburn says. “I think a lot of people are like this, where you just go through different stages in your life and you're into different music, and you just kind of follow along that path.
“I played piano as a kid, and then I moved over to bass when I was a teenager because I wanted to play punk rock bands. Then I met a bunch of guys who were into the Grateful Dead and got back into the piano so I could play in this Grateful Dead cover band. And then got into jazz, and the Grateful Dead guys were like, what is this jazz stuff?" He laughs. "So I changed my friend groups and started hanging out with jazz dudes. And then got into indie rock, and I ended up playing Okkervil River.”
Montopolis first arose in 2008 when a theater-director friend asked him to write music for a stage adaptation of the French film “Le Ballon Rouge” (“The Red Balloon”). “I just loved the whole experience,” Sherburn says. “it was really successful musically and in other ways. That’s what got me started with writing music for a band. I had this combination of what you might call a Nashville chart for chords as well as a jazz chart for rhythm, and then writing out notes for the classical musicians. I’m working with country musicians, jazz musicians, classical musicians, so I just make charts that are suitable for everybody.”
Next came a silent movie score for an old Russian propaganda film called “Man With A Movie Camera.” Several similar silent film projects followed before Sherburn met Sepulveda, whose nature film “Yakona” required similar musical needs but for different ends. “There's no dialogue; it's all imagery and music and sound design,” Sherburn says. “We realized there was a niche for doing that, and it kind of set me on this path that I've been following for the last four or five years.”
Projects like “The Living Coast” and “The Legend of Big Bend” are good fits for the realm of arts grants from agencies including the City of Austin Cultural Arts Division, which “has a huge grant program that’s really wonderful,” Sherburn says. “They ease you into that world. They've got very small grants you can apply for.”
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The key, Sherburn says, is that the musical project “is expected to have a community aspect to it, or a public service element,” As an example, he notes that “The Living Coast” has involved working with conservation groups.
“They come to the show and speak to the audience and set up a booth,” he says. “Mostly what we do is just celebrate the beauty of nature, and then let them talk about what they want to get to the public. That's part of why the grant-making thing works for us: We are hopefully doing this public service of bridging the gap between, say, climate scientists and conservationists and the public, because they have a real marketing problem getting their message out to the general public about initiatives.”
But these geographic focal points also inform Sherburn’s art. “I love to put myself into a context,” he says. “One of the reasons I started doing the silent movie thing, and why this art form is so appealing to me, is because it gives me something to write about. A singer-songwriter can just focus an album on a breakup or something more personal. I have to put myself into a narrative of some sort to inspire me to write music — to have a reason for, you know, why does a gong go here? Why does this melody do what it's doing? It gives me a reason for that.”