Giddy Gourds, from L to R: Max Johnston, Jimmy Smith, Keith Langford, Kevin Russell and Claude de Bernard
photo: Tracy Goudie
It's difficult to describe the music of Austin-based indie heroes The Gourds. “Alt-country” doesn't quite do it justice. On the group's Website (www.thegourds.com), they take a stab at it: “In a saucepan of slow roasts, they have conjured tempos, tangos, waltzes, zydeco, old-timey, two-step, low-grooved, long-winded, short-tailed, tiny, phat stompin' gizmos of tunes tripped out of lonely, solid teeth and wet green earth.” They have the rustic, backwoodsy charm of The Band but more Texas, and with a devilishly absurdist streak that recalls folks like Lowell George, Captain Beefheart and precious few others. They are eclectic in extremis, but they lean toward the country side more often than not. Their albums are rough-hewn — at times sloppy, but rising occasionally to magnificent heights. “This is first and foremost music of joy,” the Website proclaims, and that's true.
So it's not at all surprising that when I reach group co-founder, co-leader, co-everything Kevin Russell by phone at a noisy soul food restaurant in Seattle while the group is on tour, he punctuates nearly every answer with a burst of laughter, he interrupts himself to ask the other bandmembers for info and he's appropriately worried about the waitress messing up his order. These boys — there are five of 'em — are clearly having a good ol' time.
The Gourds' latest album, Blood of the Ram (Eleven Thirty), is another indescribable slice of strangeness: weird story-songs, portraits and vignettes about this, that and the other, in musical settings loaded with gi-tars, fiddles, mandolins and cracking percussion. Russell sounds almost surprised that anyone would even ask about how The Gourds make their records.
“The first three albums [beginning with their wonderful 1997 CD, Dem's Good Beeble] were done with ADATs in a house out on a ranch in central Texas, so they have a sort of quasi-suspect fidelity to them,” Russell says with a chuckle, “but we were interested in doing a mobile thing cheaply and that was the way to go. The performances and the feel of the thing was more important to us. Still is. Then the next two we recorded in studios in various analog and Pro Tools situations, and they have a certain sound to them, too. Unfortunately, we're always on fixed budgets, and in studios, the clock was always running, so we were always trying to cram in recording and mixing in two weeks, which isn't easy, even for a band like us. On our last record [Cow Fish Fowl or Pig], we ended up paying the engineer by playing at his wedding!” (Cue laughter.)
For Blood of the Ram, recording was spread out over several months, a comparative luxury. “What happened was, I got a Yamaha AW16G 16-track hard disk recorder, for demos mainly, and I set that up at my friend Ramsey Midwood's house, which is Richmond Ditch studio. We had a bunch of cheap condenser mics, like a Behringer and an MXL, Oktavas: knockoffs and reverse-engineering things,” he says with a laugh. “Then, Jimmy [Smith, co-leader, multi-instrumentalist, etc.] has an Otari 4-track reel-to-reel that he recorded his basics on at his house — drums, guitars and vocals for his songs. And then we had to figure out a way to dump the stuff from his Otari to my Yamaha. Once we realized that we were going to be able to do that, we were on, and then we did it sort of piecemeal over time — whenever we could get someone over to the house, we'd do some overdubs.”
What made them think they could engineer their own album? “We sort of believed what many engineers and friends had told us over the years: Just stick a mic in front of it and record it! [Laughter.] We tried to make it sound as good as we could. We didn't exactly know what we were doing, I guess.” Well, I won't tell Phil Ramone, I comment. “Please don't!” Russell chortles.
When it came time to mix, however, the band wisely turned to a pro: Mark Hallman, whose Congress House Studio is located in a house on two acres in south Austin [see feature, p. 56]. The studio is splendidly equipped with an automated Amek console, lots of Neve and other preamps, a wonderful selection of old and new mics — stuff that's too good for the likes of The Gourds. (Just kidding.) “We didn't really know how it all sounded until we got to Mark's place,” Russell says. “I'd make a little .WAV file on my [Yamaha] machine and then he would dump it into Pro Tools and mix it [in Pro Tools]. I think he also did some additional stuff [through the console] when we weren't around — we had to go on the road right around that time. So he'd put his mixes on a Website and then we'd download it on the road, which was neat. We'd go to an Internet café so we could listen to the mixes he was doing. Mark seemed pretty confident he could polish the turd.” Yes, he was laughing when he said that, too.