Austin-based singer/songwriter David Garza may have had all the markings of brash young talent with good looks and better hooks when one of his catchier pop tunes, “Slave,” found its way onto the otherwise unexceptional Atlantic Records soundtrack to the 1998 Ethan Hawke/Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Great Expectations. But for the 30-year-old Garza, that ultimately minor break was just another little creative and commercial step along a path he’d set himself on years before.
“I’d been putting out my own records for seven or eight years before I hooked up with Atlantic,” says Garza of the times he spent playing small, dingy rooms up and down a San-Antonio-to-Chicago circuit, “trading T-shirts for a couch.” He’s speaking over the phone from the van he currently calls home as he and his three-piece band tool up I-95 on a tour of the Northeast that will bring them to the House of Blues in Cambridge this Wednesday. “But I can’t tell you how many people come up to me now and say that they heard me on the Great Expectations soundtrack.”
Back in ’98, Garza fit the mold of the hard-toiling independent musician. He’d been crafting inventive bedroom pop recordings since high school, and it looked as if he might be in line for a big payoff with the release of his Atlantic debut, This Euphoria. His story isn’t unusual: the past 15 years have seen any number of four-track pop wunderkinds catch the eyes and ears of the powers that be, from the loosely-affiliated Elephant 6 collective bands (Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control) to indie-rock mavericks like Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow. But Garza stands out for the sheer breadth and depth of his DIY musical explorations: he’s got the confessional candor, wit, and sense of craft of a Marshall Crenshaw–style singer/songwriter coupled with the sonic adventurousness of a producer/multi-instrumentalist like Jon Brion (the guy who helped put the quirky pop polish on albums by Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple), and he’s also fond of Zeppelinesque riff rock.
On his new Atlantic CD, the appropriately titled Overdub (in stores this Tuesday), Garza makes little or no effort to rein himself in. It opens with “Drone,” a greasy slice of ProTools-enhanced funk that brings to mind the industrialized roots-rock æsthetic of Los Lobos sideman Mitchell Froom. “God’s Hands” lays otherworldly Jeff Buckley–style melismas over a Soundgardeny guitar grind; “Too Much” sounds like an out-and-out tribute to Prince. The disc ends with “Let Me,” a tender and poppy love song.
“It’s not like I’m the Dave Matthews Band, where you can always count on that catchy violin and saxophone,” he admits when the subject of his commercial future crops up. “I don’t have a certain band that I’m tied to. I don’t have a certain sound that I’m tied to. So it can be tough.”
Garza speaks with the resigned tone of someone who’s contemplated both sides of the major-label divide, and yet he retains much of the idealism that’s fueled his muse since he first started four-tracking his homemade songs. “Songs are like houses: either they’re well-built and people can go to them for shelter or they’re not and they fall apart after a while. That’s always been my biggest concern, for people to be able to find some shelter in the music.”
Meanwhile, Garza remains aware that the only radio play he’s ever gotten came mainly as a result of Atlantic’s deep pockets and Ethan Hawke’s pretty face. He’s too left-field a performer to court the big-league success a more straightforward singer/songwriter like David Gray is currently enjoying. And he knows it. As he sings in Overdub’s “Say Baby,” “If you feel like Jethro on death row/Better call and request your own video/Soul is a four-letter scam/DJs won’t spin your jam unless you say, ‘Baby, baby, baby, baby.’ ”
David Garza and his band open for Mark Eitzel this Wednesday, July 11, at the House of Blues. Call 617-497-2227.