Band of Heathens: The three-headed monster
How do you take three men who each have the capacity to front a band – and indeed have done so in the past – and slot them into a single band without facing clashes of egos, battles of wills and disagreements over artistic direction? That’s the challenge that faced the Band of Heathens when they formed in Austin in 2006.
“It’s an exercise in humility,” acknowledges Colin Brooks, one of the three along with Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist.
“It’s a wonderful exercise, quite like meditation, where you have to accept what is. It not only strips you of your ego, or you ability to control everything, but it’s a collaboration, which makes it a wonderful thing. It doesn’t always go how I think it should – it goes better.”
With two albums behind them and another one expected soon, the band – the three frontmen plus bassist Seth Whitney and drummer John Chipman – is seeing substantial success. But they aren’t letting it go to their heads. They turned down a five-record deal from a big label to stay indie, they reacted immediately when they though their fans were being treated unfairly (Backroads February 5, 2010) and they do more than 250 live shows a year. They are nominated for an Americana award this year in the category Duo/Group of the Year.
“I think we approach it less as being three frontmen and just approach it as a band,” says Jurdi. “Everyone fulfils a number of different roles. Everyone plays lead guitar and rhythm guitar, and everyone sings lead vocals and harmony vocals.
“I think more than approaching it in terms of roles, we approach it in terms of what you can do with a song to make it sing, really, to make it the best it can be. Whether that means not playing guitar, playing keyboards on a song or jumping up and grabbing a tambourine and shaking it, or just singing. Everyone’s pretty dedicated to figuring out the best thing for the song.”
He adds that the band has the same issues as any other group of human beings trying to work together, but they’re doing okay.
“It’s a collaborative process, you know. Typically that’s pretty easy for us. I’ve been in a bunch of bands and I don’t think it’s any more strenuous or any more work than any of those other bands were.”
The Heathens perform without a set list, just discussing what they want to do as they go along.
“The band is just based on vibe, what are you feeling like doing at this moment,” Jurdi says. “Anything else for use would be kind of disingenuous. Every gig is a different situation and you try to feel it out as you go, not try to funnel the whole thing, just try to take it in your stride.”
He, Brooks and Quist will be in London in October for an acoustic show at the Borderline, where last year they performed their first ever UK show.
“Those are quite fun,” Jurdi says. “It’s kind of a different vibe. It’s real cool, you really get to strip the songs away and focus on the lyrics and the melody, the bare bones of the song.”
As well as their work with the Heathens, the band members are working on other projects when they have the time, Jurdi says.
“This band alone would be probably busy enough for most people, but everyone likes to stay busy.” However, “This is certainly the main focus.”
Austin is a fickle city, and the band knows that acts can go out of favour, but they think the way to deal with that is to keep coming up with something new.
“Things come out and they’re new and really exciting to people,” Jurdi says “You have to keep them excited by doing some different stuff.
“I’m a fan of music as well as being a musician too. You want to provide an experience for somebody. You want to make it special and unique for them by doing something special and unique yourself. That’s the whole magic of the music to me. Something happens to you and you’re able to put it into the performance and have it resonate with someone else. As an artist that’s the goal. Doing what you do and being aware of that.”
The Band of Heathens on Backroads