Gourds – Appetite for agglomeration
Some things are not accidents.
I had agreed to write a story on the Gourds for this magazine, and so I was in the process of gathering up some of the stuff I didn’t have, which included their previous album and soundtracks for two films by a guy named Mike Woolf, Growin’ A Beard and Something’s Brewin’ In Shiner. Both were available on DVD, and the band’s helpful management found copies of these, put them in a padded bag, and sent them off to me.
When I opened the bag, there were the discs, a copy of the Gourds’ previous album Cow Fish Fowl Or Pig, and…something stuck way down in the bag. I reached in and pulled it out.
It was a pencil. Not an Official Gourds Swag Pencil, just a yellow wooden pencil with a pink eraser on one end, with the word ENTRE, the initials HB, and the number 2. In other words, a yellow number 2 pencil.
Now, I don’t know about you, but here in my 21st Century All-Electric Office, I have exactly one pencil, a mechanical one I mistakenly purchased in an office-supply-buying orgy at a Japanese store. (The Japanese make the world’s greatest pens and pencils, no question.) Mechanical pencils don’t need to be sharpened; one merely has to advance the lead as it wears down. In other words, there’s no pencil sharpener anywhere in my house.
Thus, the perfect warning: As if I didn’t already know, I was being reminded that the Gourds are very, very hard to write about. In fact, I would say you could somehow prove mathematically that they’re as hard to write about as they are easy to listen to. And they’re as easy to listen to as they are hard to make sense out of.
“It’s not by design,” Kevin Russell sympathizes over the phone. “But I do know what you mean. For this album, we got sort of a generic bio from a guy at the record label, and I started reading it and he got into the food metaphors and actually used the word ‘gumbo’ and all, and I thought, ‘Hmmm, I can do better than this,’ so I sat down to write something. But I couldn’t; it’s hard!” Let the record show that the bio I got with my copy of Blood Of The Ram (released in October on Eleven Thirty Records) uses the word “gumbo.”
One thing, though, is that the band is consistent. It’s been hard to describe what they do from the very first moment ten years ago when they decided that they were a band, when the partnership of Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith jelled with Claude Bernard (who is also the band’s secret-weapon graphics and illustration guy) and original drummer Charlie Llewellin (replaced by Keith Langford in 1997) and they started hitting coffeehouses around Austin.
Of course, indescribable, idiosyncratic music has always been Austin’s biggest strength, and its biggest weakness. The city has produced plenty of great performers that nobody knows how to market, folks with a huge local following and no slot in the record store to place their albums in, from Shiva’s Headband to the Horsies. The only good news is, nowadays that’s not as big a problem because everybody in the world is putting out records, so weirdness in and of itself has become more commonplace.
“People are confused by us,” Russell admits. “We’re a non-standard band; there is no genre. That’s because we love music. That’s all we’re doing, is imitating our rock ‘n’ roll heroes. We like to lift riffs. Did you catch the Zep riff on ‘Spanky’? It’s basically an Oak Ridge Boys song, it’s cheesy! And then in the middle of it comes a riff from ‘Over The Hills And Far Away’. It’s like collage. Whether we’re doing it collectively — unconsciously collectively — or individually, we do it on purpose. Maybe nobody else in the band even gets it.
“A lot of people use the cooking reference, the gumbo, or the quilt is another favorite. It does the same thing to me when I hear Marvin Gaye singing ‘What’s Going On’ as when I hear Hank Williams singing. I’m looking for the same feeling that arises out of it. It’s the soul, a certain soul feeling, and it’s totally different for every person. I think you try to make soul music — not in the traditional sense of Ray Charles; not that kind of soul, although we love that kind of music — but letting it out, letting your body open up.”
That, I think, is the quality of the Gourds’ music that people responded to instantly: the feeling that these seeming lunatics onstage were enjoying themselves outrageously by doing what they were doing. The lyrics connected, although they didn’t make literal sense; the music was a great pastiche of American (and not so American) sources so deeply rooted that it was nearly impossible to untangle them. But most of all, the solution to the puzzle, the art on display, was communicated directly and easily. No wonder everything they do is so hard to explain; it’s all unconscious.
Well, the art part, anyway. Some of the other aspects of the Gourds’ ten years have been very carefully thought out, planned and executed. As Smith explained when I interviewed them four or five years ago, “We weren’t too premature about getting out there and playing. We had an hour and a half worth of material before we played even the coffeehouses.” Russell echoed that: “We purposely went really slow.”
The caution was understandable. Both Russell and Smith were veterans of other bands, most notably the Picket Line Coyotes, a Shreveport, Louisiana, group Russell had been in that moved to Dallas and established itself as one of that city’s bright lights before it imploded, embittering Russell about the band experience, and the Grackles, Smith’s band from Nacogdoches, Texas.
After the Grackles fell apart, Smith began writing songs on a four-track machine and playing around as Old Government with Claude Bernard. By this time everyone was living in Austin, and Smith was trying to convince Russell to form a band, something Russell wanted nothing to do with for the longest while.