Music » Music Stories & Interviews

One-man bandwagon


Joe Reyes
7pm Fri, Jun 29
Free admission
Twin Sisters Bakery & Cafe
6322 N. New Braunfels
When Joe Reyes was 15, his dad gave him the best piece of musical advice he ever received. At the time, Reyes was deeply into his Judas Priest phase and playing in a local metal band, and while his father, Rudolph, could recognize his son’s playing ability, he warned Joe against limiting himself. He said, ‘I think you’re going to have to learn more than rock,’” Reyes recalls. “I said, ‘What do you mean? We’re going to make it big.’ But he said, ‘No, you’ll have to learn some country, some jazz, some soul music.’ It didn’t strike me for another five years, and sure enough I learned how to play all kinds of things. And it turned out that I needed it.”

The deeper point behind his father’s suggestion was that you must seriously prepare yourself to meet any goal, and there is no substitute for hard work. It’s a lesson the 43-year-old Reyes long ago took to heart, with a formidable range of commitments: playing guitar for the Swindles, playing guitar and writing songs for Buttercup, collaborating on acoustic guitar instrumentals in Lara & Reyes, and producing teen phenom Marcus Rubio, among others.

Quietly, Reyes has added another credit to his résumé, that of solo singer-songwriter. This weekend,he celebrates the release of ill-equipped, a well-crafted six-song EP he recorded by his lonesome on the computer-based home studio he bought in 2003 from producer Mark Rubinstein. While Reyes’s sure-footed skills as a one-man band are impressive, the most astounding aspect of ill-equipped is that Reyes found the time (and mental energy) to make it, while his other groups were all actively gigging and creating new music.

While he has amassed a secret collection of hundreds of songs since he began recording at home in the mid-‘90s, Reyes says this collection came in a short burst of creativity in the winter of 2006. Buttercup had finished recording its Hot Love album, Lara & Reyes had completed its reunion disc, and Reyes had a rare, short break from his other projects.

“There’s always a little down time in the winter, ‘cause the industry sort of stops. Everybody goes out of town,” he says. “And that’s usually when I have time to really sit down and look at all the stuff that I’ve cobbled together in notebooks and on little hand-held tape players. And I’ll think, ‘What’s that? I don’t remember that.’”

Much like Reyes’s contributions to the Buttercup catalog, his solo tracks tend to be lilting,  tuneful, achingly sad pieces. In the spirit of his biggest contemporary influences —Elliott Smith, Aimee Mann, and Michael Penn — Reyes loves to root around in the gaps between soothing pop melodies and downbeat, introspective lyrics.

“I don’t write narrative lyrics like Joe Ely and Townes Van Zandt,” he says. “I just come from that whole confessional school of lyric writing. And you tend to just focus on things that happen to you that are bad. You don’t sit around thinking, ‘Man, that was awesome!’”  

Reyes’s knack for pleasing melancholia reveals itself on the jangling, mid-tempo “Comfy Coffins” and “Identity Theft,” an existential waltz which also turned up on Buttercup’s recent Captains of Industry EP, after Buttercup singer Erik Sanden insisted that the band cut a version of the song. “Dear Isaac” finds Reyes at his most Beatle-esque, with the same jaunty crotchet beat that ELO lifted from the mid-section of “A Day in the Life”  for “Mr. Blue Sky” (it also features some of the jazz licks that Reyes learned at his father’s urging).

Although he’s quick to belittle his early attempts at four-track solo recording, Reyes acknowledges that those mid-’90s efforts helped him establish him a thoughtful pop voice that continues to define his songwriting. “I heard an Aimee Mann record and a Michael Penn record, and I thought, ‘Well, these guys are doing Beatle songs, more or less, with a modern take. Maybe I can do that,’ Reyes recalls. “That was all it took, somebody to say it’s OK to do that. Because I kept doing it and thinking, ‘Who cares about this? I’m not writing in any genre whatsoever.’ I felt like I was all alone.”

Reyes has been particularly prolific in the last two years, a development he credits to his decision to stop drinking in August, 2005. While always a social rather than habitual drinker, who used alcohol to help him overcome his natural shyness at gigs, Reyes felt that drinking had begun to affect his playing and muddle his thinking. For someone with such a disciplined approach to creating music, the costs were becoming prohibitive.

“Now I can wake up in the morning and not feel this cloudy feeling,” Reyes says. “I just grab a guitar immediately. So my output increased. Alcohol might allow you to find some unconscious or unfettered spot in your creativity, but for the most part you can do it just by concentrating.”   

Reyes recalls that as a child he would ride on job assignments with his father, a labor-market analyst for the Texas Employment Commission who bought a dump truck and set up his own hauling business on the side. When Joe and his brother initially rode with their dad, they tended to spend their time goofing off. But his father quickly made it clear that if they wanted to tag along, they needed to get serious. As a result, Reyes says, “I was walking around with five bucks in my pocket when I was eight-year-old. In 1970s money, that was amazing.”

The lesson that he continues to carry with him is that any objective, even something as mysterious and elusive as musical inspiration, can only be met with rigorous dedication and a compulsion to make every performance as good as possible.

“It’s the ideas that nothing you do in this life can be a toss-off,” Reyes says. “You have to work hard.

“I think tons and tons of half-finished ideas are simply the building blocks for the one song that comes in 10 minutes, and you say, ‘Wow, that was so easy.’ I think it’s just the cresting of waves of your imagination, and the hard work that goes into it. Because I really don’t think you can get away without crafting it.” 

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