Austin is a city on the rise. The Texan capital has morphed from a sleepy college town into one of the most booming metropolises in America. Annual festivals like South by Southwest (SXSW) add to the buzz even more. With singer Mobley, we explore a new, quieter side to Austin silently and locally emission-free in a new smart fortwo electric drive.
During SXSW, tourists, digital pioneers and artists flock to downtown Austin, making it the last place most locals want to be. Up-and-coming musician Mobley will play nearly a dozen shows over the course of a week. Before his performance at the house of smart, located in the historic Waller Ballroom, he was happy to take us out of the fray for a tour of some of his favorite places around the city. Together, we explore Austin’s secret spots – ranging from a peacock-filled park to a strip mall sushi counter. In a smart fortwo electric drive we head to the decidedly calmer neighborhoods of East Austin, where the festival energy subsides to a more typical Austin slacker tempo.
Why did you move to Austin?
Mobley: I came here eight years ago to intern with the now-defunct record label I Eat Records. I checked out the city, and it was either going to be here or LA or New York, but the cost of living here was considerably lower. It’s closer now to New York in terms of purchasing power, but it’s still a lot slower.
How do you feel about the new Austin versus old Austin debate? A lot of people say the city has changed and that it’s not the same type of “weird” place it used to be.
Mobley: I definitely didn’t come here for the weird, so I don’t really have a dog in that fight. As far as development, I think that it’s incumbent on the city to be more thoughtful. It’s pretty unconscionable that there’s no property tax relief for people forced out of their neighborhoods. Touring the country, I can really see the degree to which that’s happening all over the United States.
Do you find yourself gravitating towards old Austin?
Mobley: I think so. I don’t particularly care for the places that are trying to hit you over the head with how hip they are. As a result, I end up in a lot of places that are older and don’t care about that.
Where in the city do you live?
Mobley: I live in North Central Austin. Like most of Austin, it’s not walkable. But driving, I can get anywhere I need to go within five minutes.
So you don’t have to deal with Austin’s epic traffic?
Mobley: That’s part of why I picked where I live! I don’t encounter the traffic much and I set my own schedule, so I don’t usually go out during rush hour. I can’t imagine having to do that every day, I’d leave for sure.
When you need a break from working on music, where do you like to go?
Mobley: I probably go to the library as much as I go to any other place outside of my house. The Walnut Creek library is right by my house, and the George Washington Carver Museum is also a great public space. They have dance studios that I used leading up to my last music video. And there are grand pianos that you can play on. Something that I lament is the degree to which social gatherings are structured around consumption. You have to go somewhere and buy something if you want to meet up with people. That’s why I like going to places that belong to everyone, like museums, libraries, and parks.
Visitors often get trapped downtown and miss out on the outdoor spaces. What’s a hidden gem they should see?
Mobley: Mayfield Park. I don’t even remember how I found it – I stumbled across it. It doesn’t feel like Austin, it feels secluded and there aren’t ever many people here, even in summer. It’s just really serene.
Austin’s reputation as a music town proceeds itself, but it’s also surprisingly green for a city deep in the heart of Texas. In our smart fortwo electric drive in black and electric green, we head swiftly as silently and locally emission-free to the west side of town. Through rolling hills, we reach Mayfield Park, a 23 acre area known for a quaint outcrop of cottages, grounds populated by massive peacocks, and a scenic hiking reserve.
Have you ever had any incidents with these peacocks?
Mobley: No, I stay pretty clear (laughs). They do their thing, I do mine.
So where are we headed for lunch? We’ve heard you like sushi.
Mobley: In my neighborhood, there’s a lot of great restaurants. For example, a Cuban sandwich shop, Mediterranean food, Vietnamese, Korean, Little Deli is a tucked-away gem. I like sushi a lot more than I can afford it. I’m a big fan of DK Sushi, my favorite fish is probably salmon. We usually order the rainbow or the dragon rolls.
Why do you like coming here?
Mobley: It’s good and it doesn’t have a pretentious feel. A lot of places are dying to impress you, which you end up paying for. They’ve got great karaoke, but I don’t do it. I’m a singer, and I still find karaoke impossible.
