With another new
album under their belt, the Texas
outfit has mastered the art of making music accidentally…
and also on purpose.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
It might seem surprising in this era of calculation and commerciality,
to learn the Band of Heathens’ origins were both accidental and organic.
Founded in the midst of a Wednesday night singer/songwriter showcase series at
an Austin club called Momo’s, the band was born from a string of solo gigs
performed in sequence by each of the Heathens’ three principals — Gordy
Quist, Ed Jurdi and Colin Brooks. With bassist Seth Whitney and drummer John
Chipman eventually added to the fold, the band’s first two albums were recorded
live in club settings, capturing the group in its seminal stages before they
offered anything from the studio or even acknowledged their band branding.
That loose, everything-goes attitude informs each of their three
studio albums as well, including their new effort, Top Hat Crown & The Clapmaster’s Son. Whereas most bands that
identify themselves as Americana maintain a strict roots rock or alt country
identification, the Heathens survey a much broader musical terrain, one which
encompasses the stoic blues of opening track “Medicine Man” and the taut
R&B of “Gravity,” as well as the mournful Band-like majesty of “The Other
Broadway” and the remorseful narratives that end the album with nods to New
Orleans, “Free Again,” “Hurricane” and “Gris Gris Satchel.” In a crowded roots
rock field, that diversity sets them apart and distinguishes their sound.
BLURT recently had an
opportunity to speak with Gordy Quist and to ask him to share his insights on
what it took to make the Band of Heathens happen. Although somewhat blurry-eyed
after performing the night before, and then doing a 7 AM radio interview the
next morning (“I’m a bit hazy,” he concedes. “It’s been a long 24 hours.”),
Quist was, nevertheless, all too willing to oblige and offer insight into the
group’s unlikely evolution.
BLURT: There are
a lot of bands these days that label themselves as Americana? And yet you seem to broaden that
definition. So what is Americana
considered these days?
GORDY QUIST: I don’t know why this happened, but somehow it’s become a
really broad term. It conjures up a folk/country feel most of the time with
most people and American music is much broader than that. We’re not setting out
to say “We’re going to play American music and we’re going to play everything
we can.” We just play what we want to play and to play what we want, but
there’s a lot of Blues and R&B that’s part of the spectrum of American
music that oftentimes doesn’t get represented in Americana. To us, it’s just Rock ‘n’ Roll,
which is just a mixture of country and R&B and Blues. We just kind of play
what we’ve been influenced by. We’re trying to do something different.
Band of Heathens took an unusual trajectory in
that you issued two live albums even before your first studio recording.
It certainly wasn’t planned
that way. When we made out first live album, I don’t think anyone had any idea
of making a studio album. Even though we had all done studio albums before
that. The three main guys in the band all had solo albums that we had done and
our rhythm section had played on tons of studio sessions with other artists.
When this started off, we were either making a living playing with our own
bands or playing in other guys’ bands here in Austin and travelling regionally and doing
some tours nationally. Some of us had just moved to Austin, some of us had been here awhile, and
we each got booked individually at this club called Momo’s here in town on
Wednesday nights. We weren’t a band, we were playing one after another in
separate bands, and we didn’t even know each other. We met there, and at some
point it became a loose jam session with people sitting in with each other. So
we said, “Let’s make this one long set,” and we ended up staying up on stage
and that was that and it was just a kind of scene, all these musicians hanging
out on Wednesday nights.
There were no
rehearsals, we threw songs out on the fly and the show was our rehearsal. We
had a live audience and it just had a good energy and people just started
coming out to shows, and we said, “Shoot, let’s record one of these” because
and we thought it would be fun to document what was going on, on Wednesday
nights. So that was the first live album and we sold more than we thought we
would and things started going well, so we decided to take it on the road on
the weekends and people started to coming to those shows too. So eventually we
decided to go into the studio because we had a batch of songs, and while we
were actually in the studio, we filmed the second live album, and that was kind
of unplanned as well. A TV station here in town fronted all the money and the
production and the film crews to do a DVD. It was their idea and they came to
us for it, and it just kind of happened that the two live things came out first
and while we started planning the two studio albums. Nothing was planned but
that seems kind of the nature of this band. We don’t plan things out very much.
How did the name Band of Heathens come about?
I’m not really sure. We called
the Wednesday night gig the Good Times Staple Club and that was the name of the
night or the jam. It was really the main songwriters and then we had people
come up and jam with us, until we just started calling it the Good Times Supper
Club. It was really just kind of a joke, but it was a loose, fun side project.
