It was just after six o’clock in Prague when one of my roommates, Barton, a tall, laconic Texan who had been a basketball star in his youth, entered our flat in Vinohrady and said with characteristic stoicism, “Someone blew up the Twin Towers.” He might as well have been talking about the Laundromat changing its weekend hours, judging by his tone.
It was a Tuesday (as you know), and Barton was returning from his afternoon duties teaching business English to a crew of budding capitalists somewhere downtown. I had been home for a few hours after wrapping up my own classes in Malá Strana, at a private language school next to the American Embassy and just a stone’s throw from Prague Castle. My other roommate, Clay, a Texan and a childhood friend of Barton’s, had spent the day at the flat, smoking European cigarettes, debating man’s place in the universe, and devising plans to publish an expatriate newspaper called The Village Idiot (which, sadly, never came to pass).
Barton, having just learned of the attacks via text, was scant on information. There was no television in the flat and no Internet service. Anxious, we fired off a volley of frantic texts and arranged to meet our friend Tom at a pub in Žižkov, where he said a TV could be found.
The pub (I forget its name) was one of those nondescript watering holes in Žižkov that bore all the hallmarks of midwinter Soviet charm: decades-old red tablecloth, bad lighting, old bartender with a grizzled beard. Žižkov, where I lived months later, has always been a working-class stronghold and even carried the sobriquet “Red Žižkov” prior to the Velvet Revolution. It was easy to see why.
Tom was sitting alone at a long table not far from the television when we arrived. We all hugged, took a seat, and for the next few hours, over pint after pint of Gambrinus, watched the scenes of carnage unfold on the screen as a Prague newscaster delivered the rundown in Czech, a language that fell on deaf ears and only added to our sense of disorientation.
The next morning, as I made my way to class, I saw a crowd gathered in front of the American Embassy. Flowers and various condolences were strewn over the ancient cobblestones. Many of my Czech friends extended sympathies that week, but it wasn’t long before you caught a whiff of “America had it coming” by the odd expatriate at the bar, a sentiment that was hard to hear at the time.
The pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium can feel like the loneliest place in the world. It’s a feeling Jake Peavy knows in his bones. A Mobile native and one of the most decorated professional athletes to ever come out of the Azalea City, Peavy wasn’t immune to the slings and arrows that come with being a big-league hurler, despite his many accolades. It’s midsummer, and we’re talking with the former pitcher in the mixing room at Dauphin Street Sound, the state-of-the-art studio in downtown Mobile that he and a team of local talent opened back in 2016.
Peavy is waxing about his days in the big leagues and what got him hooked on music in the first place. After winning titles with the Giants and Red Sox, the two-time World Series Champion retired from the game in 2016 after a 15-year professional career, but in his jeans and T-shirt, he still appears to be in fighting shape.
“So here’s a picture of me going to Yankee Stadium and getting my butt kicked by the Yankees,” he continues with some animation. Peavy is a passionate storyteller; in fact, it’s clear after spending more than 10 minutes with him that he’s passionate about most anything he does. And while baseball may be a team sport, pitching is a solo act, and music became a way for him to unwind after three hours of hyper-focused intensity that, in the moment, felt like a matter of life and death. “It’s lonely on the mound, and it’s lonely with the press afterwards. It sucks leaving the stadium, getting on the bus, and then getting off the bus. And the last thing you’re going to do when you get to your hotel room is flip on the television and watch the sports channels and highlights.”
When Peavy first got called up in 2002, most of his teammates were 10, 15, 20 years older than him. He couldn’t go out to bars with the team, so he ended up spending a lot of time in his room by himself. It was in this scenario that the St. Paul’s alumnus found a creative outlet through music. Padres third-base coach Tim Flannery liked to pick country tunes in the hotel stairwell after games, and it was Flannery who gave Peavy his first six-string. “I could sit in there, play that guitar and not think about how I got my ass kicked,” he laughs.
The forthcoming album from The Steel Woods, All of Your Stones, took on a new dimension back in January when the band’s founding guitarist and principal creative force, Jason “Rowdy” Cope, passed away peacefully in his sleep at age 42.
