Aspen Times Weekly: Heathens tame their sound (for now)
The band of Heathens
Friday, Dec. 13 at 8 p.m.
When Gordy Quist listens to “Sunday Morning Record,” the new album by the Band of Heathens, in which he sings and plays guitar, he hears things that separate it from the group’s previous three previous studio albums: Acoustic guitars; lyrical sentiments of an obviously personal nature; mellowness; the influence of Neil Young and Jackson Browne, who were among the musicians he was listening to a lot during the making of “Sunday Morning Record.”
But to Quist, none of that adds up to a record that reflects a band that has aged, or is even becoming aware of aging. Quist is just 33, and he notes that the Band of Heathens, who got their start in the mid-‘00s in Austin, Tex., have recently been infused with younger blood. Drummer Richard Millsap, who joined the group last year, is in his early 20s.
“The band is younger, younger than it was before,” Quist said. “The record is not so much about age. It’s life changes.”
Quist said the sound and the lyrical expression of “Sunday Morning Record” come from shifts that the band and its members have gone through since their last studio album, “Top Hat Crown & the Clapmaster’s Son,” from 2011. Ed Jurdi, a singer and multi-instrumentalist and co-founder of the group, relocated from Austin to Asheville, N.C. Colin Brooks, another original member, left the group entirely. Quist, who has also been around from the beginning, became a father.
“This is the most personal album we’ve written, much more personal than anything we’ve done in the past,” Quist said from Austin, where he was spending a day handling chores (a busted water heater) and his 13-month-old daughter. “That comes from what was going on in the background — my wife was pregnant with our first child; Ed moved to Asheville. A lot of change. We weren’t necessarily setting out to make a statement meant to change somebody else, but just a reflection of what was going on in our world. We’ve been a band for seven, eight years and this album we chose to go personal with the material. That’s just where we were at.”
The sound of “Sunday Morning Record” is a reflection of that mood. Instead of a Saturday night album — ripping guitars, crashing drums, living loudly in the moment — “Sunday Morning Record” is quiet and slower moving, encouraging contemplation. “Sonically, it’s the more wooden sounds, the acoustic nature of the record,” Quist, who will appear with Band of Heathens for a show on Friday, Dec. 13 at PAC3 in Carbondale. “It’s not mellow, but mellower than what we’ve done before. That was a reflection of the mood of the band, and also of what we’ve been listening to lately: Michael Kiwanuka, Bahamas, a band called Vetiver. A lot of Neil Young and Jackson Browne.”
The band itself is a whole lot different than what was put together eight years ago. At Momo’s, a now defunct bar that had been a center of musical activity in Austin, there were four bands who regularly shared the bill on Wednesday nights. The lead singer-songwriters of each band eventually pooled their songs in one group, the Band of Heathens, which celebrated a let-‘er-rip aesthetic.
“Back then it was no rehearsals,” Quist, a Houston area product who grew up on his parents’ albums (Dylan, Rolling Stones, a lot of Beatles) before discovering the songwriting riches of his native Texas (Townes Van Zant, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark) and learning guitar, at the age of 10, from his father. “You show up, everyone falls in. As Ray Wylie Hubbard” — the Texas singer-songwriter who produced the Band of Heathens’ self-title, 2008 debut album — “put it, ‘You fall in. Then you fall apart.’ We weren’t going to rehearse the beginnings of songs, not rehearse the endings — just figure it out as we go along. We still try to keep that improve spirit, but we’ve tightened it up. It’s gone from four singer-songwriters with a rhythm section, which is where it started, to a real rock ‘n’ roll band.”
Exactly what sort of rock ‘n’ roll band they were, though, depends on which moment in time you were listening. Quist describes the first album as “swampy country blues.” “One Foot in the Ether,” from 2009, was closer to straight-up roots rock. “Top Hat Crown & the Clapmaster’s Son” ventured into psychedelic ideas.
“Sunday Morning Record” began with “Shotgun,” the first song written, the album’s opener, and a tone-setter for the rest of the record. The lyrics are personal, a rough kiss-off to a former companion: “Airing out your dirty laundry/ Hanging all your so-called friends out to dry, dry, dry.” “It’s about things changing, people coming and going in life, everybody moving forward,” Quist said.
“Shotgun” was also meant as an innovative way to use rhythm and voices. “Ed and I wrote it mostly together,” Quist said. “We were experimenting with time changes in the middle of a song, and with unison singing — singing the same melody, then splitting into different harmony parts. Like the Everly Brothers, a duo-style singing deal where you get two voices melding into one.”
Quist said “Sunday Morning Record” could have gone in other directions. The group recorded approximately 20 songs for the album, not all on the mellower, introspective side. But they wanted a focused, cohesive statement, and stuck more or less to a particular type of song. “Girl with Indigo Eyes” echoes singer-songwriter Iron & Wine; “Since I’ve Been Home” has a hushed, confessional feeling.
Fans of “Sunday Morning Record” might not want to get overly attached to this facet of the Band of Heathens. Quist doesn’t believe that the group, not even a decade into its history, has settled into one style of making music. He’s not sure if they ever will, or if that should ever be the goal.
“It feels, even from the beginning, that the band has been on an evolution,” he said. “I think we’ll always be evolving, changing, not afraid to do things different. Our fans expect us to do something different with each record. It’s refreshing to know that people want to keep hearing something different from us.”
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