Byrds of a Feather

Three weeks ago, someone broke into Snowbyrd’s rehearsal space and stole most of the band’s equipment
Snowbyrd, from left: vocalist/guitarist Chris Lutz, bassist Mark Fleming, drummer Manny Castillo, and lead guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Scott Lutz.

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Three weeks ago, someone broke into Snowbyrd’s rehearsal space and stole most of the band’s equipment. When a police officer arrived on the scene to survey the damage, he asked the band members: “Do you all have any enemies?”

It was a simple question, but the answer was more complicated. “Enemies” might be too strong a word, but the artsy punk quintet certainly has left a trail of wreckage in its wake.

Both in their present incarnation and previously as the River City Playboys, the band — which includes sibling guitarists Chris and Scott Lutz, drummer Manny Castillo, and bassist Mark Fleming — followed the competitive dictum established by KISS’ Paul Stanley: All is fair in love and rock ’n’ roll, and once you hit the stage, your goal must be to obliterate all other bands.

For Castillo and Chris Lutz, that hardball streak even victimized Fleming’s former band: punk-pop quartet the White Heat.

“We always had this attitude, we’ll go in and demolish whoever we’re playing with,” Castillo recalls. “And the sound kind of lent itself to that. We had a rivalry in our minds with other bands, and `the White Heat` was one of them. We’d go to shows and I’d throw Chris into Boxcar `Satan`’s drum set or he’d throw me into White Heat’s drum set, just to fuck with them. We were like the bullies.”

Such tactics would be less forgivable if Snowbyrd didn’t deliver some of the most inventive, skewed, underground pop heard in this or any other music scene. With a loose-limbed, indie-rock swing and a taste for harmonic misadventure that recalls Pavement in its prime, Snowbyrd applies a wild, gratifyingly incongruous pedal-steel (played with virtuoso aplomb by Scott Lutz). It’s tempting to call this a punk-era Flying Burrito Brothers, but even that description doesn’t convey how deftly this group straddles musical categories without ever fitting into a single one.

“We’re too heavy to play with bands like Buttercup, and for the metal people we’re too melodic or something,” Scott says.

“And we’re not country enough to play at Gruene Hall or Casbeers,” Chris adds. “So we’ll be under the radar. That’s probably what we should have named the album.”

“The album” he refers to is Snowbyrd’s self-titled debut release on Saustex Media, which hits stores on November 14. Jeff Smith, Saustex label founder and San Antonio punk pioneer, first caught wind of Snowbyrd while scouting for musicians to help him form a band. “That didn’t really go very far, but I always appreciated what they did and thought they had a good sound. I think they’ve got something going. They’ve got good melodies and they work really hard.”

Snowbyrd, by all acounts, plays pretty hard, too, which might explain why, if you count their River City Playboys period, they’ve been through a staggering 13 bass players in four years. What Spinal Tap was to drummers, this group is to bass players, and it seems inevitable that one day a Snowbyrd gig will end with a tiny green globule found in front of the bass-amplifier cabinet.

“There have been broken marriages, multiple lost jobs, motorcycle crashes, mental breakdowns,” Chris says of their bass-player curse. “Basically, the first three practices we have with a new bass player involve a lot of partying, to see if they can handle it. In the case of about three or four of them, not only did they not handle it, they lost jobs or marriages. And then we’ve had multiple bass players that quit at one time call back and want to get back in the band later. But it doesn’t work that way.”

Castillo and the Lutzes met in 1993 when Castillo was playing in El Santo and the Lutzes were working together in the Dropouts, a band they formed, but from which they were ultimately fired. Scott moved to Austin and played in a variety of bands, including a large mariachi group that once took a resturant request for “Who Let the Dogs Out?” Watching his brother excel in the mariachi format broadened Chris’ punk-informed sense of his own musical possibilities.

“Mariachi is the most raw punk rock there is,” he says. “You walk into a place, no amps, no nothing, and you’re loud as hell. That was kind of a wakeup call for me. A lot of times, with art bands, shoe-gazing bands, you can kind of hide behind the fuzz of everything. I think there’s a purity in the directness of something like mariachi.”

Scott is the lone trained musician in the group, and his keyboards and pedal-steel provide the sonic icing for Chris and Castillo after years of working together in power trios. The thick, soft-focus melodicism of “Las Vegas Buffet” and “St. Mary’s Nights” is elusive but accessible, and when they turn the twang factor up to 10 with the Alamo City club crawl “Tower of Pearl,” they sound like a convincing country band.

Like almost every aspect of this band’s history, the album’s recording had a tortured history. Working, on Smith’s recommendation, with Kurtis Machler at Austin’s Million Dollar Sound, they found themselves having to duplicate their work when equipment broke down.

“A whole bunch of funny stuff happened,” Chris says. “Kurtis moved his studio to a different space. He changed computers, he changed programs, he changed everything in the middle of recording. The album could have been done in two months, but it took a long time because of all the problems. But in a way it was good that we added things and ended up losing some of what we added.

“We try to sound like Bowie or Badfinger or something really great, but it ends up coming across in a punk-rock way, because that’s us.”

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