Since its inception six years ago, the Houston, Texas band The Tontons has won major critical acclaim and slowly grown a loyal fanbase. The quartet issued its latest album, Make Out King and Other Stories of Love, earlier this year to positive reviews. Some critics have noted that the band doesn’t quite fit into any easy niche. In an era where comparisons to more established acts serves as a kind of shorthand for whether you might or might not like an act, The Tontons is a band that’s almost peerless in its approach to contemporary music.
Bassist Tom Nguyen says that some of that might be that the band is based in Houston and not the Texas music capital Austin or the ever-fruitful Denton.
“Houston’s not really known for its music scene," Nguyen says. "Unless you’re doing rap or you’re Beyonce. You don’t really know Houston for anything else. At least musically.”
The relative isolation of the scene, Nguyen says, has allowed for an interesting local flavor in which his band has thrived.
“There really isn’t much competition here," he says. "Everyone’s super friendly. You don’t get pigeonholed into anything. In Austin, there’s a band for everything. Some are doing it better than others. Everyone’s on their grind. In Houston we’re able to take our time and not really worry about anything.”
Nguyen says the last few years have seen the band touring extensively, allowing little time for concentrated writing sessions back in Houston. One of the songs on Make Out King and Other Stories of Love that came together on the road is “Pony.”
Nguyen explains that the seeds of the track were planted after an especially strange gig in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The place, where legend has it, blues legend Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil and where Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith died in a car accident.
“The whole night was super weird," he says. "We had a guy come in, waving a gun, looking for another guy. I remember talking the guy down. ‘No, I swear that guy ran the other way. You can come in here but he’s not here.’ It was a pretty intense day.”
Nguyen says that his favorite tune on Make Out King is “Kidd Cemetery,” which has its origins in one of the band’s rare extended periods of rest in Houston.
“I had been watching a lot of X-Files and Wonder Years and trying to get some of those vibes in writing the songs. That’s where I was at in my head when I was writing that song,” he says.
If the group’s inspiration is diverse, Nguyen says that its audience is as well, welcoming a broad spectrum of music lovers.
“We’ve had people in their 50s come out to check us out because there’s something that reminds them of psych rock and R&B and stuff like that," he says. "We sort of appeal to everyone but we’ve never intentionally set out to do that.”
Make Out King and Other Stories of Love, the latest release by The Tontons, is out now. The band performs tonight at the Orpheum Theatre.