By Andrew Dansby
Reckless Kelly’s new album is packaged with a set of liner notes that reads almost like a manifesto. “The Problem:” it reads. “Pre-teen, pre-packaged, pro-tooled, pretentious, industry-driven, corporate-sponsored, soulless, cyborg music…” It goes on. With Under the Table and Above the Sun, the Austin-based band offers the best studio representation of its right and ragged stage show, forged through hundreds of gigs over the past six years since the band relocated from Oregon.
Reckless Kelly’s trail has its roots in Idaho with Muzzie Braun and the Boys. The familial western swing band toured the country and offered teenagers Willie and Cody Braun the opportunity to cut their musical teeth while other kids their age were likely tooling around with video games. On the cusp of twenty and hooked by the rumbling of an underground musical movement, they moved from country swing to roots rock. The band enlisted drummer Jay Nazz and relocated to Austin, where they found plenty of open stages and issued two studio albums, 1998’s Millican and 2000’s The Day, augmented with Live at Stubbs, a documentation of one of their acoustic gigs.
For their third studio set (and first in three years), Reckless enlisted producer/engineer Ray Kennedy, who has worked with band hero Steve Earle among numerous others. Kennedy couldn’t be more sympathetic to the band’s sound, putting the harmonies of brothers Braun front and center, while allowing the fiddling of the latter to work its way to share space with the slashing guitar work of David Abeyta. Bassist Jimmy McFeeley now rounds out the five-piece, which manages to maintain some of the white-knuckle-spontaneity suggested in its name (pinched from a nineteenth-century Australian outlaw) while still picking and playing like professionals with the kind of seasoning that only comes from the stage.
So you guys were pretty much playing together through childhood.
CODY: Yeah, I pretty much skipped the whole college thing and went into the school of honky-tonk. I was pretty sure what I was going to do when I got out of high school so I just went out and got rolling on it. Willie and I grew up playing in our family band with our dad and our two younger brothers, Micky and Gary, for about nine years. We toured all over and got to do lots of cool stuff. And then we decided to start our own band and wanted to get into a more rocking, hipper scene. We were doing western music back then and were seventeen, eighteen years old. We were ready to go out and rock a little bit [Laughs]. So we started a rock and roll band and moved out to Texas.
WILLIE: We grew up playing with Dad, I guess I was about was seven or eight and Cody was nine. We didn’t have much choice, we were kind of bred into it.
CODY: Our grandfather was a musician, our uncles were musicians. It’s kind of a family business. We grew up in Idaho and toured around the northwest, but we did get around the country a few times. Played the Opry, and Nashville and the Johnny Carson Show a couple of times. As kids we didn’t realize it was that big a deal. Now that we’re trying to get back there again, it’s like wow.
WILLIE: It was so much easier then.
CODY: Back when you didn’t know any better. It’s been kind of funny, it’s been a challenge trying to get back to those places on our own now. It’s weird to be attempting it in a different way. Like, we’ve already done that but I guess we can do that in a different way.
The harmonies are such a big part of your sound. Has it always come easy as siblings? It also seems to be a lost embellishment in rock.
CODY: Willie and I have sung harmony together since we were little kids. It was natural. When we started this band, it was like, “There has to be harmony.” What else am I gonna do, sit here and play fiddle? We used to have three part, now we’ve whittled it down to two. The vocals could definitely be brought out more in rock and roll. They always bury the vocals so far in the back, it sounds like you got a bunch of background singers behind you. We were going for more of an Everly Brothers vibe on this particular thing.
So how did the rest of the band come about?
CODY: We had a winter off and I think we played one more summer with Dad and then Willie and I moved to Oregon and had some friends there that we had been playing with a couple of years. We did that for nine months and then everything went to shit. Our manager got mad at us and fired us. Our drummer and guitar player decided that we were fired. We met Jay right before we left Oregon and he played with us for a few months before we moved. When we finished up that summer, we’re like, “If you wanna move to Austin with us, we’re going this fall.” He said he had to get back to school; he had one class left to graduate from college. He went back to do that in North Carolina and never ended up finishing.
Any regrets there, Jay?
JAY: No, not really. A couple of credits didn’t transfer. I was working at an insurance company; my folks thought I was just saving up money to go back to school in the spring. And I thought, “There’s no way I’m waiting ‘til the spring to go back to Austin to play with this band. I kinda dropped the bomb on my parents halfway through the fall. But I had gone out west with this guy who played guitar. He got hit by a car while he was there and broke his shoulder. We were just gonna try to do a coffee shop thing to make a few extra dollars, and finally after two weeks of being hung up in Bend, Ore., we went out for a couple of beers. These four guys walked into the bar and they didn’t have a drummer. And that was the day where it all came together. They were out releasing some frustrations of the end of this thing …
CODY: That was the same day that we broke up with our other guys.
JAY: When I was telling my folks what I wanted to do, the one thing I felt was important was that I felt there was a real solid friendship here. And I tried to let my folks know that that’s what was guiding me even more so than anticipations of what would happen when we got down to Austin. I just felt like this is where we were supposed to be. We just did something really cool on stage. It came together in such a special way. It sure beat my temp job. I basically had to stamp the date on folders. A couple of the days of the week, I’d forget to advance the little rubber thing, so they knew I didn’t belong there.
Was the sound you have today in place at that time?
