Grab a stack of reviews and write-ups of New York City-based trio the Silos, read five or six of 'em, and scratch your head as you wonder whether they all could possibly be about the same band. According to Buzz McClain in the Washington Post, the band creates "powerful earthy pop that sounds like the result of Nirvana riding on R.E.M.'s tour bus."
"The band's austere style inflects the astringent twang of The Velvet Underground with the drone of R.E.M. and adds countryish echoes that recall Gram Parsons," offered Stephen Holden in The New York Times. To someone's ears at Ink 19, "the (Silos') music has a good groove evocative of Los Lobos or the Latin Playboys."
"We get compared to everybody," says Walter Salas-Humara, the Silos' vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter. "To some people, we're a country band. To other people, we're a rock band. To other people, we're an acoustic band. Some people think we're rootsy, and others think we're arty." He pauses to take a breath and to chuckle at the breadth of it all. "We're all of those things."
Ira Robbins, writing in The Trouser Press Record Guide, certainly thought so, describing Salas-Humara as an "unflashy auteur whose roots-rock amalgam drapes country, punk, baroque stateliness and pop in an abiding sadness." The thing is, every one of those descriptions is a snapshot of the truth taken from different angles. The music of Salas-Humara and his bandmates is the sound of ideas, styles and maybe even cultures colliding. It deftly combines a big beat with a nothing-wasted leanness, and it's music that possesses a unique blending of intensity and approachability, with the ferocious rockers tilting you back on your heels just as quickly as the hushed, tightly coiled ballads draw you closer.
"The consistent thing is just the emphasis on--at least for most of the records--a strong emphasis on songwriting," responds Salas-Humara, when asked what the unifying thread is that holds this sonic whirl together. "That, and sort of the no compromise attitude about being true to the art. Luckily for us, we've never had to make any kind of compromises for commercial success, never been pressured by any record company."
There is one other constant when it comes to the Silos: Salas-Humara. He began playing music with a collective called the Vulgar Boatmen while a student at the University of Florida in the early '80s. He eventually moved to New York City, but some of the Boatmen stayed together and held on to the name, shuffling members over the years and releasing three critically acclaimed albums (including one produced by Salas-Humara). In New York, Salas-Humara recorded the eight-song About Her Steps, which came out in 1985 under the name the Silos, a moniker chosen mostly for its phonetic friendliness. "In the beginning, I didn't want to use my name because I thought it was too hard for people to deal with," Salas-Humara offers. "So I came up with a two-syllable, easy to roll off the tongue, works in all languages more or less, name."
After what he describes as "some unexpected interest" in About Her Steps, he put together a band to tour behind it. That lineup made Cuba, originally released in 1987 and reissued last fall by Nashville's Dualtone label, an exhilarating album that introduced the Silos' enviable ability to communicate effectively in both a whisper and a howl. The band's third album, a self-titled effort that found talented bass player Bob Rupe playing an increasingly larger role as contributing songwriter and part-time vocalist, was even better. Its spacious, organic quality made it seem out of place in 1990; however, looking back at the album from within the alt-country glow of the decade's end, The Silos resonated like the work of visionaries.
"That one has a real unique sound," Salas-Humara says. "Definitely a different sound from the other stuff that was going on at the time. It was still Guns 'N' Roses on the one side and Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar on the other side--you know, massively produced albums. And that record was, I mean, it was a rock record, but it was kind of mellow in the sense that it was sort of like an intimate, live show coming to you out of the speakers."
Rupe left before another record was made, but Salas-Humara kept the Silos name alive with a continuing series of impassioned recordings--two of which, Hasta la Victoria and Susan Across the Ocean are set for re-release on Salas-Humara's new label--and miles and miles of roadwork. He also released several solo albums, produced releases by Michael Hall and Jim Roll, did some guest drumming on Hazeldine's Orphans, and joined Hall and Alejandro Escovedo in a two-off named the Setters. It's definitely not a stretch to include his name alongside the likes of Escovedo, Dave Alvin, Lucinda Williams, Jason Ringenberg, and Steve Earle when listing the distinguished (relative) elders of the current roots-rock/"alt-country" uprising.
These days, he's enjoying the stability of a Silos line up that's been together longer than any other, closing in on four years, with Drew Glackin on bass and Konrad Meissner on drums. "We all enjoy each other's company quite a bit" is Salas-Humara's take on this longevity. "And stylistically, it all locks together in an interesting way. The kind of primitive guitar playing combined with the very flashy bass playing and then the kind of eclectic drumming. It works in a trio format. And to have the steel guitar (from Glackin) on the quieter songs adds just a whole other thing."
So what do the Silos sound like? "It's hard to describe. It's unique. The funny thing about it is if you pile up enough album reviews and so forth, the comments and the descriptions will run the gamut," Salas-Humara says, inspiring this article's lead-in. "From one end all the way to the other end, with people trying to describe what it is. It really is impossible to describe. I guess that would be the word: undescribable. Or is that indescribable?"
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