by: Thomas D. Mooney
You’re not going to find a band better than Uncle Lucius right now in Texas. there’s plenty of bands who are just as great. But, Uncle Lucius is playing some of the best music in the state currently. And if you’re remotely familiar with music, you know that’s saying something.
In a year that saw a plethora of great music released (Dirty River Boys, Turnpike Troubadours, Lincoln Durham, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Crooks, and The Trishas for example), Uncle Lucius’ “And You Are Me,” the band’s third album, stood out as an instant classic. They took their ’60s and ’70s Texas blues and rock sound and expanded to new horizons while staying true to what they’re great at.
It’s a blend of Allman Brothers vinyl cracklings and the crispness of The Black Keys. It’s Leon Russell and Joe Cocker. It’s ZZ Top, Bobby Keys, and The Raconteurs. It’s a hybrid of the old and new. It has these moments where you feel a bit of ’70s nostalgia, yet it’s fresh and vibrant and not faded and dusty like the used records you found in an upstairs attic.
Earlier this week, we caught up with Hal Vorpahl, bassist of Uncle Lucius, and discussed the latest record, Townes Van Zandt, and songwriting. They’ll be playing tonight (Saturday, February 2) at The Blue Light.
New Slang: “And You Are Me” was released last year. Seems like you guys started getting a larger audience with the release. Feels like you sort of blew up a little. How’s the past few months been for you guys?
Hal Vorphal: It’s been good. But to be honest, it’s really just been business as usual. We’re constantly on the road anyway. We’ve had the last couple of weeks off, which has been real nice. We had a couple of shows coming out of Steamboat and after that, we’ve been chilling out in Austin for a couple of weeks.
NS: This record, I think you guys really did a great job of getting a lot of diversity on the record compared to the other albums. There’s a wider range of song styles and songs on the record, but still has a real vintage Uncle Lucius sound. Talk a little about making the record and why you think you were able to capture these different elements.
HV: I think with what you said about the sounds, I think a lot of that is attributed to more cohesiveness. Spending all that time on the road and just developing our sound a little more, it allows us to stretch out in front of places. We recorded the first half in Nashville with R.S. Field and came back to Austin to do the horns and some overdubs. And some other little icing. It was definitely a great experience. I think you can certainly hear some maturity in our songwriting. We started to do a lot more writing together as a unit on this album as opposed to people just bringing in songs and taking it from there.
NS: This past year, there was certainly a lot of great music that was released. Specifically, there was a ton of great Austin-based music that was released that was superb. Now Austin obviously has always had a great music scene and will continue, but how was it being in the middle of all this great music being released–yours included.
HV: It’s good. Each year, the bar is set high. It’s a great town to cut your teeth in and one to stay in and to stay involved in. You can’t come off weak, you know? That’s just not going to fly. That goes for recording, playing live, to writing–all aspects of the business. There’s a lot of people who have their shit together. Amazing players and amazing writers. Singers. It’s all right in front of you.
NS: Something that I’ve been trying to talk with bands about recently has been about what I’d call a transition in Texas music. It’s really transitioning to a roots rock revival after being in a frat cowboy singer-songwriter state for a while. I certainly throw you guys into this changing of the sound. What do you think about what’s happening in Texas music currently?
HV: I think that all the different aspects have always been there for the most part. They’re now just happening to be paid attention to. Only thing I can really say about that is, if we happened to be included in on that, then great. It’s just more peers for us. You know, with music, some of its good and some of it’s not. It’s great to see real players getting recognition. It seems like it’s tilting that way right now.
NS: You guys recently were on tour with a couple of my favorite bands, Wheeler Brothers and Dirty River Boys. With a lineup that stacked, how’d you guys just decide who was going on last that night?
HV: Oh yeah. We rotated on that. We tried to figure it out where who was doing the best in each city, we tried to do it according to that and keep it fair for everybody. We just rotated first, second, and third spot every night. Everybody is so cool, there’s no ego involved or issues or anything. I think everybody was so eager to go out and show people what we’re all about. We’d love to do it again. Maybe take it out of state.
NS: Yeah. When I saw it announced, I thought it looked amazing. Obviously, three of my favorite bands, Hopefully you guys are able to come to Lubbock like that some time as well as getting it out of state and in other areas.
