The Band of Heathens' collective mojo
Tuesday, March 15: Opening night of South by Southwest Music 2011 and the venerable Home of the Blues is packed. Despite the $15 cover at Antone's and the oncoming week, the occasion itself might be the biggest improbability. Tonight, the Band of Heathens celebrates its fifth official release and third studio LP, Top Hat Crown & the Clapmaster's Son.
From the first thunderclap of funk-infused, roots-shaking album opener "Medicine Man," the local all-stars lock in tight but free. There's no proper frontman among the three principal songwriters leading the quintet, yet each consumes the stage with a singular presence that surges into a whole through a tempest of harmony and Southern-greased guitars.
Ed Jurdi is a collapse of thick, dark hair behind the keyboards, bearded and shaggy with his eyes closed and a deep-grooved soul tremble that carries through the club. Gordy Quist cuts a suave figure center stage, a slyly crooked smile melding his folksier impulses with smooth pop polish and rock ruggedness. Bookending the triumvirate, Colin Brooks plays the brooding bluesman, resonator and lap steel guitar adding bite to his vocal chaff.
As the group spills into the rolling "Should Have Known" and gospel-inflected swell that closes "The Other Broadway," the meeting of Jurdi, Quist, and Brooks becomes manifest, like Little Feat meets the Band, Southern rock with a country kick and bluesy Texas soul. Together, their vocal weave rises and dives amid jolts of funk and swirling 1970s roots-psych, a melding where each pushes the others into new realms.
Never has this core trio – along with bassist Seth Whitney and drummer John Chipman – better realized its cumulative strength than on its new album, an unexpected torque of each songwriter's styles into an altogether different sound. In the six years since it took shape as a loose song swap holding down a Wednesday night residency at Momo's, the Band of Heathens has become one of the best bands in Austin.
Even so, they're a band completely in spite of themselves.
Each band member wears his influences, but Brooks' are tattooed on his left arm.
"Jesus and mama always loved me," reads the ring of Chinese characters around his bicep.
Brooks typifies the Band of Heathens precisely because of the three songwriters, he's the one most removed from it. He's reticent, soft-spoken, with a knowing bite and philosophical air when he opens up. At 40, he's the oldest of the three, and it shows in the wry squint of his eyes, the tough hide of his hands, and the flecks of gray that spray his short-cropped beard, obscuring a scar cutting down his left cheek.
"I think Colin was the most hesitant to join forces with everyone," admits Quist, while adding that Brooks is also the most likely to push live improvisation. "He'll start a song, and we'll have no idea what he's starting until all of a sudden something familiar comes through.
"And then we're all like, 'All right, here we go – wear your seat belt!'"
Behind his stoicism, Brooks intertwines the competing impulses of being dedicated to and appreciating the band's success while remaining keenly aware of its arc and uncertain lifespan. Born in northern Michigan, he's a lifer who's hit as many walls as moments of success, losing a marriage to music and remaining committed to a memory of his father who died when he was 2.
"I had an old Gibson Hummingbird that was my dad's – my mom bought it for him – and I always had that guitar around," Brooks attests, speaking low on the back porch of the Once Over Coffee Bar on South First. "I just always knew that I was supposed to do something with that. My first memory is strumming that guitar on his knee. Maybe I made it up, but it's burned in there."
As a teenager, Brooks moved with his family to Ohio and began writing songs, eventually attending Berklee College of Music in Boston and leaving after three semesters to play out more. After years in New Mexico and Brooklyn, he found his way to Austin in 2003 fresh off the release of his debut, Chippin' Away at the Promised Land. Two years later, "Blood in the Water" from Brooks' second solo set, Blood and Water, scratched at the wound of his father's death – killed when a well he was drilling collapsed.
"The soil was so sandy that it just caved in on him," says Brooks. "I remember that day, too. My mom was there pulling buckets of dirt up."
Quist counters Brooks' veteran road wear with a natural crowd-rousing flair. Born in California, his slight twang evinces his Houston upbringing. The youngest Heathen at 31, Quist strikes one as the most committed to a vision of what the band can be, a sense partially informed by five years spent in the jam band Lucky Southern while attending Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
"You sometimes have to force yourself not to forget how great it can be," Quist relates in preparing for the Heathens' approaching tour. "The music is always the thing you've got to keep sacred, and when you get on stage, that has to be fun. If it's not, then it's not worth doing. Because everything else sucks. The pay sucks, the lifestyle sucks – being married and away from home all the time. All of it sucks, except the music.
"So you always have come back to that, and every night you're trying to re-create that moment when you first plug in the electric guitar – that feeling of locking in with other musicians and connecting."
Quist reiterates that commitment with the determination of a songwriter who, after returning to his Houston roots and the sound of his heroes Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, left his job in 2004 to pursue music full-time in Austin. Later that year brought his debut, Songs Play Me, and by the time of his second effort, 2007's Here Comes the Flood, the Band of Heathens had emerged from local side project to national touring act.
If Quist represents the heart of the band, then Jurdi is best regarded as the soul of Heathenism. Reared outside of Boston, the 35-year-old was exposed to the city's rich live music scene at an early age, from the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra to the vibrant coffeehouse folk scene of the Northeast. As a teen, he discovered classic R&B through Van Morrison and Wilson Pickett, eschewing emerging 1990s grunge in favor of the Southern swagger of the Black Crowes and fronting his own hometown soul revue complete with horns and backup singers.
