May 16, 2014 – Unlike many outfits who take years to reap their just rewards, Band of Heathensworked their way into the spotlight fairly quickly. It wasn’t that they had any grand designs early on, or even had any thoughts about becoming a band in the first place. What began initially as a series of Wednesday night jam sessions at a club in their native Austin — an event they dubbed “The Good Time Supper Club” — eventually coalesced into an outfit that quickly gained attention and soon climbed to the top of the Americana charts. They certainly possessed all the goods they needed from the very beginning, thanks to a pair of seasoned singer/songwriters in Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist, each of whom had pursed solo careers prior to participating in those impromptu gatherings.
True to form, the group’s initial albums were recorded live prior to releasing their eponymous studio debut in 2008. And while concert recordings continue to find a place in their catalog, Band of Heathens have shown a decided studio savvy as well. With the core outfit currently consisting of Jordi and Quist on vocals and guitars and later recruits Trevor Nealon on keyboards and Richard Millsap playing drums, they released their finest effort to date last year, the aptly titled Sunday Morning Record. Accessible to a fault, and exceedingly mellow to boot, it flows with a natural ease usually accomplished by those with far more track time under their belts. From its graceful opener “Shotgun,” through to the final wistful refrains of “Texas,” it proves its mettle as both a set of songs that’s radio-ready, and a disc that might even offer sweet salvation on a particularly demanding morning after. Seven years on, they’ve earned all admiration that they’ve managed to muster. We recently caught up with Ed Jordi on the phone from Asheville, N.C. and offered him the opportunity to delineate the band’s unlikely trajectory.
Your band came together in an unusual way, recording solo albums before the band even started.
I think everything about our band, in terms of the way things are usually done, has been ass backwards. We all were doing solo stuff and then this thing came together and took on a life of its own. You have moments in your life where things just sort of happen. We were all doing our own thing and just happened to start playing together, and it just sort of took off. It was a pretty unique sound and we all agreed it might be something worth exploring. It wasn’t like a discussion ever happened early on, but as we got into it we were kind of getting back what we put into it. We were feeling good about where it was taking us, so following that muse led us to where we are now.
Was there ever any second thoughts about putting your solo careers on the back burner?
The evolution was so slow and natural that that thought never entered into it. We were doing our weekly gig for like a year. That’s all we did was play once a week in Austin while doing our solo stuff at the same time. So it was like, what if we do a week of shows in Dallas or Houston? So we started doing that and it was going great. We were doing the other stuff all along, and it was kind of like this is going so well and we’re really having fun, and where the solo stuff was once a priority, let’s make this a priority for a little while and see how it goes. We all felt there was room to do what ever we wanted to do on an individual creative level. Whenever you’re playing in an ensemble, that’s kind of what it is. It’s kind of a balance of knowing what the group is doing while also being creatively fulfilled individually. The answer was yes to both of those things. So it was really a no-brainer. Let’s give this a shot for a little while and see what happens.
So from the way you describe it, it sounds like a very gradual transition.
Yeah, and on another level, all of us, as individual songwriters, we still got to present our own material and we had a great band that everyone could play off of and with, and in effect do only a third of the work. For me, being in a band has always been the goal. Even when you’re doing your own thing, you want to have a group of people around you that can play off of and with. As a music fan, that’s the thing that always resonated with me. Watching a group of people onstage playing music together and interacting and having things happen in the moment. And so being a part of that interaction, that’s the thing about making music that’s special for me at least.
Still, was there ever a feeling that you had all these songs that you had written and now you have to share space with some other songwriters and maybe it could be a bit inhibiting?
[Chuckles] I’m sure that could come up, but we’ve done a pretty good job of balancing it all. If anyone has a wild hair about that, go ahead and do a solo record. We’ve been so busy with this. that never came up in a big way. In fact, I think it’s allowed us to be more prolific. We pretty much release an album every year, which is a pretty nice deal because we keep creating new material. So when we go out on the road, there’s always fresh material to play.
Your music was received really well at the outset. You garnered a lot of acclaim from the first note you released and instantly hit the highest peaks of the Americana charts. But did that in turn put a lot of pressure on you, knowing that you already had a high bar to maintain?
On a business level, it does, but creatively that’s always been a very secondary thing to us. I never equated our albums going to number one with the quality of the work. Maybe it was an affirmation of the quality of the work, but the only judges of that are the guys in the band. Do we like it and do we feel good about putting it out? If it’s the best work we’re doing in the time that we’re doing it, then that’s it. When we finished the new record and played it out, it felt like the best thing we had ever done. That’s just my opinion though. Everyone receives it differently, from critics to fans and everyone in between, and that’s their right to have that opinion. But at the end of the day, all we can do is base it on the work that we’re doing. Because otherwise, it’s kind of unachievable. I have no idea how to make music that I think someone else thinks is great or going to be number one. It’s such a nebulous field of reference.
Are you guys working on something new now? Are you constantly writing?
I try to. We’re on the road a lot so it gets tough to finish stuff. But we’re always mining and cultivating. I keep a bunch of journals and I’m always writing stuff down. I jot down my musical ideas or record them on my digital recorder, maybe a little hook and little chorus. I’m always compiling this stuff, and then when I think it’s time to start finishing off some of these ideas, I’ll do some serious writing. Hopefully, we’ll have time to get into the studio and do another record this year. That’s the goal right now. That’s ultimately the most exciting part for me, writing and recording new material and seeing a project through to its conclusion. That’s a very satisfying part of this whole world.
Do you guys co-write together or compose individually?
There’s a little bit of everything. Most of our stuff kind of starts from zero, and then we co-write the rest of it. Other stuff we write individually and then bring it to the band and we all contribute to the arrangements. Some stuff is a little bit of both. At very least, the songs get bounced around within the group and everyone gives some feedback on what they want their role to be or if they have some ideas on what can improve the song. It’s always a very collaborative process going to that end result.
Your name was actually the result of mistaken identity, was it not?
That’s totally true. We were doing this Wednesday night thing and had been doing it for a few months and we were calling it “The Good Time Supper Club,” because it was kind of like an evening of different entertainers. We started it off and then some of our friends came down, and it became a big deal. Everybody started coming down just to see what was going to happen. Someone made some posters for the show and they started calling us ‘those heathens” or something like that.
How did they come up with that?
I have no idea. But it got to be known around town that on Wednesday night, you could see Those Heathens. So everyone just started called us Those Heathens. It was just kind of like, well, OK, that’s cool. At the time it was funny because there was a little bit of controversy about religion and how it’s got its place in our society and how the conservatives were banging the drum about family values. If nothing else, it leveled the discussion in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. So it just sort of stuck, it was kind of serendipitous like everything about this band.
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