THE GAGGLE OF 20-somethings who make up post-punk outfit Wild Moccasins — Nicholas Cody, Andrew Lee, John Baldwin, Zahira Gutierrez and Cody Swann — look like shy, innocent kids who get their lunch money taken away in the school cafeteria. In person, they’re an exceptionally well-washed, vintage-dress gang, but under the old suit coats, yesteryear ties, vintage top layers and hipster poses, they’re in fact a band with six years together and a reputation as one of the most marketable ensembles on the Houston scene.
Their first full-length LP, 88 92, drops Feb. 5 on New West, but by then Houston will be, for the most part, in the rear view as the band heads out to all parts for four months of touring.
Wild Moccasins, who recently appeared as part of the Paste Untapped Festival in Houston, have two previous DIY releases, a 2009 EP titled Microscopic Metronomes and 2010 LP Skin Collision Past, which caught the eye and ear of New West exec George Fontaine. New West is a partner in Houston’s largest music retailer, Cactus Music, where the Moccasins rhythm guitarist and songwriter, Cody Swann, happens to work. What caught Fontaine’s eye was the bottom line: Skin Collision became one of the biggest-selling local releases ever at Cactus.
“I actually saw them for the first time at Rudyard’s, where they were opening for Tody Castillo,” Fontaine recalls. “What I saw was a cool young band that kids really seemed to not just get but enjoy. So I started paying attention, keeping an eye on their progress.” New West eventually signed the band, paid for the studio time for the new album and is putting the full weight of their public relations and radio reach behind it.
In a beautiful bit of kismet, about the time Fontaine began to get interested the band was befriended by popular indie rock outfit Of Montreal. The Mocs opened for Of Montreal on a couple of Houston dates that went so well the band was soon touring as Of Montreal’s official opening act.
“We’ve worked hard,” says Swann, dressed in a shiny gray suit jacket and vintage tie, over eggs at Café Brasil in Houston’s Montrose area. “I don’t think we could count all the people who’ve helped us, let us stay at their houses, fed us, booked us, and just been nice and friendly when we were thousands of miles from home touring on a shoestring. We really got a hand up from Saturday Looks Good To Me and from Of Montreal. That help has propelled us faster than we would have by ourselves.”
Fontaine describes the new album, a mostly post-punk, poppy guitars-and-keys, Talking Heads-ish rocker, as a step forward for New West, largely known as something of a legacy act label with graybeards like Buddy Miller, Richard Thompson, John Hiatt and Steve Earle on the roster along with acts like Old 97’s.
“New West isn’t exactly known for releasing these fun, pop-rock albums, but we’re thinking this album may really fly,” Fontaine says. “Reaction so far has been good, and in my opinion sonically they’ve gone way, way beyond where they were with Skin Collision.”
Most of the lead vocals on 88 92 fall to Swann’s significant other, Zahira Gutierrez. Gutierrez notes that she’s been singing most of her life. “I wouldn’t class myself as a trained singer or musician,” says the dark-maned Gutierrez, a Westside High School graduate who — naturally — works in a vintage resale shop in Montrose when she’s not touring. “I came up in school and church choirs singing — that’s where I really got hooked on it.”
Swann explains that, as far as material goes, he writes about one-third of the songs, Gutierrez writes another third, and the rest are full-band collaborations. “It’s an all-for-one kind of thing, though” says Swann. “I may bring in lyrics and maybe I’ve got some idea of a melody — the same with Zahira — but that’s when the group dynamic takes over. I’m just an average guitarist, so I’m always glad when Nick [guitarist Nicholas Cody] steps in with a chord change or a different rhythm, anything that improves a song. He’s way more into music theory than I am. Sometimes I’ll just be trying to figure something out, and he’ll say ‘What key is this in?’ and I honestly don’t know. That’s why all the songs say ‘written by Wild Moccasins’ rather than any of us taking individual credit.”
Swann and Gutierrez keep returning to the amount of touring they’ve done the past few years as the real catalyst for band growth. “There’s nothing like playing a lot of audiences full of strangers,” Swann says, “to open your eyes to what you’re doing right and what needs improvement.”
The band has done exceptionally well in Europe, something few Houston bands can claim at the moment. “That was another piece of luck,” Swann adds. “This 19-year-old German kid contacted us about touring over there. We checked him out, he looked like he was legitimate and hungry, so we decided to take a chance on him. And it’s worked out way beyond our expectations. We’ll be back in Europe soon, and he’s essentially running the entire operation.”
Gutierrez notes that European venues often have built-in crowds. She also notes the audiences are different. “There really is more respect for artists there, I think,” she surmises. “We’ve played so many gigs where we had no idea what to expect, then when we get out there, even though 99 percent of these people have no clue about us or our music, they seem to really accept us.”
Adds Swann: “Crowds in Europe seem to trust tastemakers more than we tend to here.” He recalls arriving at a basement-level bar in Paris one afternoon and asking a female bar manager, “What’s it going to be like tonight?”
“And she said ‘Like a zoo,’” he recalls. “We thought she must be kidding, but sure enough, by the time we went on people were hanging onto the staircases, people were out in the street dancing, people who couldn’t get in were looking through the windows … it was insane. Much more insane than here.”