By: Dennis Cook
Things get wild at a Gourds show. Fiddle sawing, accordion flailin' and dust rising, one dodges elbows and wild, stompin' feet as one of Austin's finest shows you what real broadminded American musicians can do. I've never walked away from one of their gigs without a good-sized bruise somewhere on my body – and I've seen 'em about 15 times since they began in the mid-'90s. The music has to be pretty damn good to merit this sort of black 'n' blue loyalty, and without question, The Gourds are some of the finest roots music going, thickening their sound and sharpening their songwriting with each passing year.
Haymaker! (released January 20 on Yep Roc Records) is possibly the most succinct distillation of their charms yet, touching upon all the Tex-Mex, early rock, '70s country, Guthrie-like folk and other strains in their appealing blend. Comfortable in both high lonesome and down-and-dirty spaces, The Gourds are the ultimate house party band – except instead of "Wooly Bully" they're armed with an ever-growing mountain of great tunes. They've long struck me as the band Lowell George would have jumped ship from Little Feat to join. They write dance floor killers and dandy love songs, and the people wandering around their stories always feel so flesh and blood real that you want to buy them a round or two. They're also picker's pickers, the sort that can seem sloppy on casual inspection but listen closer and you realize they're REALLY good musicians, and every hiccup and stutter-step is there on purpose.
The lineup of Kevin "Shinyribs" Russell (vocals, mandolin, guitars, harmonica), Claude Bernard (accordion, keys, backing vocals), Jimmy Smith (vocals, bass, percussion, guitars, sound effects), Max Johnston (fiddle, lap steel, banjo, acoustic guitar, resonator slide, mandolin, vocals) and Keith Langford (drums, harmonica, vocals) has been together over a decade, growing as smooth and purely beautiful as a river stone. There's a terrifically unforced feel to The Gourds, as if they just poke a hole in themselves and the sound pours out. Obviously, there's huge skill in every aspect of their music but they make it look easy, which in turn makes the listener better able to do what comes naturally. Interpret that as you will.
JamBase had the distinct pleasure of picking Kevin Russell's brain about their new album, their inspirations and how they feel about covering "Gin And Juice" many years and drunkenly hooted frat boy requests later.
JamBase: "Haymaker" is a marvelous word. It has such energy and movement, even if you don't know its boxing origins. How'd you settle on it for the title of your latest album?
Kevin Russell: I think you captured the whole of it there. It is about energy and movement. That is what The Gourds are about musically. Our sound has such a big swirling flow to it. We are a great "combo" in the classic sense. We make a sound, all of us together, and a feel that is kinetic and vibrant. We seek to resonate like the skin on a drum or the reeds in the weeds along a river raging down hill. We are in motion and seeking the ocean.
|The Gourds by Steve Hopson|
JamBase: The Gourds have been described as Americana, country rock, roots music, and your Wikipedia entry says you play "American alternative country." I don't think any of these really nails it. I'd put you guys closer on the spectrum to Los Lobos or the Grateful Dead's wide embrace of all the cool strains of American popular music – blues, folk, jazz, country, rock. How do you describe what you do?
Kevin Russell: I agree with your assessment there. I am always making up strange, poetical strains to foster contemplation and understanding of what we are and what we do - Rag and Bone Pawn Shop Jalopy, Well Read Neck Rock, Surreal Stomp and Soul, Texas Song Ghetto Tonk. Alas, it is a fool's gambit. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal comes into play here, where reality changes as we observe it closer. If one focuses on one aspect of what we do that aspect begins to turn into another layer that may or may not fit neatly next to it. We are full of contradictions and superstitions and conflicts of culture and time. We love to mix all of the music, literature, pop culture and history we love into this bedlam's junk drawer. Maybe that is a term we could use right now for us - "Junk Drawer Sound."
The new album is full of crazy hooks and sophisticated playing, and it's a touch less rough 'n' tumble than some of your early albums. How do you think the band has evolved over the years? What are some of the milestones along your evolution that stick out for you as the band approaches their 15th anniversary?
Wow. Big question. I think the first milestone, if we want to start with that, is the 1994 Acoustic Music Festival in Austin TX, electric lounge. Once we learned how to play a stage with this band we were destined for something great, I think. That is where I first felt like we found ourselves on a stage and in front of an audience. It translated to the people there and they understood maybe what we were doing. The drawer was still not so full at that point. The first recording, Dem's Good Beeble , was surely a milestone for us. It was the recording of the document of our early period. We practiced twice a week in the Steamybowl, Jimmy's mystical, gnome-like dwelling in the entropy of the forgotten flight path of the old Austin airport. For two years maybe we worked up songs and shared stories and poems and thoughts and prayers, eh? This is what Dem's Good Beeble is about - this young man's life we shared. That cover is a painting by Jimmy that hung in that little shack by the track. The title was a phrase scrawled on the wall by Claude's brother John Bernard one night. We are from a bigger tribe of people that spreads out now all over the country, but one that coalesced at that time there in Austin in the early '90s. A lot of us came there then to make music, art, drugs, sex, poetry, trouble, whatever it was. It was a time of great creativity and little money.
|The Gourds by John Carrico|
Keith Langford joining us as our drummer in 1997 was a creative force that altered our trajectory forever in a way that can never be overestimated. As much as he would downplay it, he was our Robert Goddard, if you will. Until then we were a slow moving, small hairy creature feeding on bugs. After Keith, we grew wings and evolved into a dynamic funky, rootsy monster capable of creating and destroying. Max showing up later in 1998 was an equally liberating force that gave us new powers of interpretation and new springs of inspiration to explore the deeper places in the American sonic landscape. Maybe that language is too heavy for this interview, but I feel it that way.
It is hard to describe the way it feels in this band without digging into such language. We have always explored the English language and taken chances with it. Why play it safe? We did not dream of being Hallmark card writers or journalists or copy editors for owner's manuals. We are not interested in sophomoric confessionals. We avoid Sylvia Plath like the plague. Understand? We are ashamed of Nashville, embarrassed for Billboard Top 40 - so much crap churned out by the money creeps. A wall of mediocrity and emotional shallowness is washed down on the heads of people who just want a song to listen or dance to. But, it could be done so much better, more thoughtful and intelligent. Of course we indulge in the hedonistic pulse on occasion. We are not tea sippers or prudish tight asses. That is not what I am saying here; I am saying very much the opposite. Beyoncé may seem provocative in her image. Musically and lyrically though she is highly conservative and safe. She takes no chances; she does not look even once for a second into her shadow. She is all well lit, sparkly, pretty, sex without the animal instincts, music with no place for the new brain, eh? She is fake and we all know it, but damn, she is so beautiful and shaking that ass, who cares, right? That is where the mainstream has gone. We work to present some alternative to that for some who appreciate it, and as much for ourselves as anyone, really.
I think maybe the next milestone was bringing out electric keyboards, electric guitar and lap steel at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2004. From that point on we have continued to weave the electric sound into our thang.
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