How a city and its culture interact is just one question for Matt Hines of Austin's The Eastern Sea.
I pushed one of Matt Hines' buttons.
The guitarist, singer and songwriter for the Austin-based band The Eastern Sea had just finished lunch as the band was leaving Tulsa, and he was talking about how good it is to be back on tour and how good it is to tour in support of the group's debut album, Plague. "We're really excited that we're on a tour because of a record, which is so much different from being on tour idly," he said by phone. "This is ultra-exciting because the record's just now coming out and all the build-up is leading up to this." They'd spent two years working on the album and haven't toured in a year. "Now that it's out, it's Metamucil for the soul."
The tour brings The Eastern Sea to Carrollton Station Saturday night, where it'll play with The Vox and the Hound.
Plague is deceptive - indie guitar rock that extremely melodic and unobtrusively expansive (there are 7 people in the touring band), but there's also a wiry tension in Hines' guitar playing that gives the sense that there's more riding the song than three and a half minutes of good times. It's not immediately obvious from the songs, but Hines decided to name the album Plague after reading Camus on tour. "I was really inspired by themes of powerlessness, being up against odds that you have no control of, high stakes," he says.
The band started working on the album in 2010 and began recording to tape at a studio in East Austin when the building was condemned. That set The Eastern Sea on a journey that took two years to complete. "We were kind of homeless for a while and weren't sure how to continue," Hines says. The band went through personnel changes and received some unpleasant surprises. "It was a wild time," he said diplomatically.
The first studio? "Yeah, it should have been condemned," he said. The landlord had ignored code violations, but the reason is what animated our conversation. "I think the underlying reason is that the city of Austin is slamming down the hammer on some of these places in East Austin because they're not worth as much as run-down little boxes. They're worth more as condos.
"It affects an attitude. I can't say I felt supported by our community."
Our conversation became about the relationship between a city's government and its culture, and how culture can or should be supported. "I don't think they do a lot to support the success of people who are trying to make small businesses," Hines said. "I don't think they realize the worth of some of the intellectual stuff - the art - coming out of the city; I think they're really focused on condos, big hotels and high-rise buildings and nouveau rich culture.
"It is all about attitude. To make an inspiring record and something with some soul and some meaning, you have to have soul and meaning around you. Money has a lot to do with soul. A lot of the soul of the city sadly, is based in poverty. Some of the most notable artistic accomplishments have come from people who've struggled. It's important to recognize that art comes out of struggle." He was careful to recognizes his level of privilege. He's worried about Austin monitoring parking meters until midnight, not looking for a roof or a meal. Still, "If we don't support this kind of thing now, in 20 years we won't have the New Orleans or Austin or Houston we want back. That's the test of a growing city: Can you plan the cultural seeds along with economic seeds?
"This album is about the prices you pay. I've talked in some interviews about personal economies, about the things you give and take; the things you might have to give away to get something else. These cities are dealing with their own cultural economies."
The questions Hines is wrestling with are ones that anyone making art today has to consider. Is there a place for me in my city? In my community? In the marketplace? And the answers affect the art people make. Hines is putting his faith in the band's audience.
"I think the biggest lesson I've learned in the last six months is that if you want to succeed in the music business right now, there's something that's worth more than money and is worth more than shows, and that's excitement," he said. "You can't pay for investment. Personal inspiration. If your music can inspire an audience, you have something money can't buy. If you come to somebody with an open mind and try to speak to who you are and who I am, trying to find common ground and understanding. Misunderstanding is a kind of a plague in itself. Inspiration is a tool to understanding."
That effort to try to do the humane things extends to such seemingly peripheral concerns as marketing. "We refuse to make a shirt that could cost less that $15," Hines says. "It's not a good shirt. Yeah, we could sell more shirts, but we've got to sell high quality products, and people respond to that.
"I'm personally inspired by big things. Big ideas. Being in awe of things I don't quite understand yet but will understand once I put a little work in. I want something big; I want something mysterious. I want to learn, and my desire to learn points me toward big questions and big answers, high stakes. I grew up wit Neil Young and Jackson Browne, monolithic songwriter types. They didn't halfway pull the trigger; they pulled the trigger and they dealt with the consequences of asking big questions. Sometimes they made shitty records, but you can't be afraid to make shitty records because you're afraid to ask big questions and get the answers. It comes with not being afraid of what you might learn in the end. I've learned some things I didn't think I was going to learn and it was really painful, but now I think I'm better off for it."