HV: Yeah, for sure. We would definitely like to take it out to some other cities. A lot of great players on that bill. Really feel like people were getting a full package. You know, we’re all just three really busy bands. It’s a little difficult sometimes to get it all put together.
NS: Now the song “Pocket Full of Misery” is a song you wrote. I heard it was a tribute to Townes Van Zandt. Can you talk a little about that?
HV: Yeah. Sure, man. I had been walking around with that first line “Seven on seven until the tunes come undone” for a while. I really liked it and tried some stuff. Couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it. Then some gambling references started popping up on it. Then I started thinking about who had been into gambling and messing around with it one night, the whole Townes thing came up. And I thought, I’ve heard some songs written about Townes and they’re all kind of sad. True, most of his is. We’re all fans of his work. We all think he’s one of the greatest lyricists to ever step foot. It was cool to kind of touch on his legacy, but from more of a rock’n’roll standpoint.
NS: What do you think would be your favorite Townes Ven Zandt song or record? Difficult question.
HV: Oh, man. Well, I love the “Old Quarter” album. “To Live Is To Fly” is a great one. I’ll have to think about this for a second. “Tecumseh Valley.” “Be Here in the Morning.” You know, it just depends on the mood I’m in. Know what I mean?
NS: Oh definitely. I’m a huge Townes fan as well.
HV: Yeah. We just got to see JT Van Zandt (Townes’ son). Just phenomenal man. He really murdered it. Just so great.
NS: Another song off the new album, “Set Ourselves Free,” it starts the record off. In my opinion, one of the best things about it is that drumbeat and how it’s building and rising tension, you get to a point in the song where you think this epic moment is just going to happen and then you guys actually scale it back. Then once you guys actually do go into that moment where it’s the climax (Glory!), it’s almost unexpected and you’re a little off guard. How’d you guys write that song and come up with that?
HV: That was one–thank you, by the way, we spent a lot of time on the dynamics of that song. Just the arrangement. That song went through a lot of transitions and a lot of nitpicking. A lot of sitting in a room together. I’m really happy with the way it came out sonically. It was just a lot of play dough and just molding it and trying different things. R.S. Field, the producer, we worked hard on that trying to get those drum sounds. I think that tom groove, those drum sounds really carry the song.
NS: Yeah. And that’s one of the things I really love about getting new music, is that first listen. That first song on a record, it’s so important. It’s a song too where I think you guys have grown as a band and expanded. One of the best examples of having that classic Uncle Lucius sound, but going one step further.
HV: Absolutely. I think in any art form, in any artist perspective, you should be trying to progress or there’s no point in doing it.
NS: Yeah. Now you mentioned it a little earlier, the songwriting of the band, how it’s not just one guy writing all the songs. It’s not like it’s “Kevin [Galloway] and the backing band” or something. It’s different songwriters and group songwriting. I’m assuming there’s some healthy competition in that as well.
HV: Sure. Yeah, it’s a process. We’re about at that point of writing together again. At least for me, it’s trying to get all my bits and pieces together. It’s what songs do I want to try and finish and bring in as a whole or what are some that I think others can contribute to. Bring fresh ideas to. It’s very interesting, it’s something Kevin and I have talked about. Going from writing, something that you do completely by yourself, a very personal thing, to being a situation where it’s a group where there’s other aspects. It’s definitely an interesting thing. When we’re writing together as a group from scratch, the only place we can go from there is up.
NS: Another song off the record, it’s one of y’alls most known songs, is “Keep The Wolves Away.” It’s a song written by Kevin and I’ve read that it’s based on actual events and about something really personal to him.
HV: Yeah. It’s all based on something that happened.
NS: Yeah. Just knowing all that, what was your reaction when he came to you guys with that song?
HV: I immediately thought it was a great song. It continues to grow. I know his dad real well and that just makes it even more personal for me because I know the story and have heard it from his dad first hand. His dad is a real beautiful person. Both of his parents, they’re just really humble people. And playing it every night, it’s a real beautiful thing seeing people who have a story that’s relatable. You can see people getting it. It’s very much in that folklore frame. It’s a basic story that a lot of people can relate to in one way or another. He was able to really put it into a great song. We’re about to release it as our next video. We just shot it this past weekend. We’re partnering up with some Texas food banks to help provide awareness about Texas hunger. We’re really excited about that. It just has such a great message. Hopefully it’ll get out there and help some people.