After attending the University of New Hampshire, Jurdi gigged the Northeast and released two solo CDs, 1999's self-titled debut and 2003's eclectic swath of Americana, Longshores Drive. The latter left him ready for a change as he wound his way to Austin in 2005.
"The amount of opportunity all over town was really appealing to me," recalls Jurdi. "If you met people and hit it off, they would give you a chance to play. And if you could play, then you were in. It was musicians actually playing music and connecting on that level.
"To me at least, it's the quintessential Austin experience."
Good Time Supper Club
The unlikely formation of the Band of Heathens has become a piece of local lore, spearheading the emergence of Momo's over the past decade as the West Sixth Street hub of eclectic talent. Brooks, Quist, and Jurdi each found their way into the Wednesday night showcase within the course of a year, largely due to fellow songwriter and original band member Brian Keane.
Anchored by Keane and drummer Eldridge Goins, the 8pm to 2am slot was a revolving cast of sidemen and support, with no real initial chemistry between the soloing Heathens beyond sitting in as needed on guitar. The band itself was little more than an experiment precipitated by the venue's decision to change the Wednesday night format into a shared session originally billed in 2005 as the Good Time Supper Club.
"In the early days when we were playing separately in other bands, I don't think any of us were a really huge fan of the other," laughs Quist. "We were having fun playing music together, but I'm sure Ed wasn't itching to go out and pick up one my CDs and vice versa.
"And I think that if each of us were trying to put together a band, we wouldn't have called each other," he continues. "This wouldn't have been the band we picked. But then working together and writing together opened up a realm for each of us that we wouldn't be looking at otherwise. And because it just happened to fall in place the way it did, it was good to have it not be the way each of us would have envisioned it – giving up control and letting it be a band where there's not a leader and no one's calling shots.
"That aesthetic took some pressure off, and it was purely about the music and not about trying to get so many people to come out to the show. There was no record to push or promote. It was just getting together and having fun and playing some music on Wednesday. There were no rehearsals. Wednesday was our rehearsal, in front of people."
Even as the marquee changed to represent the tightly evolving outfit, they were still a band more in name than in conception. When local imprint Fat Caddy Records offered to release a live album of the Heathens' Momo's show, it was more as a memento to capture the unique teaming.
Yet Live From Momo's helped garner the Band of Heathens Best New Band honors at the 2006-07 Austin Music Awards, and 2008 produced both their eponymous studio debut and the CD/DVD package Live at Antone's.
"You get to the point where either you're just jamming and doing your own projects and it's going to remain just that, or you decide to invest some time and creative energy into this and see what comes of it," offers Jurdi. "It's putting your cards on the table, and laying it on the line is the only way you're going to figure out what you can get out of it.
"Ultimately, that's what solidified us."
Write, Write, Write
Gathered in a corner booth of 24 Diner after an in-store next door at Waterloo Records, the Band of Heathens demonstrate a continually evolving chemistry as palpable as it is apparent onstage. It's a growth that also defines Top Hat Crown & the Clapmaster's Son (see "SXSW Records," March 18).
"For me, it's the realization of some sounds we've been after, and I think there's a lot of other stuff that's going to continue to come out as we go forward," Jurdi suggests. "It's going to maybe surprise people on the outside, but it was just a question of when that was going to come out."
While sophomore album One Foot in the Ether (2009) featured a full set of credited co-writes between the three songwriters, their individual styles still marked many of the songs. Top Hat Crown is an altogether different creation, beginning with Joshua Marc Levy's psychedelic artwork, which renders a jarring alternative vision of the band. Likewise, what had been a compromise of competing styles within previous albums is here synthesized into a revelry of low-down Southern blues-funk, cut through with a Louisiana fervor and harmonic soul.
Much credit undoubtedly goes to local producer George Reiff, who wrangled the band into his studio to cut three demos last summer.
"The process of going into the studio on this one was much different than what we'd done previously," notes Quist. "We were really stretching, doing some different things, and there was definitely the element of 'Let's go for something different.'"
"The other thing I think affected the way the album came out was that the songs are totally new, and we hadn't played any of them hardly at all," adds Jurdi. "We were literally learning the songs then cutting it that afternoon or that night."
Each songwriter brought his own tunes to the table, but the collaborative immediacy of the arrangements necessarily focused the group's instincts in a unified direction.
"We would all like to collaborate more, and it may happen more, but regardless of whether we consciously accept collaboration or influence, we influence each other immensely," assesses Brooks. "It's a heavy music collaboration. It's constantly and pervasively intertwined with each other. That's what makes this band what it is. We play off each other; we support each other; we make each other sound better than we do on our own. That's a huge thing."
Underlying it all, especially in the cathartic jams of Top Hat Crown, is a sense of urgency that finally seems to have bled into the band's perception of itself. Just as their individual songwriting has arced into the overall influence of the band, there's now an equally impelling commitment to push the project into areas that none could have conceived within their own work. It's a dual realization of being fully dedicated to the possibilities at hand precisely because the Band of Heathens is a creative endeavor that can't endure.
"We're just now hitting our stride, so my reaction is let's just write, write, write and get better and better and better," concludes Quist. "We have to seize that moment now."