The news sent shock waves among Rowdy’s friends, family, across the band’s fanbase, and the music community at large. What made his passing surprising is that the North Carolina native was doing so well personally and artistically, having in recent years overcome the twin demons of alcohol and PTSD. Though no cause of death has been revealed, the family and band believe Cope’s death was related to his having Type 2 diabetes, a condition he’d only been diagnosed with in late 2018.
The new album is the third offering from one of the fastest rising bands in the worlds of independent country and Southern rock. Since releasing their debut Straw In The Wind album in 2017, The Steel Woods have staked their claim as worthy successors of Southern rock icons Lynyrd Skynyrd, with a dynamic live show and a songwriting verve that draws inspiration from country icons like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
Derek Stanley, the band’s manager and a close friend of Cope, is finding consolation in the fact that Rowdy did exactly what he set out to do musically in his career. “He was able to put out three records without any handcuffs,” says Stanley, whose last text to Rowdy was a Soundcloud link to the new album.
When The Steel Woods entered the studio to record All Of Your Stones, smack in the middle of a global pandemic, it’s clear they had something to prove, if only to themselves. Cope had wrestled with undiagnosed PTSD and its multitude of symptoms after the release of sophomore album Old News. Wes Bayliss, the band’s singer and co- songwriter, wasn’t always sure what the future held for the group, which is rounded out by Johnny Stanton (bass) and Isaac Senty (drums).
“He was in a bad place for a little while, and he came out on top. I was real proud of him for doing good. And we still made a great record after all that.” said Bayliss.
An Alabama native, Bayliss first met Cope in 2015, back when Rowdy was still the guitarist for Jamey Johnson.
Thirteen years Cope’s junior, Bayliss found a sure-fire chemistry with his fellow bandmate from the jump. Within three months of meeting one another, the band had cut the first half of their critically lauded debut album. He grew up with country music and his family’s gospel tunes, while Rowdy was deep into protometal bands like Led Zeppelin in addition to the classic country canon. “I’ve always said it’s a real push-pull thing, that somehow we managed to find middle ground,” Bayliss says about their working relationship. “And it happens to be something that everybody liked.”
The album’s title track “All Of Your Stones” is an allegorical number about all the good Rowdy built — personally and artistically — from the darker parts of his life. From a musical standpoint, the “stones” are the disagreements and heartbreaks that he was able to sublimate into artistic gold. Personally, the “stones” were the building blocks from which he built an inner peace. “Rowdy really wanted to fly a flag for healing,” says Stanley. “‘All of Your Stones” is meant to be inspirational by using negativity to build something positive.’”
The album’s first track is called “Out Of The Blue”; written by Cope and close friend Aaron Raitiere. It’s a personal manifesto about putting the past behind you and moving forward in the light. “That’s the song that got me thinking that this is Rowdy’s record,” Bayliss says. “I think I [tried to] rewrite the chorus and add a couple of chords, but he made it clear that he didn’t want me to do anything to it.” “I’ve seen red, I’ve seen white/ I’ve seen death, I’ve seen life/ But I never saw myself coming through/ I’ve finally come out of the blue/ Lord I’ve finally come out of the blue,” Bayliss belts on the soaring rocker.
The songs that make up All Of Your Stones now sound eerily prescient given Cope’s passing in January. Most of the tunes came from the creative pen and guitar of Rowdy, but even the ones contributed by Bayliss (“Ole Pal”) and guest songwriter Ross Newell (“Run On Ahead”) have a special poignancy.
“The majority of the songs seem to make a whole lot of sense with Rowdy’s story,” says Bayliss. “And this happened to be his record with the exception of a few songs. I’ve got a few on there [that I wrote] that didn’t make a whole lot of sense until his passing.” As Bayliss sings on “Ole Pal”: “We can’t forget about you now/ They put your picture up, down at the city hall/ Next to a flag and a plaque/ That said you never made it back/ And in a few words, you’re a hero to us all.”
Reflecting on Rowdy’s vision and passion for the band, Stanley says the last thing Jason would have wanted was for the music to stop. Bayliss concurs. “We were always going to do the things you do when you put out a record. Now, there is simply a little more reason.”
Indeed there is more reason. With the release of All Of Your Stones, The Steel Woods now have the responsibility to keep the fire burning. After all, it’s what Rowdy would want.
Like the great river that flows through Memphis, the music of Lucero keeps rolling on, twisting and turning through the years, the same dark and brooding steadiness always at work.
