Beasts of Burden
By now you've probably heard the song. In a bar, perhaps, or while browsing in a CD store. Maybe you heard it on the radio, as I did. One day last week the song played on my way to work and on my way home. Early the next morning I stumbled into the car seat, spilled coffee on the upholstery and turned the engine on to find the song yet again, as if it had been waiting for me. "I don't want to talk, don't want to explain it/I don't want to [radio edit], and I don't want to fight."
The song, "Beautiful Night," is a hard, catchy little number taking off on the nation's Top 40 stations as you read this. It begins simply--the singer's aching voice over a palm-muted guitar. Nothing terribly special. But halfway through, just when you've settled in, "Beautiful Night" goes up in flames: a fusillade of drums, a howl full of fire and blood. Think early Soundgarden. Think '70s arena rock. Think rock 'n' fucking roll.
It was written by two music veterans--ex-Toadies singer and guitarist Todd Lewis and former Reverend Horton Heat drummer Taz Bentley. On a Wednesday night, they sit beside each other at the Dubliner on Lower Greenville, sipping Miller Lites. Bentley is an intimidating 6-foot-6 with long, mottled hair and a warm smile. Lewis (who also goes by his first name, Vaden) is lean and thoughtful, with a crew cut and glasses. Though they seem like opposites--with little more in common than a weakness for domestic beer and black fingernail polish--they are, in fact, brothers of a sort. They've both spent more than a decade in the rock industry; in other words, they've walked through fire. Just look at the name Lewis chose for their partnership: Burden Brothers.
"Early on," Lewis says, "it seemed like we both had baggage."
"And 'We Both Got Baggage' didn't sound right," cracks Bentley. "Oddly enough, I was never thrilled with the name, but it's there now." Bentley shrugs and slugs back the rest of his beer. "Band names are a bitch."
The two men have been friends for a while--Bentley, the good-natured tough, and Lewis, the unassuming guy with a demon's voice. They started playing music around the time that Lewis' baggage, in particular, felt heaviest. This was six years after his Fort Worth-based band the Toadies hit post-grunge platinum with their creepy radio smash "Possum Kingdom" off the album Rubberneck. Lewis spent the intervening years snarled in red tape at Interscope Records, and by the time the band's follow-up, Hell Below/Stars Above, finally hit shelves in 2001, Lewis had baggage to burn. So he called Bentley.
"When we first got together," Bentley says, "Todd's first words were, 'Let's write some heavy, heavy stuff. Real heavy metal.'"
"I was listening to [Speedealer's] Here Comes Death a lot," Lewis says.
Soon after, the Toadies called it quits, and a bitter Lewis washed his hands of the whole ugly business. Well, almost. "This one weekend my wife and I were on vacation," he says. "And people kept asking, 'So what are you doing these days?' And I'd say, 'Well, I've got a shop in my garage.' About the 19th time someone asked me that, I realized I really wanted to be playing music. That's what I wanted to do with the next 15 years."
Bentley had likewise soured on the industry, but old rockers die hard. What playing with Lewis reminded him of--what changed both their minds in the end--was the balls-out joy of playing rock 'n' roll. "We just had fun," Bentley says. "We had nobody to please. We didn't have a fan base, we didn't have a record label, we didn't have anything." They did, however, have a handful of songs. Not heavy metal, but burning with that kind of intensity--loud and dirty and full-throttle.
Wary of bureaucracy and eager to make the songs public, the Burden Brothers partnered with Deep Ellum's Last Beat Studio to put the songs on their Web site (www.burdenbrothersmusic.com), the best of which would eventually wind up on an EP with nifty promotional packages--T-shirts, playing cards, shot glasses. It was fast and fertile, the guys making it up as they went along, from rollicking covers of Lucinda Williams' "Can't Let Go" to the first versions of "Beautiful Night" and "Your Fault," two of the album's strongest songs.
"We didn't know what the next song was going to be or sound like, which was absolutely killer," Bentley says. It freed them from what had suffocated so many talented musicians before: expectations. "All [popular bands] think about is, 'Is the next one gonna be as good as this one?' And we just allowed ourselves to keep spitting out songs." The success of the homegrown venture was the perfect middle finger to an industry that had wronged them. Eventually, though, the Burden Brothers wanted more.
"We realized that it would stay a local, independent, Web-oriented situation," Lewis says. "We had to continue to grow." So earlier this year, the Burden Brothers announced they were leaving Last Beat for Kirtland Records and Trauma Records, who formed a partnership to release the album.
"I was quite surprised by their decision," says Last Beat's Tami Thomsen. Both parties remain reticent about the sudden departure, but Thomsen promises no lingering bad feelings. "We wish them nothing but the best."
The album the Burden Brothers made with Trauma/Kirtland, Buried in Your Black Heart, came out November 18. From the opening track, it's black and broken stuff: "Why do I fall for you?" Lewis wails on the title track. "Look at me now. I'm a wreck," he cries on "You're So Goddamned Beautiful." Later, on "Your Fault"--"Everything we make we break apart/And it's all your fault." Even in this bleakness, though, there is hope. "Let It Go," the album's closer and its best song, slows down for an organ and a gospel choir, a stab of light in the darkness. An end that is a beginning.
"I enjoy listening to the CD," Lewis says. "Which is odd--at least it is for me."
Part of that has to do with the duo's involvement in the whole process. If they were entering into another record deal, they were damn sure going to do it right. They secured lawyers. They wrote a business plan. They practically wrote their own contract, lingering over the minutiae, the monotony of residuals, distribution in Japan. It's a far cry from their punk-ass youths, when only music mattered. "My fear then was that [the business] would drag me from music and my artistic ambitions," Lewis says. Instead, experience has taught him the opposite: Watching the business end actually makes it possible to keep playing.
"We approached it differently than when we were kids dreaming of being onstage," Bentley says. "Now we're dreaming of making it work as a career. If it bites us in the ass, we're the ones to blame." Young bands, take note: This is how you get it done. Yet, like all wisdom that accompanies maturity, this knowledge is hard-won, built on disappointment and scar tissue. It's not the kind of advice you can readily share.
"People have asked me for years: What's your advice to get ahead in the music business?" Lewis says. "Stop trying. Write music and watch your ass."
"When I first started out, it was like: How do you make it? What does it take?" Bentley says. "All it's ever, ever, ever been about is writing the damn songs, which I didn't find out till much later in life. Don't worry about let's wear flannel, let's sound like this. Those are trends that hundreds of thousands of bands follow."
Sometime next year, the Burden Brothers will go on tour with their newly formed band: bassist Casey Orr from Rigor Mortis, guitarist Corey Rozzoni from Happiness Factor and Clumsy and guitarist Casey Hess, whose band Doosu plays its last gig on Saturday. Touring won't be the same this time; Bentley and Lewis are both fathers. That doesn't mean they can't rawk.
"We decided we're gonna do Reunion Arena circa 1978 every night," Lewis says.
Bentley holds up the devil's horns--the universal sign of rock 'n' roll--and tosses his long hair back and forth. He laughs. "I'm sure some people think, 'Goddamn, you guys need to settle down,'" he says. But not yet. They're in it for the long haul.
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