Gourds – Appetite for agglomeration
Then along came Llewellin, an Australian playing with Jean Caffeine who had the knack of playing the drums quietly, with brushes, yet making it rock. By the summer of 1994, they were rehearsing daily in a house directly beneath the landing pattern of Austin’s old airport. When Russell saw some old rivals get a major-label deal after playing only one gig, he was shaken out of his torpor and, as he put it, “got back in the game.”
Russell and Smith shared an approach to songwriting that some would call sloppy. “I relate it to the model airplanes I built as a kid,” Smith said back then. “Some people have a lot of patience for it, but not me. My dad was real meticulous and I just slapped them together — and they’d fly! I’ll get a melody, some words, get the four-track out, and get it down.”
“I look at it more as word games,” Russell offered. “You get the music first, like the verse and the chorus, no bridges. Get some nice, well-crafted chords, take some words and just slap ’em together. I don’t worry about the literal meaning of them.”
Nor have things changed that much, he added recently. “When I think about the first record, all that I see that’s different is that we’re better at playing together, although we’re sloppy — people ought to be used to the fact that we’re as sloppy as the Faces were at their best.”
That’s being sloppy where it counts: letting the unconscious stuff flow to the surface pretty much unmediated, and letting it dictate your artistic choices. But other decisions were just as meticulous as the elder Mr. Smith’s airplanes.
Mike Stewart has produced most of the Gourds’ records, helped Russell with his solo album, and still works occasionally as their soundman on the road, although he now lives in Amsterdam. “When I first met them,” he remembered recently, “[Austin writer] Rob Patterson had told me about them, and we were working on some demos in my house on an eight-track. Even though they were practicing and so on, it was still distinctly Jimmy and his tunes and Kevin and his, but then some guys came over from Munich Records in Holland for SXSW and made them an offer.
“I said to them, here’s the path we could go: We could get money and go into the studio, but I think we should stay in a home studio environment. We rented everything we needed to record and took it out to a farm that Kevin’s in-laws owned out by Comfort, Texas. And for two weeks we didn’t do anything but play these songs at different tempos.
“And I said, this is an opportunity to learn about what you want to do, and basically, out at the farm is where we together developed what became the Gourds’ sound over the next couple of records. So for the second album [Stadium Blitzer], it was really obvious we should go back to the farm. This time it was more efficient because they’d played more shows, and at this period, although it was still divided up, there was a more cohesive sense of what they could do with each other’s songs.
“I remember saying, ‘You’re going to learn a lot, learn how to play the songs, learn how to record, and you’re going to school.’ Max [Johnston, the veteran of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco who plays fiddle and mandolin] had just shown up. The inclusion of Max caused Jimmy and Kevin to grow a lot closer, and with a third person their stuff didn’t seem so far apart.” Johnston also filled out the sound, both onstage and on record, in a crucial way, bringing it up to a sort of critical mass.
The Gourds, though, weren’t the only ones going to school. Understandably, Stewart had never come up against a group like this. He had to figure out the personalities. “Jimmy has a fairly clear, distinct idea. It’s a curious insanity about him, that he can see what he wants at the moment he writes the song: minimal or full or crazy, or whatever. Kevin is more, ‘Here’s the basic bare bones of the song,’ and we try all kinds of things, accordion as the basis of the song, or guitar, until we find what works.”
I think this mutual learning process can be heard on those early records, which is one reason they’re so exciting. They truly are a group effort, with nobody really in control. Things continuously threaten to fly apart, but there’s enough self-discipline on all sides to keep the band centered and keep the goal in sight.
Of course, the other thing that makes them so exciting is the sense that yet another band has nailed something essential about American music without signing on to a formula, making them one with a long tradition that starts somewhere back around The Band’s Music From Big Pink, continues through X, the Blasters, and Los Lobos, and then sort of thins out until Uncle Tupelo appears. Yes, country has something to do with it, but so does blues, and so, as this latest album, Blood Of The Ram, makes clear, does soul music.
One advantage the Gourds had at the start was a non-American record label. The music market in Europe is much smaller than it is in the United States, and, as in the States, it’s dominated by majors, which tend to release the exact same stuff they do everywhere else. Thus, fringe bands pretty much have to go to indies, and the indies are a normal part of the scene. Many people don’t expect to find the stuff they like on major labels, particularly if they deal with dance or indie rock or are part of the small but strong and vocal European audience for Americana. Munich Records, with whom the Gourds signed, is (confusingly enough) a Dutch label based in Wageringen, not far from where Hieronymous Bosch grew up.