Rig and Roll

Flathead turns upside-down technique into a winning hybrid of raw country and roadhouse

Despite the comical recording setup, Flathead is a sprite collection of instrumentals, covers and hillbilly-flavored originals like "Alcohaulin" and "Lordy Mercy." While the record found a decent local audience (and enough of a national one that the group was asked to contribute to the 1997 Bloodshot compilation Straight Outta' Boone County), it suffers from an overly bright sonic quality that failed to reflect the band's gritty, bottom-heavy live sound.

Swanholm concedes that the D.I.Y. attitude that had sparked his desire to form the group in the first place was the main factor in the roughhewn quality of the debut. "We just thought, 'Shoot, we have these songs and we might as well get them out.' But we had no idea what we were doing as far as production and technique goes--in the fine Phoenix tradition of Lee Hazlewood."

With Rigsby at the helm for the new record, the group was confident he would be able to accurately capture their sound the way he had previously done with fellow Tempe twangers the Revenants on their Artists and Whores release. With the results in hand, the group is effusive in its praise of Rigsby's contribution.

"It's really a result of Clarke knowing our sound and being in an environment where he could capture it straightaway," says Daly. "Aside from all that, he just has a great instinct for recording. I mean, he could make a genius recording with this," says Daly, pointing to the portable mini-disc player recording the conversation. "The bottom line is that it's the ear, not the gear, and he's got the ears."

While at Tempest, the group was witness to a steady stream of Rigsby's big-name clientele, many of whom passed through the studio while the band was recording. One such encounter was especially memorable, as it resulted in the group crossing paths with one of their all-time honky-tonk heroes, Waylon Jennings.

"We actually got bumped one day because Waylon needed to come in and do a demo, which we really didn't mind all that much," Swanholm says with a smile.

Aside from facilitating contact with country royalty, Rigsby's greatest contribution to the new album was restoring a subtle but critical aspect of the group's sound which was all but forgotten amid the ramshackle recording of their debut.

"In our live shows, there's a lot of vocal harmonizing going on, and that's a big part of the music and the sound that we have. So we really wanted to feature that a lot more on this record than on the first one," says Ramirez. "The first time, it was something that we really didn't concentrate on. We were just trying to play and put something on tape. But this time we knew that we really wanted to capture that part of the band."

Swanholm's deft songwriting touch is also on display, as he almost always manages to capture the intricate subtleties of authentic country music without ever slipping into a parody of the genre. The disc opener, "Hitched," and the homespun bounce of "Can't Complain" are the kinds of songs that most alt-country groups would likely turn into overly muscular bar rock, while in Swanholm's hands they are given a firmly traditional treatment.

As evidenced by the disc's artwork and songs like "10-Rodge" and "Long White Line," a trucking influence also plays a major role in the new album. The easily identifiable stylistic qualities found in the music of rig-rock pioneers like Dave Dudley and Red Simpson hold special meaning for the band.

"Trucking music had that same kind of guitar tone that turned me on as a kid," Swanholm says. "Luther Perkins and some of that early Don Rich stuff with Buck Owens, those guys were playing straight through tube amps, and it just had that 'sound.' And, of course, Vince and Kevin were already very familiar with that stuff, so it seemed really natural."

Daly is quick to note the rich diversity within the subgenre, citing the importance of trucking songs by traditional bluegrass artists like the Osborne Brothers and Jim and Jesse as prime examples. "Those guys were doing rig-rock bluegrass style. And those guys are straight-up bluegrass artists."

This amalgam of influences is what Daly feels most defines Flathead's hybrid sound. "That's the thing that's huge in all our backgrounds. I don't see any reason to segregate it, and those guys didn't either. So what you have is this straight-up country, bluegrass, rig-rock and all that clean '60s and early '70s pickin', it's all side by side and it's badass."

If Swanholm is the guiding force behind the music, then onstage the show clearly belongs to the wild-man antics of Daly and the controlled freneticism of Ramirez behind the drum kit. It's this unique combination of traditional style and over-the-top energy that has made Flathead shows a weird melting pot of hipsters, punks, cowboys and frat kids. It's a mix that Daly credits to the simple, danceable nature of the band's music.

Observing that the group's music shares many of the same formulaic and structural elements of the blues, Daly is quick to point out that "you can still get as rowdy as fuck to our stuff. I've seen people pogo to our music, so I know it can be done."

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