Southern Exposure

The South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, which starts Wednesday, March 16, and runs through Sunday, earned its reputation as an essential destination for music enthusiasts thanks to its showcase spots for buzz bands and rare American sets from acclaimed international acts. Less exotically, it lets regionally successful bands strut for label scouts in the hope of securing nationwide distribution, and it provides a high-profile forum for established groups with restructured lineups. In Ghosty, a star-crossed up-and-comer that’s finally back on track, and Koufax, now with extra get-up-and-go, the Kansas City-Lawrence area places an entry in each of these latter categories.

In August 2002, the Lawrence chamber-pop ensemble Ghosty, which already ranked among the area’s top local draws, seemed poised to make national noise. Armed with an idea for a title (Grow Up or Sleep In) and a dozen already-arranged songs, Ghosty headed to Lincoln, Nebraska, to record with Mike Mogis at his exotic-instrument-adorned Presto Studio. When the group arrived, Mogis was reading a review of one of his projects, Bright Eyes, in Rolling Stone.

It seemed like an optimistic omen, a sure sign that Ghosty had aligned itself with a rising producer. Soon, though, Mogis became unavailable because of his Bright Eyes tour duties. Ghosty patched together a three-song EP from the Presto sessions, then booked time with Trent Bell (Flaming Lips, Starlight Mints) at his Bell Labs studio in Norman, Oklahoma, to complete the album. Ghosty finally finished mixing in 2004. The pristine Grow Up or Sleep In, which should surface this spring, suggests that Ghosty spent its entire two-year hiatus in a microphone-filled room, mulling over every note and tone and magnifying every hook.

Following the album’s completion, Ghosty weathered a pivotal personnel change. When drummer Richard Gintowt departed, singer and songwriter Andrew Connor considered renaming the group in the aftermath.

Instead, Ghosty recruited replacements (first Namelessnumberheadman’s Andrew Sallee, then Josh Adams) and started gigging again. In concert, the revamped lineup better communicated the songs’ melodic magnitude. Connor, a confessed control freak who layers his voice in the studio to create harmonies, now welcomes singing support from his bandmates. This enhances a stage show that sometimes suffered in comparison to Ghosty’s vocally baroque recordings.

In addition to helping Ghosty shore up its sets, the extended break between the band’s previous dalliances with national indie-rock buzz and this week’s showcase slot at South by Southwest has reinvigorated Connor.

“We’ve gone through so much shit that playing live feels fun — anything but forced,” Connor says. “In the past, my moods might have gotten in the way of a good performance, but now I’ve learned to enjoy myself. It’s a blast.”

An Ohio-born act with two acclaimed albums to its credit, Koufax filled its rhythm-section vacancies last summer with Rob and Ryan Pope, a bassist and drummer, respectively, on loan from the limbo-dwelling Get Up Kids. Early demos suggest that the Pope brothers provide the instrumental sophistication Koufax needs to pull off its twist on adult-contemporary material.

Songwriter Rob Suchan’s piano-pop ditties have drawn comparisons to Randy Newman and Joe Jackson (whose “Stepping Out” Koufax covers brilliantly), and he shows a sharp satirical side that would make those lyrical patriarchs proud.

Now based in Lawrence, Koufax assembled its latest tracks at the nearby Black Lodge studio, taking advantage of its proximity to record its peppy tunes at a relaxed pace. The Popes propel the tempo, adding the upbeat energy that makes its other group such an invigorating live act. Suchan’s songs, once effortlessly engaging, now break a sweat during the choruses. This might, in turn, spur Koufax’s usually stationary fans to unfold their arms and move to the music. Grown-ups who grew up on similar sounds might be even more animated, but few of them ever hear about Koufax, given that they’d have to read indie zines to find those classic-rock comparisons.

“It all comes down to marketing, unfortunately,” Suchan says. “You start going on all-ages tours and, before you know it, you become a kids band. But our parents like some of these songs, and the kids definitely don’t.”

In Koufax’s college-student-skewing adopted hometown, crowds greeted it with enthusiasm during its first few shows as an area attraction, Suchan reports. By contrast, no one, regardless of age, was doing much moving during Koufax’s recent industry showcase sets in New York. After a two-record stint on the Get Up Kids-anchored label Vagrant, Koufax strutted its stuff for potential suitors in smoke-free New York City clubs. “Pretty tame and sterile,” Suchan recalls. “You could hear crickets chirping between songs.”

As a hot-to-trot single headed to South by Southwest, music’s seediest singles mixer, Koufax can expect a rowdier reception, especially given the invariably adrenaline-and-alcohol-fueled audiences. Suchan, who has never visited the event, remains skeptical. “When 1,000 bands play in four days, do people really care?” he asks. “Can you even enjoy that much music?” Ghosty. Saturday, April 9, at The Granada.

Koufax. Friday, March 25, at the Jackpot Saloon.

Categories: Music