There’s a moment when you’re talking to the members of Austin rock band Schmillion that you realize they’re probably older than you. Age is just a number anyway, if you believe platitudes.
The four of five members of Schmillion I’m spending a hot sunny Austin day with (bass player CeCe Cross notably absent) all carry a lived-in comfort many bands double their age choose to eschew, or are clinically unable to uphold. No axes to grind, no agenda to push (“There are no riot grrls in Schmillion,” guitarist Frankie Conover rightly quips). The naïve bombast and unhinged search for meaning has no place. In the present, Schmillion is a swaggering presence of unforced ease.
The camera-shy awkwardness capable of revealing they are all under 18 crops up only when talking about the group’s uncertain future.
Schmillion is approachable in one of two ways. Enterprising websites such as this will be quick to point out that the band’s new record, Seven, is a beastly dose of modern rock. Schmillion funnels its references through a burst of southern punk. Seven is as much a comment of how intelligent Schmillion is instrumentally and why, with just a little effort, modern rock still has quite a life.
Then there’s the other way. Schmillion are semi-notorious in Austin circles due to a rapid success. The band members wax grateful and appreciative of this status as three-peat winners of The Austin Chronicle’s SXSW Reader’s Poll “Best Under 18 Band” award.
“It’s cool to be able to have people point at you and not say ‘there’s that teen band,” mentions Zoe Graham, one of the bands two guitarists.
That genial success extends to Austin’s music community, which launches Graham and Conover into a laundry list of people that have propped the band up and helped them into and through the clogged scene. Bands like Borris Okane, Follow that Bird and club bookers like Rosa at the Mohawk get tapped in short order, and the cadre of names speaks to the group’s talents and the accepting atmosphere that Austin’s band incubator can foster.
Pouring over Schmillion’s discography (two albums, a scant thirteen songs) is a little bit like watching somebody studying the text of seminal rock and picking out little bits that stick. Frankie swoons at the mention of The Stooges as an influence, a reference certainly earned in songs like “Where Are We,” combining bar chord fuck-all punk with a militant lead guitar riff, something from the Minutemen perhaps. This guitar dichotomy is a microcosm of the Graham/Conover relationship; Conover was classically trained, Graham more based on matching sounds and soloing.
“I remember playing for Zoe for the first time, and I was like ‘I’m going to play this’ and Zoe said ‘Ok, I’m going to solo over it,’” says Conover. Graham echoes this, matching her personality to her guitar style, “I said ‘fuck it man, play whatever you feel like, we’ ll be great.’”
“Then our first album happened,” Conover is quick to retort. Regardless of the debut’s promise or in many cases, its successes, the band is quick to note that the recording process involved “five different engineers,” with Conover adding “counting parents, there were really about fifteen members of Schmillion then.”
While Schmillion does dart from place to place at times, instead of getting mired in the morass of trying to broaden references, Seven became a culling and distillation of exactly what the band does best – hook laden, big guitar rock.
Part of the evolution of Schmillion to Seven comes from a more laid back presence in the interview room (the band’s practice space, a specially constructed prefab storage unit) – lead vocalist and primary lyricist Natalie Shea. Shea is unassuming but affable, somewhere between Graham/Conover capriciousness and drummer, and sole male Schmillion-aire, Graham Bailey’s introversion. Natalie echoes Zoe’s “see what happens attitude” with the first record by saying that she had “been singing, but had never done songwriting… there wasn’t really a story or meaning behind the songs.” Testament, then, to Shea’s natural abilities, as they shine through on “Capricorn” and “Planes.”
But on Seven, Shea marks one major difference with her lyrical process – “I tried.” Conover mentions that Shea, before a responsive writer to the melodies that Conover, Bailey and Cross were coming up with, was bringing material into writing sessions and ready to mold songs. This methodological change isn’t unnoticeable. One of Seven’s standouts, the slicing “Deku” (a winking reference to Zelda that, despite their parents wishes, they neglected to change), weaves and cuts around Shea’s voice and narrative, an oddly personal journal entry about being on the precipice of a cliff that might be too high to jump off, but might not be.
The rest of Seven hovers above its lyrical subjects, Shea inhabiting a third person perspective uncommon in most rock n’ roll, but one that feels most vital to her singing style. Were she wailing about some perceived wrong, Shea’s sometimes monstrously powerful howl would come off as cloying. Instead we get “Saligia” and “1944,” the former chronicling a couple’s descent into the seven deadly sins, and latter recalling an audio recording Shea heard in a class of a British symphony playing Mozart while bombs go off outside the theater during World War II.
Conover father delivers a case of Red Bull (a gift from playing a fest sponsored by the energy drink). Graham recalls trying a Red Bull for the first time during said fest, tweaking the entire day but “playing a really good show.” The band (sans Bailey, who admits to not having this problem) swap horror stories that reveal the still evidently sexist nature of rock.
“There are just a lot of old creepy men at shows now,” Shea opines, and the band doesn’t disagree. Frankie’s most prescient comment is that while the band is not often overtly feminized or derided for the age of its members, “appreciative” show goers rarely hide their surprise at Schmillion’s physical characteristics.
“It’s all, ‘Holy shit, those dudes are a bunch of girls!’” Graham laughingly sighs. Shea adds, “it’s mostly guys who say ‘wow, I didn’t know girls could rock that hard.’” The band take it in stride when guys yell that they’re turned on from the crowd – it’s the nature of the game.
Yet there’s no exhaustion in the band’s voice when talking about the rigors of said game. The only exhaustion comes from the impending outer forces that may threaten the band’s future.
Over Torchy’s tacos, each of the band members talk relatively easily about college plans. Many see a future in music, while others mention alternative career routes still focused in the arts. However both Conover and Graham elicit a youthful sweetness talking about the potential twilight of Schmillion’s career – “I can’t imagine being in a band without Schmillion,” says Conover, the rest of the band nodding.
Maybe it isn’t this easy. It’s entirely possible that the band have already cultivated a well-distanced public persona, a function of its relatively immediate success. Maybe Shea is a bit closer to her insecure lyrical subjects, and maybe the band is still struggling with the idea of being without Schmillion. But leaving the practice space, there is the sense that whatever future Schmillion holds, the present and (very) recent past has yielded fitting rewards.
All five (including late entrant Bailey, a replacement for a now gone original female drummer) grew up in this band together, perhaps explaining the ease with which they create. Rock documentaries, tell-all autobiographies and liberty-taking screenwriters are like exaggerating the inner turmoil of the “Rock Band” for all its dramatic effect, thereby inflecting the music with an elevated sense of importance and strife in its creation.
Schmillion work the opposite way. Everything seems easy for Schmillion, which makes their fresh breath of rock n’ roll all the more valuable.