It’s only been a week since the Band of Heathens were able to finally assemble under one roof and celebrate the release of their latest album, Stranger. Resurrecting the Good Time Suppler Club, a weekly institution that provided the outfit’s genesis in Austin, TX 15 years ago, the BoH have been able to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic through livestreams and private online engagements while continuing to search for new and innovative creative outlets. For their seventh studio album, the BoH repaired to Portland, Oregon and Flora Recording & Playback, the studio home of producer/engineer Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, Neko Case, Hiss Golden Messenger). The resulting songs ricochet off the outfit’s 2018 tribute to the Ray Charles 1972 clarion of peace, A Message From The People, while simultaneously finding those same truths abundant and all too relevant today. Defying any simple genre classification, the Band of Heathens combine studio polish with live energy for a streamlined take on the current realm that ebbs and flows with earth and soul. Calling in from Austin, Heathens Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist shared their thoughts on the group’s future, touring, and the prophetic nature of Stranger.
AI- You boys were finally able to get the band back together [in person] for the Good Time Supper Club. I love that sitcom-esque opening, a lot of fun with the Stranger cocktail. What was it like being back with everybody after having been away from each other for so long?
EJ- Oh, it was great, man! We’ve been talkin’ about being able to get together for a number of months now and just figured out a way to do it safely. From our perspective, it was just great to have a chance to be in the room and play music together. It’s something that we normally do so often that we typically take it for granted. So it was nice to get back into that for sure.
Ed, you got to play with your other band, Trigger Hippy, too?
EJ- Yeah! I think we recorded that a couple of weeks ago. But yeah, the city of Nashville has done a cool thing where they partnered with a few corporate sponsors and have been doing some livestreams from a bunch of different key venues in town in an effort to keep those venues open and afloat. We recorded our segment at The Basement, which is owned by Mike Grimes, who also has the Basement East and Grimey’s Records. Mike’s a really a big part of the national music scene. That was nice! So in the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a couple of chances to play music with other people in person, which has been a real treat
You guys have also been doing personal concerts. I know that’s been a windfall for a lot of artists. What are the special challenges to doing these personal streaming concerts? ‘Cause sometimes you’ll have multiples in a day. Do you have to get into a certain headspace to go from personal audience to personal audience to personal audience?
GQ- We’ll do a handful of them in a row per day, but I think the hardest part about it is just getting used to doing it over a computer and staring at a computer screen and not having the normal feedback that you’re used to having with a performance. I will say the flip side of that is the personal nature of it. While you may not get immediate feedback from a bunch of people applauding and it feels kind of awkward to have the silence in the weirdness of a Zoom conference, it makes up for that in having personal conversations with people. Getting to not just talk to a crowd in between songs but actually connect with people, “Hey, how you doing?” It’s more like a conversation between friends than it is just a performance. It was kinda strange at first, but now we’ve gotten into a rhythm with it, and I think it’s pretty rewarding.
EJ- I’d echo that. I think to your initial question, yeah, it’s interesting. Some nights, we can do up to six of them, so it’s interesting going from group to group too. ‘Cause every group, even though we’re on different sides of the computer screen, there’s different dynamics. Sometimes we’re just doing a show for one or two people and it’s a very quiet, intimate thing. And then we’ve done ones for parties of people! It’s funny, but even though it’s muted and they’re quiet, the interactions are all different. But that’s also what makes it fun! It keeps you on your toes going from show to show having some quiet conversations with some people and then playing the party host.
You got this brand new record out, Stranger. I want to ask about that process starting with Tucker Martine. How’d you guys come to work with him? That’s the first time that you had been involved with him for a project, right?
EJ- Yeah. We were just all big fans of the work that he’s done with a lot of great bands. We reached out to him and asked if he’d be interested in collaborating with us on a project, and he was very keen to do it. So we took the opportunity to do it. We just thought it would be a nice chance to do something different. We’ve been a band for 15 years now, so we have done a lot of things already– but going to another city and working with an outside producer in his space and all those things that entails, we had never done that. It seemed like something that everyone in the band was excited about doing. So we just went for it!
I wanted to ask you about that part of the experience– sequestering yourself. Whose idea was that? Was that a collective band idea or was that something that came from Tucker?
GQ- That was a band decision. That was all part of the same decision. We knew that if we were gonna work with Tucker, we were gonna go to a new city, new studio, and it was a place that none of us have a super close family or friend connection. That was part of it. We wanted to try something. We’d never done a record like that, where we were isolated. And it’s funny how we did that a couple months before the entire world went into some strange isolation mode! But it’s always about changing it up and trying to come up with something new, and that was one of the variables we wanted to try changing.
Were the songs written before you got there or were you putting them together during that process?
EJ- Some of both. A lot of them were written before we got there, and they were in a variety of forms. Some were fully recorded, some were just acoustic voice memos and sketches of songs– and that’s what’s fun about the recording process. Whenever you get in the studio and you get on the floor, things start to happen and songs really become. That’s where the magic happens and things take shape and come into form. That’s always really exciting to approach things like that.
Some of those songs, a lot of those songs– just for instance, “Today Is Our Last Tomorrow”… How far back does that song go? Because it sounds like it could have been written this morning! And not just that one– “South By Somewhere”, “Truth Left”, “Call Me Gilded”, “Before The Day Has Gone”… How conscious were you of these themes creeping into your music? Of really what we’re dealing with now, as you say, months before we actually got into the pandemic and seen all of the protests and demonstrations and violence that are happening now.
