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20 to Watch
By Sharon Jones
Spencer Gibb (lead vocals, guitars)
J.J. Johnson (drums, percussion, vocals)
Stewart Cochran (pianos, synthesizer, vocals)
Glenn McGregor (bass)
SXSW Showcase: Speakeasy, Thursday, March 16, 10pm (2000)
54 Seconds was a natural progression for singer-songwriter Spencer Gibb and his writing partner J.J. Johnson, the illustrious Austin drummer. Wanting to breathe life into their project, they didn't just go looking for suitable sidemen or hired guns, they sought to find the right combo of equal parts that would complete the group as a whole. After first adding the effects-happy keyboards of Stewart Cochran, they completed their sound with the bass playing of Glenn McGregor. That was three years ago and 54 Seconds has grown into one of the most electrifying live acts in town. Their nine-song, Dave McNair produced CD, called "ep" is one of the tastiest pieces of post-psychedelic art pop I've ever heard. Constantly evolving and experimenting, they are already hard at work on their next studio album, while currently recording a live album gleaned from the best of their weekly gigs at Speakeasy. All four members of this insurgent power pop band are seasoned veterans of Austin's prolific music scene. Each bring widely divergent experiences and influences into the maelstrom of moody melodies and swirling stratums of aural textures they weave around you.
Meeting up with the guys of 54 Seconds early one evening at Babe's, we expected at least some semblance of quiet. No such luck, bands were sound checking, customers making merry and we were sitting directly under the house speaker. They were such good sports as I marched them all over the club, looking for a power receptacle and a quiet corner. Gibb, Johnson and Cochran were there, but bassist McGregor couldn't make it. He called in on a cell phone, admitting he felt he needed to tell me that he hated the other guys in the band. I asked him why he played with them then, and he admitted that he just liked the way they played music. Since I couldn't argue with that one bit, I laughingly called him a cheap tart and let him off the hook, with no further questions your Honor. The rest of 54 Seconds weren't quite so lucky.
Citysearch.com: (directed at Spencer) I remember the first time I saw you at Steamboat a couple of years ago; you had Johnny Goudie as a sideman then. Where did you come from?
Spencer Gibb: I've been a musician since I was about 15 and I'm 27 now. I played in a bunch of different bands when I lived in England and was a solo artist for a long time. I also had a band in Florida for a couple of years before I moved to Austin. That's when J.J. and I met. It took about a year before we put this band together. Sounds really cheesy-ass, but I moved to Austin because I had a dream that I moved here. My life was really sucking at the time, so I just threw my stuff in my truck and headed out. I met Will Sexton the first night I moved here. I walked into Steamboat and started talking to this guy at the bar and it turned out to be Will. He's like, 'You just moved here, do you play? Here, come on up, I need another guitar.' Then he asked me to sing some of my own tunes.
(Directed at J.J. Johnson) I'm not even going to ask for your history. As one of Austin's most well respected and sought out drummers, I could name just about anyone and you can tag your name on to them. Your turn Stewart.
Stewart Cochran: Until I joined this band, I was pretty much a mercenary (Abra Moore, Dah-veed), I played in a lot of bands, country bands, jazz bands, rock bands and with a bunch of different singer-songwriters including five years with Jimmy La Fave. I'd like to think that I gained a lot from all of those influences. When I moved here I played guitar and I'd dropped the keyboard. After being here one week, I figured out that you couldn't swing a cat without hitting a bad ass guitar player, so I went back to my native instrument.
SG: Glenn was born in Japan, at a military base. And, J.J. was in the military too.
J.J. Johnson: When I was young, my Dad was in the army and we lived in Germany for a few years. My Mom's got these pictures of me there with this huge Afro. And, the outfits to go with it. White pants and turtle necks...
SG: Dude, you've got to bring those out. I think that should be on the inside of the live record—our most embarrassing kid pictures.
After years of interviewing artists, I've found about 90 percent of those I've asked have no other musically talented member of their family. That talent seems to be something that you either have or you don't. What about your family J.J.?
JJ: There was always music playing in our house. I think that's more important, if music is just played in the house. People being fans and listeners of music makes you interested. My mother taped all her 45s of '50s and '60s music onto a big reel-to-reel tape recorder. She played that thing all day on Saturdays while we were cleaning house.
SG: That's what rubs off, totally. My Mom, even more than my Dad (Robin Gibb of, yes you guess it, the Bee Gees), was such a music fan and I was turned on to so much music that hardly anyone in my generation has heard. She is just heavily into all kinds of stuff, especially a lot of Stax and Motown stuff. There was some Beatles and some other English music, but really mostly Stax and Motown. I grew up listening to Otis Redding and all that stuff and a lot of people our age aren't that familiar with it. I think that's sad.
Has the band had any label interest yet, or are you even looking at this stage?
SG: Over the past few years, we've had a lot of label interest, but we're not signed, yet.
SC: Label interest doesn't mean a lot in this town.
SG: Or anywhere for that matter. There' have been a lot of people coming to see us, but our main focus is to get management. National management out of L.A. or New York.
JJ: You have to have a manager to work a good deal anyway. It's all part of the process.
Stewart, you appear to be the computer whiz of the bunch. I noticed on your website that you've got a lot of songs up on different MP3 sites. Are you concerned about piracy issues?
SC: Not particularly; all our material is copyrighted. At this point in our career, we just want to get as much music and exposure out there as possible. Get it out there for people to hear it. There's not a whole product out there. It's just a Whitman's sampler.
There are tens of thousands of unknown artists on MP3 sites; how does anyone wade through it?
SC: The great thing about most all MP3 sites, they have a way of tracking everything you download. They monitor it and about once a week or so you get an email from them saying, 'Well if you like that, then you'll probably like this.' We'll get people who only 'hit' us at the site, because they were listening to some other artist and were referred to us.
SG: It's nondiscriminatory also. It doesn't focus on whether you're a signed or unsigned artist. As much as a drag as it is, we get Radiohead comparisons a lot. So, if you're on a MP3 site and go to Radiohead, it'll have comments, 'If you like Radiohead, you'll like 54 Seconds.' What they don't do is what major record companies do and that's say 'F*ck 54 Seconds. They're not signed so don't bother.' No one has a stake in it. They're doing it for the love of doing it, not because they have to promote it. A band won't get ignored just because they don't have clout behind them. You can get referred just because someone digs what you're doing. Which I think is cool.
Do you think the label industry is really as concerned over the piracy issue as they claim to be, or do you think they're just scared that their power base is crumbling?
SG: It's total denial. There's no piracy involved, everyone gives away their stuff for free. We give away a couple of songs on each site just so people can buy discs. There's basically nothing anyone can do with those songs besides download them at home to listen to. Or maybe give them to their friends, and maybe we just made another fan.
From: Austin CitySearch