words by Callie Enlow
photos by Victor Yiu
Corto Maltese have a mutually beneficial relationship with Austin. They love to play locally, and in turn, the locals love them. Over the past two years, the Texas quintet built a reputation in their music-obsessed city based on the strength of one deceptively scrawny demo. This fall, an EP of new songs recorded and mixed by local indie heavyweights might do for the nation what the demo did for Austin.
The demo is the only physical evidence of Corto Maltese’s pop chops, but experiencing a live show is above and beyond listening to the band’s three tunes on MySpace or YouTube. Their Austin haunts include what singer Ben Maddox calls “the Red River trilogy,” meaning the famous Emo’s on the corner of 6th and Red River St., gritty Beerland further up the block, and the new indie haven Mohawk across the street. The three divergent venue choices mirror their demo songs. “Providence” is shimmering, harmonious pop, garnering several critical comparisons to Arcade Fire. “Man Alive” pairs fast-paced guitars with helium-silly chorus. The last song, “Never a Waver”, was also the last recorded for the demo, and it rocks like a Pixies b-side. Each song sounds stylistically different, yet carries some of the same themes as the other two: howling vocals, muted dual guitars, and water-tight composition. Close but not the same, connected but completely separate.
The band does not have a show the night I visit them at their recording space, a garage in the back of an East Austin house that bassist Wes Turner tells me is owned by their German friend, ‘Klaus.’ “He has to go out of the country a lot,” Turner says as we walk past what I assume is Klaus’s vintage Buick sedan, and retrieve Maddox from the backyard’s muggy, low-ceilinged studio. The band gathers here two to three times a week to hash through anything from a minute-and-thirty song sketch to an epic ballad about an African civil war hero. Their current eight-song set list is written on a dingy whiteboard above the drum set.
Among deafening cicadas, we sit outside and wait for Eric Loftis, drummer, and Justin Roberts, guitarist, to arrive. Tyler Thompson, guitarist and keyboardist, is unavailable due to what Turner calls “illness” and Maddox calls “women trouble.”
When Loftis and Roberts do show up, they apologize for being late, but no one seems annoyed, perhaps because their lead spokesperson already had my ear. Beforehand, a friend of the band warned me that Maddox would do all the talking. Lead singers usually do though, and the band amicably teases Maddox about his prima donna ways.
“Ben wasn’t able to play all the guitar solos he wanted to play,” says Turner, referring to their line-up switch a year ago when Roberts moved from drums to guitar and Loftis came in to pick up the sticks.
“Oh, stop it.” Maddox flicks his wrist toward Turner, then addresses my line-up question in his half-mocking voice, “You’ve looked at our dossier.” In all seriousness, he adds, “when we recorded, we did a lot of stuff with overdubs and we wanted to play it live so we needed another guitar at least.” That means three guitars with the occasional synthesizer/piano chiming in.
The band recorded their album this summer at Big Orange, a studio located on the same side of town as the Corto Maltese practice space. The modest facility is managed by Matt Oliver and affiliated with his now-defunct band Sound Team, another well-loved Austin act. Big Orange’s comfortable atmosphere suited Corto Maltese well for their first major recording experience.
“We went in with pretty basic tracks, having never been in the studio before,” says Maddox. “We had a good deal when we first came in so we just kind of went crazy with overdubs.” While simultaneously opening up more options for the Corto Maltese’s songwriting, Big Orange also forced the entire band to be more focused. The studio’s biggest draw is their analog equipment, stubbornly recording live takes onto two-inch tape in a world of infinitely malleable digital tracks. “You kind of have to nail your part,” says Maddox. There’s a limited amount of tape and a limited amount of time to get everything right. “I’m not sure I would go back to digital,” says Loftis.
Corto Maltese plan to release their album in mid-to-late November after fine-tuning their maiden recording in Spoon drummer Jim Eno’s mixing studio. After that, the band, who met in film school at University of Texas, could leave Austin for the first time together to tour.
‘Could’ is the operative word for now, though it may change to ‘will’ by press time. During our interview, the band had only vague notions of how they would tour if given the opportunity. Turner jokes they would be huge in Warsaw, Poland. Roberts earnestly wants to go north, to Chicago. Maddox and Loftis crack themselves up suggesting their hometown, Midland, Texas.
“We’ll sell out Riley’s Roadhouse,” says Maddox. “Then we can make up that we got our start in a Midland biker bar.” Riley’s isn’t exactly a random pick; Maddox confesses he used to deliver pizza there frequently as a teenager. “I’d get heckled because I was in a pizza uniform,” he laughs.
Being from Midland and various other small towns around the state (except Roberts, who hails from decidedly big-town Houston) is an unlikely influence on the Corto Maltese’s cosmopolitan sound.
“It just kind of marginalizes you when you’re interested in music in a small town,” says Maddox. Because a small-town kid might suffer from his or her interest in Black Flag, they might be more inclined to dig deeper into the catalogue, explains Maddox. The small-town members of Corto Maltese all have an extensive knowledge of mid-to-late ‘70s glam like David Bowie and Television.
Their love for glam creeps into their live sets when they cover Television’s “See No Evil”. Their film school background is apparent when they play the creepy Buffalo Bill dance tune “Goodbye Horses”, from the film Silence of the Lambs. Their penchant for silliness sometimes works its way in to sets in the form of the often-requested Warren Zevon song, “Werewolves of London”.Zevon might not necessarily be a typical Corto Maltese reference, but the song is a hit with Austin audiences, so the band obligingly plays it. As Corto Maltese knows, even the best relationships take a little work.