Smile Politely

Heathens on the rise

As the landscape of the music business changes, there seem to be more and more bands that are able to get their music to their fans outside the traditional framework of the “music business.”

Band of Heathens are a Texas band with a distinctive sound, blending country, western swing, a tinge of gospel and some southern rock into a compelling sound all their own. They’ve built a grassroots following outward from their Austin home, and they’ve been able to make inroads into the music establishment while self-releasing their studio albums (including the recent One Foot in the Ether).

The Heathens are playing their first-ever Champaign-Urbana show Wednesday night at the Highdive. Doors open at 7 p.m., there’s no opening act, and the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance, available here, or $12 at the door. They’re also scheduled to be live in-studio on WWHP, 98.3 FM, on Wednesday at 3 p.m.

I spoke to singer/dobro/pedal steel player Colin Brooks over the weekend, as the band was barreling toward Charlotte, N.C. He talked about his bad van-buying experience in Champaign, as well as other anecdotes that are actually relevant to the task at hand.

Smile Politely: You guys aren’t on a record label, is that correct? You release all your own stuff?

Colin Brooks: That’s right, we formed our own record label. Our first record, Live at Momo’s, Fat Caddy Records put that out for us, and we’ve had some deals offered to us along the way. We’ve been open to that idea, and I think the right kind of label could definitely help us reach more people faster. But the tradeoff has been too big. Since we have enough of a following rolling, and we have enough record sales to support the record, we just decided to do it on our own. It’s certainly paying off in the short term, but in the long term we’ll hopefully see a benefit from that because we actually own the records and we make a lot more money per record.

Smile Politely: Have you had much trouble getting distribution online, or what’s the biggest hurdle to doing stuff yourself?

Colin Brooks: Well, I think the biggest hurdle to doing it yourself is not online distribution. That is fairly easy to get. What is harder is to get physical distribution in stores. And because that is a market that is shrinking, it requires some juice to get that going. We’ve been lucky to have enough of a fan following and a buzz happening that we’ve been able to get distribution for our records, physically. The other thing that plays into this is the radio support, and we’ve again been fairly lucky with that. Both of our studio records have gone to #1 on the Americana chart, and we’re getting more and more Triple A spins. That’s a bigger hurdle without a record label. We’re actually only the second independent artist to ever go #1 on the Americana chart, and now we’ve done it twice. We’re fortunate. We’re very fortunate.

Smile Politely: That’s a good deal. That’s a testament to all the hard work you guys have put in on the road. Say, with three separate songwriters, how does the songwriting process work on a particular song?

Colin Brooks: Well, if you can imagine it happening in a certain way, it probably does at one time or another. Sometimes, we come in with almost fully-formed songs, and maybe the arrangement gets tweaked, or a few words here or there, or maybe a bridge, some chord changes. Sometimes, it’s a much more three-way collaborative project where we all get involved in cooking something up. Sometimes, I don’t know… songwriting is a magical process. It’s somewhat indefinable as to what really makes it happen, because creativity is just that way — it has a mysterious nature.

Smile Politely: Did the three of you have similar musical tastes when you formed the band? How do you think that interplay shapes your sound?

Colin Brooks: We do have commonality in the things that we like, or the things that have influenced us. However, there is certainly some divergence. I think that it wouldn’t work with just anybody. We’re lucky to have found this chemistry between us. It does work with us and it works very well. It highlights each of our strength and downplays our weaknesses, which is how all good collaborations should be, but it’s not always like that. We’re all human, and our individual quirks and our egos want to be fed. Again, we’re lucky to have this kind of thing that works. What’s ironic is, none of us really thought it up. No, “Oh, this would be a good band, let’s try this.” It was somebody else’s idea, and we said, “All right, we’ll give it a shot.” Because we were all playing with our separate bands, and we just formed a night out of it at Momo’s, every Wednesday we’d get together and do this jam, and it literally became a band before we decided it was a band.

Smile Politely: I was poking around on line researching for this, and I saw that you had a couple of interviews for Relix magazine where you interviewed Sam Bush, the Gougers, and maybe a couple more. I was just curious how that came about?

