Hacienda are family members Abraham Villanueva (piano, vocals), Dante Schwebel (guitar, vocals), Jaime Villanueva (drums, vocals) and Rene Villanueva (bass, vocals) – and that closeness makes for a noticeably tight, “dizzying” delivery. Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys), struck by their “natural chemistry,” became an early supporter and mentor to the San-Antonio-based foursome and abetted not only their signing but opening slots for his band and the recording of their 2008 debut, Loud Is The Night, in his Akron, Ohio studio.
Guitarist Dante Schwebel recalls the (right) time and place where Hacienda met the man who would kick-start their career, and shares their thoughtful blueprint for a slow but steady build to success: hard work, great songs, and taking full advantage of the opportunities they’ve been given.
How do you describe Hacienda?
Well, it’s a rock band for sure. I know that genres have become rather broad but it’s a mixture of all the things we like: old R&B, country music, gospel, rockabilly…When you put that all together, it’s rock and roll.
So how does playing with family impact how you operate as a band?
The family thing is kind of weird. Only more recently have I played with other artists and you definitely do get a different dynamic with family. We don’t pull any punches with one another and you don’t extend the same courtesies that you might with strangers, you know what I mean? We fight a lot but you gotta realize, we fought a lot before we were ever in a band together (laughs).
(laughs) Well I was going to ask you if you fight a lot because it’s family – not that fighting is always a negative thing, of course.
No, its not always negative. Everyone is really creative and very passionate and we fight, but usually it’s about the last pizza slice – like children fighting about sharing the same bedroom, you know? It’s rarely fighting about the music.
When I was listening to your new song, Savage, a user on iTunes had written, ‘Hacienda doesn’t know how to write a bad song.’ What’s your response to that?
Oh wow. I’d say, ‘Thanks, Mom; that’s really nice of you!’ (laughs) You know, with songwriting, the first record takes you like, 18 years to write (laughs) but now this is our third record we’re played with a different process; we tried everything we wanted to and hopefully what makes it onto the record are the best songs we’ve written.
Do you have a main goal or focus when you sit down to write?
We try to write songs as opposed to writing music. We try to write songs that say something.
So how does this record compare to what we’ve heard from you previously?
It’s very different. Take Savage: it’s groove-heavy and has a great melody and doesn’t sound much like anything on our first two records. This record is up-tempo; it’s lively and has a…bigger sound. We tried to trim a lot of fat so it’s a pretty fast-paced 35 minutes and not incredibly long. I don’t know…if you really like it then play it twice, you know? (laughs)
That would make an excellent slogan for the album (laughs).
It would! I don’t know why people make fucking 50-minute long records. I mean, if you make a 50-minute album I can guarantee there’s going to be some shit on there.
So what spurs you to make a shift in your sound after two albums? Is it new inspiration from bands you’re listening to; is it increased comfort as players – or it simply a bid to mix it up and keep things fresh?
It’s all those things. You go through moods. The brothers could be really into jazz at one point and then I get really into country; it’s just about where your head is at and what kind of mood you’re in during that month you go into the studio. We did make a conscious effort to shuffle the deck with this one. We put out two indie records before this and the process for those records was the same: we recorded them in Ohio on a shoestring budget in about four days or so. With this one, being on a new label, we had some new opportunities as far as budget and time and we wanted to run with that. We took about six months just to write songs and at the end of the six months we all turned in our songs and whatever made the record, made the record. This one just feels more…us. We didn’t want to make the same record all over again and we thought, ‘If we want things to change we have to do it ourselves and pull out all the stops.’
Does playing lots of gigs together in between records enhance your dynamic when you finally get back in the studio?
Oh yeah. We feel like a different band from one year to the next because we’ve played together so many more times. Between the last record and this one, we’ve played around 400 gigs together. It changes things.
Maybe that’s what gives bands like the Rolling Stones the stamina to play for a hundred years in a row. Even though they play a lot of the same material over and over maybe it’s just the act of playing together live that keeps things fresh for them.
Yeah, I think with a band like that, there are some differences in their albums over the years as far as recording techniques but really, rock and roll bands only know how to record albums in one way: you set up your mics and have everybody play really loud and try to find the best take. Once you’ve made 12 albums – shit – what do you do? You say, ‘Lets go switch things up and record in the Bahamas and see what we come up with!’ Changing the environment can sometimes really affect how you make music.
The story of your demo falling into the hands of Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys sounds like the quintessential ‘break’ that every band hopes for. How did that all do down?
