“We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what genre we want to be a part of,” says Gourds guitarist Kev Russell. Since the Austin, Texas band first got together around ’95, people who do that sort of thing for a living have been trying to describe not only what the band does but where to put them in the musical scheme of things. “It’s kind of a day-to-day thing with us, the kind of mood we get in,” Russell said from his home in Austin. “Sometimes we’re a novelty band. Sometimes we aren’t. We like to try and do as many things as possible. We just don’t want to get pigeonholed into any one scene or genre.”
Russell characterizes the Gourds’ music as “a mixture of folk and country and rock and a little blues and Zydeco and Tex-Mex here and there, just a gumbo of stuff.” The guitarist says he likes “sur-rural,” the term that Tom Waits came up with for his music.
You might just as well go ahead and call it Texas music, performed in the sprit of and with great reverence for Texas troubadour Doug Sahm. “He could play any style of music that he wanted,” says Russell. “There were really no rules for Doug, only the rules he made for himself. The guy was just wide open to the world and to music. That’s kind of where we come from, too. We feel like we can play any kind of music or song that we want–it doesn’t really matter.”
There is no typical Gourds tune. The music is a result of the band ambling around the pasture, twanging off the barbed wire, snatching lyrics that galumph by, roping, branding and performing alien surgical procedures on ’em before releasing them. Russell says he has nothing against obvious, linear, digestable lyrics. “It’s just that it’s been done forever and at this point it just feels more natural to me to fragment the shit out of my lyrics.” The songwriter admits that he likes playing with language, and making up strange mixtures of words, like the lyrics to “Virgin of the Cobra ” from his new solo album under the name Kev Russell’s Junker titled Buttermilk and Rifles: “I’m high as a cow/in a heat seekin’ jacket/cumulus rising/ like a Louisiana casket.”
And though the lyrics don’t always make sense, Russell’s theory behind the writing is unimpeachable. “I like to read the Bible. The Bible never makes any sense to me either. And it’s the most important book we have. So I figured, I’ll just write a bunch of songs that don’t make any sense and they’ll be the most important songs we have.”
When not busy writing songs, Russell likes to do his own interpretation of tunes that are not normally performed by Texas bands. Russell talked the rest of the band into covering Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice.” “I listen to hip-hop music and I’m always hearing songs that I think it’d be fun to do because lyrically they’re just outrageous. So for a white guy like me to get up and sing those kinds of lyrics is hilarious. If I wrote ’em I’d be chastised and blackballed. But if a black guy wrote ’em and a white guy is doing ’em, somehow I can get away with it because it’s not my words.” But the idea backfired when the song was posted on the Internet, first credited to jam bands like Phish and Salmon. When correctly pinned on the Gourds, it got them a certain notoriety that the band felt took attention away from the rest of their music. “Most places we go, it’s not a problem. But some places you go, you’ll play a whole show, you’ll play really good and people will clap, and they like it all right, but then when you play ‘Gin and Juice’ the dance floor fills up and people go apeshit. It’s cool, it’s fun to do, but all these other songs are pretty good too.”
You won’t find any hip hop on the Gourds’ latest, Cow, Fish, Fowl or Pig. But that doesn’t mean that Russell isn’t thinking about it. “There’s one, ‘No Diggety’ by Blackstreet, that I’ve done solo before and I think it’s a great one, because they use a Bill Withers sample that’s pretty cool.” If it’s anything like “Gin and Juice,” it’ll have you on the floor. There’s something about rap delivered in a hayseed drawl over a frenetic, funky mandolin and a relentless honky-tonk backbeat that reduces most folks to a helpless puddle of mirth.
But hip-hop is not an alien culture to Texans–it’s what they do with it that makes it special. Russell tells of visiting Billy Bob’s, a giant honky-tonk emporium near Fort Worth, to see legends like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee. “And every time I’d go in, some Tone-Loc song would be playing and there’d be these cowboys out there two-steppin’ with their girls to Tone-Loc. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” Russell laughs. “Tone needs to get on to that.”
Asked if there’s anything new he wanted to try, Russell admitted that his work with producer Mark Rubin on his new CD introduced him to the world of drum loops and samples. “I just wanna work with those tools that they use and do something really bizarre with my own musical sensibilities. I think it’d be really cool like what Moby did with the old blues records.”
Russell thinks the time is ripe to do more with that, with the white field recordings, gospel and country, and he has a candidate in mind. “Merle Haggard is ripe for the picking for sampling. I can think of so many great things that I can think of to sample.” But you’d have to be careful dealing with Merle–you wouldn’t want the Hag hunting you down for sampling. “Aw, he’s old now,” Russell jokes with typical Gourds irreverence. “I could take him.”