The Band of Heathens’ self-titled studio debut album brought the band from relative obscurity to playing 250-plus shows a year for their rabid fan base, as well as a coveted taping for this year’s 35th Anniversary season of Austin City Limits. The album hit No. 1 on the Americana Music Association Radio chart, spending two weeks in the top spot against formidable competition. It charted a total of 34 weeks in the U.S., held No. 1 for two months on the Euro-Americana chart, and was No. 8 on the AMA’s Top 100 albums of 2008 list. The Wall Street Journal’s Jim Fusilli wrote, “The Band of Heathens, an Austin-based group, played the best set I came across during my five nights in town (at SXSW 2009).”
How does a band follow a year like that? Indeed the bar has been set high. But one listen to the new album, One Foot in the Ether, due out September 15 on BOH Records through Redeye Distribution, makes apparent that the Heathens’ three-frontman approach to writing and performing over the past three years has paid off in the studio. Apart from the confidence necessary to pull off releasing two live albums before releasing 2008’s debut studio record, it’s evident that their unorthodox career strategy suits them well.
“The band doesn’t do things safely,” explains Gordy Quist, one of the group’s three frontmen. “Random and Chance might actually be named as extra band members in the liner notes somewhere.”
The guys in the band are fond of saying they became a unit by accident. But that’s like saying the Big Bang was an accident: unplanned, maybe, but hardly random. The merger of three singers/songwriters/multi-
One Foot in the Ether wasn’t initially conceived as a full-length album, but the muses felt otherwise. The band started booking short bursts of studio time in Austin while they were in town, with no producer and no expectations. As they continued deeper into the sessions, the project went from the originally planned (or un-planned) three to four songs to 16 completed songs. “It became apparent that we had a full-length album on our hands and started honing things down to make a cohesive album,” Jurdi said.
Not given to labeling their music, The Band of Heathens loosely define the sound they’ve achieved on One Foot in the Ether simply as rock ‘n’ roll. While the last Heathens album might have been more acoustic and swampier, this album is heavier — both thematically and sonically. It’s muscular with guitars, Hammond organs, vintage electric pianos and pill-bottle slides — all fine ingredients for rock ‘n’ roll in its purest form.
With a five-album record deal offer from one of the major-independent record labels on the table, The Band of Heathens opted to release the new album on their own BOH Records, just as they did their last self-titled studio album that won the accolades. Brooks explains, “In the current ‘climate change’ of the music business, nobody knows how it is going to work so we are not averse to trying things our own way and experimenting.”
The year ahead holds much promise, starting with the worldwide September 15 release of One Foot in the Ether. In July, the band taped Austin City Limits, an opportunity that came to them when the program’s producer, Terry Lickona, first saw the group at the Americana Music Conference last September. He was amused that he’d traveled 1,200 miles to discover a band that lived in his backyard. The ACL episode also features Elvis Costello and will air November 7. The band will tour Europe in fall, following a Ryman Auditorium appearance the American Music Awards on September 17. And then it’s time to log miles on the odometer as they cross America for the rest of the year and into next.