At some point, it showed up in the newspaper as Band of Heathens. I don’t know
if it was the booking agent or the promoter or the club but somebody probably
noticed the massive consumption of tequila on the stage and thought it was
funny to call it the Heathens. So when we released the first live album, that’s
kind of what stuck.
With three songwriters in the band, do you
guys ever tussle over whose songs get included? Do egos ever get in the way?
Yes and no. The band started
off with four songwriters initially and one guy decided he wanted to do
something else and he moved to Nashville,
so it was then down to three songwriters who wanted to front this thing.
Initially I think it was very calculated to try to share the songwriting
equally. We each had a third of the time to do what we wanted to do and of
course there was collaboration. Everybody contributed to everything, but now
the band has evolved into a band. There wasn’t that much divvying up after
awhile, so now it’s just a matter of what songs will make the best addition to
the album as a work of art, not as one third and one third and one third. It’s
definitely evolved over the five years. And yeah, sometimes it’s awkward and
sometimes it’s tough. Some of us may like one song more than the other guy
It’s just the nature of
making art in a group setting with a bunch of artists. It’s pretty democratic,
but when it’s really kind of split, the guy who brought the idea to the table
will be the tiebreaker. But everybody’s pretty good about going with the
group’s decision, and it’s really one of the things about the band that really
works well. When we started off, a lot of people said it wouldn’t fly because
there’s too many egos involved. That sometimes makes it hard, but it also makes
it fun and that’s why we enjoy it so much and it’s also why it’s been so rewarding.
Being open to collaboration and setting that up from the beginning… when I
bring a song to the table, I don’t just get to tell people what to play. When
people get to contribute their ideas it makes it fun.
You guys play a lot of instruments between you
Everyone in the band plays an
amazing array of instruments, but there’s something to be said for sharing the
instrumental responsibilities with other musicians. There’s nothing like a band
that’s played, I don’t know, maybe 800 shows together. There’s something to be
said when you know what the guy next to you is going to play. You know what
direction he’s going to go in before he even starts, just because you’ve been
playing together for so long. I think that for us, when we’re in the studio, we
approach it that way. We set up live in a room and we get all the basic tracks
we can, starting with the guitars, and we even try to get the vocals live.
Obviously there’s some layering, and we’ll go back and add parts, but that live
performance is to me what makes a band great… putting them all in a room and
then you say go.
You seem to average about 200 shows a year.
That’s a lot of time spent on the road. Are you able to keep the excitement
peaked wit that many gigs?
Yeah, it’s intense, especially
with our families. A bunch of us are married. But when you’re on the road, the
music side is great. The momentum carries you to the next gig. The shows
definitely are the reward and keep you going. I never feel burned out on the
music side of it. Do we feel burned out with living with six or seven other
dudes in, like Cleveland or the middle of nowhere, like, say, Arkansas? That
part of it is tough, and being away from our families is tough. This last
year’s actually been the first year where we’ve actually pulled back from
playing so many shows and tried purposely to write and to be home with our
families, to spend time in the studio and do things you can’t do when you’re on
the road. And it’ been great. I hope we can keep that work/life balance and
move in that direction, not because we don’t like playing live shows – we love
playing live shows because it’s an essential part of what we do. But I think
art is also created from living life outside of working, and it’s been good to
slow down a little bit. I think this year we were right around 200 shows, but
the year before it was 240 and 250, so we’re trying to pull back a little bit.
Do you have a faithful core of fans that
follow you… say, the “Heathen Heads?”
It’s different everywhere we
go. No, we don’t have an umbrella name for all of them. However, we have been
really lucky to have some really loyal fans and we are lucky that we can go out
and play 200 shows a year, and that people come out to see us and we don’t have
to go out and get day jobs. When I first started playing, I said I love music
so much I just want to do this, and not have to do something else to pay my
bills. We’re fortunate that we get to do that, although sometimes it does feel
like a grind.
Was there one point where it really hit you
that you don’t have to go back to a day job and you can earn a living doing
I don’t know if there was a “I
know this is coming together for me” moment. It was more about scrounging and
scraping and just taking whatever gigs you can take in order to be able to make
a living. At one point I had to quit a day job, and I had just moved to Austin, and I just wanted
to make $400 a month to pay my rent. You’re just trying to scrape by.
Obviously, no one’s getting rich. If we wanted to get rich, we’d be doing
something else. But I own a house and I get to pay the bills, and it’s really
nice to have fans that support us and come see the shows, and families at home
that support us doing this.