Band Of Heathens - Built To Last On A Creative Partnership
The charts don’t matter as much as hearts and arts, but sometimes they tell a story. For 17 weeks between March and July of this year, Simple Things, the ninth album by the Band of Heathens, was in the top ten on the Americana album airplay chart, with six weeks planted at number one. So whatever else happens, it will be among the most successful releases of 2023. That’s a testament to the resilience and consistency of a band that seems to take sustenance from playing live, and a special creative partnership that formed almost two decades ago between Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist.
“We really have grown up together, you know? Most of the bigger life moments, we've experienced them together,” says Jurdi in Episode 254 of The String. He talks about the weddings and the kids and the years of touring more than 200 nights per year (they’ve cut back). They’ve developed a rapport and a plan for keeping their band independent and nimble based on acknowledging their differences and working with them. “All of these little things - they're very complimentary, from the way we sing to our personalities. You can't plan this kind of stuff.”
Their origin story is oft told, about how three singer songwriters who worked separate residencies on Wednesday night at an Austin bar called Momo’s began performing as a collective and loving the results. A newspaper misprint listing their consolidated act as The Heathens sparked the name, and by 2006, the sardonically christened Band Of Heathens had a live album and a mission to tour. Their first studio album came out in 2008, and soon the band was landing Americana Award nominations.
Around 2012 came the biggest change in the band’s history. Original songwriter/partner Colin Brooks and the rhythm section decided to step off the road and away from the band. That took some soul searching, says Gordy Quist: “And we had to look at each other and decide whether we wanted to keep doing this, whether we wanted to keep doing it together, whether it was still called the Band of Heathens. And so I think that moment was really another fork in the road where we kind of doubled down and committed to this project.”
From the outside, the BOH momentum never seemed to falter, with a string of well received albums running right up to Simple Things. That said, the pandemic threw the boys for the same loops as every other working musician. And by then, Jurdi had moved to Asheville, making the band more spread out. Still, he said at the outset of our conversation, catching up on the last couple of years, that the ethos of the BOH “kind of trained us” for the crisis. “We've been independent since the get,” he says. “So our entire existence has sort of consisted of figuring out things on our own, coming up with a plan, and then tweaking the plan in motion, and then usually abandoning the plan and coming up with a new plan.” In other words, they got good at adjusting, and adjust they did.
When conditions allowed them to reunite at their Texas studio, the euphoria of playing became the touchstone for executing songs they’d been writing over Zoom or in isolation. “I think it started with us getting back together for the first time after not seeing each other in months and months and not being able to work,” says Quist. “It was almost a revisiting of the feeling when I was 13 years old and I plugged in an electric guitar, with a drummer live in the room, for the first time. And just like the power of playing rock and roll live in a room with other people.”
I think you’ll hear just that in the grooves of Simple Things, from the opening invocation “here we go” from an unidentified band member to the hearty venting about recent times in “Heartless Year” to the well-conceived Beatles-like, string-laden climax of album closer “All That Remains.” Clearly the Americana radio audience is hearing it.