Since forming in late the ‘90s, this group of Memphis road-dogs has mixed heartfelt lyrics with the sounds of early rock and roll, classic punk, country-folk, and deep-fried Southern soul. It’s a sound that stands on the pillars of American music, born more of feeling than technique, delivered night after night to legions of fans in dive bars and theaters, and on stages as august as Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Ryman. In short, it’s music that is built to last, impervious to trends.
For their tenth studio album, When You Found Me, the band continues its natural evolution, this time tapping into a more atmospheric, widescreen vision (one that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Reagan-era FM dial) while still staying tethered to its roots.
“I wanted a very classic rock sound for this album,” says songwriter and front man Ben Nichols. “I wanted it to sound like stuff I heard on the radio growing up. I didn’t want to make a retro record at all, but I did want to reference some of those sounds and tones and moods. I think we struck a nice balance between nostalgia and something that still sounds like contemporary Lucero.”
Long-time fans might be surprised to hear the ghostly tinge of a synthesizer on a Lucero record. But the new direction is not as far afield as one might think. Rick Steff, the band’s piano and organ man of ten years, collects vintage synthesizers, so this new sonic twist was a natural detour for him. With these flourishes, Steff helps conjure an aural world of classic tracks with a firm foot in the present. Nichols’s long-time fondness for film soundtracks likely contributed to the album’s feel as well. The band has also recorded music for every movie made by Ben’s brother, acclaimed filmmaker Jeff Nichols, whose credits include Mud, Midnight Special, and Shotgun Stories.
Lucero recorded When You Found Me over two weeks in July of 2020 at Sam Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis. Matt Ross-Spang, a long-time friend of the band who also produced 2018’s Among The Ghosts, signed on again as producer and engineer. “I don’t think he often records with a lot of synthesizers,” Nichols says, “but he’s a natural and was able to get all the sounds we wanted on the album while making sure we stayed true to ourselves.”
During the recording session, Lucero wore masks the entire time, quarantining among themselves and managing not to get sick. The band had not rehearsed since Covid-19 took root. As such, Nichols’ demos were more fleshed out this time around, complete with drum machine, synth, and fairly elaborate guitar parts, which gave the guys more of a playbook to go by when they entered the studio. “The band did an excellent job of taking those parts and making them their own,” Nichols says. Now a fairly stripped-down five- piece shorn of a horn section, Lucero — in addition to Nichols and Steff, the group comprises Brian Venable on guitar, John C. Stubblefield on bass, and Roy Berry on drums — has been able to explore new sonic avenues in its latest form, as the leaner version has opened up more space in the band’s sound.
In its time, Lucero has sung many a tune about whiskey, heartbreak, and loss — constant occupational hazards for a rock and roll band. But four years ago, Nichols became a husband and father, a major shift in his life that found its way into his songwriting. Nichols says his daughter Izzy, now four, is the center of his universe and influences everything he does. But Lucero fans need not worry: family life hasn’t turned Nichols into a more sanitized, “Dad rock”-type; if anything, it’s made him more expansive and ambitious with the pen, without sacrificing any of that characteristic raw edge.
Family, one of the central themes of When You Found Me, is hardly a new subject for the band. Earlier Lucero albums feature songs about Nichols’ childhood in Arkansas, about his brothers, about his grandfather fighting in World War II (“The War”), about his mother worrying over the fate of her prodigal sons (“Mom”). On a subconscious level, Nichols thinks the new album is about transitioning from being a son into the role of being a husband and father.
Beginning with the band’s last album, Among The Ghosts, Nichols began writing more third-person, character-driven songs, as opposed to just penning the first-person tales of misadventure that were once the group’s stock in trade. The new record’s opening track, “Have You Lost Your Way,” is a case in point, invoking a mythical world that was inspired by the bedtime stories Nichols had been reading to his daughter. “This is my grown-up Lucero-version of a fairytale in a way,” he says. “The protagonist is a young girl and there is something evil chasing her … The song doesn’t say exactly how the story ends, but you know she is going to put up a fight.” The tune is bathed in synthesizer, letting the listener know from the jump that something new is coming down the pike.
