By Richard Skanse
Under ideal circumstances, any and all interviews with the Band of Heathens would only take place in a single room with all five Heathens present and accounted for. The in-jokes would fly fast and furious, with everyone riffing off of each other’s tangents and freely hitching along on each other’s trains of thought in the same way that the band’s three songwriting frontmen swap verses and guitar solos over a solid but loose-limbed rhythmic bed of harmony-laced, soulful roots rock. The end result would be a proper group portrait of the band as true-to-life as their 2006 debut, Live at Momo’s, or last year’s CD/DVD, Live at Antone’s. Seasoned groove guru Ray Wylie Hubbard used this same five-guys-in-a-room method when producing the Heathens’ brand new, self-titled studio album, effectively capturing the full organic sweep and flow of the band’s live show like the proverbial lightning in a bottle. Good thing, too, because anything less would have been a disservice to not only founding band members Gordy Quist, Ed Jurdi, Colin Brooks, Seth Whitney and relative “new guy” John Chipman, but also to all the fans who voted the Heathens “Best New Band” in the 2006-2007 Austin Music Awards.
Now, having acknowledged the way the Band of Heathens should be interviewed, especially in light of them being selected as LoneStarMusic.com’s Artist of the Month to mark the occasion of the May 20 release of the aforementioned Hubbard-produced studio album, what follows is unabashed heathenism. Due to the band’s understandably busy schedule of late (goes with the territory of being one of the hottest bands in town), we were only able to catch up with two of the five Heathens — singer-songwriter/guitarists Quist and Jurdi, and we had to make due with talking to them one at a time. We talked to Quist via a very shaky cell-phone connection (“Can you hear me now? How bout now? Reception’s good here, but the music’s really loud …”) minutes after the band finished its set at Larry Joe Taylor’s Texas Music Festival, and we connected with Jurdi via a more stable connection during the band’s ride back home to Austin. But nobody needs to know that, so let’s all just pretend that we did conduct the following interview with the whole band in attendance, albeit with third singer-songwriter/guitarist Brooks, bassist Whitney and drummer Chipman all pleading the Fifth, refreshing their drinks or sneaking off to the little Heathens’ room during the portion of the interview presented here. Yeah, it’s a stretch, and it’s definitely not the Heathens’ way, but just play along and we’ll all get through this together.
So how is Larry Joe’s little shindig out there in Stephenville treating you?
Gordy Quist: Oh, it’s great, man. We just finished about 30 minutes ago. It was a great crowd. I think they had like 30,000 people here last night. Pretty crazy. And there were a few thousand people out here today, too. This is our first time out here, and I had no idea it was this big. I guess it just kind of exploded in the last couple of years, which is what somebody was telling me.
Ed Jurdi: I was just telling Gordy that I think it’s really cool how there’s all this stuff going on down here, but people outside of Texas probably have no idea it’s going on. And I know from having been to a lot of places around the country that it’s not going on outside of Texas, either. So it’s definitely a special cool little thing going on here, for sure, and it’s nice to be a part of it.
Out of the three songwriters in the band, Gordy’s the only native Texan, right? Where are you from originally, Ed?
Jurdi: I grew up outside of Boston. I’ve been in Austin now for about three years.
How familiar were you with the Texas scene before you moved here? Were guys like Ray Wylie Hubbard even on your radar?
Jurdi: Yeah, I was pretty familiar with it all. I’ve been playing music my whole life, and I’ve always liked a lot of different music and had a really strong interest in tracing the music I like back to its origins. The history of Texas music is a pretty big part of American music history, so I’d listen to stuff going back to Bob Wills and of course Willie, and I was definitely familiar with a lot of the singer-songwriters, like Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett and Joe Ely. I knew about Ray, too. I couldn’t say that I was real knowledgeable about his music, but I had seen him before, because he came up to play a show in New England somewhere and I thought he was great.
How did he end up producing your first studio record?
