Tetsuo is a bit of an enigma. Over the past two years, the Murfreesboro born-and-bred threesome (frontman/guitarist Ardis Redford, bassist Spencer Blake, drummer Austin Coppage) has undergone lineup metamorphosis, released two compelling records in a short amount of time and is preparing to release its third this month. The first album These Crystals Don’t Burn is an experiment in psychedelia and shoddy garage rock, and the second, Inmates, is a blur of punk slop, though both fit within a hardened post-hardcore frame and are outfitted in Redford’s poetically askew lyrics. You don’t have to look outside Nashville to find a hundred other talented bands with a high output. But here’s the funny part: in Tetsuo’s two-year lifespan, the band has ridden on the fringe of Nashville’s expansive and quite hyped garage rock scene. Sitting on their porch on a late day in May, The Pulse asked why. I don’t think anyone’s ever asked them.
How did Tetsuo become a band?
Blake: Tetsuo formed kind of by accident two years ago. We weren’t even going to join a band; we just played on a recording. Then we couldn’t really stop. We started playing music together when we were 16. I think I had just turned 16 when Redford and his friend Nelson had an acoustic indie rock band, and me and Austin joined that band and we played music together under different band names for six, seven years. But Tetsuo’s only been around for two. We played in different bands under different names with the same people.
Redford: I saw Spencer in this one band a long time ago, and I thought that was so fuckin’ cool, so I wanted to get involved, and I’ve never regretted it.
Blake: I went to Blackman High School and played jazz with Austin’s brother and some older kids. We were in band together and we just started playing during a study period. Then Tetsuo didn’t have a drummer, and I said, “Let’s just get this guy.”
How did you name it Tetsuo?
Redford: Me and John Corlew, the other founding member, threw a book—it was V by Thomas Pynchon—and it landed on a page, and the sentence was, “Sponge brain and clock of a heart.” Everybody at my house wanted me to call the band, “Sponge Brain And Clock of a Heart,” but I didn’t like the word “sponge brain.”
Blake: ’Cause it sounds like Spongebob.
Redford: Truth. So we threw another book against the wall, and that book came up with “Tetsuo,” so we just replaced Sponge Brain with Tetsuo, and then everybody just started calling us Tetsuo instead of Tetsuo And Clock of a Heart. I realize that Tetsuo was confusing enough.
Blake: We totally shot ourselves in the foot calling our band that ’cause there’s like six other bands called Tetsuo, and none of them are the same genre. Some of them are still around, some of them broke up, and it’s really hard to find…it’s like we named our band The Birds with an “i.” No one would ever know who we were. Last night some guy was like, “You’re not in Tetsuo.” I said, “You’re probably thinking of some other Tetsuo,” then he pulled up our record and said, “You did this?” That was cool.
Blake: The first one.
Did you finish the third record?
Blake: We’re about 90 percent done.
Redford: We’ve got to get Kansas Bible Company to put horns on it and maybe change a couple vocal tracks.
Where’d you record it?
Redford: With Jason Dietz.
Blake: The same guy we’ve recorded with every year for six years. He did all three records and all the stuff we did before we were Tetsuo—Saint Buzzard and The Kinky Gentlemen.
Redford: We followed him from his garage…all the way to his suburban home.
Blake: It’s at his house, but he’s a genius. And he has everything; he’s really a wizard, and he’s really cheap. He’s the best person for us. We’ve thrown around changing producers. We were going to go to Grand Palace, but at the end of the day, we know we’d just have to start back at square one with anybody else. Dietz knows what we sound like, so why change a good thing?
Redford: Sticking with him has made a slow improvement in our sound quality, I think.
Blake: He’s an engineer; he lets us produce it, but he’s done more than he probably thinks he has as far as getting us smart about getting super over-prepared going into the studio.
If you didn’t have Jason directing you, what would be different?
Blake: I think we’d be recording by ourselves, and the recordings would be really janky, but it’d probably be more…
Redford: It’d probably be more “mountain band.”
Blake: We probably wouldn’t have been able to afford to make those records. Everyone else is way more expensive. We’d be lost without him is what we’re trying to say.
What’s the third record going to be called?
Redford: I think it’s going to be JRRRRRRR. So far, nobody’s said yes to that. No, it’s never going to happen.
Blake: We’ve thrown around about a dozen names. It’s sick how much time we’ve spent together. We’ve been together forever. And I think that helps our band too. A lot of bands just form, add members, take away members. The three of us have always done the exact same thing we’ve always done, and that’s helped us perfect whatever it is that we do and helps us keep a consistent sound.
Redford: It would be a total nightmare to start over.