The album’s next track, “Outrun The Moon,” is another tune written from the perspective of a young girl. An avid reader of history and fiction, Nichols says he had the work of Mississippi novelist Larry Brown in mind when he penned it. “Coffin Nails” tells the story of Nichols’ grandfather dealing with the death of his own father, a veteran of World War 1. “I weigh my deeds on my father’s scales” sings Nichols, giving the song a multigenerational arc. “City On Fire,” originally an attempt by Nichols at social commentary when U.S. domestic unrest reached a fever pitch this summer, ended up morphing into a more timeless, apocalyptic number, a grand rock song featuring an explosive drum part by Berry.
“Pull Me Close Don’t Let Go,” a droning, hypnotic tune, was inspired by words spoken to Nichols by his daughter. The final song on the album, “When You Found Me,” as well as the song “All My Life,” are unabashed love letters to his wife and daughter. The last song is a proper bookend and full-circle moment for a record that begins with a song titled “Have You Lost Your Way.”
“I’m not sure how much longer I would’ve been around if it wasn’t for my wife and daughter and the family I have now,” Nichols says. “I feel like they saved me, and they keep saving me every day. Izzy likes me to sing “When You Found Me” to her now at bedtime after we read the fairytales. She says, ‘Sing me the I’m gonna be okay song.’”
As a band, Lucero is doing more than okay; in fact, they’re at a creative high-water mark. In a time of great uncertainty and change, the band continues to persevere and adapt, making music that still means a hell of a lot to a loyal and ever-growing fanbase.
Langhorne Slim didn’t write a song for more than a year. A battle with clinical anxiety disorder and prescription drug abuse, which came to a head in 2019, had dimmed the light within. The man who once seemed to ooze spontaneity was now creatively adrift, stumbling along in the fog.
In December, he entered a program and, for the first time in a long time, a path toward healing began to emerge. He began to see that inner peace was possible, even with the world outside raging.
A few months later, in February, a tornado came and decimated East Nashville, his adopted hometown. Covid-19 took root just days later, changing lives forever. In the early days of his recovery, a different reality was beginning to take shape, both within and without. New worlds were being born; old worlds were dying.
Knowing he was struggling to write songs and make sense of it all, Slim was finally able to flesh out a throwaway ditty one afternoon. His close friend Mike then suggested he try penning a song a day. Slim didn’t like the idea, but he gave it a shot.
To his surprise, the songs came. In a flurry of stream-of-consciousness writing, the new tunes tumbled out, one after another, like little starbursts of joy, gifts from the gods you might say. Slim was tuning out the noise and finding beauty in the madness of a world coming undone. Over the course of a couple of months from March to May, Slim penned more than twenty that were certified keepers. Out of this bumper crop came the songs that make up his new album, Strawberry Mansion, which is being released this winter on Dualtone Records.
“I wasn’t sitting on the songs and I wasn’t overthinking them,” Slim says of the writing process of those months. “Something cracked open with the slowing down and the stillness of quarantine.
After finishing a song, whether he liked the tune or not, he’d call Mike, a videographer, and they’d record it and post it to Instagram. It was a form of therapy, he now realizes. “There was nothing precious about the process and it was a bonding thing between me and Mike as much as anything else,” Slim says. “It also gave me a release and maybe some potential form of healing, and was an opportunity to not always listen to the shitty thoughts in my head. I wasn’t ever thinking that I was writing songs for a new record.”
Prior to this creative outburst, Slim’s anxiety had grown so acute there were times when he actually feared picking up his guitar and trying to write. With the help of therapy and friends, he was now learning to confront his demons rather than run from them. So, in the midst of a panic attack one day, he picked up his guitar and the song “Panic Attack” was born. It’s a raw, off-the-cuff number that rises above the dark subject matter with spirit, irony and humor. “I called a healthcare professional/ Wanna speak to someone confidentially/ Don’t know just how I’m feelin’/ But I’m feelin’ feelings exponentially,” he sings.
Album-opener “Mighty Soul” details a world beset by Biblical-grade plagues (coronavirus, the Nashville tornado) and government malfunction. It ultimately calls for healing through community and the recognition that we can all make a difference. It functions as the album’s spiritual center, a secular gospel number for all mankind.
“Morning Prayer” is inspired by the songwriter’s effort to pray for the first time in his life. “It’s not in the key of any one religion,” Slim says of the number. “For this, I’m grateful that my guitar was unknowingly yet appropriately out of tune. It’s a song to help me practice compassion, surrender, connection to nature, the spirits and beyond.”
