It’s 6pm, a few hours before the Hacienda show at DC9 in Washington, DC, and I'm talking to their bassist and songwriter Rene Villanueva at the bar. He brings up the usual rock musician topics. . .Ezra Pound, Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo, the joys of composing on a typewriter, how the best thing about college was unlimited access to the library, and the fact that no one seems to understand commas anymore.
Then, at some point in our conversation, I ask Rene about Ernest Hemingway. He mentions that he’s not a big fan of his poetry. At this point, I think to myself, “Hemingway? Poetry? Surely he must be mistaken. Hemingway didn’t write poetry!” So armed with my PhD in English Literature, after the show I Google Hemingway and poetry. Sure enough, Rene is right. (Though to defend myself, my specialty is 20th century American dramatic lit.)
This should give you a good sense of what the guy is like.
I first saw Hacienda in Salt Lake City when they opened up for the Heartless Bastards. Like anyone else who sees them live, I was hooked by their energy onstage and by the fact that they just looked like they were having fun. They certainly know each other well: the band is three brothers and a cousin, all from San Antonio. And the sound? Well, it’s vintage without sounding like a rip-off. Their harmonies draw comparisons to the Beach Boys, they cover the Everly Brothers “You’re My Girl” as well as Sonny and Cher’s “Baby Don’t Go,” and Rene is a huge Harry Belafonte fan. How many 24 year olds can you say that about? Hacienda is 60s and 70s rock and soul with the amps cranked a little louder on the album, and a little louder than that live. Comparisons have been thrown around with many 60s and 70s acts, yet none seem to fit, because Hacienda has a sound like no other. In other words, don’t expect them to sound like the Everly Brothers or Sonny and Cher.
Hacienda’s first two albums, Loud is the Night and Big Red and Barbacoa (Alive Records) were both produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. In addition, the band backed Auerbach on his 2009 solo tour.
A far more credible voice than I, David Fricke of Rolling Stone, is a fan. And you can read the endless reviews praising the band. Read my interview with Rene Villanueva after the video "She’s Got a Hold on Me.”
The first thing I have to say is that you are one of the few musical artists who Tweets lines of poetry.
For about two years I’ve been on a poetry crusade because I do write poetry. It’s been my main passion. I’ve been trying to get my friends into it, but it seems that a lot of people are afraid to read poetry and don’t understand it. I push it on my friends pretty heavy.
Who are your favorite poets?
Ezra Pound is probably my favorite. And then beyond that, the first person who really got me into poetry, though, was Keats.
Do you write your poetry separate from the lyrics you write for Hacienda, or do you write your poems with the idea that they might be a Hacienda song?
Usually when I am writing, I write in long spurts and go back and see what falls more into a written piece or what would be more acceptable as melodic stuff. So I don’t write it with the intention of it becoming anything, but as I am editing or revising I might start hearing melodies to it.
How long have you been writing poetry?
I started when I was 16, so about 8 years.
You have a degree in English. What was your favorite class in college?
Any of my American lit classes.
Besides the poets, who are your other favorite authors?
There’s Shusaku Endo from Japan. He’s a modernist writer but his descriptions of scenery and how people interact with the nature around them are very intense. And I also love Emerson and his writings about nature.
Do you get to read for pleasure on tour?
Yeah, a lot! Like tomorrow we have an eight hour drive where I’ll pretty much spend the entire time reading. I have a lot of drive time and waiting at airports and sitting around backstage. Fortunately, I don’t get carsick.
What were your career aspirations? Did you always want to be a musician?
I always wanted to be a writer. I went to college to be a writer. I figured I would have to do something else as well, though. So besides English, I have a degree in professional writing as well. It’s not what I was passionate about, but I knew I could make money that way while writing what I wanted to write about.
It actually ended up being very useful because I got a good foundation in grammar and style. I got to apply that to my writing.
So I wanted to be a writer, then the band got started in college, and I thought I would see where that took me.
So, what’s your biggest pet peeve about bad writing?
Oh, I have so many. My first job was tutoring English, and that was kind of heartbreaking. When I was editing, commas seems to be…no one knows what is going on with commas.
Abraham Villanueva, Rene Villanueva, Dante Schwebel, Jaime Villanueva. (photo by West Vita)
As far as your writing process, do you have a regular routine?
No, I don’t, because the routine of my life is pretty irregular. I am always in different places doing different things. The only thing regular about my process is that I separate the music composition from the lyrics. So I’ll go for a long time where I am just writing lyrics, then I’ll go for a long time where I am just writing music, like chords and melodies. I have to separate the two.
When do you write?
I write when the inspiration strikes, and unfortunately it often strikes at three in the morning when I can’t sleep. I do a lot of writing at night. I get in long spells where I’ll stay up all night writing and be exhausted during the day.
So it’s safe to say you are not a “wake at 6am and have a cup of coffee” kind of guy?
Laughs. No, I usually write until about 6am until I pass out from exhaustion, then I’ll wake up at four in the afternoon, then start again.
You talked earlier about how you create the melodies and lyrics separately. When you have a bunch of lyrics and a bunch of melodies, do you then mix and match?
It depends. Sometimes another guy will come up with a song. He’ll have a melody and ask me to come up with words for it. That’s a different thing for me, because it’s like finding a weird meter that I have to put words to. Other times, I have words that have a strict pattern and I find a melody to go with it.
I try to keep everything organic. My feeling is that if you force anything, it’s not going to work out. I approach every song and poem differently and let itself unfold.
Back to the poetry—what do you like to write about?
Laughs. Mostly about myself, I guess. I really like William Carlos Williams, where he seems to be the main character in most of his poems. Most of his works are short vignettes of his life That seems to be what attracts me most. I have an idea or a feeling I want to express, and I use one instance in my life to get that out.