You say you keep a consistent sound. Some bands call it “the natural progression” when they kind of change entirely.
Redford: I think all the records are a bit different. I think they’re a lot less similar than we think they are.
Blake: The third record is toned down in that we’re not just screaming and playing as loud as we can. But songwriting-wise, we do the same kind of thing. Tongue-in-cheek lyrics.
Redford: There’s always that guy who sounds like Marge Simpson singing. I sound like Marge Simpson if you slowed her voice down. All I’m saying is, I listened to our first record recently, and I don’t think we’d release it at this point if we did that now. The natural progression is toward getting our sound tight and getting our tones tight.
The first record is not tight?
Redford: It’s pretty loosey-goosey.
Coppage: It’s almost intentionally loosey-goosey, though.
Blake: Yeah, that’s just part of it. It’s like a garage rocky record with a bunch of weird electronic stuff. Our later stuff was more straightforward rock ‘n’ roll. But what we’re interested in doing is take what everybody’s done already and do whatever we think that next thing is. Whether or not we can do it better than the greats and the old guys is irrelevant just because every rock band does their take on what rock music is. It’s a little louder and more unhinged, but it’s a lot like those old records because we kind of structure them that way.
Coppage: Our records are more important to us than our live shows. Even though we love playing live and care about what we do live, I just think for us, we’re more interested in having album sounds. Because when we die, that’s what’s going to be in the time capsule buried under our house.
But people remember live shows.
Redford: Over time, we’ve come to care about them more and more.
Coppage: Because we play so damn many of them.
Redford: We never used to sound that good live.
You describe yourself as a garage band. There are tons of garage bands in Nashville to the point where it’s pretty much a trend; people have started garage bands because it’s the thing to do. What sets you apart from them?
Redford: Well, we’re not doing it because it’s the thing to do, for sure. I always wanted to be in a band. I don’t think we write songs based on what anybody else is doing.
Blake: I think there have been a lot of bands that formed just to be like, “Let’s be a garage rock band and get real popular real fast.” We’re more interested in sticking around for a while. We’re not a band that formed because of the scene. We want to be there no matter what. The scene has never really accepted us because we’ve never been a part of it. I think that garage rock trend is really stupid. It’s really simple music. It’s so intentionally not put-together. It’s so contrived, I just can’t buy it. It sounds like shitty garage bands 30 years ago, only now they’re doing it on purpose. We’re not into gimmicks at all.
Where do you think this gimmick came from?
Blake: Jack White moved to Nashville and everybody wanted to be in a garage band ’cause he was there and they wanted him to pick them up.
Redford: I think the Internet has a lot to do with it as well. Everyone got really into the Nuggets box set and low-fi. It’s a great box set, but Spence is right; it’s strange to do stuff intentionally. It’s better to do what you can do with what you have.
Blake: If you’re making yourself sound like something because you think people want to hear that kind of sound, it’s not really even music. It’s like elevator music.
Redford: It’s a product.
Coppage: It’s manufactured.
Blake: And when low-fi garage rock is a manufactured product, that’s a bad sign.
Redford: That’s like some snake-eating-its-own-tail shit.
What do you guys listen to?
Blake: There’s maybe four or five bands we really like. Fugazi and Modest Mouse are two bands we all grew up on. It was the kind of music we wanted to play.
Coppage: That sound’s been consistent through our high school bands.
Blake: We always have that Fugazi kind of deep groove—loud guitars. Slant was a band that came right around the same time.
Redford: We’re kind of in the post-hardcore tradition.
Blake: We like a lot of the post-hardcore stuff from the early eighties. One thing we all listen to that doesn’t come through in the band is a lot of old school hip-hop. And bebop jazz from the ’30s.
Redford: I think the jazz comes through.
Blake: We listen to Charles Mingus, Coltrane, Art Blakey.
Redford: The fierce kind of jazz. I almost thought of jazz as protometal, almost.
Blake: The sound back then was just as abrasive. What’s that story about Coltrane dropping his saxophone and beating his chest because he couldn’t think of any more notes to play? That’s cool as fuck! I’m sure they were all on heroin, but they were genius musicians, and I wish we could make as many records as them. Bands make three or four records now and call it quits. Or put two years between every record.
I think at your second record release, Redford announced that the third record was ready.
Redford: Yeah, by the time of that release show, we had 7 of the 13 tracks already. We’ve been working on this one for a while.
Blake: I mean, Redford’s always writing songs. It freaks me out how many he can write in a short amount of time. Very few people still write like that. You don’t get that kind of high volume of material in such a short time. Maybe it’s kind of bitten us in the ass because maybe it’s too much for people to devour. It’s not a bad thing, but where do you start with us when we’ve been around just two years and we already have three records?