Colin Brooks: Oh, well, we were doing some shows with Sam Bush, and our publicist thought it’d be a good idea if we interviewed him. It was fun. He’s a great guy; we love him. At one point, he got us up to sit in with his band, and he got our whole band up on stage. They left our drum kit on there, and there was two bass players and, like, 18 guitar players, it was fun.

Smile Politely: That’s cool. How excited are you guys to be on Austin City Limits [Saturday night]? [Ed. note: There’s video on the ACL page, but for some reason I can’t get it to embed. Sorry. You’ll have to click the link to view it.]

Colin Brooks: (laughs) That’s pretty much the cherry on top of the whole thing. It’s really amazing. Really cool. I don’t know what to say about that. That’s just a stunner.

Smile Politely: How did that come about? Did they approach you?

Colin Brooks: Yeah, they were aware of us. Terry Lacona is the producer, and he was aware of us, but had never really got out to the clubs to see us play. We were in Nashville for the Americana Association conference, and I think he was there to see Joe Ely, who was playing right before us, and somebody twisted his arm and made him stay and watch us, and we were talking to him out back afterwards, and he’s like, “I really think I’d like to get you guys on the show. Would you be open to doing that?” (laughs) Are you fucking kidding me? — you might not want to print that — You know? Hell yeah, we’re interested. It took six months. They shoot 12 or 13 episodes every year. It took a few months of scheduling to get our schedules to line up. We went in and shot it in the middle of July.

Smile Politely: It’s been a little while in coming, then. It’s been a few months…

Colin Brooks: Yeah, it’s always that way.

Smile Politely: Right on. That’s awesome, congratulations. Just a few things about the show here. Have you guys ever played in Champaign or Urbana before?

Colin Brooks: No, we haven’t.

Smile Politely: I know the show is sponsored by the Whip (WWHP). I don’t know how much interaction you’ve had with them already. They’re the local Americana & blues station. They’re really awesome. Are you guys scheduled to play on the air while you’re here?

Colin Brooks: Let me check the calendar. We’ve been getting so many requests from radio stations that they’re all blurring together. Yep, we’re going in at 3 p.m. that afternoon. We’re going to talk to Larry.

Smile Politely: Good deal, Lonesome Larry. And the Highdive is a really excellent room to play, too. It’s probably the best venue in town. I think you guys will enjoy that, too.

Colin Brooks: Well, good. I was actually in Champaign a few years ago. I bought a van on eBay, and it was in Champaign, Illinois. I hitched a ride — I got on Craigslist, and I found a dude going from Houston up to Chicago, and I just hopped on with him, and he dropped me off in Champaign, and I picked it up and drove it home.

Smile Politely: Wow, that’s pretty cool.

Colin Brooks: Yeah, he was a Pakistani dude in a graduate program going to school in Chicago.

Smile Politely: Well that sounds good. Was the van any good?

Colin Brooks: Well, ironically, we blew up two motors in that van. That didn’t work out so good.

Smile Politely: Hopefully, you’ll have a better experience this time around. How many miles do you put on a van in a year?

Colin Brooks: Well, we put 170,000 miles on this van. We got some out of it. It was one of those diesel Sprinter vans, Mercedes, and they’re reputed to go 400 or 500,000 miles.

Smile Politely: Yeah, it should go further than 170. That’s just getting broke in.

Colin Brooks: It was a fluke. They have a little design flaw in some of them. The crankshaft pulleys fall off of them.

Smile Politely: Yeah, that’s inconvenient.

Colin Brooks: Not only that, but I think that it stretches the timing chain when that happens, and a few thousand miles later, it threw a rod, bent the valves.

Smile Politely: That sucks.

Colin Brooks: Yeah, it really cost us a shit-ton of money. We were driving from Texas to Nashville when that happened, and it was five in the morning. We were hauling ass because we had this showcase, but that’s just life on the road, what’re you gonna do?

Smile Politely: That’s about all I had for questions. Did you have anything you wanted to talk about that we didn’t cover?

Colin Brooks: No, we’re just really excited to come play. We haven’t played that much in the Midwest, and I know there’s a lot of folks out there that will enjoy our music. You guys have a great little community going there, just hearing you talk about the radio station and the club, we’re excited about it. Hopefully we’ll have a good turnout.

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