CODY: At that point we had spent nine months rehearsing getting a sound together. We listened to a lot of Son Volt; they were hot then. We’d listened to Steve Earle a lot growing up, and Billy Joe Shaver had a live record that we were listening to a lot. We loved that raw, honky-tonk crunch. But our big idea was that we just wanted to have it sound rootsy but not depressing. It all just kind of came together after that. After we started in that direction, it shaped itself. And we were playing a ton at that time too: Seven nights a week, and it really honed it in. We went from Bend, Ore., where there were one or two bars you could play once a month or once every couple of months, to a city with 300 bars where you could play seven nights a week. We were all 18-, 19-years-old and everything was exciting and new and fresh. We partied every night, we all lived together in the same house, well several houses, but it was a great time.
JAY: The crowd here in Austin wants to be in your corner, and if you give it to ’em they’re gonna stay in your corner, and that’s motivation and it’s exciting to play for those kinds of fans.
CODY: The crowds here get to hear so much music and they’re tuned in early on, where a lot of places in the country, people aren’t exposed to live music. They have an appreciation for live music and hard working music.
So it’s been awhile between your last studio album and Under the Table. Did you have a backlog of material?
WILLIE: We’ve got 12 tunes on there, and a couple are three or four years old, where they were just sitting on the pile and we never got around to finding a great arrangement. There’s a bunch of new stuff that I’ve been writing over the last couple of years. I’ve been doing some co-writing. There’s a couple of songs that just popped up in the last two weeks before we went into the studio. One, “Nobody’s Girl,” I wrote with my brother Micky and one, “Let’s Just Fall,” I wrote with Beaver Nelson. I was trying to write a ton at that point and we needed a couple of stronger tunes and those just happened to fall into place. We had about 30 songs to pick from when all was said and done, so it was kind of different from our other records. It’s kind of nice to have a big pile to pick from.
“Desolation Angel” suggests a Keroauc fan among you.
WILLIE: I wrote that from some of the lines in his poem. I just think he’s got so many great lines. It’s probably my favorite poem. I’m not a big poetry fan, but that one I can read.
And “Merseybeat” seems to show a bit of inevitable Beatles-influence.
WILLIE: That’s probably the oldest one on there, I wrote it with our old bass player Chris, probably four-, four-and-a-half years ago. It’s about George Harrison and the Beatles, their early start playing in Liverpool and Hamburg. Kind of about the critics saying they weren’t going to make it, and they proved them wrong obviously. And how George is kind of the guy who got in the band because he had a place to practice.
Did you enjoy working with Ray Kennedy?
WILLIE: It was great working with Ray; everything he did we were just crazy about. He has a good ear for doing what we want to do. And it was nice to have an outside person to tell you what’s good and what’s bad. Sometimes you get used to doing it a certain way and you don’t know whether or not it’s the best approach. So it’s nice to have someone who hasn’t heard it 600 times.
He has a very organic, unfussy way of producing.
CODY: So much stuff today is recorded through the computer and cleaned up. When you’re a live band trying to compete with that perfection, it’s impossible. It’s tainted what people listen to and come to expect from a band. They don’t realize that in the studio they’ve done all this stuff to it and it’s made the way it is. You really gotta work your ass off to compete at that level of perfection.
JAY: Think of how horrible it’d be if back in the day they threw the Stones through ProTools.
CODY: It’s reality. There’s breaths in there, you can hear some clinks and clanks. It makes it human as opposed to being so polished where everything is perfect.
WILLIE: Call it rationalizing, I guess. Goddamn, we’re gonna make our mistakes cool.
So is it true the band’s name is from the old Kelly Gang?
CODY: Yeah, he was an Australian bank robber in the 1800s. He had kind of a Robin Hood-type vibe going on. They had a commune set up back on an island and they would go rob the big city and bring the money back to this little village. So it was rob the rich to feed the poor, but they were pretty bad guys really.
Didn’t he meet a particularly pleasant end?
CODY: Yeah, they were shot down. He used to have this armor suit — it looked like a bucket — that he’d put over his head, that they made of old stoves and shit. He’s kind of like the Jesse James of Australia. I think it’s kind of perfect for what we’re doing … seeing as robbing banks was our other option, [laughs], when we got out of high school. No, but just the whole outlaw vibe. The kind of music we’re playing doesn’t really fit in. And we’re trying to change things a little bit. That fits real well with the name.
The alt-country boom seemed to come and go, but there does seem to be a dedicated community out there. Are you finding the reception warm?
CODY: The underground scene is still pretty big. We’ve toured all over the country and it’s amazing, the people that come out in the places you least expect it. And I think Son Volt influenced so many bands that started five or six years ago that now have a sound. It was so new six, seven years ago. People were caught off guard. But it’s finally finding a place. For me, I love a lot of that music. It’s reality music. It’s not Tim McGraw. Those kind of guys are great and the people who buy those records are doing that because it’s what they want to hear. But there’s a lot of people out there who want to hear songs about real life and about something a little more on the edge as opposed to sort of la dee da.
You mentioned Beaver Nelson earlier. He once told me that back when he was at Sony, he told a label rep that he wanted to make 30 records and the guy looked at him like he was nuts. So what’s in the future for you guys?
CODY: We’re pretty much locked into this thing for the long run. We definitely want a career out of it and that’s what we’ve always shot for as opposed to being a flash in the pan. We’ve already put our entire lives into it. And we plan to spend the rest of our lives in it.
WILLIE: It’s such a backwards way of thinking. You’d think they’d be falling all over themselves with somebody who wants to make thirty records. Like, “We’ve got some dumb SOB who wants to make 30 records!” Put him to work!
Can you tell me a bit about the album title?
WILLIE: There’s really not too much to it, it’s just from a lyric, “Been shooting freely under the table and above the sun.” Kind of about shooting somebody under the table playing poker, and shooting up the town. That kind of deal. You gotta have some gun references in there.
CODY: ‘Cause we’re definitely pro-gun.
WILLIE: The NRA’s definitely gonna love this record.
CODY: Ted Nugent too