Quist: That was through Mattson Rainer at KNBT down in New Braunfels. He invited us out to do Ray Wylie’s radio show, Roots and Branches. We went out there and did the show, and just had a really great time and hit it off with Ray. He said, “Hey, why don’t you guys come down again next week?” So we went down there again. But we didn’t really talk about doing a record until about a month or two later, when I had lunch with Ray to talk about my solo record which I had just put out. By then we were starting to shop around for producers for the Heathens record, and I think it just hit Ray and I at the same time that he’d be a good match for us. He’s obviously made a lot of records, and he had done some producing in the past, too — I think he produced a band that won some Shiner contest, and he co-produced his Snake Farm record with Gurf Morlix. Plus he knew a great studio and we already got along really good, so it just seemed like a good fit. After that lunch we got together with the band and talked with Ray some more, and that’s how it all came about. He never came to us with a proposal and we didn’t go to him with one; it just kind of naturally happened out of talking.
What was he like in the studio?
Jurdi: It was great. Obviously Ray Wylie’s a music legend, especially in Texas. He’d hate for us to say this, but he’s definitely one of the grandfathers of the whole scene — I mean, he is an old man, after all! [Laughs] But Ray’s like 18, though; he’s still got the energy, and he loves music. That’s the thing for me personally … I’m a huge music fan . If I wasn’t playing music, I’d totally be at the record store every week buying records and playing them for my friends, going, “Hey, you gotta hear this, man!” And that was totally Ray’s approach. He has that kind of energy, as far as his thirst for it goes. But at the same time, he’s really cool with dealing with people and keeping the atmosphere really relaxed and just putting us in the right headspace to be able to create and do what we do.
Quist: He was a perfect match for us, because we’ve got a bunch of strong personalities and a lot of ideas, and Ray was just really good at making suggestions but not being too forceful. He just had a lot of real good ideas. And he was super laid back. We’d joke around and call him the “vibe doctor.” We’d play something, and he’d say, “OK, why don’t you try that again, but this time, make it cooler.” That’s kind of his thing: Just make it cool. “Make it cooler! Make it cool!”
How long did you spend recording it?
Quist: We did three days of tracking with everybody, and then we did maybe two or three more days of coming in and singing background stuff, and having some other guest musicians coming in and play. Then we came back in again. We stretched it out a little bit, because we started tracking and then we went out tour in the Rockies before coming back to do mixing and all that stuff. But we pretty much had the songs written going in, and we recorded them all live playing together. We didn’t do any “layering” … you know, we didn’t go do the drums first and then the bass and the guitars. We did everything together. There’s a couple of songs that we did in one take. That’s something Ray was pretty good at, because we’re definitely a live band. This whole thing came together playing live, and Ray wanted to capture that. So we all set up in a room where we could see each other, and we just tried to make the magic happen on each day, just doing it until a take felt good.
The Heathens came together in the spring of 2006, when all of you [Quist, Jurdi, Colin Brooks and former member Brian Keane] decided to share one big show (and rhythm section) together instead of playing your usual separate solo sets at the same venue every week. That led to the Live at Momo’s album and your Best New Band award, by which point it was pretty clear that what started very informally had taken on a life of its own. But still, before doing a studio record, you put out a second live album and concert DVD. Was there a hesitation on anyone’s part to fully commit to doing a studio album?
Quist: Well, it was kind of weird, because the first record was just kind of a deal like, “Hey, let’s record one of these Wednesday nights to kind of capture the scene.” But things slowly started coming together for the band after we put that out, and that’s when we got to thinking about a studio record. So we actually started on that first, but then ME-TV came to us with the idea of doing a DVD. They were paying for the whole thing, so we thought it was just one of those things that was too good of a deal to pass up. We were pretty excited at the thought of being able to put out a DVD. The timing was a little weird, putting out two live records before the studio one, but that’s how it worked out.
Colin’s said before that when y’all first started playing together, he was wary of being part of what could have just been a songwriters-in-the-round deal with a rhythm section. What keeps the Band of Heathens from being that?
