Featured Music: Wednesday, November 21, 2002
That ’70s Showman

John Price has the look — and the sound —to achieve greatness.


John Price is really a couple of different people. At least.

He’s the cool guy in bell-bottoms and a wide-collared button-down shirt, cowboy hat, and shades (even at night) who dances on the tables at Fuzzy’s Taco Shop after the Aardvark closes. Or, when the hat and shades come off, he is, according to his friend Chris Hardee of the band Alan, “the guy from That ’70s Show!”

But Price is also an articulate, sincere fella with a pronounced spiritual and philosophical bent, given to making casual statements that might come across as pompous or sound like rampant hippie-dippie-ism if they weren’t delivered with such disarming sincerity and overarching intelligence.

He’s also the man who just delivered one of the most surprising local discs to come down the pike this year. Listening to Price’s recently released c.d., Little Pieces of a Little Piece of Something Small, it’s evident that Price isn’t just another “Americana”-ish singer-songwriter. In fact, he might just be a rock star in training.

“I get typecast a lot because I wear a cowboy hat,” said Price over lunch at Benito’s, where the musician — a vegetarian — was delighted to discover the place has black beans as well as refritos. “I don’t like to think in terms of genres. I write music. I’m against anything that creates barriers.”

The sound of Little Pieces is full, rich, and varied Big Rock, with tunes that carry irresistible pop hooks (“Straight Jacket,” “Slip Away,” “When You Go”) bumping up against others with ethereal, almost Brit-pop sonics (the opening “Evaporation,” with guitar assistance from The Chemistry Set’s Steve Duncan, “Gone and Over,” “Questionably Red”). There’s even one with a faux-trash disco vibe (“Fall”). Producers Todd and Toby Pipes took an active role in the sound’s construction, providing instrumental and vocal support as well as handling duties behind the board. The packaging (one of those big, nine-panel fold-out slicks, with gorgeous graphics courtesy of art director Robert Atherton) has the look and feel of a major-label art department production, hardly what one would expect from a tiny local indie release.

There was never a conscious decision, Price said, to shift from his earlier country-based material to something else entirely. Perhaps it’s a result of his growing mastery of the art of songwriting — and he’s definitely someone who appreciates the ability of pop music to evoke memories of emotions and provide the soundtrack to people’s lives. “I got to a certain point where I wanted to be able to communicate more emotion in my songs,” he said, quickly adding, “not that the ones before had no emotion in them.”

The change in Price’s sound could also be a benefit of the recording process, which he said gave him total freedom to experiment. “A lot of times, before the c.d., I’d introduce new songs to the band an hour before a show,” said Price. “I’d show them the changes, and we’d do a run-through with no amps, no drums, then say, ‘OK, let’s play that tonight.’ In the studio, we’d start out with a scratch track of just vocals and my guitar over a click [track]. Then the musicians were free to provide input. I was surprised by a lot of the stuff they came up with.”

Now that the disc is released, Price is working tirelessly to promote it. “I’m calling everyone I’ve ever met, record stores and radio stations everywhere. We’re going to reactivate our old e-mail lists to let everyone know that we’ve been away for awhile, but now we’re back.” He was recently surprised to learn that Little Pieces is receiving airplay in Memphis. Asked whether he’d consider touring to support the c.d., he immediately responded, “I want to play everywhere.”

Megalomania? Nah, Price is just that rarest of things, an unremittingly positive rockaroller. “People talk about energy as if it’s just motivation to do things, but really it’s a lot more — the life force that’s in us,” he said. “There’s a lot more to this thing we call life than meets the eye.”

Price grew up in Houston and came to Fort Worth to attend TCU. “I was a different person then,” he said. “I started out majoring in criminal justice. I thought I wanted to be a cop, but I was just into the action. It really wasn’t me, so I switched to a business major and wound up wondering, ‘What am I doing?’ Then I switched again, to speech communication, and just fell in love with it.” He used to play in a country band, working four nights a week. “My instructors were always really understanding if I had a show or whatever. All my friends who were in bands said they had the same experience.”

Besides his musical endeavors, Price is also a visual artist. He likes the immediacy of abstract painting, which contrasts sharply with the painstaking and labor-intensive process of making music. The paintings on the c.d. slick were collaborations between him and his brother Jeff. “He’s my little brother, but he’s very wise. I used to get hung up on worrying about my thoughts, until he told me, ‘You’re like the sky, and your thoughts are just clouds passing through.’ ”

For a long time, Price said, he was totally focused on the goal of making a record. Having accomplished that, he’s eager to increase his knowledge of the business and technical aspects of music-making. He plans to build a studio in his home, where new bands could record demos without incurring the costs associated with commercial studios. “It wouldn’t be kick-ass,” he said, “but it’d be as good as some of the places I recorded demos when I was starting out. They’d get a usable demo, and I’d get the experience of using the equipment.”

While he waits to see how the world at large will accept Little Pieces, Price continues performing shows, including the first-Sunday-of-the-month “Acoustic Mafia” sessions at the Moon, where a roundrobin of singer-songwriters like Brandin Lea, Fletcher Lea, Tim Locke, Collin Herring, Joe Rose, and Aardvark/Moon owner Danny Weaver, among others, share the spotlight. “We don’t feel like it has to be the center of attention, but the people who have come out have been pretty attentive,” said Price. “There are enough different people rotating in and out to hold their interest.”

Sounds like another way of breaking down barriers.

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