Onstage at a small bar, bassist and vocalist David Sheinkopf is a tangle of curls and cascading syllables, his crooning quasi-innocence reminiscent of the Modern Lovers' Jonathan Richman. His underground power-pop band, The Subjects, is playing the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, a week-long orgy of music and parties, barbecue and booze. Yet as you look at the other members onstage, especially the drummer, you have to wonder: Are these guys old enough to be in bars?
The New York-based quartet has had plenty of experience with the restrictions of the drinking age -- and the educational system. When The Subjects formed, four years ago, Sheinkopf and guitarist Joe Smith were high school teachers; guitarist Jimmy Carbonetti and drummer Matt Iwanusa were their students. There can't be too many bands where one member has given another detention.
"We started playing right before we graduated from high school," says Iwanusa. "So we tried to keep it on the low-down, but we were going out and playing these bars." The two elders OK'd the arrangement with the parents of Iwanusa and Carbonetti, but a rock band is not exactly the textbook student/teacher relationship. "We never told the school until we were in Spin magazine and all these kids saw it and brought it around the school," says Iwanusa. "Then they talked to Dave about it, and didn't get too mad at him."
Now Iwanusa's finishing up college, but that early tension lives on in the band's name. "We were kinda nervous about getting in trouble about the whole thing; we felt like we were going to be the 'subjects' of all the teachers talking about it," says Iwanusa. "Like, we're in the spotlight, kinda in a negative way, maybe."
These days, the band's found a favorable spotlight in the pages of Spin, Punk Planet and CMJ, which have praised the band's new full-length debut, With the Ease Grace Precision and Cleverness of Human Beings. On the surface, Sheinkopf's voice and the jangly guitars give the record a power-pop sound with roots in The Kinks and The Replacements. But the material is far from simplistic. On standout tracks like "The Hounds of War," dynamic nuance and unconventional structures roam free.
"It's mostly just trying to get songs to flow in a certain way," says Iwanusa. "What makes some points strong in our songs is when they don't keep repeating themselves, because it eventually loses something -- if you hear it once, it's much more important than if you hear it twice."
The Subjects with Black Tie Revue and The Breakup Society. 10 p.m. Sat., Aug. 11. Gooski's, 3117 Brereton St., Polish Hill. $5. 412-681-1658