“You have to hear this new song we’re recording right now,” Jason Heath enthuses. “It’s called ‘The Devil Ain’t Talkin’’ – it sounds like The Band trying to do a punk song.” Such is the kind of statement you come to expect from Jason and his band, the Greedy Souls: pure, honest enthusiasm for music coupled with a penchant for blending the traditional and classic with the radical and iconoclastic.
Jason Heath and The Greedy Souls couple rough-and-ragged folk and country strains with punk idealism and directness, resulting in a sound that is as instantly familiar as it is convention-defying. Throughout it all, Heath and his band exude a passion for stark honesty and truth in their music, inspired by influences as disparate as Willie Nelson and the Dead Kennedys, that’s beginning to garner them significant attention in today’s music scene.
Heath got his first guitar at age 12 and began writing music almost immediately – “I found out pretty quickly it was easier to write my own songs than learn how to play other people’s,” he explains. In his teens, inspired by the tidal wave of Southern Californian punk bands, he started his own with lifelong collaborator, drummer Abraham Etz. The resulting band, The Response, was a modest beginning. Armed with only a Sears catalog electric guitar and a single snare drum, the two-man band filled out the rest of their drumkit using “my grandmother’s suitcases, arranged from shortest to tallest,” laughs Heath. The band had one song, “Nuclear Barbecue” about a fallout-filled post-apocalyptic get-together, “and we couldn’t even play it.”
By the time they had the chops to pull off “Nuclear Barbecue,” Jason and Abe had moved onto more ambitious projects. After going recruiting some additional musicians and trying out a few more genres, they formed Spinewire. The band, inspired by the industrial rhythms and stark political bent of Ministry and Public Enemy, sought to synthesize a similar sound with a live rock band. Added to that sound were startling original visuals, including politically-charged video montages broadcast on a series of TV sets the band would set up on stage – only to destroy them in the middle of their set. Not surprisingly, they were soon banned from every club they played because of the mess, but a few important people were paying attention – among them Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who also produced the group’s sole album.
With Spinewire having finally worn out their welcome with most venues, Heath and Etz went back to their original inspirations: the unfettered classic rock of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and the urgent honesty of punk rock of The Clash to form the Telegenic. This time, they were joined by guitarist Matt Johnson, bassist Scot Falkenstein and keyboard and accordion player Jason Federici, the son of E Street Band mainstay Danny Federici. The Telegenic, often described as what would happen “if Tom Petty formed a punk band,” completed two full-length albums before Heath became musically restless yet again.
Following a difficult period of personal turmoil that saw Heath reaching out to his bandmates for help, the songwriter began crafting more nuanced, delicate material. As time went on, it became clear that the Telegenic would need to undergo metamorphosis. Another rock record wouldn’t do the songs justice; instead, Jason decided to whole-heardedly embrace the stripped-down, achingly honest folky sound he’d had in the back of his head all along. “It felt more natural to play this kind of music,” says Jason. Adding fiddle player Ysanne Spevack and keyboardist Chris Joyner, the band reinvented themselves, officially becoming Jason Heath & The Greedy Souls.
The resulting album, The Vain Hope of Horse, is an anomaly in many intriguing ways, featuring Americana with left-leaning politics, confessional yet defiant songwriting, and an undeniably folky sound – produced by musicians who got their start in punk rock. While Heath explores his gentler, acoustic side on the album, his songwriting palette is as diverse as ever, drawing from records by Dylan and Patti Smith for their “natural sound and vibe,” but also taking cues from punk heroes the Dead Kennedys and the Pogues for lyrical inspiration.
Nowhere is this dichotomy better exemplified than lead single “Anarchist Girl,” which, as Heath recalls, started as a joke at band practice: “I was making up this 50s-style love song, talking about a girl who throws rocks at government buildings, thinking it was funny,” he says, “but as time went on, I realized that person deserved a song championing them, too.” A country two-step with a doo-wop feel, mixing the political with the romantic: “She fights for liberty/And she’s the only girl for me/She stole my heart away/She’s gonna change the world/I’m in love with an anarchist girl.” Fittingly, Wayne Kramer of the MC5, arguably the first ever group to mix rock with radical politics, makes a guest appearance on lead guitar.
Elsewhere, “On Our Way Home” finds Jason addressing the “rough and dark period” that inspired the album in the first place. In describing the song, Heath expands upon his reliance on a specific vibe for his music.
“Everyone playing on that song helped me through that time – all the musicians and the engineer,” he says, “and for me, it was crucial that the song feature every one of them.” Among those musicians is Tom “The Nightwatchman” Morello, and Wayne Kramer lending his vocals to the song’s chorus: “So we’re gonna keep pushing on/Working our souls to the bone/Prayin’ that someday the truth will be known/We’re on our way home.” Wilco guitar-slinger Nels Cline lends a plaintive pedal steel to several of the album’s tracks, including the Los Angeles tribute “Time Is Dead.” An all-acoustic cover of Ozzy Osbourne’s classic “Crazy Train” may at first seem like a gag, but is lent an unexpected autobiographical depth by Jason and his band’s interpretation of the drug-fueled original. Produced by Heath and engineer Mike Fennel, the fourteen-track album is dedicated to the memory of Danny Federici, who passed away last year.
Unbelievably, Jason and the Greedy Souls are already back in the studio at work on their second album. Heath says he dreams of taking all seven members on the road as soon as possible, “playing the songs as we intended them.” Until then, he and the band will keep persevering in Los Angeles, giving the music scene a jolt of honest expression like it hasn’t seen in years.