Fidelidad no alto
Louisiana transplant Skip Allums animates his wheat-field-pop vision via his low-fi pop group, Estereo
Most people, when pressed to put “Louisiana” and “music” in the same sentence, will come up with examples of New Orleans second-line rhythm, or Cajun swamp-pop, or zydeco, all of them great.
But in the 1980s, Louisiana also gave birth to Elephant 6—an indie-pop collective based in Ruston, Lincoln Parish, in the north part of the state—which gave the world such bands as the Apples in Stereo, the Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel and others.
Skip Allums, who grew up around the state capital, Baton Rouge, and eventually went to that city’s Louisiana State University, was more tuned into the latter tradition than to the elegant piano flourishes of Professor Longhair. For him, as for the Elephant 6 folks, the post-Beatle-isms of Memphis act Big Star held a stronger pull.
But Louisiana was not an indie-rock paradise like, say, such Southern oases as Athens, Ga., or Chapel Hill, N.C., or even familiar local analogues like Davis and Chico. “At the time, there weren’t that many indie acts around, when I was in college,” Allums said. “So, if one of the bigger bands came through town, the bookers wouldn’t know who to put with them, so they would just say, ‘We’ll put Estereo on it.’ So, we got to open for whoever came through; we got to see our favorite bands come through, and meet them and ask ’em what it’s like in other places in the country.”
One of those places was Northern California, where Allums landed in the spring of 2002—in Chico, to be specific. He had a brother in the Marines based near San Diego, and the idea of setting up his own home base in the middle of the Western Seaboard, roughly equidistant from Seattle and San Diego, seemed alluring to him. But first, he had to develop a local following. “When I got here, I just played the two or three places there are to play in Chico,” he said, before mentioning the joys of playing with an indie-rock icon and Chico record-store clerk named Barbara Manning, who filled him in on the regional music scene.
When Allums lived in Baton Rouge, and later in Chico, his day job consisted of working for the local Fox TV network affiliate. Based on the tone of his voice, it wasn’t the most pleasant experience. “I did enjoy watching The Simpsons whenever I wanted,” he commented, laughing. “That was one of the perks of the job. But other than that … ” Big pregnant pause.
Then, Allums moved to Sacramento, where he currently works as a librarian. “I kind of sat around for a couple of months,” he said, “just kind of observing what was going on here. I went to True Love a couple times, to talk to Kevin [Seconds] and see about getting a show. I put a bunch of free copies of our first little EP at different record stores, so people would just pick them up.”
The seed was sown, and Seconds put Estereo on a bill with Damien Jurado and Songs: Ohia, two favorites of Allums, effectively introducing the band to the local scene. Allums, by then, had hooked up with drummer Shane Redd and bassist and keyboard player Shannon Wilson, who are joined by other musicians when the occasion permits. The group’s music essentially is built around Allums’ plaintive voice and songwriting, both of which bear striking resemblances to those of Freedy Johnston, a Kansas-to-New York transplant who made several brilliant wheat-field-pop records in the 1990s.
Estereo made its long-playing debut last year with I Always Get What I Want. Recently, the group assembled to cut a collection of songs on a three-track recorder—“it was a four-track, but one of them burned out,” Allums said—it was collated on a CD called Let the Waves Swallow Us Whole. The group will reconvene next month in the studio, with local artist-producer Scott McChane, to make a higher-fidelity version—although Allums is leaning toward a different title; he’s not enamored with the current one. “It just seems too … something,” he said.
Whatever it’s called, its songs—like “An Actress Needs an Audience” and “San Francisco Makes No Sense”—will make it a definite contender.