The Gourds: Luddite Juice & Tex-Mex Miles

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By: Dennis Cook

The Gourds by John Carrico
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?

The Gourds by Steve Hopson
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.

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?

The Gourds by John Carrico
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 [1997], 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.

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.

Continue reading for more on The Gourds…

 
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.

Kevin Russell

 

“Gin and Juice” – a blessing or a curse at this point? It’s an undeniably brilliant cover – as well handled as a cover can be – but it’s funny how many people don’t know it’s The Gourds due to Internet mislabeling. Ever thought of revisiting it as a duet with Snoop himself? He seems game to stray outside accepted lines with his music from time to time.

It is what it is. We have no desire to re-brand it. We consciously made it a nebulous release into the world. It has its own life. We think of ourselves as a collective Mary Shelly in regards to that ugly beast roaming the digital networks in search of love.

Live, The Gourds are a force of nature. I mean that sincerely. What’s the mindset going in each night? You always seem to leave it all up there on the stage, and that’s freakin’ hard to maintain over a long tour. What keeps you going, keeps you sane, while grinding out dates?

Kevin Russell
I think the stage show is usually a release of pent-up emotion and energy from the day of travel, sound check, hurry up and wait situations, whatever personal stuff crops up between people in our group. None of us are into drugs like cocaine or heroin or pills, so we have to get up and down as best we can. Lots of musicians use drugs to do this for them. But, that is a slippery slope obviously and is temporary at best. For me anyway, performance is a place where I can let it all out through singing and dancing and stomping and connecting with the audience. There is a great release that can take place up there, cathartic moments. I think sobriety though is crucial to my experience – to be in the moment totally. We are not always sober, but usually.

Maintaining is the hard part, of course. My voice is the most important thing for me to take care of. So, I don’t smoke or drink much alcohol. I try to eat a vegetarian diet and get as much rest as I can. I am not as disciplined as I could be, you see? I am pretty good though. The one thing I cannot control is shitty production. Loud rooms with crappy monitors will eventually wear even the strongest voice down. When that happens I have to choose songs based on my ability to sing. I hate when I lose range in my voice. I get depressed, really. I live to sing, I do. If I can’t sing I want to just cry or destroy a chair. Reading and writing keep me sane. Sometimes praying/meditating. I like listening to late night AM radio and shortwave when I am going to sleep. There is something about hearing distant radio signals that comforts me. I especially like listening to Coast To Coast AM.

There is very little private time in our world. There is always someone with you, next to you, talking to you and making you laugh. We laugh a lot, this group of guys. Chemistry of humans is important to us. We have a good mix of crew right now. They are all sweet, happy people with thick skin and senses of humor.

Growin’ A Beard is a such a sweet, strange documentary. How’d you get involved with the soundtrack?

The Gourds
Pretty simple, Mike Woolf, a longtime friend and fan in Austin told me about this project he had been working on about this beard growing contest. He described what a “donegal” beard [a beard that goes from one sideburn along the jawline to the other sideburn without a mustache] is. As I envisioned his description I remembered a morning I woke up with the fellows around me in Portland, Oregon. I looked at them and they all had donegal beards. I think Max always used to wear one. Then suddenly Jimmy had one and Claude had one. It was creepy funny. When Mike mentioned this I knew we were the only band that could handle the soundtrack for this beard movie. It came out great. I only wish we would have recorded the whole “Get Yer Kicks On Route 66” song. That recording has such a spooky, cool, groovy quality to it, but we only did that one little part of it.

I don’t think you cats have ever made a bad record – a rare thing for any band around more than a decade – but I’ve argued for years that Ghosts of Hallelujah is one of the unsung classics of the ’90s. It seemed like a lot of things clicked into place on that album, and in many ways help set the stage for the music that followed. What do you think of it now? What do you recall of its creation?

I remember there was a huge storm that hit Central Texas during the recording of this. A friend of ours got in a car wreck driving through East Texas on the way to the ranch where we were recording. We were stranded for a short time as well as some of the roads were washed out by swelling creeks from the rainfall. Keith and I arrived first and did a few of my songs early on. One of those was the title track. It was originally a slow, sad waltz, but we did that more up-tempo version and went with that. I got sick near the end of this and had to go home from feeling so bad. Keith actually had to take me to the hospital because I thought something was seriously wrong. Then, he had to take our friend to the hospital because we were concerned he might have a concussion from his wreck. Keith was very busy during [these sessions]. We were both fine. Amid all that, we had a good time.

It was the last of the first three records that we recorded at The Laurels Ranch in the Hill Country. It is very close to Luckenbach and Fredericksburg, Texas-German country, obviously; lots of goats and cows around. We had great times out there just making weird records. They weren’t the best sounding records, but they were cool, we thought. And it kept us in a certain frame of mind that maybe being in a real recording studio could have dampened. I think this is where the final lineup of The Gourds begins with Max having joined us there. And it being Keith’s first recording with us, you have a good case for this being a forgotten classic of the decade. There are many Gourds faithful who appreciate this one that way. One reason it may have been overlooked is the fact that it was the third release in as many as two years. It really seemed that we released it too soon. If we had waited another six months maybe it would have made more of a splash. Lots of music biz folks seemed to have a “oh another record already” reaction to it. And it was released on a very small label. Essentially, this had little marketing behind it. Great record though.

