Stith: Austin’s Black and White Years talk about near breakup, new record

It’s been more than three years since popular Austin art rock act the Black & White Years released an album, but singer and songwriter Scott Butler wants you to know that the band never stopped working.

“It’s good to be able to release some music and be like, ‘Guys I haven’t quit. I’m not lazy,’” he said Sunday, two days after the band’s successful release party for their new album “Strange Figurines” at the Parish on Friday night.

According to guitarist Landon Thompson, who oversaw the booking, the show was just 30 people shy of a sellout, not too shabby considering the doors opened less than 24 hours after an ice storm essentially shut the whole city down. It was particularly heartening as the band openly credits their success to the local music scene that supports them.

“It’s a fact that we wouldn’t be able to do this if it wasn’t for the Austin music community, because every dollar that went into making the album is money that we made off shows mostly in Austin,” Thompson said.

The road to album three was not without its bumps, and both artists admit there was a period when they believed it was not going to happen. The band skyrocketed in 2008 on the strength of their eponymous debut, which was produced by Talking Heads keyboard and guitar player Jerry Harrison, who famously discovered the band at South by Southwest 2007 six months after the band formed. In 2009 they won an Austin Music Award for Best New Band and Best Song with the single “Power to Change.” The latter also charted in the year’s top five on local alt rock station 101X.

But success did not come easy. While he readily concedes the first album’s role in the band’s rise, Butler said he felt dissatisfied with the way it turned out artistically. By 2010, the band was on the verge of a break-up as they completed “Patterns,” their self-produced follow-up album.

“There was a feeling at least among the band that it was probably the last thing that we were going to do,” Butler said. “We’d been having a lot of personal problems throughout the recording of ‘Patterns.’ We were really not getting along.”

Then a funny thing happened: As the band begrudgingly began to rehearse material to promote the album, they rediscovered the joy. As Thompson recounts, it was about “just getting back down to why we were doing this in the first place, which was we all enjoyed playing music and we enjoyed each other’s company outside of the stresses of what might have happened in our first album.”

After a year of touring and local shows, they began to write and rehearse material for the next album. Forgoing the idea of a crowd-funding campaign, they funnelled all the band’s earnings into the project, but it would be a long time coming as life intervened. Thompson got married. Butler’s brother died, and Thompson also struggled with the loss of family members.

“That kind of stuff, life stuff, kind of takes the wind out of your sails when it comes to something like an art project,” Thompson said.

If personal pain was part of the delay, it is certainly not the dominant element in the new album. “Strange Figurines,” produced by local artist Danny Reisch, instead resounds with warmth and love. Most of the songs deal with relationships in some form. Part of the album’s softness comes from the addition of vocals provided by Butler’s wife, Adrienne Butler, whose role in the band has not been concretely defined at this point (bassist John Aldridge and drummer Billy Potts round out the band). She played the band’s CD release, and Butler admits it would make his life easier to take her on tour, but Butler describes her as a guest vocalist. But more largely, the album is about a shift in focus.

“I spent the entire first and the second album talking about the end of the world and ecological collapse and things that were just not romantic at all, and so for me it was refreshing to write about such nice things as love and relationships and such things,” he said.

The Black and White Years do not have any gigs scheduled right now in Austin, but the band was part of the first wave of acts announced for SXSW 2014, and they plan to maintain an active schedule throughout the festival.

Clark’s next shows

Homegrown blues whiz Gary Clark Jr. did Austin proud at the Grammy Awards on Sunday night. While receiving the trophy for Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Please Come Home,” Clark graciously thanked his family, his girlfriend and his local management. Then he gave his old friend and fellow Austin rocker Eve Monsees a shout out for introducing him to the local club scene.

Clark’s next scheduled gig in Austin is during the X Games, which are June 6-8 at the Circuit of the Americas, but his tour schedule shows a break between March 8 and April 15, which leaves an opening for a possible SXSW appearance or two.

Many Austinites watching the Grammy show were touched by the inclusion of both local radio legend Larry Monroe and groundbreaking Austin songwriter Steven Fromholz during the In Memoriam montage near the end of the show. Both men died suddenly earlier this month.

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