Tomorrow evening at The Granada Theater, The Gourds will perform its annual night-before-New Year's Eve concert in Dallas. Seems the band likes playing its hometown of Austin on December 31st, so we get the night before.
Either way is fine with me because, even after fourteen years, The Gourds are still one of the most unique outfits our state has ever produced.
Still mining that same alt-country/psycho-Americana vein that helped the band gain significant acclaim for its roots version of Snoop Dog's "Gin and Juice" way back in 1996, The Gourds warped take on country music remains as fresh as ever. And the band's upcoming release, Haymaker, is its best effort in several years.
Singer/guitarist /songwriter Kevin Russell took some time recently to talk about the new effort and what the future may hold for The Gourds.
The show in Dallas late in December has become something of a ritual for The Gourds. Do you save New Year's Eve for Austin?
Unfortunately, there is only one New Year's Eve. Otherwise, we'd play Dallas on that night. It's the next best thing, playing the night before. It's always a party in Dallas and in Austin. It's always a long show, and we work up a lot of crazy covers in order to make it a unique experience for everyone.
Your shows in Dallas really bring out a large, diverse crowd. In what other cities do the crowds really get what the band is about?
Mostly the west is our best region--particularly the Rockies. Missoula, Montana, is almost our second home. There's something about The Gourds and the Northern Rockies region that is special; something that we do just seems to resonate with people there. Those folks just love what we do. It's a mystery why anyone likes the kind of music we play!
How have The Gourds managed to hang together for nearly a decade and a half?
We believe in what we do and we love what we do. We love and care about each other a great deal. Frankly, we have no other skills.
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The new CD, Haymaker, feels more energetic and cohesive than the last few efforts. Did it feel different while you were recording it?
It did not feel different at the time. Our old drummer hired us to play his wedding and with that $1,000, we decided to go and record some new songs that we had been working on. With no more thought than that it would be a glorified demo--maybe we would keep some of it--and it just came out sounding great, pretty much like a live recording. We liked it so much that we decided to make a proper album out of it. [Bassist/singer/songwriter] Jimmy Smith's material and my material always seems at odds, but on this particular record, it felt even more pronounced with Jimmy going more for a soul feel and my stuff being more hick rock. I had my concerns, but Jimmy kept saying it was going to be alright and he was correct.
The band added singer and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnson (Uncle Tupleo and Son Volt) around the time of your third album. Is it difficult having three singer/songwriter's in the band?
It is. Mainly because, from my personal standpoint, it's an issue of not having enough space for me to do all the songs that I would like to do. Any song you bring to this band, they can do great things with. But as a stage hog, I would like to bring all my songs and not leave room for anybody else. That's my frustration and I think if you ask Jimmy, he would share the same thoughts. He'd probably complain about having to share the stage with me.
Bands with two or three singers/songwriters don't usually have a long shelf life.
Right. That's the nature of the beast. Invariably, the comparisons and the rivalry--those kinds of scenarios are going to undermine the cohesiveness of the band itself. Of course, we have had our share of those problems and we continue to have those kinds of relationship issues, but those are common human problems in every family. We just try and talk those out and deal with them the best we can and we know that this band is the sum of its parts. There is not a single focal point of this band. I think that's part of our getting what little success we have gotten. There is a feeling of democracy and everyone honors that for the most part.
In 2002, you made Buttermilk and Rifles, a terrific solo CD. Any plans to follow that up?
I've been working on a new solo project for about 18 months now. I've put together a band called Shinyribs. We played Dallas a while back, in the depths of winter, in a deserted Deep Ellum. Sometime next year, I'll put out a new solo effort. A few of the solo songs end up on set lists for The Gourds. In hindsight, "Virgin of a Cobra" [included on Buttermilk] should have been a Gourds song. I have a plan in my mind to do a kid's CD, since a lot of children seem to love our music.
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Your lyrics are loaded with metaphors--so much so that I wonder how difficult it may be for some listeners to approach and then appreciate the band's music.
I think the lyrics are poetry. I really do. The overriding idea that I've always brought to the band was to be have surreal poetry laid over American forms of music. A lot of people love it and understand. The majority of people don't get it. Some people might not feel they are in on the joke. I think that, on the last few records, I've gotten more linear in my writing. People seem to need a narrative to grab on to, some framework. I've learned over the years to be more conventional. I think Jimmy has as well, but not to the degree that I have.
You seem to incorporate various grunts and other vocal effects into your songs. Is this intentional?
Yes, I love scat singing and working the voice as a percussion instrument. I am a rhythmic singer if anything. I have a certain texture to my voice although I can be flat and sharp at the same time--I'm not thinking about doing it, I just start singing behind the beat. Willie Nelson and Frank Sinatra do that. It's a good way to make surprises for the band and the audience. --Darryl Smyers