Austin, Texas: The City That Always Sleeps

Photographer Bryan Derballa
August 24, 2011

Nate Grace was an ex-hardcore kid living in a shack in the outskirts of Austin when his door got kicked in while he was on the road for his job cataloging book stock in chain stores across the country. All his recording equipment was stolen, and an entire album’s worth of material was gone forever. He got out of there soon after the robbery, even though he had plenty of space and says he could even stand out in the yard completely naked if he wanted. But his view was a field of fluttering trash like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic American wasteland. To top it off, the place was full of roaches and rats.

So Grace moved to a more central part of Austin, into a cleaner, former halfway house with two massive, deep red doors that sits at the end of a quiet residential street. Some of his friends, including a bandmate in his group Pure X, Jesse Jenkins, already lived there. Six people reside in the five-bedroom house, but it’s a surprisingly orderly place, filled with well-fed pets and a constant stream of guests. Grace, Jenkins, his girlfriend Stefanie Franciotti, who makes music as Sleep ∞ Over, and the three other roommates have lately been referring to the house as The Real World because of the supposed inter-house drama. But for all their talk of infighting, life seems idyllic. There are plenty of trips for fresh juice, and more than enough homemade hummus to go around. Everyone acts like they’re in love with each other. Maybe it’s because they’re all obsessed with the same things: conspiracies, UFOs and Tarot readings are hugely popular topics of conversation.

Franciotti, who is short and barbed but warm, downplays her own Tarot skills, but on a 103-degree day, lounging in the grass near Barton Springs, she maps out the inner lives of those around her with eerie accuracy, before blowing the whole thing off casually with an “I dunno, I’m not that good at it,” deferring to housemate Christine Aprile, who spent some time trying to operate her own psychic hotline. “I tried to get onto the good hotlines, but I wasn’t accepted,” Aprile says. “If I was someone who had a flourishing psychic business, I guess it would have worked out. I like to do it for free. I think anything spiritual will take you on a lot of different paths. It’s definitely made me think about trying to create my own reality, instead of feeling like a victim of fate and circumstance.” Like most of the housemates, Aprile, who performs as Silent Diane, more or less found herself in Austin by chance, and before she knew it, decided to stay. “I got this reading from this woman, and she was like, I see you moving to Texas and I don’t know why,” Aprile says. “My dad was living here at the time. I just called him up and he was like, Oh I was about to ask you to come down here and house sit for me. So I packed up and drove down, and I’ve been here ever since.” It’s like the city has a mysterious hold on its residents, keeping them swaddled in a warm blanket of cheap rent and loose vibes. Destiny is serious business out here, even if everyone seems like they’ve settled comfortably into life’s natural flow.

Squinting into her windshield on a trip to pick up Jenkins from his office job, Franciotti confirms Austin’s strange pull. “When you’re in college, you’re like, I’m going to live in New York! I’m going to do all of this shit!” Franciotti says. “Living out here is so cool and easy. You just get real comfortable. I don’t have any real motivation to go anywhere. I guess nobody else does either.” Franciotti is the Twin Peaks-obsessed, sole member of Sleep ∞ Over, her darkly New Age project. She’s hyper alert and knows how to raise eyebrows. “I’m not just trying to be some bitch with a guitar, like, Look at me! I’m in a band, I’m so cool!” she says. “I’m doing this because I really care about it, and I feel like there are a lot of bands out there that are just the cliché…” Then she stops herself. Over half of what Franciotti says is prefaced by an impulsive “this is off the record,” even when nothing is being recorded. But she drops her guard when it comes to talking about the nanny work she does out of the house. While her roommates are sleeping or at their day jobs, Franciotti is in the living room, reading to the kids and talking to them about their dreams. She makes cassette recordings of brief interviews with the children sleepily narrating the dreams they just had, which she plans to eventually hand back to them, a hazy time capsule of their unformed minds. Sleep ∞ Over’s music, droning and fuzzed out songs with Franciotti’s elongated, sweet vocals atop is reminiscent of the childlike murk of those dreams. While her earlier work sounded like brief sketches of songs, the material on her first full length, Forever, is more focused and clear, like she was able to pull abstractions from the darkest parts of her mind and wed them to gorgeous melody and twinkling synths. “I became less interested in regular pop structure formula,” Franciotti says. “But there’s part of me that still really likes that. I feel like everybody should just create whatever moves them at the time anyway.”

There’s a family dynamic that extends beyond just the residents of the house, and it seems to be about comfort as much as survival. A couple of times a year, for SXSW and Austin City Limits, the city, known as the live music capital of the world, turns into a hellhole for locals. So when the entire entertainment industry streams through downtown, wasted and yelling, it’s an excuse to hibernate. “[Living in Austin] has really given me the chance to not be quite so influenced by what is going on around me. It’s a really supportive community that gives you the chance to explore more and not feel so caught up in anything—except during SXSW,” Aprile says. During the rest of the year, though, it’s unfailingly serene, easy to walk multiple downtown blocks without seeing a single person, and even easier to fall into a pattern of perpetual hang sessions, which Franciotti, Aprile, the members of Pure X and other housemates and friends who play in bands like Troller, Survive and a billion others are more than happy to do. Rent is cheap, weed is limitless and the circle of friends is so large and well worn that it’s easy to grab whoever isn’t working that day and get them in a room to record or play a show. “That’s why we don’t really play Austin that much,” says Pure X drummer Austin Youngblood of the insular scene. “There’s no point in playing with anybody except the people that we like playing with. I think the last time we played some random show, it was like, Why the fuck are we here?”

