By Peter Mongillo
AMERICAN-STATESMAN MUSIC WRITER
Sept. 17, 2011
Songwriters Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith of Austin band the Gourds weren't on the same page when they started talking about recording a new album.
Russell wanted to leave Texas — and all the distractions of everyday life — and work with an outside producer.
"I felt we kept making the same record," Russell says of the band's self-produced efforts. "It wasn't a bad record, the songs were good, it was just starting to feel a little old to me."
His solution: Leave Austin for the frosty confines of Woodstock, N.Y., where they could record in former Band drummer Levon Helm's studio with musician and producer Larry Campbell, who made his mark with Bob Dylan during his "Love and Theft" period.
"When we make a record here, we make the record in between our lives, it's hard to really focus on it," Russell says.
Life was exactly what was happening with Smith, however. His wife was pregnant and he wasn't crazy about leaving town. "I just didn't feel the urgency to leave my wife in Texas when we could have used any studio in Austin and I could have stayed at home," Smith says.
In the end, the lure of working with the sought-after — and non-Gourd — Campbell changed Smith's mind. "Without a producer, not a lot of people want to sit there and be told what to do by other band members," Smith says.
Seven months later, the result is the Gourds' 10th studio album, "Old Mad Joy," out now on Vanguard Records. Though it might sound a bit more like a rock album than usual, it's still the Gourds, a mix of Russell's warm, rootsy tendencies with Smith's more fiery fare (multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston wrote one song as well).
Russell was a fan of Campbell's work from Helm's Grammy-winning albums "Dirt Farmer" and "Electric Dirt," but getting the producer seemed like a long shot. The Gourds' manager, Joe Priesnitz, had less-than-encouraging news after he called Campbell: "Well, Larry's never heard of you, but he's going to ask around."
"I guess Larry ran a rock 'n' roll background check," Russell says, "I don't know who he talked to, but whoever it was told him that we're a band he should be working with."
He was drawn to the Gourds' eclectic sensibility, Campbell says. "It was different from anything I've ever heard," he says. "I heard elements of country music, folk music, rock 'n' roll, punk music, those raw elements in what they were doing, and combining stuff like that has always been attractive to me."
He agreed to produce the album at Helm's studio, where he also works as the musical director for Helm's weekly Midnight Ramble concert series, an intimate studio performance that features special guests (Hayes Carll sat in with Helm's band earlier this year). But his services and the studio were available for only a small window after South by Southwest in March. A queue of musicians, including Hot Tuna and Mavis Staples, were already lined up to work there. Early spring is prime touring time for the Gourds, and recording meant putting a string of tour dates on hold.
"That's like our Christmas," Russell says. "It was painful because that's the last thing we want to do is cancel a gig."
The pain paid off. Past attempts at producing on their own required different band members to take on a more authoritative role, which didn't always exactly boost band morale. Russell and Smith went through and got over a few noncommunicative periods over the band's nearly 20-year history, but even on good terms, producing an album with the "fraternity of curmudgeons," as Russell has referred to the band, could be a stressful experience.
"We have so much between us, when we make a record it's like every man for himself," Russell says. At Helm's studio, a three-story, wooden barn attached to his house, they were free to focus on being a band.
"Recording on our own, it's tricky because we still look like ourselves when we step into those dictator shoes, but it was nice to not have to do that," Russell says. "We could just relax, play and be part of the band, and it came through in the performances."
The once-hesitant Smith was won over, too. "I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know Larry that well, but once we got over that hump of first-day jitters and found out what a wizard that Larry Campbell and (engineer) Justin Guip were, it became one of the best creative experiences that any of us had been a part of," Smith says.
Because of the time constraints, the recording sessions lasted for hours at a time, much of which was spent with the band sitting in silence in the large studio as Campbell picked apart the music.
"Larry would sit there and squint, and then wave his arms, sort of like a preacher, and then he would look at the ground, touch his head and then point at someone, and say 'Do this!'" Russell says. "He was really actively directing us."
Campbell says that band was exceptional when it came to working in the studio. "On a musical level it was a joy, because they were very willing to let me in, to make suggestions," Campbell says. "They trusted the fact that I sort of understood the essence of who they were, and that I was just trying to represent that as well as we all wanted."
On a nonmusical level, the trip ended up bringing the band closer than they had been in some time.
A rented house in Woodstock served as a communal living space for the duration of their stay. Sound engineer Mark Creaney cooked for the group, and each night for two weeks, the band gathered around the dinner table and discussed the day's work.
"The camaraderie and morale was pretty high," Smith says. "It was really just a positive vibe going on throughout the whole process."
The result is an album devoid of any throwaway moments, a record of of different voices in conversation with one another. Russell's emotional loss-of -innocence ballad "Two Sparrows" sets a mournful tone, while Smith's "Drop What I'm Doing" has a barroom swagger, a howling snark bolstered by classic rock guitar.
Smith's output, Russell says, is some of his best yet. "He wrote some really incredible stuff. His delivery, his phrasing, I feel like Jimmy has really taken it to another level," he says.
Both Russell and Smith say they would repeat the experience without question, but the experiment also seems to have succeeded in its original intent of injecting some energy into something that was starting to feel stale.
"We learned so much from him that on the next outing, even if we don't have a producer, we could walk away from it high-fiving each other," Smith says.
The Gourds will celebrate the release of ‘Old Mad Joy.'
When: 9 p.m. Friday, with opener Patrick Sweany
Where: Threadgill's South, 301 W. Riverside Drive
Copyright © Sat Sep 17 10:39:45 EDT 2011 All rights reserved.