Redford: I’ve never heard that as a complaint before.
How many tracks did you bring in this time around?
Redford: All the records have 13 tracks. I always use 13 as a nice little reference point.
But I’m sure you had more songs than that. How did you sift through them to choose the 13 for this record?
Redford: I try to sort them by theme—by having a similar kind of vibe, I guess. All the songs on the first record were all my crazy, erratic jokes, almost. The second record was the darker shit. The third record is more melodic, ’60s kind of stuff.
Blake: We’re all really good at structuring stuff and making sure that we’re all playing the same thing together. That process is actually really fun.
Coppage: Right after Red writes stuff, and we’re sitting in the space arranging, that’s really where we all shine.
Do you have to be in the studio messing around with things before you can hear how you want the songs to be?
Coppage: By the time we get to the studio, we know every part. We’re laying it down.
Blake: On this record, we took a lot of pains to be prepared. We sat in the living room with mics on and just practiced. We recorded the whole record—just a bloody, nasty home recording. I know I listened to that a million times just to get vocal ideas, bass line ideas. We don’t want to miss anything that would make our record really sound good.
Coppage: I think a lot of bands don’t listen to their records over and over. But me and Redford, during the recording process, I’ll listen to that record two times a day. Not because I even like it, but because I think there’s got to be something else I can put in there. There’s got to be something I can fix.
Blake: We’ve gotten stringent about making it sound good. Whether that’s going to come across or not, I don’t know.
Redford, you write all the lyrics. When you write, do you have a song together in your head, or are you just writing lyrics?
Redford: That happens every possible way. I don’t know. It comes together real fast. I used to wake up and force myself to write a song every single day, whether I liked the song or not. And some of them were embarrassingly bad, but I was alone so it didn’t matter. I did that for about a year and a half I think. By the time I was done with that, like anything you practice at, I just knew how to do it. I can shit out songs.
Coppage: Hey, Redford shits out songs.
Blake: Like “The Truth,” the first song on our next record. I think the first time I heard that, I don’t know how wasted you guys were, but I remember getting back on the porch from a show. There were 10 people on the porch, and Redford was just screaming, “Five more angels…” What was that song?
And it just turned into another song. But he came up with the music on the porch. I was just like, “Redford, play that again.”
Redford: It’s like Tetris. If you practice enough, your hands just do it.
Blake: One cool thing about our second record is we put it together by hand.
Redford: Assembled lovingly by hand with a dull paper cutter. That paper cutter sucked!
Blake: I think we shipped out all our copies of it. I’m glad we did it by hand. There were a lot of late nights at Kinko’s. It was bad for a while. We kept saying, “We’ve got to finish this.” Because no one’s going to do it for you.
When will the third record be released?
Redford: It depends on Dietz. And we’ve got to get Kansas Bible Company in to do the horn parts.
Blake: We do have a couple associates. Our friends Molly and Brendan. Brendan plays guitar with us sometimes. Molly sang with us a lot on the last two records.
Redford: She’s that female vocal on “New Breed” (on the second record, Inmates).
Blake: Our friend Melissa has a nice, pretty voice. Molly has the rough, rock voice. We have a pretty similar voice.
Redford: Ren sings on “Jump My Bones.” Taylor Gibbs sang on one of the tracks. It’s like a thing Frank Zappa did, and I always thought that was one of the coolest things ever. All of his records have tape recordings of his friends.
Blake: If you find somebody that you trust that likes your music, they’re going to do a good job, especially if you can direct them a little bit.
Coppage: Also, our friend Casey from Spybox plays on our new record.
Redford: And hopefully we’ll have Kansas Bible Company do the horn parts.
Coppage: Horn parts! We have evolved.
Is this record “about” anything?
Blake: I don’t think there’s a concept, but Tennessee is a theme in our songs. As a setting, this place is pretty cool. It’s a pastoral, agriculture kind of place, but it’s also got culture, and there’s a lot of people in Middle Tennessee just packed in. We live in a college town, and Nashville is a huge hotbed for all sorts of shit. It just gives you ideas for songs, and how a place affects how people act, and how the structure of society works. A lot of those songs on the first one were about Murfreesboro, but also just the people we know.
Redford: I’ll say this. I think the first record was more Murfreesboro-based, and the second was more Nashville-based, but I couldn’t write a third record about anywhere else, because I’m out of places. It’s about the people. If I had to say, the third record would be about getting older, moving on.