When we met Dan, The Black Keys weren’t massive but they were still a pretty busy band. We met him when you could go see The Black Keys play to 200 people then sit with them at the bar after the show so the timing was right. But Dan is a very generous individual with his time. He asked, ‘Do you have a CD we can listen to because we’re in the van all the time.’ I guess there was an email address or something on it because in a month he wrote us that he really liked it and did we mind if he took it around to some people? We were like, ‘Shit, sure! We only made four copies and you have the guitar players copy (laughs) but yeah, take it…try not to lose it” (laughs). We didn’t expect anything would come of it and actually, we hadn’t even played live very much at that point, so when Fat Possum eventually called and said, ‘We’re going to put on a showcase in two week in Austin; can you play this live?’ we totally lied and were like, ‘Sure we can; fuck, yeah!’ We weren’t even living in the same state (laughs) because I moved out to Nevada to take a job. So I rushed immediately to Texas and we didn’t sleep a wink; we just played and played and played. I was like, ‘Well we’ve got to do this now because I just quit my job…”
Wow. So you met Dan, got signed and since the momentum since then is apparent. Do you feel more comfortable now – like you can finally take a breath and relax a little?
I think the moment you feel like you’ve made it and you can take your foot off the gas then that’s the moment you doom yourself. You just have to focus on the task at hand. I live in Nashville now and Dan lives here too and I see him all the time. He’s working every day. Every day! And that’s a band that’s pretty set up at this point, you know? Things are pretty cushy for the Black Keys but both of them – Dan and Patrick – they just don’t let up in the slightest. It’s nice to see more write-ups on our band in magazines and it’s nice when you start to get radio play but really, we just want to focus on what we do.
I guess if you’re working hard enough and you’re truly immersed in what you’re doing, you lose track of everything else. Hopefully one day when you take a moment to look up, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see what’s happening around you.
Yeah, you know, it’s a weird industry and a weird job when your knowledge of your future – of your career – is really only for the next 30 days. I only really know what’s going on for the next month and beyond that, I don’t really know. What we do today sort of determines what our schedule will turn out like a month or two down the road. It’s just about focusing on now. Our record is a great example: we recorded it in the Fall of last year and we’re at least five months removed from making it and then when we talk about it we realize, ‘Shit, we did that five months ago already!’
So what’s all over and done with for you often has yet to make its impact on others.
What are you all looking forward to now?
We’re hitting the road and we’ll be touring all year supporting our new record – and that’s exciting. We just came off a tour with City and Colour and that was a chance for us to play in front of audiences who had no idea who we were but playing the new songs just feels really good. I’m mostly just excited for people to hear the record – people other than my friends and stuff (laughs). I mean, they’ve all been really pleased with it so hopefully anyone who is a Hacienda fan will flip out over it.
Is it your best work so far?
By far it’s our best record and that’s a great feeling. Sometimes you make records and you wonder if people will like them but with this one, I listen to it and I think, ‘Holy shit, how did we make this? I really like this record!’
You have dates coming up with Heartless Bastards next, right?
Yeah; Heartless Bastards are from Ohio but they live in Austin, Texas now so we’re really good friends. I think that by playing with them, then playing some of the other shows we have coming up that by the time the new record comes out we’ll be playing the new songs really well. We’ll do SXSW and then we’re going to do Canadian Music Week for the second half of March. I’m so excited by that; hopefully in time for you guys to get some sun.
Yeah, there’s not a whole lot of whole lot of vitamin D here during the winter.
Do you guys…go to tanning booths (laughs)? How do you manage without the sun?
Well yes, we can go to tanning booths, but my trick is to take Vitamin D supplements everyday to fend off the S.A.D.
So are you okay? Is everything okay there now? Is there snow on the ground?
Actually, yeah. It just started snowing today and its been building up for hours.
Well, hold off on the blizzards for the next few weeks because we’re going to be there, okay? I don’t even really own any warm clothes or anything.
Well (laughs) you might want to pick up a jacket and a sweater or two just in case – and some good boots.
Aw, man…yeah, I guess.
Hacienda’s forthcoming LP Shake Down will be released June 19th on Collective Sounds and follows 2010’s Big Red And Barbacoa. Having wrapped a tour with friends Heartless Bastards, the quartet will now join English rock band Kasabian on their North American tour. Stream their tracks on MySpace or visit their official site, haciendaonline.net.