Continue reading for more on The Gourds…

 
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.

Kevin Russell

 

Haymaker, particularly on cuts like “New Dues,” reminds me of another Texas great, Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quintet. Are those guys any kind of touchstone for The Gourds?

The Gourds
Doug, of course, became a big inspiration to us. Hearing what he had done years before we ever thought of it was really mind blowing. Before moving to Austin and forming The Gourds we had never heard of him. He was someone we started hearing about once we were playing around. Other folks heard the similarity and would ask if we knew of him. There was also somewhat of a Sir Doug renaissance after he sang with Uncle Tupelo on their cover of his song “Give Back The Key To My Heart.” Lots of dudes around South Austin got hip to him after this, myself included. I went out and bought as many records as I could by him. Some years later, we actually got to play with him and hang out with him, which was a highpoint for all of us – great man with a unique vision of his world. He loved my voice and told me to take care of it, value it. He told Jimmy that he had never seen anyone play bass like him other than Rick Danko [The Band], which is basically the greatest thing anyone could say about Jimmy’s bass playing. He always called Claude, Flaco, so much so that we were never sure if he knew Claude’s name.

Your band’s handling of faith and spirituality as it’s lived on the ground, in real day-to-day terms, has always impressed me. “All The Way To Jericho” is a philosophical rambler in this vein. What appeals to you about this subject matter? How do you deal with God and faith and belief in ways that don’t tip into schmaltz and saccharine sentiment?

I have a faith rooted in Christianity that incorporates what I have gleaned from other religions and myths – Buddhism, Zen, Sufi, Islam, Hindu, Biology, Psychology, Art, Poetry, Music. I have distilled this all into a personal belief system that seems to serve my needs pretty well. I struggle like everyone with the problem of living in the bourgeois state, where we have grown soft and lazy. Man is the most aggressive, self-aware and creative creature on the planet. We have basically created an unexpected problem: Our fabulous civilization makes us less human. Bourgeois society reduces us to a pitiful sloth. There is no sense of the heroic life to speak of. Through the ages, the church and militarism have been used by many to attain the discipline needed for heroic transcendence, but the problem still exists. And I believe this is the biggest spiritual problem we face today, both personally and collectively as a society.

The Gourds
I have a personal system that serves me well, but this is probably not going to help the greater gathering of increasingly lost and corrupt humanity wading through the murk of capitalism engulfing the globe. The obvious march toward one world, one currency, one government is disheartening to me. My instinct is towards myth and art to make some sense of it all, and this is reflected often in my songs. There is still much to learn from our Western Christian myth. I try to use it in a way that disarms the listener. Jung said religion is a way of avoiding a religious experience. I think if we can forget all the hang ups and prejudice we might have against our myths, we can maybe make it more likely that we will have deeper spiritual experiences. “Jericho” specifically is really about being alienated from something or someplace, but finding one’s own spiritual happiness regardless. Jericho was destroyed by the Jews in their march towards a promised land. I am on my way there, but in the end I miss it. I do not take part in the great sacking of the city. Then, I decide to go to Bethlehem or the New Testament – the re-birth. It remains to be seen if I get there either, but in the chorus I drive all night and sleep all day. This is a way of describing the dark parts of the personality or the psyche, yes? Lots of stuff going on in that song, in the end though, it is just a nice tune.

“Country Gal” is the kind of tune Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show would have had a hit with in ’70s on AM radio. If today’s country radio had any sense they’d long ago taken a big ol’ shine to The Gourds. Have you guys ever really courted modern Nashville or contemporary country radio?

One does not court Nashville. One is chosen, eaten, then regurgitated by that soul crushing machine that lives in the black heart of the city. I am speaking, of course, of the “Country Music” industry there. There has always been a questionable intent running through that industry. From the time Chet Atkins molded the slick Nashville sound in an attempt to “cross-over” to the urban whites, there has been tons of questionable material spewing out. It has grown worse and worse, year-by-year. This happened because it is controlled by money creeps. Greed will never create great art. Never has and it never will.

There is only the will to create that makes such works. When the will is absorbed by greed it seeks only that end, by whatever means. Now we have fashion models that sing with the accent of a rube. “Country Music” now owes more to Billy Joel than to Hank Williams, and that is a fact, Jack. They would rather piss on us than actually do business with us. They are not in the least concerned with the cultural heritage of American musical traditions. Oh, they pay lip service to it because it gives them something to base their brand and business model on. But, it is all bullshit. We are much too real for their fantasy formula, and we do not ever do what we are told to do. We are men with a vision and a belief in what we do. The Tim McGraws of the world are told what to do and what to wear and how much make-up to put on and what to say. They are coached and groomed and prodded like poodles on parade.

“The Way You Can Get” off the new album from Gruene Hall, Gruene, Texas, 1/10/09

And “Luddite Juice,” also on new album from the same gig

The Gourds are on tour now; dates available here.

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