EJ- “Today Is Our Last Tomorrow”, I think I wrote that around the time of the last really heavy rounds of California wildfires. But I think to your point, there’s been a lot of unrest in the country the last handful of years, and I think the material reflects that in so far as it’s just something that you can’t really escape. I think part of our job is to take a mirror to ourselves and how we’re seeing the world at large. Short of taking a stance in terms of telling people what they should be thinking and believing, to me it’s a reflection of a lot of the energy that’s going on out there.
GQ- I definitely agree with what Ed’s sayin’, and I would just add, in a very strange way, these tunes, I’d say most of them were written within the last year or two, but it is strange how they’ve become more and more true and relevant even after recording them. And that obviously was not something we were able to manufacture, but it’s been strange how that’s that’s happened.
EJ- We also had done this Ray Charles record a couple of years ago, and in a similarly strange way that record seems to be more prescient than ever. I think it speaks to the idea that fundamentally, the great things in the world and the bad things in the world haven’t really changed in the last few years. If anything, I think those two things have just become amplified. Any commentary that we’ve been making on stuff the last couple of years has really come to the top since the pandemic, and everybody’s extra hyper-aware of everything.
I’m glad you brought up A Message From The People Revisited because there is not a huge leap between, to me, that album and the new album, as far as subject matter. The world that Ray Charles was living in, in 1972, is, unfortunately, not that much different than where we’re at right now.
EJ- I think Ray Charles’s experience going through the world– I couldn’t even begin to speak on that– but through attempting to have empathy and an understanding for other people’s situations, to me, that’s one of the beautiful things about music. It allows you a window into a world that you might not have lived in, but through a song and a short message, you can gather a much better understanding of what it may have been like to have encountered certain hurdles and obstacles in life.
Gordy, you’re still in Texas right now? And Ed, where are you at now?
EJ- I live in Asheville, North Carolina.
You’ve both been home for quite some time. You both have families– have you been able to get reconnected with your families in a way that maybe you haven’t in the last few years?
GQ- Oh, for sure! I think that’s definitely some of the silver lining in this crazy time. We have been able to be home more than we’ve been in 15 or 20 years. We’ve been on the road for a long time and working hard and now it’s just been this shift of still working just as hard, but doing it from home, doing it remotely, and trying to stay creative and doing our weekly stream and recording. It’s been really great to have a lot more time with our family. I always long to be home more, you know? I love playin’ shows and bein’ on the road is great, but after a certain point, I certainly am longing to be home. (Laughs) And now it’s kind of flip-flopped! I would give anything to go out on tour right now playin’ some rock n’ roll!
I haven’t asked anybody this, but with all the expectations that at some point in time, we hope to be able to get back to seeing bands tour, to having the venues open back up, and get back to what bands like the Band of Heathens love to do… What is the concern about what that’s going to be like when that happens? As everybody attempts to go out all at once? To book all the rooms? Do you see a point of trying to ease into that transition or has there been any discussion of that?
EJ- Yeah, we’ve talked about it a lot because we even were faced with a lot of decisions to be made in terms of shows that we had on the books for this year. I don’t think there’s a really simple answer to the question because I think there’s just so many moving parts involved in it. It’s really specific on a venue to venue situation, city to city, state to state in terms of being able to put on shows in a safe way. And in a way that we feel is responsible and taking everyone’s health into account. I do think the things that are silver linings in it to us seem to be some of the drive-in shows and some of the socially distanced outdoor shows– and even some of the socially distance indoor shows in the proper environment.
The long answer to your question, I guess, we’re looking at next year already, for sure. And then I think the question just becomes like, “How often can bands play? How many people can be in spaces?” It’s going to take some imagination on everyone’s part to facilitate doing these things in a way that everyone that’s there feels good about it [or] until either we have a vaccine or until we reach a point where we have herd immunity. I’m not a scientist, obviously, and I have ingested so much information about this, I’m not really sure what end is up sometimes. But I think whatever leading indicators would allow us to get back to having some normalcy… And then at that point, it’s hoping that all the venues that we all love to go see music and play in are still able to be in business.
You’ve both talked about the band’s origins and how being willing to take chances was what allowed you to draw an audience and allowed you to evolve and really experienced the success that you have. With what you just said, how do you plan to keep evolving? Being on your toes– does that work best for you creatively?
GQ- I don’t really know where things will go. A lot of it depends on how quickly or slowly touring rolls out, but we’ve been working hard at this livestreaming world and getting into film and making videos. I’m sure that’s gonna play a part in what we do going forward. And it may mean that we get everybody together once a month or once every six weeks in Austin to create a bunch of content to roll out for the next month. We’re just, like you said, trying to stay on our toes and be forward-thinking and stay busy trying to think of interesting ways to make music.
You guys appeared on and were at the helm of one of my favorite albums [this year], Chicago Farmer, Flyover Country. Have you had an opportunity to be involved with anything else this last six, seven months?
GQ- Since the pandemic? Not a whole lot. Most of the work we’ve been doing the last few years on other records [has] been at my studio here in Austin. But it’s been under construction for the past 9 or 10 months during the pandemic. So I’ve been kind of shut down from making records here. Honestly, the weekly show we’ve been doing on Tuesday nights, the Good Time Supper Club, takes up a bunch of time during the week– and all the personal concerts. So we’ve been mainly doing that more than collaborating, making records like we have in the last couple of years.
With the Good Time Supper Club, you’ve had some amazing guests join you from various parts of the country thanks to thanks to the modern marvels of technology. Can you share who’s going to be joining you in the coming weeks?
EJ- No. Partly because it would ruin the surprise and partly because we’re not really sure who’s gonna be coming!
GQ- A lot of times, these things are a text message, last minute, “Hey man, what are you doing on Tuesday?”