by Jeff Niesel
While alt-country rockers haven’t had anything close to a hit over the course of their 15-year career, the guys have relentlessly toured and usually play over 100 dates a year. Their new album, Women & Work, is a great collection of Springsteen-like anthems and country-tinged punk rock. Guitarist Brian Venable spoke via phone from the tour’s first date in Indianapolis. The group plays the House of Blues at 8 p.m. Thursday with the Heavy. Tickets are free but are must be won by listening to 99X or 100.7 FM.
When and where was your first show and what do you remember about it?
I just posted a picture of the flyer on my Instagram account. A friend of mine had a warehouse space and they had bands play all the time. She was on me. She said she was putting us on the show, so we had to play the show. We didn’t even have the name. We were trying to do something with Lucero and we ended up just being Lucero. We wanted it to be something, something Lucero. We played 14 minutes and played second out of three. I had video but the case cracked and I thought it was ruined and threw it away. Every audio visual nerd in the world has tried to kill me since then. I was drunk and nervous but it was fun.
What was the scene like in Memphis then and what it is like now?
Um, I don’t know. Memphis has always had a good music scene. There are a lot of bands that get together and make amazing music and break up six months to a year later and nobody in the rest of the country will ever have heard them. I’m sure there are bands still. I have three kids and a house and I don’t hardly go out anymore.
Do you play Memphis still?
We just do one big Christmas show and a floater show. They don’t let us play there too much anymore. You don’t want to play every week in your hometown because nobody will come. You want to make it an event. It used to be rent parties for us and now they are events.
Were you more of a straight-up punk band then?
We were punk rock kids trying to play country. When we started, we were playing punk rock shows. We didn’t know any of the grown-up people. We didn’t know Uncle Tupelo and No Depression magazine. I knew about Jason and the Scorchers and that kind of stuff. I didn’t know there was a whole alt-country and Americana scene that popped out of nowhere and that we were a part of. We played Memphis forever and then we started touring. We’d come home once a month and play a show to make sure we could pay the rent.
Do you feel connected to the alt-country world?
Ah, it was weird. Some of the bands like Glossary and Two-Car Garage you end up meeting and that’s what we’re talking about. But not the costumed country. A lot of the Bloodshot stuff was about putting on a frilly cowboy shirt and playing an upright bass. That wasn’t how I played. We were more like Neil Young or something.
Did things change for the band when you signed to Universal in 2008?
Not really. Actually, nothing changed. It was the lowest keyest worst major label signing in the world. It turned into more of a distribution deal than anything. It was one of those things where the opportunity came up and every band thinks they should give it a try and see what happens. We luckily came out unscathed.
Did you start recording right after 2009’s 1372 Overton Park?
We don’t do that. We tour on it forever and work it out. When it’s time for a new record, we cram and start putting parts together and we have a friend who has a studio above our rehearsal space and we put it down there. We’re not one of those bands who already has four songs for the new record as soon as one record comes out.
What’d you try to do differently on Women & Work.
We took a more R&B and soul approach. The last record we wrote without the horns and added the horns. This record we wrote with the horns so they sound more integral.
The opening song, “On My Way Downtown,” has echoes of Springsteen. Do you consider him an influence?
I do. That was with all our “I Can Get Us Out of Here” and big glorious anthems and there are a lot of comparisons. Anything that involves going somewhere or getting somewhere have been influenced by Springsteen.
You’re planning to heavily tour in support of the new album?
That’s pretty much what we’ve been doing. We’re doing festivals this summer. In November, we go to Europe and in February, we go back to Australia. Sometime after that, we might think about the next record.
The band has stuck together even though you left for a year.
Yeah, I took a year break. My dad was sick. I was disillusioned with the music business. I started the band as a punk rock kid and when I came back I was a business man. The two hours we play each night we do for free. The other 22 hours of interviews and business meetings and picking colors is what I get paid for. We’re family. We fight like cats and dogs. Everyone is telling us just don’t break up. You see a lot of bands break up. Usually, if the band breaks up, nobody does anything so they get back together. About the time the Breeders got back together, Frank Black couldn’t sell a record to save his life. I feel like we fall into the U2 and Rolling Stones category because we have the same line-up has been awesome. I’m a high school dropout and I have three kids and a mortgage. I love playing music and am so lucky. To win at it you have to make the jump with no parachute.
Any distinct memories of playing Cleveland?
All kinds of stuff. We’ve played crazy drunken shows at the Grog Shop. Last time, we thought our friend broke her leg when she landed on the stage and we had to stop the show and haul her off the stage. I got a Flying V guitar once in Cleveland. We like hanging out with the tattooers and BMX kids. Getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for free because we’re in a band is pretty awesome.