That “here” may often be anywhere that isn’t the house, although there are a couple satellite spots, like the vintage synthesizer store Switched On, where Michael Stein, member of the synth-obsessed Survive, works. Although Survive has only released a single record, they’re the under-the-radar backbone of the entire crew. Stein’s bedroom is piled floor-to-ceiling with vintage synthesizers, his house a lab for anyone who wants to stop by and mess around with the gear, even if he’s not there. “We learn from each other,” Franciotti says of the communal benefits. “It’s not like any of us woke up having it.” Survive creates a pure distillation of the music that everyone else takes cues from. It’s excitingly retro, bombastic and buzzing. While others might incorporate these sounds into their projects, it is only Survive that makes it their entire mission statement.

The enormity of their mysticism-obsessed world becomes clear when the house throws a barbecue. Jenkins, a perpetual father figure, is manning the beer-can-stuffed chickens that Grace got at a discount from his job at the natural grocery store. Youngblood leans back in a lawn chair, beer and joint in hand, talking through his Druid-thick beard about how he loves to play drums so, so slowly. Inside, the members of Survive, who have known each other since elementary school, are standing in a circle, cipher-style, doing a cappella versions of minimal techno tracks. Sometimes, Grace mentions, they have electronic drum circles. More people in other bands arrive with more food in tow. There’s a dog that wasn’t there before running around. When the food is ready, no one bothers with plates, unselfconsciously digging at salmon, pork and chicken with their hands.

Soon the beer runs out and everyone heads to Cheer-Up Charlie’s, a bar downtown with a backyard. Eli Welbourne, Aprile’s other half in Silent Diane, is video DJing, mostly playing bizarre music videos that are so eye-catching that people stop mid-conversation and stare at the screen, glazed over. Just about everyone in the yard knows everyone else. Stein is posted against a wall talking to a girl that everyone agrees is super hot.

By the time last call hits, Youngblood and Grace are some of the only people left. The remaining patrons have trickled off. Grace sits with a mostly-empty beer tilted, legs splayed out, staring just past the projector. Youngblood is in the corner talking to a couple late-night stragglers. On the walk back to the car, they stop inside an old house that’s been gutted and turned into a restaurant to see what’s going on. It’s not officially open yet, but there’s an attractive all-American blonde standing guard over a piano that’s just sitting there. Before she can shepherd them out, Youngblood is plunking at the keys, laughing boisterously through his beard. Charmed, she has a change of heart, and gives the pair a tour of the place, strong-arming them into coming back for the official opening on Saturday. They promise that they will, before heading home to watch documentaries on Netflix.

There’s so much traffic in and out, so many guests and friends dropping by, that being inside the house can be overwhelming. It’s a miracle that anyone gets anything done. So it’s no surprise that Grace, the most social person in the house, has a hard time writing there. It’s why much of Pleasure, his first real album as Pure X with longtime friends Youngblood and Jenkins, was written solitarily. A lot of people distance themselves from their regular lives to make art, but rarely does it actually seem so necessary to writing such lush and lonely music. “Nobody’s singing the blues,” Grace says. “Right now, there’s a complete vacuum of people writing decently… I don’t want to say depressed…but morose music. I don’t think we’re necessarily all morose, either.” Jenkins agrees. “I think we’re all just so tired of people forcing things down our throats. I want to hear shit that’s really smooth and sexy and relaxed. It takes its time. You’re doing what you’re doing instead of trying to show someone what you’re doing.” The album is gorgeous, steeped in pain much deeper than you want anyone in their late twenties to feel, but it’s also controlled and steady, like that pain is so familiar that it almost ceases to hurt. Grace has grown from being a rebellious kid obsessed with hardcore to a portrait of stoner calm, his voice all Texan laze, sloping down into a relaxed lilt at the end of every thought.

One late afternoon, after a full day of swimming, Tarot reading and fresh juice drinking, Franciotti, Grace and Jenkins head to their secret skate spot. They call it The Ditch, but it’s so secret that’s not even its real name. A hidden concrete alcove right next to the highway, it’s normally lorded over by a bunch of old crusty dudes that make you sweep up after every session. This evening, though, it’s quiet and completely empty. They crack some beers in the corner and Grace plays a tape of Jesus and Mary Chain b-sides in a nearby tunnel, the sound reverberating crystal clear. The sky blends purple, orange and baby blue. No one really does any tricks, instead choosing to surf the cement on wide boards with big wheels. There’s a different kind of noise those wheels make. It’s gummy and smooth, and the gravel clicks. Franciotti takes a breather next to the gradually rising pile of beer cans. Grace is doing runs over and over again, and Jenkins is off in the distance, right on the horizon line, his body a single, calming totem guarding the ditch from the wild nothing that stretches out behind him.

Austin, Texas: The City That Always Sleeps