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Austin power pop kings the Ugly Beats riding high on new CD

Wes Eichenwald
Joe Emery, guitar and vocals

For a few brief years in the mid-'60s it was the sound of teen America, when thousands of bands in thousands of clubs, basements and, yes, garages fueled a creative and cultural transformation throughout the land. The Beatles might have planted the seeds, but every flower emerged unique. The songs were grounded in old-school melody and harmony, propelled by irresistible hooks delivered with precision, brevity and verve by youthful and virtually all-male musicians high on self-discovery (and often, a few other substances). The proudly nonprofound lyrics typically involved loss of, or desire for, a love interest of some sort. Yearning alternated with aggression, bravado with joy; in any case, you could dance to it.

Most of those bands — and their audiences — have long since moved on, but despite setbacks like the release of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" album, the rise of disco and the popularity of endless guitar jams, '60s-inspired garage rock and power pop never totally went away. In the '70s and '80s, coinciding with the rise of punk, revivalists like the Cynics in Pittsburgh, the Chesterfield Kings in Rochester, N.Y., and the Lyres in Boston helped spread the aesthetic to a new generation, along with the "Nuggets" and "Pebbles" compilations of obscure, often strictly regional singles. Today, you can usually find valiant practitioners and avid fans of the form in any decent-sized town or city; most don't make a full-time living at it, but for these musicians — who aren't just covering a bunch of oldies, but writing and playing '60s-inspired originals — it's more than a hobby, it's a necessity. In Austin, the band to know is the Ugly Beats.

"I like turning people on to the kind of music we play, and also like turning people on to what I hope is live music the way it should be played, and not just shoe-gazing," says guitarist/singer Joe Emery, perhaps throwing down the gauntlet to some of the more confessional-minded performers in the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital. The band has just released the third CD in its seven-year existence, "Motor!," which at its best is as irresistibly catchy as its inspirations.

Emery stopped in at a Northwest Austin bar recently to chat, along with keyboardist Jeanine Attaway and bassist Jason Gentry, the quintet's three remaining original members (drummer Stephen Austin and guitarist Jake Garcia left last year, replaced by Bobby Trimble and Dan Wilcox, respectively). Emery says he doesn't really feel that the Ugly Beats are odd-band-out in Austin. "The singer-songwriter thing is obviously real high profile here," he says, "but there's a lot of great bands that we play with that are doing if not exactly what we do, we complement each other. There's Amplified Heat, doing stuff that's more proto-metal but still a good hard-rocking guitar band; Shapes Have Fangs, who are mining the garage stuff but maybe with a little more of an indie sound; the Hi-Tones, doing soulful '60s-sounding stuff."

The band opened for the B-52's last May at La Zona Rosa and has a following in Europe, where they love to tour (they've concentrated on Spain and the Netherlands, where they play to ardent fans of American garage rock). Emery, Attaway and Gentry formed the Ugly Beats in 2003 after the demise of their previous band, the Sir Finks, an Austin surf-rock instrumental combo active from the mid-'90s. (Veteran bassist Gentry was a founding member; Attaway and Emery both joined in 2001.)

If they're not teen sensations, neither are they quite old enough to remember the actual '60s, so what is it about the music that appeals to them? "The melody, the songs, the harmonies," says Emery. "Good melody," adds Attaway. "The style, man," says Gentry. "Just look at a telephone from the mid-'60s; it's just cool-looking."

From listening to some of the more aggressive numbers on their first two albums, "Bring On the Beats!" and "Take a Stand With the Ugly Beats," you might expect these musicians to be flinty, chip-on-shoulder types. Instead, they talk up other bands they like, with Emery saying how much they appreciate it when their friends come out to see them, and how at live shows they nearly can't help letting everyone at the door in for free and giving away the merchandise. Well, almost.

"I feel like as a live band, we can hold our own with some of our favorite bands, which is a nice feeling," says Emery, who describes himself and his bandmates as "rock 'n' roll fans probably more than musicians." He professes his love for the Ramones, Sonics, Ventures and Fleshtones at the drop of a crash cymbal, but the Ugly Beats are more than the sum of their influences. Their own songs are stylistically diverse, hook-filled, crisply played and, on the new CD at least, skew toward wistful, with an optimistic, even romantic feel poking through. The eclectic offerings range from the Emery-penned "Bee Line" (a pop-garage stinger loosely inspired by Slim Harpo's blues classic "I'm A King Bee") to Merseybeat to the sweet, harmonica-forward endless-loop folk-rock of "Don't Go" (marking only the second time the microphone-shy Jeanine Attaway has sung on an Ugly Beats tune). Maybe their lyrics aren't the most profound in the world, but a certain philosophy asserts itself at points, as in the layered, meditative "World Has A Way To Go," written by ex-drummer Stephen Austin. It's still a pop song, but grounded in the real world, which the Ugly Beats know a little about.

"It would be nicer if we didn't have jobs," says Attaway, a classically trained musician with a fondness for the French composer Francis Poulenc, who leaves behind her daytime existence as a piano teacher who raises chickens in her yard to moonlight in clubs wearing go-go boots and pounding away at a cherry-red '60s vintage Ace Tone organ, which she calls "a poor man's Farfisa." Attaway came to Austin from Kansas City in 1994 for graduate school, liked the weather (it was February) and stayed. "If we could just spend more time (as a band), I'm sure we could do a million more things," she says. "I think we should all quit our jobs and live in a big house together and live frugally on beans and rice."

"It's not easy, though," says Emery, who moved to Austin from El Paso in 1986 after high school. "Just getting five people with completely different careers together to practice and learn new songs is sometimes like moving the Rock of Gibraltar. Getting people to coordinate to take seven or eight days off to go play shows can be really tough."

"It is a hassle trying to juggle careers, families and music," says Gentry. "But when we're on stage together, we feel like we're kind of levitating. That's the way I feel anyway, and that's worth it."

"If we're not yelling at a microphone, we're yelling at each other," Emery says. "It's very cathartic," agrees Attaway.

"We don't hate what we do as far as careers are concerned, and therefore our administrators reciprocate and give us time off," says Gentry, a Corpus Christi native who works as a UT student adviser. "They're pretty cool about stuff like that." Being a musician in a '60s garage-pop band helps in one respect, he adds: "There may be one band in each town that does (the same thing), but that pretty much guarantees that if you want to go play somewhere, there's somebody that'll play with you and help you out." (The collaborative spirit extends to the Ugly Beats' record label, Get Hip, owned by Greg Kostelich of the Cynics, a noted '80s-vintage garage band. Both Emery and Attaway even showed up at the interview wearing Cynics T-shirts, which wasn't coordinated in advance — so they said, anyway.)

"To me," says Emery, "the ultimate compliment is, if someone is spinning records, to have the Ugly Beats get spun right in between two '60s bands, right after Question Mark and the Mysterians and right before the Zakary Thaks. If we can bring that vibe across, that's great."

Fun Facts to Know and Tell About the Ugly Beats

1. Keyboardist Jeanine Attaway played in Austin’s Tosca Tango Orchestra from the late ’90s to the early 2000s. Austin director Richard Linklater tapped the orchestra to score his innovative 2001 rotoscope-animation film ‘Waking Life’; the band also appeared in the film playing their instruments (Attaway is listed in the credits, cast to type as ‘Piano Player’). More recently, she arranged and performed Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ (in both traditional and techno versions) for the 2006 comedy ‘Gretchen,’ also filmed in Austin.

2. All three of the band’s albums were recorded at Joe Emery’s house with the assistance of longtime friend, producer/engineer Bob Widenhofer (who might well be labeled ‘the sixth Ugly Beat’). The latest, ‘Motor!,’ differs from the first two in being recorded on 16 tracks instead of eight (it shows in the harmonies).

3. New drummer Bobby Trimble, who replaced Stephen Austin last year, is a veteran stickman who played for 16 years with the L.A. band Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys, along with freelance gigs with the likes of Dave Alvin, Wanda Jackson, the Del Vikings, Ruth Brown and George Hamilton IV. He now plays with a host of area bands as well as the Ugly Beats.

4. Although drummer Stephen Austin and guitarist Jake Garcia left the band last year, there’s no evidence of bad blood between them and the others; in fact, the Ugly Beats’ new CD, ‘Motor!,’ includes two songs penned by Garcia and three by Austin while they were still in the band. Emery praises Garcia’s current group, the Ripe, as ‘a great power-pop band that kind of does a Beatles/Big Star/Badfinger thing.’

5. Listening to the Ugly Beats’ newest CD and playing guess-the-cover, you’d win if you picked ‘You’ll Forget.’ It’s an early Neil Diamond obscurity. All the others are originals.

6. All three of the band’s convincingly retro-lookin’ album covers were designed by California artist/guitarist Johnny Bartlett — if a CD doesn’t do it for you, the Ugly Beats released ‘Motor!’ in LP form on Monday.

Ugly Beats CD release

With the Bellfuries.

When: 9 p.m. Saturday

Where: Carousel Lounge, 1110 E. 52nd St.

Cost: $5


The Ugly Beats also play in-store at 5 p.m. Oct. 22 at Waterloo Records.