Gourds – Appetite for agglomeration
A label such as Munich doesn’t expect a Phil Collins-sized success when they sign an act. They’ve done the numbers and know how to make the most money from what they can realistically sell, and they don’t delude the acts with dreams of stadium tours and limousines. But because they have the act under contract, they expect them to tour the territory, and so the Gourds got to see a lot of Holland, Belgium and Germany during those first few years.
In the process, they gained a good following, a fan base that most likely gave them confidence. After all, it’s one thing to play for people in Austin who are already in on most of the joke because they get to see similarly eccentric stuff all the time, but it’s another thing to go across the sea to Bosch-land and lay ’em out.
Not to mention the other effects touring like that had on them. “That was part of the deal — a European label, Munich — so once we signed with them it captivated our imagination,” Russell acknowledges. “We really wanted to see Europe and what it was about, so we did. That was a big pull. It was fun to go over there for a while, exciting to see those old cities like Bruges, old, old places, older than I could imagine. At times I felt like I was blinded by my own romantic preconceptions. It made me realize how young America is, and how strong America’s pop cultural power is; I really felt it. It made me a little more American, magnified my American-ness, and made me see that there’s hicks everywhere. Like Stalin: Mandelstam said, he’s a hick. Rednecks aren’t just from West Texas. You can go to Belgium and meet hicks and rednecks.”
As for what the Europeans saw in the Gourds, Russell says, “I think people got a visceral, a body feeling, that they don’t get — or that they get a different type of — in Europe. The way a person in a warmer climate expresses things, it goes from their body to their mind; the way people walk and express themselves in this part of the world is different from the way they do it there in a colder climate. It was a lot of fun, and we did a lot of long tours over there, and that taught us what long tours are, how that feels. We saw a lot of countries, and met a lot of people, made some really good friends.”
It also meant that as long as Munich kept them signed, they didn’t have as much anxiety about a U.S. label as they might have, and could cut a comfortable deal at home. It meant that they had records to sell at gigs. But it also had another side to it: Touring Europe took away from touring the States, and that was a problem that had to be dealt with. As Smith rather tersely put it, “It was a great opportunity, but after going over three or four times and coming back to a $600 phone bill when you hadn’t even made $600 from the tour, we decided we had more work to do over here, Stateside. We gotta get Lawrence, Kansas, on our side, and that’s right up I-35.”
Russell concurs. “We made a conscious decision not to go back. It was more than we could deal with to get that together. It seemed that those tours always came at the time of year when we should’ve been touring the States. We don’t do tons of touring; probably 150 dates a year out of town. Regional is our meat and potatoes; we’re an ArLaTex band. Any big city in America we can sell out 300 to 400 seats, too: New York, Seattle, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Chicago…A real odd place where we’re big is Missoula, Montana, a real rockin’ place. If I were going to move outside Texas, that’s where I’d go.”
The albums on Munich got leased for Stateside release to Sugar Hill, the venerable North Carolina label that specializes in bluegrass but was undergoing something of an esthetic remake at the time — although, since the Gourds were an acoustic band, maybe it wasn’t that much of a stretch. They shared space on the label with that other odd Austin acoustic agglomeration the Bad Livers, and got a lot of radio play off of what was basically a novelty track, a Gourds-ed up version of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin And Juice”.
Finally, with Cow Fish Fowl Or Pig in 2002, the Munich deal — and the deal with Sugar Hill — ended, and the band was on its own. With the exception of the few songs for the film soundtrack, not much was heard from them, although both Smith and Russell released solo albums during that period.
One thing that was happening was family life, which was part of why the European traveling was curtailed. In fact, one reason there isn’t more from Smith in this article was that the only time I could interview him was the morning after his wedding (although he and his new bride have been together for some time and have a year-old baby).
“I guess I could start with family life,” he said when I asked him what changes he’d seen in the band over the past ten years. “That’s for me the most poignant thing that’s going on right now, that we’re all having babies. The most important thing is we’ve maintained and managed to keep creative and raise families.”
Russell, too, has a family, as those who heard his solo album Buttermilk And Rifles are aware: His young son Guthrie is on the record with “(Somebody Bring Me A Flower) I’m A Robot”, a song he co-wrote with his dad. “He was talking early in life and he was good at communicating verbally,” Russell says. “At the time I had a picture of Jesus knocking on the door and so he knew who Jesus was. He was also into building robots with Legos. His Lego set had a clip-on flower, and he was looking for it and he said, ‘Give me a flower, I’m a robot.’ So he wrote the first verse and the idea for the chorus.
“He’s made a record of his own that he gave to his classmates and relatives. My daughter, too, she’s four, she’ll turn anything into a song. If anyone’s going to be a musician, she will.”
This interruption has, if anything, strengthened the band as a whole. “On my end, there haven’t been too many changes,” Smith says. “I was committed to this thing years ago, and I keep it as simple as I can. I mean, sure, we get on each other’s nerves, but we’re all committed, all focused. We’ve got a mutual respect for each other and realize it’s a long-run kind of thing. It’s the best way to be in a band. I would be put out if I had to do it all by myself.”