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Folkies and Gangstas: The Gourds Spin Another Classically American Yarn for the Masses
By Ryan Heinsius
Sept 8, 2011

The Austin, Texas, five-piece band the Gourds have concocted what might be the purest form of Americana music, by being a little bit of everything.

Emerging from their hometown music scene in the summer of 1994, the band achieved a bizarre, cult-like national notoriety a few years later after their bluegrassed-up cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” became one of the first viral online music sensations of the Internet era. The song—which was initially attributed to Phish and various other bands, incorrectly—is still what the band is most well known for in certain circles. But the Gourd’s legions of hardcore fans celebrate the deep well of music produced by the five-piece over the years as well as their legendary live performances.

The Gourds’ music is certainly far deeper than a mere single novelty cover. On Sept. 13 they’ll release Old Mad Joy, the band’s 10th studio album, which was recorded in Woodstock, N.Y., at the former Band drummer Levon Helm’s famed barn studio. Additionally, the album was produced by former Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell and includes elements of a vast spectrum of styles—blues, rock, folk, soul, bluegrass, norteño, jazz—while retaining their highly literate and down-home songwriting that has made the Gourds one of Austin’s most-loved musical exports. The band’s frontman Kevin “Shinyribs” Russell took some time out to speak with us recently.

Ryan Heinsius: Tell me about Old Mad Joy. How would you compare the sound and songs to Haymaker! or Noble Creatures?

Kevin Russell: Hmmm, those three records, OMJ, HM and NC are all very different. But Old Mad Joy is by far the better sonically. The Barn is, for starters, a great sounding, wide-open, high-ceilings room. This can be heard from within and about the recording. Not a lot of effects were used or needed because of this.

Haymaker! was similar in that it was basically the room sound of the initial recording. It was recorded in a smaller room and it sounds like it. I love the sound of Haymaker! too. Noble Creatures was recorded in an odd space and then mixed by Chet Himes who has a real hi-fi ear. It came out sounding slicker than intended, I think. Perhaps we can remix that one someday. Old Mad Joy sounded great from the first notes and just gets better and better each time I hear it. The songs are classic Gourds DNA. I hear cousins all over this. Every Gourd record has its great moments. But this one, I think, has the feel of a great record more than the others.

RH: You recorded Old Mad Joy at Levon Helm’s well-known barn studio and Larry Campbell produced it. How was that experience in general and did you find that any of that Band/Dylan magic rubbed off on the finished product? Did you get to play or attend a Midnight Ramble?

KR: I think that magic rubbed off on most of us a long time ago. And the studio really just illuminates it or enhances it. Being in the middle of that place is inspiring to be sure. But we didn’t want to be tourists. So we had to create something that honored our inspiration but maintained our own identity and irreverence. That is what we have always been about. Taking the raw elements of our collective musical, literary and cultural heritage and stirring it with this and that and the odd what’s-it-to, conjure, hopefully, a novel, meaningful brew.

RH: There are some really sweet songs on the new album and even some Phil Spector-ish melodies and instrumentation in tunes like “Ink and Grief.” What were you guys listening to while writing and recording your new material?

KR: We listen to everything. There is an incredible musical knowledge shared between us. After so many years of listening and playing music together that should happen. I have been moving in a more classic direction lately. I want write songs that are melodic and literate but also resonate with the humans, with a sprinkle of subversion too.

RH: In the Gourds’ sound there is so much going on, and being from Austin, everything from bluegrass, to blues, folk, rock, norteño, and country are obvious influences. How has the scene and city of Austin influenced the Gourds’ evolution?

Thoureau said something about one of a writer’s duties being to describe where he lives. In a sense we have a done that quite often. But it has been largely impressionistic, subjective, micro-subterranean cosmic nuggets. We certainly have heard lots of great music played by lots of great musicians: the Bad Livers, Wayne Hancock, Doug Sahm, Al Escovedo, Jon Dee Graham, Don Walser, Butthole Surfers, Ed Hall, Spoon, Ramsay Midwood—just to name a few off the top of my skull. Living and playing here for so long has obviously had an effect on us. But, it is nearly impossible to really be objective about it. In another way, we have always felt a little outside of the mainstream here. Or perhaps, we kept our distance from it. Part of Austin has always had a preoccupation with rock stars, movie stars and national success. Many here are just like everyone else around the Western Hemisphere. And much of the Austin mystique is total bullshit. We invested in some good bullshit detectors years ago. We got ’em at an antique market in north Texas one summer day. They have never let us down either.

