The Texas music scene prides itself on the weirdness and bravado that is its capital, Austin. Houston, in drastic contrast, is a city known more for its business and booming population, and a music scene that is lack luster, and, at best, known for its hip-hop culture. But out of adversity, sometimes the most rare and beautiful things can bloom. The Tontons, a female fronted four-piece outfit from Houston are a refreshing and soulful change of pace, bringing life to the dry Texas city. We got a chance to talk with lead singer Asli Omar, a month before their sophomore full-length is released, about their recent success and recognition. They’re out to prove that it’s not where you come from, but how hard you’re willing to work that determines the success you can yield.
Substream Magazine: You and the Tontons were able to premiere your song “Magic Hour” with Rolling Stone last week. What was that like to get the chance to put your music up with such a prestigious publication?
Asli Omar: A little overwhelming. I mean, it’s really strange. Four years ago, we would have been happy to get a little sentence in the local newspaper, so having someone like Rolling Stone take interest is really amazing. It goes to show our hard work is paying off.
SM: Did you grow up reading Rolling Stone? How did you find out about new music?
AO: Yeah, of course. I think most musicians at least dabble with it. I think I had a subscription when I was in 6th or 7th grade. For me, I turn to the internet. When I was younger, I used to look online at different blogs and sites and find a lot of music like that. I know a lot of my friends did the same. It made it a lot easier because usually one place will link you to something else that sounds like it and it’s all available. You just click and listen.
SM: I keep forgetting we’re part of that generation that doesn’t know how to look up things without the internet. I have no idea how I found new music pre-Myspace.
AO: (Laughs) I know! And like iTunes and things. Buying one single as opposed to a whole set. Fast-forwarding and whatnot.
SM: Do you remember cassettes?
AO: Of course! I remember going to Target and buy those 99 cent tapes. I remember when Mariah Carey released Honey and N*Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye.” (Laughs.)
SM: The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal also gave you guys props, naming you one of their most anticipated releases in 2014 and best “On The Record” artists, respectively. How has all of this recent recognition felt since you’ve been slugging it out since 07?
AO: A little surreal, ‘cause we really have. We’re on the road seven or eight months out of the year. Just this past year was the first time that we were all able to let go of our jobs and still be able to afford our apartments and things. We’ve been working really hard, not just at music, but just trying to survive as musicians for years. It’s really strange to finally be able to sit back and say, “I guess people do like our music!” You put something out there and you hope people respond to it positively, but you never fully expect them to. When they do, it’s validation on a level that is inspiring.
SM: Describe music for you growing up. How did you eventually decide you wanted to make music as your career?
AO: I actually went to school for painting. I originally thought I was going to be a painter so for a good amount of my adolescence, that’s what I focused on. But I’ve been in bands since I was thirteen, and it was always one of those things that where I was like, “I wish I could be a singer,” but when you’re thirteen and in middle school, that just seems so far-fetched. I also listened to a lot of jazz growing up, so I originally wanted to be a jazz singer, which, jazz is not the most popular music with this generation. But at a certain age I just kind of realized that the fact that I did like a more outdated form of music worked really well with what was going on currently, because it added something unique. I think everyone else in my band was discovering the same thing at the same time. They were all really into psychedelic music. You never know you’re a musician until you are. Even to this day, it’s still strange for me to tell people I’m a singer.
SM: How did you and the Tonton’s meet?
AO: The guitarist and the drummer are brothers. They all went to high school together. The guitarist and the bassist had a strictly psychedelic band. It was like Cream meets the Grateful Dead. Houston just has a very small music scene. My band was breaking up, and they just kind of swooped in. When we started off, we wanted to start a band, but we wanted to hang out as friends first and make music on the side. None of us expected to do anything with it. We recorded one EP that cost us like $200, and through that we got SXSW and then after that it kept going. People just really dug our music and we’ve always gotten a lot of positive feedback within our own community. I would come home from school and we would play shows. I moved back from New York and took this on full time.
SM: Tell us a bit about your city. We all know about Austin and their scene, so what is the Houston music scene like and why do you think your band is able to thrive there?
AO: I think it was a lot of timing and us being kind of tenacious. The Houston music scene is very small. It’s growing, but it’s tiny and it’s known more for hip-hop than anything else. A lot of rock bands tend to get overlooked. It’s one of those things where either you’re as big as Beyonce, or you’re nothing. There’s no mid-level really. A lot of times you have to go outside to find that success. The greatest thing about the Houston music scene is that there is no idea of what it should be. So every day, as a band, you kind of just shape it a little more. You get to play an active role in what it is becoming. That’s wonderful, you can kind of do whatever you want to. For a long time, Houston had been down on itself and a lot of people had been down on Houston. Then they decided no more and started putting more effort into the culture aspects as opposed to just the business aspects. It was a good time for bands to come out because people wanted something to do on a Saturday night, and I think as the city keeps embracing it, there will be more opportunities for bands like us.
