Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Sparrows' Jones sees the forest for the trees

Chat with R.E.M. bassist prompts musician to craft a more electric sound for 'The Tall Cedars of Lebanon'

Peter Mongillo

Two years ago during South by Southwest, Shawn Jones of Austin indie rock band the Lovely Sparrows got a call from a friend saying that Jones might be able to meet one of his heroes, Mike Mills of R.E.M., who was flying into town that night. It was a big deal for Jones, a self-described diehard fan. R.E.M.'s 1988 album "Green" was the first cassette he bought with his own money when he was in the sixth grade.

After waiting around for a while, he got another call. The flight was delayed, so don't get your hopes up.

"I'm like, I always do this when I wait around for things to happen and they never do, so I'm going to go to the gym and run," Jones says.

While he was running, he got yet another call — Mills was at the Good Knight on East Sixth Street, come on down. Covered with sweat, Jones ran home as fast as he could, showered and got to the restaurant, which was mostly empty save for Mills, who was playing Charlie Parker songs on the jukebox.

Jones studied jazz in college at Oklahoma City University (he grew up there), and he and Mills talked about saxophone players and other music for nearly two hours.

Mills also offered some advice. Jones had been having mixed success translating some of his music to a live setting, in part because he didn't want to let go of some of the more low-key elements that weren't grabbing the audience.

"Make the album you want to make, and do a live show that people can actually enjoy," Mills told him.

For Jones, who was looking for a way forward after touring in support of his previous album, 2008's "Bury the Cynics," it was a turning point. He began to move away from his older sound — moody, melodic and acoustic — toward something more electric, with more of a pulse, as he says. That transition has culminated in an EP, "The Tall Cedars of Lebanon," which the Lovely Sparrows will release this summer, followed by a self-titled full-length album in the fall.

The band's sound wasn't the only thing that changed. Jones had been experiencing writer's block.

To combat that, he let go of the idea of writing songs in favor of more free-form exercises that included essays and short stories.

"I put music out of my mind," he says. "I was allowing myself to have no filters. It led to a different kind of writing that you see in some of the songs on the full-length."

Jones pulls a plaid fabric-bound notebook out of his bag. On its pages is a visual map of his thoughts — track listings for the upcoming releases, doodles, notes. He plans on publishing some of the stories and other writing with the album in the fall.

The book and the music will complement one another, with jokes and punchlines, questions and answers, Jones says. He would also like to incorporate a video element that offers the reader/listener interactive options.

"Like those choose-your-own-adventure books from when you were a kid," he says.

To warm up for their tour later this year, the Lovely Sparrows are in the middle of a Monday night residency at the Mohawk.

This week, the set was cut short because of another show happening later in the evening, but it still lasted for an hour on the club's third-floor deck.

The band played some old material as well as a cover of Jonathan Richman's "Summer Feeling." In front of the band, an antique suitcase sat open with a sign: "alms for tour?"

The set was lively, and Jones says he is comfortable with the current lineup, which consists of Jones on guitar, keyboardist/flute player Lauryn Gould, drummer Gray Parsons and bassist Lindsay Greene (former member Steven Garcia also sat in).

Between the band and the new album, he seems to have moved past some of the hurdles he's faced. "I feel like something clicked," he says.

pmongillo@statesman.com