Sending a clear “Message’ via their recently released, Ray Charles-inspired album, the Austin Americana kings take an ambitious step forward. (Above photo from the band’s Facebook page, where you can also pick up on tour dates, or at their official website.)
BY JOHN B. MOORE
To call the 2016 U.S. presidential election polarizing is a bit of an understatement. It’s akin to saying, “people seem to like The Beatles” or “Keith Moon was a bit restless.” And while the Trump Administration’s policies have likely launched more punk bands in a year and a half than Reagan’s eight years combined, Austin-based Americana greats The Band of Heathens couldn’t help but focus on how politics have pulled the country apart.
“We were on the road somewhere in New England when the topic of conversation drifted toward the troubled social climate in the country,” writes the band, in a recent press release. “We related similar experiences with how divisiveness was affecting those around us, how families were being torn apart over political and social issues.”
Looking for a much-needed distraction, the band turned to an out-of-print Ray Charles album which immediately spoke to their sense of unease and discontent. “With the first notes of the opening track ‘Lift Every Voice And Sing’, Ray had our undivided attention.”
That track was off of Charles’ 1972 LP, A Message from the People and seemed to be speaking directly to the band and the current political climate. The Band of Heathens started messing around with the other songs on the record and hit on the idea of recording the album, track for track, as a sort of musical salve for the entire country.
The result, A Message From The People Revisited, came out on September 14th and the band plans on donating proceeds from the record to Rock the Vote, in an effort to amplify the voice of the people.
Co-frontman Gordy Quist – who is joined by Ed Jurdi, Trevor Nealon, Richard Millsap, and Scott Davis – took some time recently to speak with Blurt about this ambitious record.
BLURT: Do you remember when and where you first heard the original album?
GORDY QUIST: The first time I heard Ray Charles’ A Message From the People in its entirety was in late 2016 when the presidential election was getting really ugly. We were seeing the left versus right, us versus them politics split families apart from each other. The record sounded like Ray speaking to us from the past telling us, “Everything is gonna be ok.”
Were there any songs in particular that were harder to play than they sound?
There were some difficult choices to make in terms of how many liberties we felt comfortable taking to make the material our own. Some songs we tried to honor and keep close to the original arrangements and others we really took for a spin. The last track on the album – also the last song we recorded – is Ray’s version of “America the Beautiful.” It was daunting to record because Ray’s version is almost untouchable. For about an hour over dinner we debated whether to really take it out and do something different with it, or whether to stay close to honoring the original. After deciding we were over-thinking it, we ended up hitting record and cutting it live pretty close to the original arrangement.
This is a pretty heavy record. Did you ever have any second thoughts between coming up with the idea and actually recording it?
I had a lot of questions whether we’d be able to pull off recording the entire album start to finish, and have it sound believable. I wasn’t sure the same messaging from 1972 coming from Ray Charles would translate well coming from us today. We did it as a hopeful experiment to see if we could do it. If only half of it had turned out well, we would have put out an EP.
If only a song or two had turned out well, we would have put out a couple singles. If none of had turned out well, nobody would have ever known. At the time I had recently bought into and taken over a studio, so we had the means to make a record if we could make the time. We found four or five days we were all going to be in town with some down time, so it was really low pressure. Somehow, we pulled it off, and I think the whole record works. It just goes to show the power and timelessness of those songs.
What message to you want to send by putting this record out?
I’d like for all of us as Americans to embrace the notion that we’re in this together and that we can work out our differences through civil dialogue and love and respect for one another.
How did you decide which charity to donate to with some of the proceeds?
We feel that supporting a movement to get people out to vote, specifically in the upcoming midterms, is in line with A Message From the People. The most effective way for us as Americans to have our voice and our message heard is to vote. We’re not saying who you should vote for. You should stay educated on issues, follow your conscience and your heart, and get out in vote.
Any plans to play this album live – or incorporate any of the songs into your sets?
We’ll definitely work some of this material into the set.
(Below photo by Greg Giannukos)
What’s next for the band?
We’ll do some touring this Fall and then start working on another album of our original material in the new year.
Anything else you wanted to touch on?
Our dear friend and mentor George Reiff passed away last year and I recently took over his recording studio, the Finishing School. We’ve made records there in the past with George at the helm, but this is the first album we completed in the studio since he’s been physically gone. We’ve dedicated this album to George.
(A note from the Editor: I met George in Austin during SXSW many years ago, and while I cannot claim to have known him well, I can say that in subsequent encounters—sometimes random one-on-ones via mutual friends, other times from the audience, as he was a fixture on local stages, a guy who added class (and rhythm) to every band he sat in or jammed with—I could tell he was one of the most right-on of right-on guys the city had. R.I.P. – Fred Mills)