Blake: It’s easy to get hung up and frustrated, because we’ve had no success. We pay almost everything out of pocket. We don’t have a manager. It’s easy to grow to hate the place that makes it so hard for you, but that’s par for the course. We’re prepared to never get paid for anything. If that’s the way it’s going to be, it has no bearing on us, because we’re going to play even if we have to pay taxes to be in a band. We don’t care if there’s money, because there is no money. We gave up that dream a long time ago. If you want to make money playing music, just go get a fucking job.
Redford: I don’t think frustration with Nashville was the main theme of Inmates, but we are moving on from that. The third record is not as negatively charged.
Blake: Lyrically, I think Red just likes to put his finger on things, and he does it in a way that nobody can tell what he’s doing. It looks like a story, but it’s not a story. He’s calling people out.
Are lyrics more important to you than music?
Redford: I think that they’re both important, but I think I’m better at writing lyrics than I am at playing music.
Blake: Me and Austin have a somewhat formal musical education. We can read music, but I can’t write lyrics to save my life. Neither of us can. We’d be singing “Big Daddy Dick and the Storm Trooper.”
Redford: I wrote “Big Daddy Dick”!
You know how Bobby Liebling from Pentagram says he’s not writing any more songs because he feels like he’s already written all he can write? Do you ever think you would stop writing songs?
Redford: I don’t know.
Blake: Every musician says that to themselves all the time. They just think the songs won’t be good. Not two weeks later, they can’t help but write another one.
Redford: I think if that ever happened to me, I would be profoundly sad, like I’d lost a huge part of myself. I hope that never happens. If I ever stopped writing songs, I would start writing books, and that’s the truth. A lot of lyrics were supposed to be stories but on paper they didn’t come off right, but in lyrics, it works. That’s the thing about lyrics—you can get away with all kinds of shit.
What do you do apart from Tetsuo?
Redford: I work at a screenprinting shop doing different things, and I teach rock band to kids with YEAH.
Blake: I wash dishes at a fancy restaurant and make the cornbread. And me and Austin do food demos at Sam’s Club. We’ve been busy until last week. Redford and I just graduated, and I think that just now we’re really going to start getting serious. I don’t care about getting a big boy job, I’d rather just play music with all my free time.
Redford: On my last day of class in senior seminar, they got this guy to come in and talk to us about career development. They went around the room and asked us what we were going to do, and when they got to me, I said, “I’m planning on being a musician.” And everybody laughed.
Blake: It’s cheesy, but if you want to make something work, you make it happen for yourself.
Like JEFF the Brotherhood. They played basements for years before they quit their jobs to go on tour full-time, and look where it got them.
Redford: And they’re kickass dudes. That’s what makes me worried about dissing on Nashville garage rock. It’s like shooting a gun into a crowd where there are some people I don’t want to hit. Because JEFF’s awesome, Natural Child is awesome.
Any particular songs on the new record you want to talk about?
Coppage: “Captain of the Ocoee,” that’s one of my favorites.
Redford: The Ocoee River is one of my favorite places in Tennessee. I used to go out there back when I was friends with a bunch of really outdoorsy people, and it was one of the best times of my life. We’d go out on the kayak. The thing about the Ocoee River is they can switch it on and off. There was this guitar player. He was a total drunk who lived really hard, and he’d go out on this rock when the river was off and play guitar…
Blake: …And one day, they turned the river on while he was out there, and he drowned!
Redford: That’s actually exactly what happened. And this guy, he was kind of an ass, and people just started calling him Captain of the Ocoee.
What about the ones you’re going to add horn parts to?
Redford: One of those is about a tent city in Tel Aviv, Israel, called Levinsky where all the homeless people live and the army comes in about every week and tears it down. But they don’t really have anywhere to go, so they just build it back over and over again.
There’s another song with horns on it that’s just kind of a poem I wrote. The thing about that one is that the riff is based on “Baby Ice Dog” by the great Blue Oyster Cult.
You’ve all graduated, right? So what now?
Coppage: I haven’t graduated. That’s unforeseeable.
Blake: I wish I could get back my four years.
Redford: Yeah, me too, man. We should have started Tetsuo four years ago, and right now, we’d be, you know, talking on a pile of cocaine on this porch. I think we’re going to move to Chicago, though. We know a lot of people there, and it’s pretty there.
Blake: Forever it was a coin toss between Austin, Texas, and Chicago. In Chicago, it would be easy for us to get a friend base and get going. But in Austin, they’re a little more receptive to what we play. I think we should tour first before making a decision, but the longer we wait, the more likely I think it is that we’ll just stay here.
Redford: How about we just say a year from today?
Would you still write songs about Tennessee?
Redford: Yes. It would take a long time for that to get out of my blood.