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The Band of Heathens (from the album Simpler Things available on BOH Records)
18 Years on, Band of Heathens Still Share their Indie Ethos
(by Lee Zimmerman)
Band of Heathens are the epitome of an independent band. While the Indie ethos has become a common brand of sorts, the group actually puts the concept into practice. The band was founded when three successful songwriters, Colin Brooks, Ed Jurdi, and Gordy Quist, found themselves sharing a bill at Momo's, an Austin music club. After formalizing their relationship while trading songs on stage, the band, first dubbed ‘The Heathens’ courtesy of a misprint in a local paper, made their Momo’s musical revue an ongoing entity. They expounded on their given handle, and with the addition of drummer John Chipman and Keyboardist Trevor Nealon, launched a collective career.
Happily, then, they attained notice even at the outset. Following the first of two albums recorded live at Momo’s, they were named ‘Best New Band’ at the 2007 Austin Music Awards. A year later, they released their first, self-titled, studio album. Produced by Ray Wylie Hubbard, it featured an array of special guests — Patty Griffin, Stephen Bruton, and Gurf Morlix, among them. Their efforts paid off, going all the way to #1 on the Americana Music Association’s radio charts while eventually landing in eighth place on AMA’s TOP 100 albums of the year.
To date, that success has continued unabated. Each of their albums has received top ranking on the Americana charts, and even after the departure of founding member Colin Brooks, the band has still managed to maintain their momentum. They’ve turned down any number of record label offers, preferring instead to follow their own fortunes by doing things entirely on their own.
The band recently celebrated another milestone when they became one of the few unsigned outfits to attain gold status courtesy of their recording of “Hurricane", a song originally recorded by Levon Helm for his 1980 album, American Son. The Band of Heathens’ recording amassed over 400 million streams, a remarkable achievement considering the fact the song was originally
written over 40 years ago.
The upcoming release of an acoustic album aptly titled Simpler Things, a collection of songs culled from their earlier album Simple Things and rendered in stripped down settings, ought to further entice their followers.
The Alternate Root recently had an opportunity to speak to Gordy Quist about the new album and their determination to remain indie auteurs.
Lee Zimmerman - Given that the new album allows a revisit to some seminal songs, was there anything you rediscovered or weren't aware of originally?
Gordy Quist - The original arrangements for the songs on Simple Things came together really quickly and naturally in the context of a Rock’n'Roll band. I was surprised by how easily they came together for Simpler Things as well. They didn’t need a ton of deconstruction or re-envisioning, something we’ve typically done on last albums.
What is it about an acoustic arrangement that resonates with you -- and with your listeners?
The obvious answer is the lyrics. These are personal songs and there is even less in the way of getting to the depth of the songs. Also, hearing the songs through the lens of acoustic guitars, mandolin and fiddle places the songs even deeper in Texas or the South, which resonates with me.
Given your prodigious career, what remains on your bucket list?
We’d like to see another 18 years as a band. We’re feeling as good and creative as we’ve ever felt as a band, so I’d love to see us be able to keep it going. And Red Rocks would be nice too.
What have you learned along the journey -- about making music, enticing an audience, about your bandmates and maybe even about yourself?
It's a long road that could be cut short at any moment, so we try not to take any of it for granted... the good and the bad.
Do you still enjoy the touring?
I enjoy the two or three hours on stage more than I ever have, and I enjoy the other 21 or 22 hours of a day on the road away from my family less than I ever have.
Is there any scenario that would make an entreaty from a record label somewhat enticing?
I can’t think of one, but if there was one, it would revolve around fairness and creative freedom. I think the days of record labels taking advantage of bands are just about over, so any sort of partnership would need to be one where everybody wins. For us, we’re really fortunate to have built up a fan base that supports us and seems to grow every year, so we’re more focused on creating than looking for a deal.
Given that a label has the mechanisms for promotion and marketing, have you ever found it a challenge to make up for those elements on your own? How do you maintain the balance between the creative aspects of what you do and the business dealings that are always such a necessity?
We’re lucky to have a great management team in Chad Staehly, Burt Stein, and Nicole Wessels, to help quarterback the promotional and marketing efforts. We're also fortunate to be able to hire great independent publicists, radio promoters, and internet marketers. It's a team of bold thinkers, and you'd be surprised how much of our creativity still goes into the business side of releasing records independently. There's obviously a lot of time set aside for bookkeeping and business grinding, but we have a lot of fun with creative brainstorming calls with our team as well.
Because all the members of BOH seem to contribute more or less equally, how do you maintain that democracy -- is it ever awkward when someone wants to have a say and they feel negated?
We try to hear everyone's voice when it comes to the music. I think one of the reasons we've been able to keep this band together and creative for 18 years is because of the mutual respect we have for each other both personally and musically. We don't always agree with each other, but somehow, we find a way to compromise without putting our fists through walls or throwing bottles at each other.
You once did solo albums, correct? How does one decided to venture out on their own as opposed to operating within the confine of the band? And when you do venture out, is there ever feedback from the others - or a desire to participate?
Neither Ed Jurdi nor I have recorded a solo album in 15 years. We both would like to do that at some point, but there hasn't really been a lull in the action with the Band of Heathens, and we're both still enjoying it musically. Whatever free time I've had away from the band I've spent in the studio producing records with other artists. Ed does some production work as well, and writes songs for and tours with another band called Trigger Hippy.
Is it a challenge to translate songs from studio to stage -- or vice versa? One would imagine this acoustic album plays well in both settings…
Sometimes it is a challenge to make a song work in the live set, but that's the fun of this job. Each night has a different vibe, and so there are opportunities to try different approaches each night. We've been playing longer shows recently and doing a few stripped-down songs in the middle, so the Simpler Things approach will certainly have an opportunity each night.
What's the next step for the band? Are newer songs being prepped?
We're writing songs for the next album to be released most likely in 2025, which will be the 20th year of The Band of Heathens. There are also some collaborations in the works, so 2024 will be a lot of studio time and some tour dates here and there, gearing up for the new LP in '25. The most immediate task at hand though is to finish touring for this year, hitting the west coast and some Rocky Mountain dates in late October through mid-November, and then a few homecomings end-of-year/18th anniversary dates in Texas before Thanksgiving.
Anything you'd like to add?
I'd encourage you to come see the band live. There's lots of taking chances and danger each night, which makes it fun and different each time. And as much heart as we put into making our records, people seem to think seeing the band live is where it's at.
Listen and buy the music of The Band of Heathens from AMAZON
For more information, please visit The Band of Heathens website
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