Although it's only a quarter to 1 in the afternoon, the thunk of bowling balls and the pleasing crash of pins is already reverberating in White Center's Magic Lanes. The casino–bowling alley hybrid is a favorite among locals who can't get enough Reno in their West Seattle, so it's a little disappointing that alt-country crooner Rocky Votolato, who lives in the area, has never been here before.Granted, he has a family to care for. He met his wife, April, when she was doing sound for an independent movie; in The Edge of Quarrel, Votolato played Brian Johansen, a punk rocker (this was filmed during his punk days with Waxwing) determined to unite his quarreling friends. Within two weeks, he discovered that he was a father-to-be; within a year, Votolato was a husband and father of two. Kienan, his son, turns eight on June 24, and Autumn, 14—April's daughter from a previous relationship—is high school–bound.
Rocky Votolato With Night Canopy. Triple Door, 216 Union St., 838-4333, www.tripledoor.net. $15. 7:30 p.m. Thurs., June 21.
Listen to Rocky Votolato's "Postcard From Kentucky"
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Being a musician and a family man ain't easy.
"It's a balancing act," he says, in the Magic Lanes bar overlooking the bowling alley. "But I'm not complaining about it....I've got two loves."
Having that support has also allowed Votolato to grow out of the shadow of Waxwing, the band he and his brother, Cody, crafted into a Northwest mainstay in the late '90s. "I just wanted to get as far away from country as I could," he says of his days in the post-hardcore scene, after moving to Seattle from Texas. But even the rebellion got old.
"I got tired of it, in a way," he says. "There are different things that are interesting to me now, as an older person. It just sounds better to me. I like twangy guitars, more simplistic songs."
Critical appreciation and his growing fan base swelled in January 2006, with the release of his last album (and his first on Barsuk), Makers. That album, a stripped-down, acoustic effort, was buttery on the ears and evoked more sways and overly simplistic comparisons to a countrified Elliott Smith. But Votolato's music has a uniquely authentic feel; "White Daisy Passing," a standout track, was even featured as a "Song of the Day" on NPR.
Since last year, Votolato's been a full-time musician and a homeowner to boot. Just when I start thinking of the economics of local real estate and music, Votolato throws a curveball.
"I won a house on a reality TV show, Home Team, kind of a B-rated [Extreme Makeover: Home Edition]," he says, smiling.
Motherfucker. After his wife's family put in an application to the show, the producers couldn't say no to the handsome singer-songwriter's young, camera-ready family. "I couldn't tell her for three days while we remodeled the house," he says of the life-changing September 2004 television event. "I had to make up all of these elaborate stories, which really sucked because I do not lie to my wife. It was embarrassing. Someone shows up with a camera in your face, and you're not expecting it—I mean, I hadn't had a haircut in a while." Even though Home Team didn't pay for the entire mortgage (or a down payment), the year of rent-free living allowed them a bit of breathing room.
Between the win and Makers, he was able to spend two densely packed months recording The Brag & Cuss with Pedro the Lion's Casey Foubert.
"Every album is a reaction to your last album," he says, comparing the bare-bones feel of Makers to The Brag & Cuss, a record with an all-star cast, including musicians who've worked with Sufjan Stevens (James McAllister) and Hank Williams Jr. (Rick Steff).
"[Foubert]'s amazing," Votolato says of his album's co-producer and arranger. "He can play any instrument. He's a total musical genius. He can play crazy jazz piano. That's something you don't find in the indie scene lately: a guy who's talented at all kinds of instruments."
The richer instrumentation, including mandolin, banjo, accordion, and Hammond B-3, more firmly entrenches the feel of The Brag & Cuss into the crooner's Texas roots. Votolato, who graduated from UW with a degree in English literature, counts himself as a fan of the transcendentalists and Beats, groups of writers notoriously in love with scenery. Despite his luck, his connection with and nostalgia for a sense of place leaves some of the remnant gloom on The Brag & Cuss. Some of the best songs on the album, like "Postcard From Kentucky" and "Silver Trees," are also the saddest, dripping with plucky guitar and a wayward, swaggering tempo that would easily find a home in any sawdust-sprinkled jukebox.
"A lot of the imagery and things from my past is comforting in a way," he says, while admitting it's been a while since he's returned to his home state for family, even though he played SXSW this year. And it's not that he hasn't had the chance. "My brother flew out today to visit our dad on the ranch we grew up on. I was scheduled to go, even had a plane ticket, but decided not to. It's a really busy time—I have a record coming out in a few weeks."
Votolato's phone beeps. Though he'd been present and focused throughout the entire interview, he jumps when he sees who it is. "Oh, it's Barsuk!"
It's a call he takes at once.