Quist: Well, initially, I think that’s what it was, essentially. When we fist started out doing those Wednesdays together, when Brian Keane was in the band, we would pretty much take turns doing the songs we’d each written, with the other guys supporting that song, and then the next guy would go. So that’s how the project started. But then after a while the songs started taking on a life of their own that were very different from how we’d ever done them with our own bands. And when we saw the songs starting to come together in a way they never had before — not because we planned it that way, just because of the way we played together — I think at a certain point it became, rather than one person kind of leading a song, it really turned into a band collaborating together. One guy who maybe didn’t write a song would say, “Maybe we should do the bridge this way,” and we’d always try it. And it just so happens that when we collaborate, I think we’re definitely better than when we’re on our own. So I think in that sense, for us, I think it feels like more of a band now than a songwriters in the round. Especially with the co-writing we’re doing now, and the way we trade off verses. We’re just having a lot of fun with it. The idea is to just play each song the best way that it can be done. The songs are their own entities; they change over time, and we do them differently every night. That’s why we really love the vehicle that we’re doing with this band. I’ve always had a fun time leading bands and all that stuff, but it’s really fun being part of a band where everybody contributes and it’s a democracy.
Jurdi: I think it works the way it does because everyone in the band is a player, you know? The three of us that write songs in this band, we’ve all played instruments in other people’s bands, too, so it’s not just approaching it like, “Let’s just play our own songs, and someone else is going to back us up.” Being players really informs what we’re doing musically, and that’s a big part of the overall presentation: it’s about how everyone’s stretching out, how we’re all finding our legs vocally and instrumentally and changing arrangements, all that kind of stuff. This band just immediately seemed to ring true to a lot of folks, and I think that’s mainly because it rang true for the people making the music onstage. Everything felt good and felt natural, and I think that’s why everything has happened the way it has for this band.
Did the dynamic of the group change when Brian Keane left? I mean, did that in any way kind of tighten the seams of the band, and make the rest of you tighter and more committed?
Jurdi: I think from the beginning Brian was wanting to do his own thing. Of course, everyone was still doing their own thing when we got started, but as we started to play more, and the band started playing together better, it was just kind of a natural instinct for us to want to explore that further. For me musically, that was the biggest thing: “Wow, this is how I would want to present these songs if I had my own band, but this is even better because everyone can really sing great.” And by that I mean, not just having three lead singers, but having everyone singing harmony. That’s always been something that I’ve been really interested in. Beyond rock ‘n’ roll music, I listen to a lot of gospel and soul kind of music, and I love just having the multiple voices. So when Brian left … I think everyone else in the band wanted to really dig into this and see what we could make happen. So in that sense, that kind of fortified what we were trying to do; everyone was totally onboard, and we just got into it full speed and stayed going with it.
Quist: Brian was a huge part of us coming together. He’s an incredible songwriter. Have you heard the song he did for Hayes Carll’s new record? “She Left Me for Jesus” [Laughs] But I think Brian really wanted to focus on his songwriting and pursue his solo career. For me, playing in this band really opened up doors for my songwriting. It pushed me in new directions, and I think Ed and Colin would say the same. Brian, I think, had something different that he heard and that he wanted to do. Of course we miss him — we still play some of his songs — but I think as far as your question if him leaving brought us closer together, I think its more a just a matter of those of us still left in the band being the people who really want to be here. I’m sure Brian had a great time playing in this band, but there just came a point where he wanted to do something else.
Seth’s been with the band since the beginning, right?
Quist: Yeah. He played bass with my band and Brian’s band, before the Heathens started. And a little bit with Colin and Ed, too. So he’s been around from the beginning.
When did John become a full-time Heathen?
Quist: John started out as a sub. Eldridge Goins did the first record with us, and when he left the band, we had a rotating cast of drummers, including John. But John was really busy playing with Jon Dee Graham and the Resentments and a lot of other gigs around town here and there. So he was pretty busy, but he would come in and sub when he could, and finally at some point in early ’07 — I think —he said, “Hey, I want to be a part of this — I want to be a member of this band, not just a hired gun.” And it just kind of worked out.