The second part of “Morning Prayer” is one of the most affecting moments on Strawberry Mansion, with the singer reaching out and offering prayers for his loved ones who are struggling, for all of humanity, really. “For my friends who suffer/ For my mother, father and brother/ For a world down on its knees/ I pray for thee,” he sings with great poignancy.
The road to Strawberry Mansion, which was recorded at Daylight Sound in Nashville with longtime compadres Paul DeFigilia (Avett Brothers) and Mat Davidson (Twain), began in 2019 with Slim’s decision to get sober. Even though the singer-songwriter kicked alcohol years ago, the insidious monster of addiction had crept back into his life in different guises. The last straw came during a road trip with a friend, who, at the end of the journey, let it be known that the man he knew and loved was no longer recognizable. So Slim called his manager and loved ones and soon checked into a program. That experience and his ongoing recovery program have given him a framework for grappling with the personal demons that have always skulked in the shadows, and helped him find light in the void. “It’s important for me to talk honestly about these things, because I feel it gives me strength, and it might help others along the way.” he says.
Strawberry Mansion is the singer-songwriter’s seventh full-length album. He released his first record, Electric Love Letter, back in 2004. Since then he has graced the stages of Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Newport Folk Festival, and the Conan O’Brien show, winning fans over with his heart-on-a-sleeve sincerity and rousing live shows.
Born Sean Scolnick in 1980, Slim took part of his artistic moniker from his hometown of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, a place he’s still very much connected to despite making his home in Nashville. Since the advent of Covid-19, he has been traveling back to PA once a month to see his mother and grandmother, and, like many Americans, finding strength in his origins and family bonds. The title Strawberry Mansion refers to the neighborhood in Philadelphia where both of his grandfathers grew up, a place he calls “dirty but sweet, tough but full of love, where giants roamed the earth and had names like Whistle and Curly.” That idea of a mythical wonderland informs the new album from head to toe. Strawberry Mansion is not so much about nostalgia for the past as it is about the possibility of better days ahead in this world. These are songs that remind us we’re all part of a collective “Mighty Soul,” united in one journey, just like the characters in that old Philly neighborhood. It’s a life-affirming album for these times.
A widescreen tour-de-force, a sonic blast of psychedelia and indie-rock, Antlers In Velvet, the bold, arresting new album from Leon III, sounds like a relic from another age. In a time when so much of today’s music seems as disposable and temporal as a tweet, Leon III is standing athwart the tide; and here, the band conjures the spirit and ambition of Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead. Make no mistake, this is an album with the potential for a serious shelf life – and one that begs for an immersive listening experience. So sit down, pour a whiskey, let the needle find the groove, and prepare to float downstream.
Even though this is only the second effort from Leon III, the project can trace its roots to the late ’90s when Andy Stepanian (vocals, guitar, songwriter) and Mason Brent (guitar, bass, banjo) started a band in Charlottesville, Virginia called Wrinkle Neck Mules, a honky-tonk outfit that made six albums, had a song featured in a GEICO commercial, and built up a dedicated and far-ranging fan base. Stepanian and Brent also collaborate in the form of Howler Brothers, a popular outdoor clothing line based in Austin, Texas, which they operate and which bears their artistic imprimatur.
Stepanian and Brent grew up in Richmond, Virginia, where country and roots music informed much of their musical development. But the two have always been drawn to the progressive, exploratory ethos of the psychedelic masters, as well as left-of-center folk artists like Vic Chesnutt and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. This new record, Antlers In Velvet, is the consummation of that vision.
For the band’s debut, Stepanian enlisted the services of producer and engineer Mark Nevers (Silver Jews, Lambchop), who worked on some of Stepanian’s favorite records. Leon III made the first album at Nevers’ Nashville home studio, Beech House Recording, before it was torn down and Nevers decamped to South Carolina. “I had a bunch of songs and a concept, but Leon III had never played a show and, for almost all purposes, didn’t even really exist,” Stepanian says of that maiden project. “So, the entire first album seemed like an experiment and a learning experience. When it was all over and the album was finished, Mason and I already knew we wanted to work with Mark on another one.”