SM: Your new album and second full-length Make Out King and Other Stories of Love is set to release in February. You guys got to work with Dave Boyle (Justin Timberlake, Gavin DeGraw) at his studio, Churchhouse Studios (Robert Plant, Eddie Vedder.) Being from Texas it must have been really exciting work in such a famous studio and producer. What was your experience like working there with Dave Boyle?
AO: We almost became like a family because we lived with him. It was kind of his first time ever having a band just stay in the studio. Our bedrooms were inside of the studio and we would all wake up and eat breakfast together. Or after we finished recording a big song, we would all go out and celebrate that day. You know, like all of these different people have worked there, and we knew that, but Dave is just this guy that has a personality that is warm and welcoming, it felt like home. It was a unique experience that, at times was trying. You had to be emotional every day if you’re going to give your best performance. Your entire life becomes working on whatever song that day requires and there’s nothing outside of it. We were really honored that we got to be in a situation like that because I don’t think the album would have sounded as honest if we hadn’t worked with somebody who allowed it to be that way.
SM: How is this album different from your previous full-length?
AO: For one, we’re all in the same city. We accepted that this is not only what we want to do with our lives, but that it’s possible. That constant shows a lot in the album. The ’09 album lacked a lot of confidence and experience that we’ve gained in the last couple of years. Now we really believe that this is what we’re going to be doing with our lives and people like our music and we’re not just doing this for ourselves.
SM: What’s your favorite song off the new album?
AO: My favorite song is “So Tired.” I didn’t like that song at first, so I did a complete 180. It was the recording process because it was the first song I completed fully vocally. This is the first album where I tried out my own harmonies, and I was always kind of afraid to do them. Then I got into it and thought it was awesome and so much fun, so I kind of went harmony crazy on the whole album. For me, it was a milestone and whenever I hear it, I keep thinking I should have done this a long time ago.
SM: So you would say the band not only went through a growing phase, but you yourself as an artist.
AO: Yeah, just because of Dave being the producer and the situation, I really had to. He’s the type of producer who would make me listen to an entire Tina Turner album and explain to him why things sounded certain ways, and how you can make vocals comparable to it if not better. He pushed me and there were times that I was in tears or freaking out in a way that no one ever has made me before.
SM: What can your fans expect from this new release?
AO: A more polished sound and honest album. Evolution for sure, and hopefully it shows people that even if you come from a city that isn’t notorious for supporting something, that if you want it bad enough you can have it. I hope other Houston musicians get that out of it too.
SM: You also recently announced you’ll be going on tour with Bright Light Social Hour in February. You’ve done about 300 shows in about a year and a half. Are you ready to get back out on the road?
AO: We basically live on the road. We’re ready to get back out. Obviously, when you have a little bit of a break, you get complacent. We’re good a being on the road and Bright Light Social Hour is a great band and this is an awesome opportunity.
SM: What’s the best thing about being on tour?
AO: Getting to travel is great. Touring is the first time that I ever saw mountains and the first time half of us ever saw snow or got to see the West Coast or drive on the 101. It’s cool because we’ve been to almost every state and we’ve been out of the country. I personally think the nicest thing about touring is that once you get used to it, it’s so relaxing. When you’re in a van driving, you really don’t have to answer to anybody, there’s nothing pressing. You can afford yourself to do things like read a book, take a nap, have a conversation, listen to music you’ve wanted to catch up on. You’re in a van for hours in a day and you’re not held accountable to anything, but you’re still moving towards a goal. We’ve gotten to meet really cool people and it’s such a unique lifestyle. My office is the road, and I know a lot of people wish they could say that and I feel really lucky that I get to.
SM: Where’s one place you hope to play a show that you haven’t gotten the chance to yet?
AO: All of us want to play Japan. We’ve been saying that for a couple years and I know the boys want to play there. That’s their end goal and they could retire happy if we play there.
SM: What are some of your plans for 2014?
AO: We are going to be touring a lot, so we’ll probably see you on the road. We‘re going to keep recording and writing music. Hopefully more of the same, just on the next level.
SM: Anything you would like to say to your fans or potential fans?
AO: If you’re looking for an album that isn’t pretentious or overproduced and a little bit different from what you hear in the norm, then you should get our album. We’re really proud of it and hope everyone likes it as much as we do.
SM: Thanks so much, Asli! Good luck this year!
AO: Thanks so much!
Make Out King and Other Stories of Love comes out on February 18th!
Interview by Stephanie Roe