Another Willie Nelson fan, Ed Jurdi, Band of Heathens

www.theboot.com
by: Annie Zaleski

Austin, Texas’ own Band of Heathens are road warriors who have played shows with the Drive-By Truckers, Hayes Carll and Old 97’s — and that’s just in the last few years. Ask vocalist / guitarist / songwriter Ed Jurdi who’s left on his band’s concert wish list, however, and he doesn’t hesitate before answering: Willie Nelson.

“I do want to make that happen,” he says, calling The Boot from (where else?) the road, on the eve of the band’s performance at June’s Mountain Jam. “We’re pretty good friends with Lukas [Nelson], his son — he has a really great band — but we haven’t quite gotten to do a show with Willie yet. We have a lot of friends who have done it, too. So we’re putting our names on a list.”

When told he should pull the Texas card to make that happen, Jurdi laughs: “That’s right,” he says. “Willie’s everyone’s now, though. He’s really a man of all people.”

With the release of January’s Duende, the Band of Heathens are increasingly in the same boat. The record is a distillation of everything that makes the band great; its songs encompass meditative folk-rock (“Keys to the Kingdom,” “Last Minute Man”), bluesy soul (“Sugar Queen,” “Daddy Longlegs”), Wilco-esque pop (“Deep Is Love”), loping twang (“Cracking the Code”) and swaggering rock ‘n’ roll (“Trouble Came Early”). Better still, these disparate songs hang together seamlessly.

“I feel this is the best record we’ve ever made, and I feel like the band is the best that it’s ever been.”

The Band of Heathens had plenty of songs from which to choose while making Duende. By Jurdi’s estimation, they started with 40 potential tunes and ended up tracking 18 or 19 of them. The whittling-down process was deliberate, however.

“It was trying to find the best songs that we felt fit together and would make a complete album,” he says. “Even though everyone streams music, and I stream music, too — I enjoy doing that and listening to songs — we’re still looking to put a collection of songs together in the album format. I still feel like that’s the best way to listen to this kind of music — you know, on a record, if possible.”

To reach this goal of cohesion, the group had solid help in the form of the album’s producer-engineer, Jim Vollentine, who’s worked with the indie rock band Spoon and fellow Texas road dogs the Old 97’s.

“[Duende is] kind of like your favorite mixtape,” Jurdi says. “With Jim’s influence, sonically, that’s the glue that ties it all together. We’ll go anywhere from a country song to a dirty, R&B-funk thing, but there’s something sonically that just makes it cohesive and hang together in a really nice way.”

Having Vollentine’s combination of skills behind the boards was a boon for the quality of Duende‘s sound as well, Jurdi says. Not only did the studio vet know instinctively how to make an instrument sound good but he also wasn’t afraid to take risks: “He makes bold choices in terms of the way things sound,” Jurdi says, describing the collaborator as “a bit of a mad scientist, in the best way.”

“He’s literally inside of this to the point where he builds gear. A lot of a lot of the things we were recording on were pieces that he built,” Jurdi notes. “He’s into sound on the most micro levels. The things that he hears and is able to bring to life through his fingers, it’s an amazing talent. That was really our motivation to want to work with him.

“And all the records that he works on sound great,” Jurdi continues. “His aesthetic is a little bit different than where we did traditionally lean, but that’s okay, too. He’s like a chameleon; he can adapt to any situation. But you still get that great flavor and the characteristic and the deep, warm sounds that he gets.”

“I really feel like we’re at a peak time in the band. Everyone’s really playing with a lot of passion and fire …”

In addition to releasing Duende, the Band of Heathens also contributed the song “Oklahoma Gypsy Shuffler” to 2016’s Highway Prayer: A Tribute to Adam Carroll. Jurdi says that the band has a personal connection to Carroll — Gordy Quist is a long-time friend of the Austin-based songwriter, who has released records produced by Lloyd Maines and had his songs covered by Slaid Cleaves and Hayes Carll — so taking part was a no-brainer.

“We love the song, and I think we had a feeling like we could do something with the song as a band that was different than the original version that Adam had done,” Jurdi says, while stressing that the tribute isn’t meant to be construed as though Carroll is sick or otherwise in ill health. “We want to help get his music out into the world and turn some people onto it that might not have heard it. He hasn’t been recognized as nearly as much as we feel we should for the level of talent that he has as a songwriter.”

As per usual, the Band of Heathens have a packed tour schedule in the coming months that will take the band to the Midwest and West Coast, as as well as some choice festivals, including Austin City Limits and Pilgrimage Festival. The band has never been more well-equipped to tackle the rigors of the road, however.

“I feel this is the best record we’ve ever made, and I feel like the band is the best that it’s ever been,” Jurdi says. “It’s tighter, it’s stronger, it’s more dynamic. We’re just able to do more things effectively, I think. The band’s been together almost 12 years, and there’s a life cycle with these things. Just like life, you know, there’s peaks and valleys, plateaus, all that sort of stuff. But I really feel like we’re at a peak time in the band. Everyone’s really playing with a lot of passion and fire, and that all informed the making the record.”

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