New Slanged: The Band of Heathens

Photos Courtesy of the Artist–Photos by Chris Brecht

by: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor-in-Chief

It’s one thing to sound like an American band; it’s another to actually be one. Simply put, The Band of Heathens are an American band. Through and through. 

Let me explain. To be a true American band, you have to be able to capture and endure all the highs and lows. You not only have to sound like the American Spirit, you have to live it. Out on the road playing is a large part of the criteria. You have to sound better live better than in the studio. Just about anyone can cut a studio record and have it sound great. It’s an entirely different thing to master the art of performing live. 

They thrive in it. It’s as if they never leave the stage. They’ve got a couple sets of bunk-beds set up in the corner alongside a mini-fridge and microwave. Eat, sleep, and breath the live show.  

For the better part of the last decade, The Band of Heathens have been a band that’s really set the standard for the modern American roots/Americana rock’n’roll band. They’ve been able to interweave so many different sounds, feelings, and stories that have been part of America’s music story. In many ways, I’d say this about The Band of Heathens: They’ve got soul, but they’re not a soul band. They’re a jam band that doesn’t jam. They play country and folk songs, but aren’t a country band. You get the point…

They’re all those things and more. 

They’re catalog of songs are diverse, but fastened together. There’s no real dominate hand in the band either. No true frontman, but rather have been in the past a collection of songwriters, who on their own could easily make albums (and have in the past). But there’s this additional element that is produced when a band is comprised by multiple songwriters and views. While founding Heathen Colin Brooks did leave the band earlier this year (along with Seth Whitney and John Chipman), chief songwriters Gordy Quist and Ed Jurdi leave the band with a tandem that few bands can claim. 

Earlier this week, we caught up with Gordy Quist of Austin’s The Band of Heathens, who on Thursday (Sept 6), will be performing at The Blue Light. 

New Slang: Let’s start off with “The Double Down,” your Live DVD/CD package. You guys have obviously done a lot of live recordings over the years. How was doing the DVD as well this time around?

Gordy Quist: We originally planned on doing the two nights in Denver back-t0-back and wanted to put together some travel packages for fans to kind of make it a weekend out of it. We initially said, “hey, let’s try and get an audio recording of the shows” and that idea just kind of snowballed into doing the video as well for both nights. We were just hoping to get one solid DVD out of it, but both nights turned out great. The recordings turned out really sound so we ended up getting a Volume 1 and 2, one from each night, out of it.

NS: Like I mentioned, you guys have done a number of live albums. Your first two releases were live recordings as well. That’s typically not route bands go as far as releasing material. Typically a handful of studio albums are released before the live album comes around. Why do you think you guys went that route?

GQ: There wasn’t a whole lot of planning when the band started out. It was just a side project that we were doing for fun on Wednesday nights. The first live album was just us saying “hey, let’s document what this band sounds like” so we recorded one of those shows just to have it. There wasn’t a lot of thought or planning going into this being a full-time gig. We released that and you know, things kind of grew from there. We actually started talking about doing a studio record when someone came to us about doing a live DVD while we were in studio. It just so happened that somebody was willing to put together the “Live at Antoine’s” DVD project. So we went with it. So yeah, we ended up with two live albums before we had a studio record. You know though, the live album is kind of a nice way to take a snapshot of the band where it is at that moment in time. We’re a live touring band. We play lots of shows. Even when we don’t have a studio record to promote, we’re still touring pretty much all the time so the live album is a nice snapshot of the band. 

NS: Yeah. You’re really a band that sounds so great live. You’re really comfortable and at home on stage. Something you guys recently did was record a song for Levon Helm after hearing about him passing away earlier this year. You recorded it,  “One More Song,” in a parking lot. Can you talk a little about that?

GQ: Sure. We had heard the news of Levon’s passing and happened to be in Arkansas, his home state and where he grew up. We were on a way to a show, and the news kind of hit us hard. He was an influence on all of us, The Band in general. He’s just an American icon for roots music and any kind of music. He was just amazing. So I don’t know, inspiration kind of struck and while some of the guys were loading a bunch of gear in for the show that night, we went out to the van and kind of cranked out that song. We ended up playing it that night at the show, kind of as a tribute. 

NS: Have you guys started playing it or was it kind of just for that moment?

GQ: We’ve played it a few times around that time period, but we’ve not been playing it regularly. 

NS: You guys are heavily influenced by the great American bands of the ’60s and ’70s. Why did you guys gravitate to that time period and music style?

GQ: Well, I think that was just a great time period in music. There was just a lot of great records being made. I don’t know–I mean there’s still a lot of great records being made today–but it just seems like that was music we were all brought up listening to via our parents. I think it was kind of a renaissance period for American music. 

NS: You’re really one of those bands who have been reviving that sound the last decade or so. What’s that kind of feel like, being one of these bands recognized as one of the bands who has been bringing back the soul and feel of those ’70s albums and bands?

GQ: I don’t know if I really think about it that way. I don’t feel like I’m trying to bring that back. I guess you have those influences you try to build upon and then try to move it forward and make it your own thing. There’s definitely not a conscious effort. It’s not like we’re saying “hey, we want to bring this back.” It’s more us making music that we enjoy and happens to sound like that. But, I’m not sure if there’s a real conscious effort. 

NS: Your last record, “Top Hat Crown & The Clapmaster’s Son,” came out last year. You guys working on something new yet?

GQ: Yeah. We’ve not gotten into the studio yet, but we’re writing a bunch of songs and talking about going into the studio in the fall. Hopefully here in a month or two.

NS: Something else that’s happened this past year has been that you guys have gone under some recent lineup changes. How’s that change and transition been so far?

GQ: It’s been good. We spent a bunch of time in June with our new drummer and new bass player. We’ve gone out on a few tours. We’re out here on the West Coast right now. They’re great. It’s definitely quite a task to replace a rhythm section of a rock’n’roll band. The rhythm section is the heart and soul of rock’n’roll so we definitely put a lot of time into it. Those guys are working hard and add their own input and sound to the project. It’s been a lot of fun.

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