Stepanian and Nevers stayed in touch and the two met up in South Carolina over beers and fishing to discuss making another album. Nevers’ studio in South Carolina was still being built, so he suggested making the record at Panoramic House in Stinson Beach, California, an idyllic location on a mountain near San Francisco that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Nevers proposed a sort of “live-in” recording scenario a la The Band and Big Pink, where everyone would sleep, eat and make music together for the entire week. Stepanian jumped at the idea. “There were wildflowers, a rusted-out tractor, and many deer in the yard,” he says of the locale. “The place really looks like a sort of forgotten castle, complete with a turret. Inside it doesn’t look at all like a traditional studio, because the engineer’s control room is downstairs and directly beneath the tracking room. But the place feels cozy and well-suited for laying back and making an album.”
Nevers and the band recruited some of Music City’s best players for the session. One of those was Kai Welch, a member of Kacey Musgraves’ touring outfit and a talent whom Stepanian calls “a wizard on synths and keys, but who can probably hold his own on about 20 different instruments.” William Tyler, a Nashville wunderkind who now lives in L.A., joined the ranks as guitarist for the sessions. Matt Pence, formerly of Centro-matic and now an in-demand engineer, signed on for drum duties. Brent, who normally handles all guitar work, agreed to play bass during tracking now that Tyler was aboard, but would add guitar overdubs later.
The recording transpired over five days in March 2019. The sessions were loose, collaborative, and free flowing, with everything recorded live in the same room. “I remember the sessions pretty well, but when you’re knocking out song after song, certain things blend together,” Stepanian says. “I remember thinking that this was the first time that there seemed to be a complete absence of country-feeling influence in my songs. None of the songs or players were coming from that place and, to me, it was a positive.”
Months later, Stepanian, Brent, and Nevers traveled to Nashville for overdubs at the Sound Emporium. Seasoned vets like steel player Paul Niehaus (Calexico, Justin Townes Earle) and keys-man Tony Crow (Lambchop) offered their services. Jordan Caress (Ponychase, Caitlin Rose) recorded backing vocals in a Boston studio, and Dana Colley (Morphine) contributed horn parts from his home studio in Boston as well.
“When it was all over, Mason, Mark and I felt like we had an album that was interconnected,” Stepanian says. “The songs blend and the whole thing is intended to have a dream-like quality. We want it to be consumed as a full album.”
Featuring eight tracks, the album clocks in at just under 43 minutes, with opening-track “Fly Migrator,” with it’s Dead-like guitar preamble, stretching over nine minutes and establishing the sonic ground for what’s to follow. Next up is “Faint Repeater,” a slow-burner anchored by Pence’s martial snare and haunted by Caress’s backing vocals. “The Whisper Is Ours,” an eerie Gothic chorale, was inspired by a macabre incident in Houston (Stepanian’s current residence) where a couple hired a hit-man to murder each of their former spouses, except the hit-man turned out to be an undercover cop. The song was remixed by Jamaican reggae and dub legend Lee “Scratch” Perry, who also contributes vocals. “Divining Rods” and “Rumors Of Water” were conceived as companion pieces, with the former being inspired by all the jazz Stepanian had been listening to of late. The latter takes off like a rocket from its gentler sister before flowering into Steely Dan territory. “Skeletal Pines,” with its barroom piano and Sunshine Daydream feel, recalls Elton John during his trippier Goodbye Yellow Brick Road days. “Tigris,” a more discordant number, throws gravel in the eye of its marmalade sky predecessor. It’s a comedown moment that wipes the slate clean for the closing title track, “Antlers In Velvet,” a song about the passage of time and the cycle of death and rebirth. “Tell me, crow, where does the old growth go?/ Flying by and acting like you don’t know,” sings Stepanian, who counts the song as one of the best and most personal he’s written. It’s a cryptic ending to a challenging album.
The advent of Covid-19 and the “safer at home” mantra has disrupted the supercharged tempo of 21st – century life. As difficult as it’s been, the period has also been a time for reflection, for patience, for a new way of looking at things. With that in mind, Antlers In Velvet is the perfect album for an imperfect time – a song cycle that allows for a deeper dive into some of the darker and more complex corners of American music that speaks coherently to the very strange times in which we find ourselves.