But if you had to pick a song …
Mobley: … it would probably be Bohemian Rhapsody. If you’re going to do karaoke, you’ve got to go all the way.
Next, we’re headed to another green space, Shipe Park. What brings you here?
Mobley: I used to live off 45th Street, and basketball is my favorite sport. When I moved here, I looked for a place to play. Every afternoon, this place is teeming with people. I’ll be down there most days during the summer playing pick-up games.
What’s one of your favorite venues in town to perform at?
Mobley: I really like playing at Spider House. I played outside for their 10th anniversary, but every other time it’s been in the Ballroom. I like the sound and shape of the room, it’s kind of shallow and forces everybody to crowd in.
If someone’s looking for a truly off-the-beaten path bar, where should they go?
Mobley: Sahara Lounge is a place that feels like what you see is what you get. It doesn’t have that pressure that a lot of bars have, you can just go hang out. People dance, but not just because they’re trying to be seen. It’s a nightlife spot that’s my speed, there’s diversity of age and race, and the vibe is good.
Near Springdale Park, we find Sahara Lounge. The far-flung psychedelic dive bar is located further east than most tourists will travel. However, Mobley promises, it offers one of the city’s most authentic nightlife experiences.
Next, we’re swinging by the Wooten Barber Shop. How long have you been going there?
Mobley: I didn’t cut my hair from my late childhood well into adulthood. It just looked crazy, like broccoli. Then I decided that I was going to get it cut, my barber Cisco at Wooten was the guy that cut that hair off. I like that this place is old fashioned, it’s not trying to impress you.
Austin has lots of great music shops, today we’re visiting Switched On, a vintage synthesizer store and a fitting destination for the all-electric smart fortwo. What type of gear do you buy here?
Mobley: My whole live show including the light show, videos, loops and sequencers runs on MIDI – a digital protocol that allows multiple instruments and computers to connect and play together. Even my guitar tone switches on MIDI, so I buy a lot of cables and components. And I have an old Yamaha upright piano with electronic pickups and MIDI. The MIDI board was fried, so I bought some components from there to repair it.
Tell us more about your music. How did this project start?
Mobley: I was performing with a band for three or four years, but my drummer couldn’t make it out on tour, so it was either do it acoustic or figure out a way to do the full band thing solo.
How do you recreate all that live?
Mobley: It’s just me. I sing, play keys, drums, guitar, bass, samplers, it’s a one-man band. On the records, it’s always been me playing all the instruments, so I knew the parts anyway. I knew I could do it, but I hadn’t been forced to do it. And it’s turned out really well – people have responded really strongly to the new show.
What are the songs about?
Mobley: On my latest album, ‘Some Other Country’, most of the songs use a romantic relationship as a metaphor through which to explore U.S. social issues like racism, policing, citizenship, and belonging.
Do you consider yourself a pop artist?
Mobley: I call it post genre pop. Popular song as a form is definitely what I’m interested in, three to four minute catchy songs. But in terms of genre influences, it’s all over the place.
It seems like a big component of the songs are interesting soundscapes. How do you create those?
Mobley: It’s hard to narrate how it happens. A delay sound or putting a phaser on something comes to me in the same way that a lyric does, so it’s all part of the process.
After you’re done working on music for a day, how do you wind down before bed?
Mobley: I can’t go to sleep without light or sound, so I’ll typically put on King of the Hill or something and fall asleep to that.
That’s such a Texan thing! If you were a King of the Hill character, which would you be?
Mobley: I’m really glad that I’m not a King of the Hill character! I love all of those characters, but they’re terrible too.
I guess in Austin these days, not everyone’s such a Texas stereotype. But if you had to choose …
Mobley: I’d be as much a Hank as a Bobby. Maybe more of a Hank. I’m a bit of a square, a bit old fashioned in certain ways.
Local Secrets Austin:
George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center
1165 Angelina St., Austin
3505 W 35th St., Austin
4400 Avenue G, Austin
1413 Webberville Rd., Austin
5610 N Lamar Blvd., Austin
2908 Fruth St., Austin
2400 Cesar Chavez St., Austin
Wooten Barber Shop
2106 Guadalupe St., Austin