Are you a Hemingway fan?
Kind of, but I think his poetry is kind of silly.
How about quirky parts of your writing process?
I have to write through different mediums. Like I’ll write with pen and paper, but I won’t revise on pen and paper. I have to move it over to a typewriter or computer.
Wait—you just said typewriter.
Yeah, I do a lot on it when I am home. It’s an Underwood. It’s a completely different experience, and I find that it puts me in a different position mentally. Also, it’s a closer connection to the paper than with a computer. When I type, the ink gets stronger or lighter depending on my mood and how hard I type. It’s a little bit like painting. And I try to move between the mediums because I approach the page in different ways. I have to set it up differently: I have to set the paper up myself if I am typing, or I might write on a different size paper if I am using a pen. So the different mediums make me approach the page differently.
So how does writing longhand affect your writing process?
I can write faster and write more with the speed of my brain as I am thinking things out. Of course, there are more misspellings and it looks like chicken scratch. I am much slower typing, but my favorite is the typewriter. Usually when I am on the road, I’ll write in journals then when I get home transfer it to the typewriter.
How long have you been using the typewriter?
Since high school. My mom got it for me when I told her I wanted to be a writer
What inspired your love of literature?
When I was in high school, I took this English correspondence course with Texas Tech. We read The Great Gatsby, but I had to teach it to myself. I’d get the lesson plan, then write out my essay and mail it in. So it was a college class I took in my room all by myself. The great thing was that I got to approach it the way I wanted at the speed I wanted, and I got really into it. It wasn’t being forced down my throat. I also didn’t have 20 other students distracting me.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I don’t write. Steve Martin has this awesome quote where he says an artist gathers experiences and when he writes, he uses those experiences. And if he doesn’t have anything more to write, he needs to get more experience. So that’s what I do. I like to go out, have drinks with my friends, go to concerts, meet people. The more you live, the more you can write.
So what topics inspire you, then?
Any kind of conflict, really. How different ideas among people spur conflict, and out of that conflict comes new ideas.
How does your environment affect your writing process? Is there a certain place you like to write?
Where it’s quiet. I’ll write in the van at night when it’s dark, when we have long, quiet stretches. I’ll write when I'm alone in my room. And on the toilet. Laughs.
If you create the perfect writing environment, what would it be?
In my room, at my desk, with my typewriter.
You grew up in San Antonio. How does living there affect what you write about?
Well, they say we have a San Antonio sound. That was something people said after we made the music. People said, “Hey, that’s the San Antonio sound.” I mean, what else would we have done? It’s the same thing with writing. The people you grow up around create your experiences based on your interactions with them, and you can’t ever disassociate yourself from that foundation. So the way I approach my characters and my writing is based on the people I know. I remember one time I was in a short story class in college, and I had these two characters who were friends, and it was based on a friendship I had. Then we had a peer review session, and my peers were like, “These people don’t seem to be friends at all.” And they were right—I wasn’t really friends with that guy. I had set up that relationship based on what I thought would be a friendship, but it really wasn’t. So that’s when I realized that I couldn’t shake what I know and pretend that I could remove myself from it.
How do you know when your lyrics are done?
I never really think anything is done. Even with lyrics, I can change them night to night based on what I am feeling. It’s never really done—there are just different versions.
But do you worry that something you write could always be better?
Not really. I just want it to be the best at that moment, especially when I am performing. Some nights it might require something different, and an audience might want something else.
How collaborative is your writing process with the other band members?
For the lyrics, not very.
So you write something for an album and say, “Here are the lyrics, guys. Deal with it.”
Usually I’ll write the lyrics and say that’s how it is. Then sometimes I’ll have a melody for this kind of feeling, and I’ll write one version that they don’t like, so I’ll write another version. But it’s not like we all get together with a pad and paper and collaborate.
What songwriters have influenced you?
Willie Dixon, the Beatles, Van Dyke Parks. And I love a lot of Motown—that’s what I’m going for musically.
Back to the poetry. Do you read a lot of contemporary poetry, or do you stick with the classics?
Mostly the classics. I have a hard time relating to a lot of the contemporary stuff.
Unfortunately, poetry is a lost art. I tell everyone I know that they should read more poetry.
That’s true, but it’s hard to teach something that should be natural. Like what Elvis says about rhythm. And that’s what poetry is about, rhythm, and having that natural instinct to feel through the written words what someone else is saying. It’s like you are the audience and the performer at the same time when you are reading poetry. So it’s hard to teach someone to be a performer. I think we need to be more about teaching the natural rhythm of poetry rather than about something that’s mathematical, like counting out meter.
So was there one poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
Well, I don’t think there was a lightning bolt moment. I actually started out reading short stories, but when I got to college and started writing for myself, I naturally turned to poems because that’s what I could fit my thoughts into.
As a former English professor who used peer review extensively in my classes, I have to ask: did you like the peer review process?
I hated it, because I didn’t trust my peers. I also failed a lot of tests because I would spend hours in the library reading unassigned books and would not read what the teacher had assigned. The greatest thing about college was that it gave me access to a library.
I’ve always been looking for that person I can trust who I can bounce my ideas off of when it comes to my poetry, who can give me an an honest assessment of my work. I have that for my music—I can talk to my band mates about chords or melody or progressions. Dan (Auerbach, from the Black Keys, who produced Hacienda’s two releases) is another one we talk to. We’ll show him songs and he’ll be like, “Yeah, this is good. I love it.” And when he says it, it means something. Like when we showed him our demos when we first met him. He called us and said he loved it, and we were like, “Whoa, that means something.” It’s not like your buddy who thinks it’s cool that you are in a band.
To listen to more Hacienda, check out their live session and interview on NPR in January:
For more on Hacienda: