As a part of the Austin-based Band of Heathens, Ed Jurdi is out on the road with the rest of the guys promoting their newest release. While their May and June schedule will have them in Europe and the West Coast, they spent some of the early spring in Texas where we caught up with Ed to chat about the music, forming the band and being a fan.
Q: There’s a new record out, Top Hat Crown and the Clapmaster’s Son. What’s interesting about it for you? What makes it special?
A: It’s the next step in the evolution of the band. We took a lot of the tools that we’ve gained over the last four years touring, and I think we’re kind of really able to boil it down to really capturing the sound of the band at this point in time.
To me, this record really sounds like a mixed tape of the stuff that we listen to, just it’s a little bit more eclectic in terms of kind of some of the sounds we went for and kind of getting a little bit deeper into some of the things that we touched on on the earlier albums which is really exciting.
A: It’s really all over the map. You’ve got rock songs, you’ve got pop songs, you’ve got things that are kind of country leaning. There’s things that are much more leaning towards R&B and soul and funk stuff. I think we’re definitely touched on that in all of our records; I think we just got a little bit deeper into some of those things on this record, everything from getting deeper into some funky stuff and really even stripping down and doing some real acoustic string band music. And then everything and anything in between, you know.
Q: How democratic is the band? Is it something you guys each bring — with three front men, how do you balance that and make it work?
A: It’s really democratic. It’s kind of an equal output from everybody. Once we get ready to assemble the album, I think we might have started with 20 songs and then in working with our producer George it was kind of like taking those 20 and deciding on, you know, 12 to 15 and then we ended up recording 12. And then final record ended up being 10 because with this record we wanted to approach it with the album in mind. To have a narrative and a flow both sonically, textually, melodically, lyrically, all those kind of things that kind of make a nice listening experience. And the 10 songs, put it right at about 40 minutes.
If you want to listen to songs individually you can do that, which I think a lot of people do. But if you want to sit down and listen to it in one chunk you’re able to do that without it being 75 minutes which some records are, and I think at this point in time it’s just that’s a pretty long listening trip. So it was made with that in mind as well too.
Q: How do you pull ideas into a song? Is the process collaborative?
A: Ultimately an idea starts with one person. Sometimes stuff comes from jams and sound check, or just hanging out and jamming on stuff. But a lot of the songs, there’s an idea from one person and then that idea gets brought to the band and that’s when it kind of starts to take the shape of a song by the Band of Heathens. If you talk to any of the guys who write in the band they tell you, “You know, if we did these songs in a solo project or on our own they’d sound a lot different than they sound kind of put through our little machine with everyone getting their greasy little hands on it and contributing their little piece of the puzzle to it,” which makes it a beautiful thing. That is the band in a nutshell in terms of how we kind of arrive at our sound, everyone kind of putting their little piece into the stew if you will.
Q: And the story goes that the band started at Momo’s in some sort of accidental way. How true is that?
A: Yeah, and it’s like I think as a music fan you kind of hear things like this all the time and you kind of like wonder, “This must be like some kind of press concoction or some kind of back story, they tried to come up with a cool angle,” but I mean the reality of it is is that couldn’t be more true. For whatever reason we each ended up having our own solo slots at Momo’s on Wednesday nights, kind of like the 8:00, 9:00, 10:00, 11:00 slots. And pretty soon after we all kind of got situated with that there was a lot of jamming going on, I’d sit in with Gordy or Colin would sit in with me or whatever.
And from that someone came up with the idea to say, “Hey, what if instead of everybody doing a one hour slot, what if we do like a 2-1/2 hour slot all play together at the same time, get a common rhythm section?” And everybody was like, “Yeah, that sounds like fun.” Because I mean you know, in Austin there’s so many people doing their own thing it was like, “Well let’s see if we can all put this together and let’s have a good time with it for a little while.” Honestly it was supposed to be a thing that went for a few months and then we were going to go back to doing our own gigs on Wednesday nights and whatever else.
But we started doing it and it was immediately really fun and it was definitely a different creative spark with all of us collaborating, even different than having people sitting in and jamming, like on each other’s sets, you know what I mean; it just became a thing where it was like it wasn’t one brain it was like everyone’s brain together coming up with sounds and stuff like that which, you know, again, happened very organically. It was just it wasn’t thought out, it was literally like let’s sit down and play the gigs and we just showed up the first week and kind of knew each other’s songs but not really. I mean I think if you get a hold of some of the early shows that people might have tapes or whatever like you’ll hear it; we’re literally figuring out and working through songs.
Even in the really early phases of that where it was kind of crazy and disorganized there was definitely a cool, creative energy and spark and singing together. The sound of the voices was the thing that was kind of an immediate attraction for everybody that was involved, just the way we were able to harmonize and where our voices fit into certain parts without really having to talk about it or try to do it just kind of things would naturally fall into space. So there’s something to be said for that right away I think.
It’s a very Austin thing I think too, it was like there was really no ego it was just like, “Hey, let’s try this trip. I mean what if we all just get together and jam? Let’s not rehearse anything let’s all play each other’s songs and see how well we know them and see what we can bring to the table with it.” And it was really cool right off the bat and you never know how that stuff’s going to go and it was just–it was a cool ride, pretty much right out of the gate with that.
Q: When did you decide to become a musician?
A: I’ve been playing music since forever. And when I was younger it kind of came and went with how much time I had but I really — the first time I played out I was probably five or six, playing acoustic guitar and singing for my class or whatever. I remember when I was five or six we had this folk singer — and I grew up in Boston, who was pretty big at the time, her name was Ella Jenkins and I remember she came to our class and I remember playing a song with her.
And then through junior high and high school I had bands, different kinds of stuff and started writing music at 14 or whatever and trying some things out and playing in bands all through my teenage years and starting to play gigs at 16 or 17, kind of being underage and playing different places and stuff. For most of the guys in the band it’s been a pretty big part of their lives forever in one form or another.
Q: What do you look forward to on a tour? Taking the album out, seeing different places? Perhaps you just love hanging out in a van for weeks?
A: Definitely not the latter. We are kind of always on tour. I mean there’s some breaks in between but it’s almost like even when we’re kind of not in the cycle of a new album or whatever we’re touring. I think last year we traveled as much as we ever had and it was kind of like the ‘off year’ of the record.
Really, the only way to get music to people is to go out and play it for them. And ultimately that’s a byproduct of the kind of music that we play and what our band does live. There’s definitely a dynamic situation and it’s very fluid — it’s constantly changing. Songs are changing night to night and set lists are changing night to night and everything about it; there’s nothing really formulaic about it. We’re not playing the click tracks or backing tracks or playing the same set every night so it’s of one of the last things that’s a collaborative thing and I mean that in terms of the experience that we have with the audience and vice versa.
That’s really like that’s really what gets us off. When you go out on the road and you play different places and you meet different people and you’re interacting with a different audience every night in a different way it’s a pretty special thing and it’s something that’s really rewarding when you’re connecting with an audience with your music and they’re connecting with you. It’s a really special thing and so far as I think a music fan that’s something I was always looking to be a part of. And being on the other end of that at times it’s certainly a privilege; it’s not something that you sit around and kind of think about but at the end of the day it’s kind of the nexus of the whole thing. You’re trying to communicate with your music with other people and have them be on the same kind of trip that you’re on which is — that’s pretty awesome when that happens, you know?
But definitely not hanging out in the van for extended periods of time. I’ve spent probably years of my life in a van at this point that I’ll never get back. There’s got to be a payoff somewhere, you know.
Q: Are there things you pack to make the trips less difficult or more fun?
A: Books definitely, try to do some reading depending on where we’re driving, not getting vertigo if you’re driving up the PCH in California, it’s like I have to keep my eyes on the road or I’ll get car sick. We got a little wireless thing in the van now so you can do stuff on your computer, which is cool. I can do some reading or catch up on some emails or whatever. And having iPods is killer, being able to listen to music all the time is certainly a treat, something that you couldn’t do. I mean I guess we could do it but the cool thing is if you don’t want to listen to someone else’s music at any time you can just put your headphones in and get into your own thing.
We had a DVD player for a while which was a real nice treat until that got ripped off in St. Louis a little while ago so we’re down the movie player but we’ve got some good little creature comforts, which makes the time pass a little faster.
Q: You’ve mentioned being a fan several times, which bands are you a fan of?
A: Certainly there’s a lot of new stuff that’s great. I love this band Vetiver from San Francisco, they’re a killer folk band. The last Delta Spirit record was great. I had some time last night, we did a thing at Waterloo and I had some time to go through the 99 Cent box and which was like surprisingly awesome. I got a couple of Jackson Browne records, Ricki Lee Jones record, Charlie Rich, the Incredible String Band — see what else here. Loggins and Messina’s greatest hits, the Chambers Brothers. Everything and anything in between: jazz music, blues music, country stuff; there’s so much great music to listen to. It’s always fun getting new stuff too. Like somebody sent me like 500 Dead bootlegs for me and the — Trevor, our friend who’s playing keys with us now is a huge Deadhead and we kind of have a good time geeking out about different shows and Jerry Garcia’s guitar talent and parts of shows and what-not. And it’s cool and it’s having other guys in the band turn different guys in the band on to other stuff is great too. Being a fan it’s always like a cool revelation when you think you’ve kind of saturated your ability to listen to music and then someone brings something you hear you’re like, “Wow, that’s just great, I mean how did I miss this, you know?”
Q: I hate to make you pick a genre that you think Band of Heathens fits into but where you think you guys fit along the spectrum?
A: I think ultimately we’re a rock and roll band. That’s kind of become a generic term. But I think that’s where we reside. The band comes from a place where there’s a real confluence of blue and country music and R&B stuff and then definitely it’s strongly informed by songwriter mentality. And I think all those things together, to me at least, kind of created rock and roll. We’ve gotten to a point where there’s a narrow pinpoint of a genre but historically speaking that’s been a pretty big umbrella to catch a lot of stuff under. And it’s truly and American music form I think that it’s obviously kind of been adopted worldwide by a lot of different people but I mean to me that’ll be the most satisfactory attempt at explaining where we’re coming from.
What about the “Americana” genre?
Americana’s a part of rock and roll to me. I mean I think labels are helpful for some people to define where things fit. It’s weird because I don’t think anyone really listens to music in terms of labels. I guess I know some people that have a leaning towards listening to a certain kind of music but most of the people I know really listen to a lot of different stuff. It’s a pretty wide spectrum, which is maybe why radio’s not happening as much for people anymore because the people that are into music are into a lot of different kinds of stuff. It seems like things that people might think are a stretch from each other aren’t necessarily that far apart.
Even like country music and blues music are really similar in the kind of genesis of the music. Different voices, different background of people but kind of their themes and the ideas in those kinds of music are pretty similar. Ultimately, to me it’s like it’s either good or it’s not. There’s good music and bad music so we’re trying to reside in the former.
Q: Anything you’d want to add or to make sure that people know about the band, the record or the tour?
A: It’d be great if people listen to the record with open ears and just check it out, listen to it for their own enjoyment because we had a lot of fun making it and we have a lot of fun sharing the music and playing it to audiences. It really is a labor of love and everyone that’s in this band, music is incredibly important to them and everyone’s really into trying to do something soulful and meaningful to them artistically. I think ultimately that connection between the band and fans is kind of — that’s what keeps the whole thing moving forward.