I asked Kevin Russell, vocalist and lead guitarist for the Gourds, to describe the band’s new album, Old Mad Joy, as if addressing both someone who had never heard the Austin rockers before and someone who’s been in on the Gourds for years. Musicians are usually pretty bad with — and notoriously irritated by — requests to do such a thing, but I have to hand it to Russell: a few quick turns of phrase that nail what makes the Gourds such a terrific listen.
“Great mix of rock n roll and ballads expertly played by a seasoned Austin band whilst in a barn in Woodstock, NY, at the end of a long, cold, lonely winter,” said Russell, apparently without breaking a sweat.
And for the Gourds aficionados?
“Post-ironic, subversive classic rock.”
Call them what you want — alt-country and folk-rock are two more commonly associated tags — but the point is the Gourds have been at this for a good long while, and been underappreciated almost as long, downplayed amid higher-profile, similar-sounding acts that have their own strengths, but execute rarely with as much aplomb. It’s hard to believe the band’s been on the job since 1994, harder to believe that Russell, bassist/vocalist Jimmy Smith, keyboardist Claude Bernard, drummer Keith Langford and multi-instrujmentalist Max Johnston have been a solidified lineup since more or less 1998, and maybe hardest to believe, in this humble scribe’s opinion, that they’re still best known for a twangy re-imagining of Snoop Dogg’s Gin ‘n’ Juice — a still-called-for staple of Napster-era college dorm coolness, and for years credited to everyone from Blues Traveler to Ween thanks to over-circulated, badly-researched mp3s.
Asked if the Gourds are bothered that the Gin n Juice cover is still what most listeners associate with the band, Russell instead isolates what the problem is: the charm of a cover like that, by a band like this, is of a different era. He’s right; everyone and his brother does Kanye and Cee Lo covers these days, and shit, even String Cheese Incident has covered Nelly.
“I think it bothers me more when we are not given credit for it,” Russell said. “We are not playing it much anymore, though. It’s just such a stale concept now. When we did it, there were no white artists out there even thinking about reinterpreting rap music. There was still so much apprehension and fear of rap in most of the No Depression/Americana crowd. And frankly, there still is.”
Russell continued: “I am afraid, though, we created a whole genre of ironic covers. For that, I am sorry. I just wanted to be like Johnny Cash when he said he just played songs he loved no matter what style they were.”
More astute fans used Gin n Juice to discover the Gourds, indirectly or not. Hopefully, that’ll lead them to Old Mad Joy, the band’s 10th studio album and maybe its best, with more meat on its bones than previous Gourds albums and a nice balance of country quirk, raw rockers and prettier, singer-songwriter-type fare. Released in September, it was recorded at Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, NY, and has Larry Campbell in the producer’s chair.
“He was more gracious and welcoming than I ever thought he’d be,” Russel said. “A guy with his talent and experience could certainly approach the world in a very different way. But he chooses the path of mutual respect and graciousness.”
Campbell and the Gourds met through a mutual friend, Bill Bentley, an Austin-based A&R executive for Vanguard Records and formerly of Warner Bros. It’s the first time the Gourds have ever used an outside producer, which Russell said was because the band needed an “objective counterpoint.”
“We all came to work, not to sit around and talk about what we had done,” Russell said of Campbell and the band’s early meetings. “So there was the feeling that we were all in a collaborative moment. We wanted his input into the material and he was inspired by the challenge of it.” Campbell’s sense of arrangement and what Russell called a “perfect ear” helped the Gourds learn a lot, he said.
“He is a self-made man, who busted his ass for years and years to get where he is,” Russell said. “Much respect for the man, we have.”
As anyone who’s made the journey to Helm’s studio can attest, it’s an inspiring location, and the Gourds found it potent, he said. ”It is an ideal place to make music,” Russell said. “We were there in late March, so snow was still falling. For Texas guys living through one of the worst droughts on record, just being in a place where snow was falling had a magical effect on our mood.”
The band spent most of its time in Woodstock in a rented house, or at Helm’s barn, he recalled. ”Now, the barn is a big, open, wooden house with big windows letting the natural light spill all over the walls,” he said. “The split level between the cutting room and the control room gives it the right separation for recording sound, but doesn’t feel like two different rooms. The fireplace is a great mood maker as well. If one can imagine standing there playing a song as the noon light reflects off the snow outside, and the smokey essence of the smoldering fire mingles with coffee and tube amps. Oh my, it is such a great place.”
The Gourds have changed somewhat, Russell said, but he still writes songs with what he called a constant, “very joyous habit.”
“I am not as lazy a writer as I was before,” he said. “Ideas get worked through more meaningfully. I have become very interested in getting in right. I used to be very much a believer in not trying too hard, letting things come from the unconscious. Now, I think I am more in tune with those deeper parts of myself. I want to understand what certain images and ideas mean as they come crawling out of me.”
Not that maturity means the Gourds rock any less.
“I think now we are not trying so hard. We are capable of more subtlety and depth of emotion,” Russell said. “Though, we can rock harder now, too. We have become the immensely versatile combo that we have always been working towards. Now, if Bob Dylan would just call…”