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An algorithm changed my life.
This is not a new song title, but a plain fact for San Antonio musician Garrett T. Capps. In 2017, a “badass algorithm” – in Capps’s own words – used by the music-streaming service Spotify, brought his song Born In San Antone to the attention of Brian Koppelman, co-creator of the hit Showtime series Billions.
Koppelman first encountered the song via a “Discover Weekly” playlist, programmed for him according to his listening preferences by Spotify’s proprietary algorithms.
“When I heard the song, it was just instantly clear it was going to start the season,” Koppelman said in a phone interview on Friday. “The scene was in our heads, and immediately the song was written into the script.”
Like much of the best art, Koppelman said, “I was just struck by … its incredible specificity of place, and time, and character.”
One year later, on Sunday, March 25, Born In San Antone opened the much-anticipated first episode of the series’ third season. Thrumming bass guitar, crashing hi-hat cymbals, and Capps’s South Texas drawl accompany actor Paul Giamatti as he strides towards an appointment with destiny in the form of his new boss, an intimidating attorney general from Texas.
Since that day, Capps’ own life has changed dramatically. While continuing to play shows at familiar clubs in Austin and locally, nearly a million Showtime viewers heard the San Antonio native’s song. Soon, total Spotify streams of Born In San Antone will reach 100,000.
Having achieved such notoriety, Capps got an invitation from the San Antonio Spurs to tell his “Spurs Story” for a new video promotional series, which so far has garnered 58,000 views.
Spurred on by his recent national exposure, online sales of Capps vinyl records, CDs, T-shirts and other merchandise continue to rise, including copies of the recently released album In The Shadows Again. Given the economics of the music industry, none of this has made Capps a rich man, but the sales have provided “buy lunch for the week money,” as he said during a recent interview at Liberty Bar, a favorite neighborhood lunchtime spot.
He acknowledged that the Billions licensing deal netted “do the next album money,” which he plans to record later this year.
At 30 years old, Capps said he is preparing to leave his day job as project manager for an audio/video company, the hallmark moment for any artist looking to make a living from their work. Capps will embark on a busy touring schedule, spending a long August weekend in Los Angeles to play with Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett, long a music hero for Capps.
In September, he’ll tour from New Orleans to Detroit, backed by Austin “cosmic swampy tonk” band Mayeux and Broussard. Following that, festival dates for Garrett T. Capps and the Three-Timers beckon in the Netherlands, playing alongside alternative country stalwarts Kurt Vile and Neko Case.
Beyond that, the future is uncertain, but Capps is ready. “It’s what I was born to do. It’s time to go.”
One-Man Band, But Not A One-Band Man
In the Spurs promo video, Capps says of the impression star center David Robinson had left on him, “I learned that you don’t have to be flash. You can be a man of class and dignity while leading an organization.”
After finishing the video shoot on July 23, Capps led his own five-member organization, the NASA Country band, through a rehearsal in advance of an important July 29 show at Period Modern, where they opened for Kinky Friedman and Santiago Jimenez Jr.
In the audience at that show was Augie Meyers, another notable San Antonio musician, who had accompanied Capps onstage for the May 5 In the Shadows Again album release show at Paper Tiger. Jimenez also played with the band that night. But Capps began his musical life as a solo act.
He learned to play drums, working through genres including sludge metal. A high school band was called Boy Scout Cookies. “I was into everything,” he said. He then taught himself guitar so he could begin writing songs, first playing as a one-man band, drumming with his feet while strumming and singing.
He moved to Austin and gigged at the White Rabbit, with “big ideas” about what he could achieve, but somehow his Austin music career didn’t take hold, he said. Still, he learned the craft of songwriting with close friend John Baumann and brought his new skills back to San Antonio.
Capps still drums occasionally with Rolling Stones cover band Charlie Watts, while also leading the Three Timers and the NASA Country band that appears on his current album. Each has its own distinct sound and purpose, from bar rock ‘n’ roll to danceable Tex-Mex to the more complex and thoughtful playlist represented on his current record.
Capps openly acknowledges his local roots and influences, spontaneously listing a roster of memorable Texas, southern, and punk songwriters from past decades to present: Guy Clark, Rusty Kershaw, Robert Earl Keen, Pat Green, Randy Rogers, Margo Price, Kacey Musgraves, Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson, to Baumann, and colleague Sarah Shook.
Music historian Rae Cabello, archivist for the Chicago-based Numero Group reissues label, draws a direct line from Capps back to one particular San Antonio music legend. With Born In San Antone, Capps is “tipping his hat to what Doug Sahm was doing,” Cabello said.
Another tip of the hat might be the eccentrically toned sunglasses Capps wears, which recall the round-lensed shades Sahm sports in a Sam Houston High School yearbook photo from 1957-58, and the hippie-style lenses he continued wearing throughout his career with the Sir Douglas Quintet, of which Meyers was a member.
“I don’t think anybody’s gonna claim Garrett is the second coming of Doug Sahm, and I don’t think Garrett would claim that, either,” said Daniel Rosen, who helped organize the Period Modern show. Rosen works with Capps as a booking agent and promoter, and runs the independent record label Shotgun House, which put out In the Shadows Again.
Still, Capps resembles Sahm in his love of San Antonio culture, Rosen said, in that both “took some energy from that and created all kinds of amazing music, but always ended up coming back.”
Cabello said Capps has potential similar to Sahm, citing his songwriting skills, stage presence, and desire to make live shows “more of an experience” than merely running through a set.
“This guy really has the ability to make it, to come out of San Antonio, to hopefully be one of the greats,” he said.
Wherever We Are Going
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“People from all over have dug it,” Capps said of Born In San Antone, but the song was born out of humble circumstances. Capps originally wrote it to liven up a Christmas party with friends, channeling the positives and negatives of his hometown with a sense of forlorn humor.
That specificity comes through in the many local references and inside jokes of the song, Koppelman said, but there’s “just something about the confidence in it. At the same time Garrett is celebrating [San Antonio], he’s taking the piss out of himself, and the place he lives.” Capps displays an “incredible affection and love for San Antonio, and at the same time, he understands its foibles.”
The success of Born In San Antone, Koppelman said, is in Capps’s trust that his audience will understand “the absurdity of all local pride. By giving us his trust, we trust him back. That’s part of the magic of that song.”
Beyond that, it has general appeal. “We’re living in absurd times. It’s a perfect anthem for these times,” Koppelman said.
But with the release of In The Shadows Again, Capps has proven that he’s more than one song, Cabello said. Capps is “raising the bar for San Antonio, for current music being recorded here. Garrett is writing really good songs.”
Though written in early 2017 long before Billions came calling, one track on the record, Here Right Now, foreshadows Capps’s emerging future in his matter-of-fact voice:
There was a beauty in the horizon
You said wherever we are going took us here right now
At Liberty Bar, emphasizing the career cusp at which he’s arrived, Capps repeated himself with determined ambition.