Black Books are a relatively new band in the ever progressing Austin indie scene, but there are many familiar faces and local legends among the quintet. The band, Kevin Butler (guitar), Mike Parker (bass), Ross Gilfillan (vocals/drums), Meg Gilfillan (keyboards), and Clark Curtis (keyboards/synths) released their debut EP An Introduction To... this past February though UK based/ATX affiliated Shifting Sounds Records, a stunning atmospheric indie record with dazzling songwriting and all encompassing orchestration. We got a chance to catch up with the guys just in time for their SXSW schedule, which begins tonight, 9 PM at Skinny's Ballroom (hope to see you there). Without further ado, a continued "introduction to..." the Black Books...
EIS: You have all played in different bands in the Austin scene, how did you get together? How long have you been playing as Black Books?
Clarke: Black Books began in October 2009 out of the interest in practicing with old friends in a garage out in Manor, TX.
Mike: It was a very organic thing. I remember calling up Kevin (guitar) and asking what he was up to, and he told me to meet with the guys for a few beers at Ross and Meg’s house. We all picked up some instruments in their garage and started jamming out.
Ross: Meg and I were wanting to get in a band together. We married and moved back to the Austin area… in Manor actually. Kevin and I had been in other inter-mingling bands for a couple years and had been talking about forming a band again if we ever had free time. . .this went on for years actually. I would write a song and have Kevin record it in his studio and he would play on it because I couldn’t play guitar at all. Little known facts… Kevin, Clarke and I started hanging when we were kids and we learned to play our instruments together in middle school. He had a fun little band all the way through high school. Also, Meg was playing piano in jazz band and Kevin and I played drums in that as well. There is a lot of history here but Black Books has been together for a year and a half now.
EIS: Where’d the name come from? Were there any other strong candidates before settling on Black Books?
Clarke: The name derives from the realization that a lot of important written pieces in literary history had the same cover. Steady Bronco was our runner up.
Kevin: Clarke came up with it, and to me it just had a cool nostalgic kind of feel.
EIS: How would you describe Black Books live? Do you look to push the boundaries of the recordings in different directions?
Mike: I think our music is very atmospheric, and the live shows are an opportunity to sort of ‘envelope’ the crowd in the sound. I think we have a very full and warm sound, and it comes through live.
Kevin: I think we stay pretty true to the recordings. Just louder and sloppier :)
Ross: Push the boundaries... not really... I just try and play and sing the right parts at the right time at this point. But it seems to be working out.
EIS: You guys were able to grab a last minute official showcase during SXSW, how did that come about? Who are you playing with/when is it?
Kevin: Not really sure! Just got an email one day. Apparently an international band couldn’t get their visa in time, and I guess we were next on the list. The show is at Dirty Dog Bar on Wednesday at 8:30.
EIS: What were the recording sessions like for the EP?
Kevin: Pretty painless. I think there was only one part of one song that we really kind of got stuck on. Ended up turning into a great moment on the EP (1st verse of Green Screen) Everything else was smooth sailing.
Mike: As always, it’s a blast to record at Test Tube Audio. Kevin is very good at isolating the good performances and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. Exeter recorded a couple albums there, so Test Tube is like a second home to me.
Ross: For the most part we didn’t have to work that hard… the majority of the material didn’t change from just playing an idea that seemed to materialize in the moment and then polishing it up into a song. It happened really naturally and quickly… it had to, we just had a couple hours a week to play and hammer things out.
EIS: There seems to be a great range of influences on the EP, does the band share collective musical influences?
Ross: We all agree that the Pixies might and might not influence all of our music... if at all. I’m glad we could clear that up for you.
EIS: After self releasing your EP digitally, you signed with Shifting Sounds to release a physical record. How did you hook up with Shifting Sounds? Are you enjoying the added support of an international label?
Ross: I am just happy that someone likes it and believes in us enough to attach their reputation to it… even if it is on another continent and they talk funny.
Kevin: My buddy Brandon started working for them, so I gave him a copy of the EP. He passed it on to Andy in London, and I guess they decided they wanted to put it out. They've been doing a lot of great things for us, and it's also fun to say that you're on a European label.
EIS: Ross, as both the lead singer and drummer, do you feel it’s finally time for “the drummer to get some”? Do you have a favorite singing drummer that influenced you to do both?
Ross: I think that drummers do just fine most of the time… I will remind you that I got Meg to marry me when I was just a drummer. On my drummer/singer influences – I didn’t have anyone that I was trying to emulate. I just wanted to see if I could do it. But I have recently gained a lot of admiration for Levon Helms of THE BAND. That guy is the real deal.
EIS: The album’s artwork is very majestic. Where did the cover art for the EP come from? Was there a theme you were going for?
Clarke: The album cover is a collage of elements from a single photo of a cave. We thought the image reflected the sound of EP (a journey from the depths, and the ascension to light), and the overall aesthetic of the band at the time.
EIS: Kevin, as the highly sought after producer at Test Tube Audio (one of the go-to Austin studios), do you ever see yourself having time to tour with Black Books? Is there any consideration of touring outside of Texas?
KB: Yeah, definitely. We recently got together as a band and all decided that touring was definitely a feasible possibility. BTW, Shifting Sounds, when’s our UK tour happening!?
EIS: If you could have the band’s photo on any cereal box, which would you pick and why?
Clarke: Basic 4, but with an added flavor to make it Basic 5 (there’s 5 of us in the band). Maybe it would come with a digital download of a exclusive track by us made entirely with cereal sounds.
Kevin: Raisin Bran. It’s what my Mom buys. And I’m sure she would love that.
EIS: How is the writing going for the full length? What can fans expect from the next batch of Black Books songs?
Clarke: Broody & moody
KB: It’s going really well. I think overall it might be a tad darker, but there will be even brighter moments. Also, I think we’re going to take full advantage of the longer format, and be able to put songs on the LP that are more album songs than EP songs, and we’re excited about showing that side of the band.
Ross: I feel like we are getting more comfortable with who we are as a band and who we aren’t. We are just better at being Black Books then we were last year putting the EP together. The highs are higher and the lows are lower but the songs ride like a Cadillac… big and comfortable.
EIS: Mike, many fans of EIS know you as the former singer/guitarist for the beloved Exeter. The band sort of dissolved without any real warning or statement. What happened there? Do you plan on doing any vocal duties on the next Black Books record?
Mike: Long story short, the band really hit the brakes after our tour in January. We decided on a short hiatus, since all of us were delving into other musical projects -- Rocky with Este Vato, Cameron and Ky with the Town Hall Devils and me with Black Books. That hiatus has eventually turned into a permanent break. I wish all of them the best.
As for vocal duties, I chime in here and there on a few songs, but that will probably be the extent of that. Ross is the man when it comes to vocals.
EIS: Kevin, you handled all the recording and production for the debut. Do you approach the process any differently when it’s your own band?
KB: Nothing drastically different. I’ll adjust my production/engineering style according to what each band calls for, and in this case, it was mostly all about capturing good vibes. Most of the pre-production occurred subliminally during the songwriting process, so when it was time to record, we already had good blueprints.
EIS: Having produced so many great up-and-coming bands over the years, are there any new Austin bands that have really blown away recently?
KB: Thanks!, Yes, a lot of really cool bands comin’ down the pipeline. I’m finishing up a full length with Sevonica (ex Goodnight Goddess members doing a more chill-electro pop kind of stuff). Also gearing up to work on the new Magnet School album, which I’m super stoked about.
EIS: Ultimate goal for 2011?
Clarke: Getting the LP out and play outside of Austin, TX.
Mike: The next record is our main priority right now along with playing some solid live shows.
Ross: Our main focus is to put out the best recording we possibly can... I want to have no regrets when it is done. I want to show my kids one day and tell them... ”Your mother and your old man were cool... I promise.”