Jurdi: John and Seth are tied at the hip, you know? They’re actually like conjoined twins. They really are perfect together. They’re exactly what … when you think about a bass player and a drummer having their little clandestine club thing that they hang out in, their own little world, that’s them. For me, musically, everything starts out with the rhythm, and those guys are gold. And they’re pretty damn funny, too.
Ed, what do you admire most about Gordy and Colin, your fellow songwriters in the band?
Jurdi: They both have really good hygiene — and that’s really important when you’re traveling really close with people! I don’t know; I think everyone’s got really cool insights into what they’re doing and into what each other’s doing, and just their takes on music. I like having conversations with them and how we can all hear each other play a lick and say, “Hey, how’d you do that?” It’s been a good learning process, having that much access to other people who write. Usually when you play in a band, like if it’s your own band, you’re writing all the songs and you’re kind of doing the whole thing yourself in that capacity, and though you definitely have a good relationship with the guys in your band and you pick their brain and stuff, its not the same, you know?
Who’s the most prolific writer in the group? Or, put another way, who’s the laziest?
Quist: [Laughs] I don’t know if I would say anyone is lazy. We all kind of go through spurts. Ed and I have been writing quite a bit lately, but I don’t know if I would call Colin lazy. He’s probably written more songs than I have.
Can you talk about what, at least in your opinion, distinguishes a Gordy song from a Colin song from an Ed song? Not that every song you write is going to sound the same, but what do you think are your individual hallmarks as writers — and for that matter, singers and musicians?
Quist: I think each of us definitely has a distinct personality, both in our guitar playing and songwriting wise. But it’s kind of hard for me to explain what those are. It’s like trying to describe someone’s voice. I think we all have different influences. I know it’s hard to describe yourself; I don’t know what I’d say about myself. But I think the records I’ve put out in the past have been more along the lines of a folk songwriter kind of thing; I’ve played in rock ‘n’ roll bands since I was 14, but after moving back to Texas about six years ago [Houston-born Quist attended college at Dartmouth, where he played linebacker for the football team], I’ve really been open to the whole Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt kind of folk thing. And now I’m trying more to write … I guess songs that stand up on their own, but also work well showcased with a band, with harmonies and all that. I think my guitar playing … I don’t do a whole lot of real fast licks or anything like that. But it’s hard to describe. And Colin, he’s been playing guitar with bands around Austin for a long time, so he’s really got a distinct tone and distinct style of playing; it’s kind of a mix between chicken-picking guitar with sometimes a Daniel Lanois kind of delay thing on it. He just really likes to play guitar. And his songs, he writes everything from Southern-rock type songs to really dark, dark moody stuff. He’s got some stuff that we haven’t recorded that I really dig — it’s kind of country, almost Johnny Cash sounding, but when we play it it turns into a really heavy band thing. And Ed, to me, he’s got a whole soul singer thing going on — kind of Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding kind of vocals. He’s definitely very conscious of the groove when he writes. And he always writes great choruses. He’s a blazing guitar player, too, like Colin, but he’s got his own style. Both Colin and Ed play a lot of slide; Colin plays a lot of lap steel, Ed plays a lot of bottleneck slide. I don’t do as much of that. They both have things as far as their style and their writing that I don’t have, that I wish I had, and I’m learning from them. And I think they’d probably say the same about all of us. That’s why we’re having such a good time with all of this.
Jurdi: I think everyone comes from a similar background musically as far as what we like to listen to, but we’ve all got a slightly different take on stuff. We might listen to five of the same records, but how I digest that and process that and how it comes out of me is completely different from someone else.
Has playing with these guys made you a better songwriter?
Jurdi: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s like anything else where it all gets in there and influences what you’re doing. Songwriting’s such a mysterious beast; it’s like … where they come and when they come and how they come and what’s good … man, I wish I could harness that . I know Gordy writes a lot, and I write a lot, but it’s a process, you know? I think it’s cool that we’ve been able to work this close together, and I think everybody takes a little bit from that. I think what’s even more valuable than that though is the fact that when you’re working on something, you can bounce it off them, or you can get them to help you work on it. So then you literally have their influence on the song, which is pretty cool and again, that’s pretty unique to what we have going on.
