The Black and White Years: Changing Austin one mustache at a time

Sam Kuykendall

Armed with my favorite sunglasses and fueled with coffee, I arrived at about 11 AM to the Austin City Limits Music Festival filled with anticipation for a day full of sweaty crowds of people and a great expansion of my music library. Since The Fratellis were not performing until 1:30 PM, I was carefully contemplating as to where I should spend these few precious hours, when I heard it.

A bright, energetic sound was tumbling towards me from a nearby stage, immediately sparking my curiosity. As I walked towards the Austin Ventures stage, my curiosity continued to rise as I observed numbers of individuals dancing and bouncing awkwardly around swarming towards the stage with four guys, all clad in obnoxious sunglasses, bouncing just as awkwardly.

This was my first introduction to the colorful, mustache-and-tight-pants-wearing world of The Black and White Years, and quite a pleasant one at that. Scott Butler, whose appearance strangely reminded me of a certain Beatles member, was particularly entertaining with his enthralling leg movements and interesting vocals.

The Black and White Years main website amusingly describes the band members’ roles. Scott Butler is the vocalist, lyricist, and album artist for the group, along with being responsible for “guitars, keys, [and] costumes for tigers.” Landon Thompson not only plays “better guitar than Scott,” but is also known for his “whack FX, keys, [and] tight pants.” John Aldridge is acknowledged for his “listless bass, brass, hair, [and] non-sequitors.” Billy Potts, the drummer and newest member of the band, does not actually play on The Black and White Years’ debut, as he joined the band after the album’s release.

The Black and White Years have truly been lucky when it comes to their success. 2007 really brought the band their good fortune when, while playing at the small venue, Opal Divine’s Freehouse during that year’s South by Southwest, former Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison took a liking to them. Harrison offered the band an incredible opportunity and The Black and White Years flew to San Francisco to work with the music genius on their first album in the Sausalito Sound studio.

When Harrison picked them up, The Black and White Years not only had no manager, but also lacked a drummer—an obvious issue in the studio. The Austin natives had been using a sequencer to create their unique sound, but Harrison decided to try something a little different. Steve Ferrone, present drummer of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, tried to help out with some drum tracks, but Butler and the other members argued that Ferrone’s drumming did not correspond with The Black and White Years’ original sound.

“We started to get a little scared that the album would come out sounding nothing like us,” John Aldridge, bassist, told Austin Music and Entertainment Magazine.

After months of conflict between the band and their engineer, an agreement was finally reached. The live drumming that seemed to keep throwing off their individuality was combined with electric synthesizers to create the fantastical sound in all of their songs.

“We really had to fight to keep our sound the way we wanted,” Aldridge said.  “We had to fight for our synth.”

Despite the drumming disagreement, Jerry Harrison’s influence on The Black and White Years is prevalent, especially in the vocals. Ironically, Scott Butler sounds surprisingly similar to former Talking Heads front man David Byrne.

With the demanding lyrics of their first single, “Power to Change,” The Black and White Years are gradually getting more and more noticed. Inspired by the elections, “Power to Change” has been appearing in the playlists of radio stations across the country. Despite its fun, dance-like sound, the song really does call for a revolution of the workings of the modern world. Butler actually declares that “we need a savior,” and “must believe in the power to change.”

The Black and White Years’ other songs are relatively similar to “Power to Change,” all full of vibrant energy, yet accompanied by deeper lyrics. Each song calls for a bobbing of the head, a tapping of the foot, or an all-out breakout of obnoxious dancing—making them not only a favorite in the car or home, but also a fantastic live performance.

The Black and White Years’ self-titled debut, whose album artwork is as animated as their songs, was released in September 2008. The band’s latest performance was at the “101-X Independent Workforce X-Mas Party” at Emo’s December 11 where they played to help benefit for Habitat for Humanity.