By Gilbert Garcia
David Garza's new, career-spanning box set includes a bonus DVD that illustrates what life on the road is like for the Austin-based singer-songwriter.
There are periodic visits to Denny's, endless hours of driving, brief stops for gas, and a succession of generic motels. Above all else, though, there is Garza the compulsive troubadour: serenading strangers on sidewalks, in diners, outside bars, and in apartments. You get the impression that unlike most working musicians, his days aren't spent in preparation for a gig. His days are gigs.
Whatever tools are available to him, he finds a way to construct a performance. Keep in mind that he once insisted he could create rock 'n' roll with nothing more than a telephone's dial tone. "I learned how to project early on from playing in nursing homes and hospitals and church," Garza, 33, says of his formative years spent in the Dallas Cowboys' playground of Irving. "I didn't have guitars with plug-ins and microphones and amplifiers. I had to play with what I had."
Proof of Garza's incessant drive to make music can be found in his box set, A Strange Mess of Flowers, released on July 13. Even without the inclusion of any material from Garza's two albums for Atlantic Records - 1998's This Euphoria and 2001's Overdub - the collection brings together four CDs worth of highlights from more than 20 discs and cassettes Garza has issued since 1989. Many recording artists go an entire career without releasing 71 songs, but for Garza, that amounts to a mere primer, a sample taste of the dizzying range of his songwriting excursions.
Box sets are generally the province of the deceased or the dried-up, and Garza is neither. But he felt a pull to bring order to a catalog spread over a series of hard-to-find releases.
"I've had so many years of doing this, even though I'm still young," Garza says. "I've been putting records out since I was 18 and I've put out lots of records, so it's just kind of a logical thing. It's kind of weird, but in a lot of ways, it's really practical. If I'd just made a best-of, it wouldn't have been as satisfying to the people who've actually been there for me."
Garza's flamboyant falsetto, stylistic restlessness, and eagerness to play any time, any place, for any audience often recall the example of the late Jeff Buckley. But Buckley tended to brood over his recordings, second-guessing himself and hesitating to release new music. By comparison, Garza seems like a modern-day Frank Zappa, cranking out records as fast as he can conjure them, and trusting the public to edit his unwieldy creations for him. According to Garza, however, he can be highly ruthless about his own work.
"A big part of my process of creating is destroying," he says. "There's lots of times when I would think to myself, 'I wonder what happened to that song?' I'd look for it and realize I smashed it with a brick in 1999 or I threw that into a Texaco gas-station trash can in Louisiana in '96. I've definitely gotten rid of more than I've kept, but I've really learned a lot from going back and discovering things that I've forgotten about."
Garza got an early brush with fame - at least on a local level - in 1989 when he put together a folk trio called Twang Twang Shock a Boom shortly after beginning his freshman year at the University of Texas. Playing free afternoon gigs on the university quad, they became a near-instant Austin phenomenon, selling homemade cassettes faster than they could dupe them and packing the indie-rock mecca, Liberty Lunch.
Their swift emergence created an equally swift backlash, however, stirring critics to brand them a folkie New Kids on the Block. Garza broke up the band within a year, but the group's shadow proved to be stubborn. Some people were so allergic to the trio's callow cutesiness that they refused to give Garza a fair shake when he went on to create superior music on his own. Others were so enamored of the group that they couldn't forgive him for shattering the dream. Fortunately for him, he soon found that the name Twang Twang Shock a Boom didn't stir a lot of emotions outside the greater Austin area.
"It was liberating, but also a great challenge," he says of his early solo years. "Austin is its own best friend, and its own worst enemy. It's very important, but it's also very self-important. Building something from the grassroots for myself, I learned very soon that you could be the biggest star in Austin and no one cares about you in Waco or Pflugerville, not to mention Seattle or New York. I was glad for that."
"I was a big Los Lobos fan and at a really cool time in my life, when I was just starting to get off the ground in my solo career, I saw those guys take a really cool turn with Kiko," he says. "These were guys who were folk musicians who had done all these beautiful things, and they just opened up a little bit and from there they not only revolutionized their sound, but made one of the best records of the decade. I saw that as an inspiration.
"All my favorite bands do that, even Van Halen: Fair Warning is not Van Halen 1. Martin Scorsese: Taxi Driver is not The Age of Innocence. Joni Mitchell, the same thing. The way I see it, it's not so much a freedom as a responsibility." •