Outside of the creative and songwriting realm, who’s the most practical, business-minded Heathen? Or are you all equally responsible when it comes to keeping the band’s business affairs in order?
Jurdi: We don’t all have band credit cards, I’ll tell you that much! [Laughs] Nah, I don’t know man. It’s usually a consensus decision; almost nobody’s ever making decisions completely on their own.
Quist: I’d say Ed’s probably the most responsible one. I’ve got a little bit of a business background, too. So Ed and I do most of the numbers along with our manager. But Colin brings a lot to the table, too. We use his van, so he takes care of the van and keeps up on mileage and stuff. Everybody has stuff they do. Seth does a lot with the merchandise, and John, he’s been to Europe and Japan a bunch of times, so he’s getting us together with people over their for touring and distribution. So everyone brings a different strength to the table. Some of us aren’t as good at some things, so others will pick up the slack. And if anyone ends up doing more than the others, we try to sort it out.
As great as things seem to be going for the Heathens right now, do you still think much about your own solo careers?
Quist: Well, you always think about it, because you always think, “Wow, this thing could end at any time, and then what are we going to be left with?” But I’m not really worried about it, and I don’t think anybody is. We’re going strong and we’re having a good time with the music we’re making, so we’re just going to keep writing songs and moving on. And if at some point we need a break, we can do that. But I don’t see that coming any time soon. And if it does, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. But I think everybody’s having a real good time right now with the way things are going.
Jurdi: The biggest thing for me is being creative, so I keep writing, and it’s obvious that we’re not going to be able to use all those songs in this band. But I think that with whatever I’m doing, I have to be totally immersed 100 percent in that, so as much as I loved doing my solo thing, and I probably will do that again, I can’t give that the attention that I’d need to right now. And I won’t get out of it what I want to get out of it or need to get out of it if I tried. The reason I’m able to do that with this [the Heathens] is because I’m totally focused and immersed in this right now.
Was there any one moment when it fully dawned on you what you had going on with the Heathens? Where you consciously thought, “This is what I need to focus on and want to focus on right now”?
Jurdi: I think every night you look for moments like that, and I think we’re pretty successful at harnessing that. For me, really, it’s cool when people are at the shows — that always makes the experience a lot better — but I think even a lot of the shows we were having at Momo’s before this thing started to really take off, even then there were moments where you’d do something and everyone would look around smiling, locking in and getting on the same page. So that happens a lot. Everyone just gets out there and does it full bore every night, no one’s holding back. And that’s really the secret for me; as long as everyone’s doing that, really going for it when they’re playing, that’s when the magic happens.
Not to stir up anything here, but I gotta ask — Gordy, you and Colin both hold the distinction of being Kerrville New Folk winners [ Brooks won the distinguished Kerrville Folk Festival songwriter’s honor in 2003, and Quist in 2006 ]. When it comes to picking songs for the records or to play each night, does that give you and Colin an edge over Ed? Like, do your votes in band meetings count any more than his?
Quist: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s right. We get two votes to his one!
Jurdi, do they ever gang up and try to pull rank on you?
Jurdi: Yeah. But I told them I have a leg up on them on that front, because I told them that I didn’t play Kerrville until I got paid to do the gig. So there you go!
Last question. You started out with four songwriters, now it’s down to three. Would you let anyone else in? Say if like, Ray Wylie wanted to join?
Jurdi: We talked about how it’d be cool and fun to back someone up like that. We’ve done some shows with Ray and kind of sat in with him, and it’s pretty natural. It’d definitely be a fun thing to do. But I think at this point, what the band is doing is kind of the sound that we want to present, so I think this is going to be the lineup for a bit. But if Ray wanted to do a little tour with us, that’d be a little fun. We’d let him be a Heathen for a little while. Then we’d kick him out again.