RH: The Gourds are approaching 20 years of playing together, and in that time the lineup has stayed pretty consistent. How have you managed to avoid the pitfalls and personal conflicts that can often tear bands apart?

KR: Well, you can’t avoid those pitfalls and conflicts. We are not immune to those things. But, I think we generally act like reasonable adults and are able to work out our differences through communication and compromise. I wish the same could be said for our so-called national leadership. Ha ha.

RH: The Gourds have established a really interesting cult following and, evidently, your hometown crowd is quite a freakshow—in a cool way. Does writing and recording new material and taking chances change with the added dimension of so many people paying such close attention? Do you feel an obligation to please a certain super-loyal part of your fanbase?

KR: Nah. We honestly do not care that much what people think. Our indifference is legendary. We are stubborn and proud. It’s just not that important what anyone thinks. I mean, we are grateful for our fans and friends and families, don’t get that wrong. But when it comes to the art, well, that is just between us. That is the reason we have devoted our lives to this. I was doing this when nobody knew who I was and I will be doing it when everyone forgets who I am. I will be singing ’til the day I die too.

RH: There is a real intellectual edge to the Gourds. What do you read when you’re on the road, or at home?

KR: The classics of course, Homer’s “Odyssey", Socrates, Buddha, Confucius and Jesus, James Joyce, Burroughs, Neruda, Robert Anton Wilson, Kurt Vonnegut, Hemingway, James Hillman, Joe Campbell. That’s just me. The other guys have their faves as well.

RH: What’s the weirdest show you have ever played with the band?

KR: There was the night in Houston art Fitzgerald’s that the sound guy could not even make a sound come from the P.A. We stood there and waited for a couple of hours then just left without playing. I forgot something, and when I went back in to get it, a high school band was playing and the place was full of their friends. I think we got hoodwinked. Then there was the night we played an outdoor show on Lake Austin after a week of heavy rain. The lake was over its banks and then the fog rolled in as we played. We couldn’t see hardly any of the crowd, but we played on in near invisibility.

RH: I’m sure you get this question a lot, but I’ve got to ask it. What are your feelings about “Gin and Juice”? Do you guys still have fun playing it or has it become a bit of an albatross for you due to peoples’ expectations? Or, is it just cool to have people eagerly wanting you to play something? Is it still part of the Gourds’ live show?

KR: We do fairly often. It can be fun. Of course, we are aware of the “Juice contingent” prowling for a cheap thrill at most shows. But, oh well, that’s no big. If we feel like it, we’ll play it. But, having a crowd into the show all night will raise the odds dramatically.

RH: After the Gourds recorded “Gin and Juice,” other non-gangsta-oriented artists seemed to follow suit with their own versions of gansta rap songs. Ben Folds did “Bitches Ain’t Shit” and Nina Gordon recorded “Straight Outta Compton,” among others. Do you think the irony and humor of these people singing these songs connects with audiences or does it expose a deeper meaning in that brand of hip-hop?

KR: For me, hip-hop is the last folk music of the 20th century. It truly came from the American people—from the streets, the clubs, the house parties, etc. Though it can be done for laughs, it can also be done well, which is something I think “Gin and Juice” accomplished. It’s entertaining, but it is also really good. I still think it is infinitely more interesting and entertaining to hear fine musicianship and great songs performed by great singers than any rap or hip-hop scene I have experienced. But, that’s just me, I am biased. Though where I come from that sounds a lot like badass. Ha ha.

See the Gourds at the Orpheum Theater, 15 W. Aspen, Sat, Sept. 10. Opening the show will be the Austin one-man, bluesy soul and rock artist Eagle Eye Williamson. Doors open at 8 p.m. and the show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets are $13 in advance and $16 at the door. For more info, see or call 556-1580.

© Copyright 2011 Flagstaff Publishing Co.

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