On his new album Born Against, Amigo the Devil – the artistic moniker of Danny Kiranos — has established himself as a multifaceted artist with a kaleidoscopic vision. The new record follows Kiranos’ beloved 2018 debut Everything Is Fine, an album that was chock full of doubt, mayhem, and despair — and one that augmented his long-gestating cult following. Kiranos’ new collection of songs reveals him to be more than a one-trick pony stylistically as he opens up the creative channels and delves deeply into thematic and musical influences as august as Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Fiona Apple.
“Every new record is an opportunity to sit and think about how much has changed in your life and the world around you,” Kiranos says. “It’s a new opportunity to bring in both new and old influences. I really wanted to dive into ideas that I’d either been avoiding or ignoring within myself and figure out ways to align them with music I grew up listening to. Influences that may have been set aside in our older recordings.”
Kiranos, who lives in Austin, decamped to Dallas to record the album at the venerable Modern Electric Studio with Beau Bedford (Texas Gentlemen). This marked the first time Kiranos had explored some of the world music he had grown up with, from Eastern European folk to Australian bush ballads, all the way to both Spanish and Cuban Bolero traditions, amongst many others. Kiranos felt Bedford was the only producer who could draw those sounds out of him. Together they entered the studio with the skeletons of the songs Kiranos had written. One by one, they fleshed them out in wildly inventive fashion. To say they threw the kitchen sink at this album would be an understatement; these guys threw the whole damn shack. From tossing knick-knacks across the strings on the back of the piano to dropping heavy objects on the floor to create odd-sounding crashes, clicks and clacks, Kiranos doesn’t deny there was a bit of Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits worship involved.
As for the songs themselves, Born Against finds Amigo the Devil embracing a more widescreen narrative form in his writing, moving slightly away from the dark-night-of-the-soul diaristic tone of the first album. Whether it’s getting revenge on a daughter’s murderer, a final love letter from a death-row inmate, or an ode to one’s own flaws and mortality, the songs on Born Against pack an emotional wallop and manage to accord dignity to the darker aspects of humanity some of us would rather turn our eyes from. But at the end of the day, Kiranos understands that’s it’s stories – even the darkest of ones – that connect us through it all. And he’s worked hard to get better at telling those stories.
“It’s been a goal to become more efficient writing songs,” Kiranos says, adding that “this was a very conscious attempt to promote imagery through sentiment.”
Once Covid began to take root, Kiranos says the pangs of cabin fever set in. His entire professional life over the last decade has revolved around touring, and he was feeling boxed in. He was suffering creatively and having trouble tapping into the old wellsprings that had previously birthed songs. Writing in the third person allowed him to immerse himself in other characters’ stories, which he presents on the record in first-person for more immediate effect. These are vivid, sepia-toned snapshots of lives on the brink. Mini movies, if you will. And they have a horrifying familiarity in the year that was 2020.
“There was a girl at the bar/ She overdosed in a photo booth/ Nobody found her body until last call/ The pictures all showed her terrified and a loner/ while everyone cried what a great friend she was,” Kiranos sings on “Quiet As A Rat.”
The new writing approach proved to be fruitful, and one Kiranos hopes his fans will embrace. Since he began touring nearly ten years ago (often playing sets in bathrooms at music festivals he couldn’t get booked on otherwise), Amigo the Devil has steadily amassed a fanbase whose devotion to his music is unstinting. Kiranos says he knows of thousands of Amigo the Devil tattoos. There is also “The Fellowship”, a Facebook group that was started by and has grown out of his coterie of family-like fans that has now become a strong community support forum for those finding themselves at a low point, whether due to depression, addiction, or simply grief. “The energy this family brings to the shows is incredible, and they are what makes the environment so exciting. Sometimes, I can’t even hear myself over the system because [they’re singing the lyrics so loud].”
As is the case with any artist who has great success with a certain sound or specific album, making a shift to something new can prove daunting. But it’s a step Kiranos feels he has to take as an artist. “I hope this album can start to shift the lyrical expectations and people just don’t consider me ‘the death guy’ and ‘the serial killer guy,’ and that people can start to see different avenues we can take together. I hope it opens up the project of Amigo the Devil so that people understand it’s not a specific sound-based project, and that if we go in different directions, it’s okay.” The artistic strength of Born Against lets us know that Kiranos’ new direction is more than “okay.” It’s a major mile-marker for a creative soul whose work will only continue to evolve and grow.