Eclectic Avenue

From Snoop Dogg to Doug Sahm, Austin's Gourds revel in making magic out of every sound imaginable

Meanwhile, Smith is the band's Dali, painting surreal images across a canvas of accordion, banjo and organ -- as he does on Ghosts' ragged-but-right standout "Up On High" ("Up on high where the wild foam vanilla baths flow/You know who chose the bones over the entrails").

"We've always written differently than that kind of mainstream linear song. The more you listen to music and start paying attention, you realize there's basically like five different songs that have been written over and over again. And you want to kind of destroy that," notes Russell. "And you don't want to write anything that's too obvious or too confessional. We've tried to learn a lot of that from other writers we've respected, in the literary field as well. We're just trying to write things that are going to go over people's heads or knock their heads open, really just something to fuck with people."

Bolsafeatures a telling mix of material, from the gospel-tinged anthem "Hallelujah Shine" to the aching 1950s-style balladry of "Waterbag," the old-timey "Turn My Head Around" and the odd sex metaphor of "Pickles." Elsewhere, the group flashes a bit of the highbrow, turning a Federico García Lorca poem into a rambling acoustic workout called "Flamenco Cabaret."

The Gourds must be crazy: From left, Claude Bernard, Jimmy Smith, Keith Langford, Kevin Russell and Max Johnston.
John Carrico
The Gourds must be crazy: From left, Claude Bernard, Jimmy Smith, Keith Langford, Kevin Russell and Max Johnston.

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"We generally like to stick as much on the [albums] as we can," says Russell of the band's mash of styles and songs. "Sometimes, you get this feeling that you're supposed to make short records. A lot of people are real anal about it and some of 'em have criticized us 'cause our records are too long. And we're like, 'You know, it's all on this big ol' CD and people can listen to whatever they want, we might as well put it all on there.'"

For Bolsa de Agua, the group continued its long-standing relationship with Germany's Munich Records. Munich has served as the Gourds' only label home during its five-album career, save for an ill-fated domestic pact with Watermelon/Sire. That label, which went bankrupt in 1999, distributed Stadium Blitzerand its follow-up EP Gogitchyershinebox, albums for which the band has not yet seen any monies.

"The way American record deals are, they just screw you. It's a total rip-off. So what we do is just go through Europe, who gives us a fair deal and they license it to America," notes Russell. This time out, Munich licensed Bolsato Sugar Hill, the venerable North Carolina-based folk and bluegrass imprint.

"Basically, we have a handshake deal with Munich. With a smaller roots label -- like Sugar Hill or Munich -- it's a family kind of joint. And they really care about the music, those are important things," says Russell, who's vehement about his desire to stay out of the corporate fold.

"The major label thing is a walking dinosaur. It's not gonna be around much longer. For us, I don't really think it's there even if we wanted it. They're not interested in a band like us 'cause we're not gonna go to a fat farm and have the fat sucked out of us and wear their clothes, so there's no way they'd take a chance on us," he chuckles. "Unless, of course, our grassroots thing explodes, then we'll talk to them, maybe."

The Gourds' "grassroots thing" is a story in itself -- one that recently earned the group a profile in the Wall Street Journal. Using the Grateful Dead (and, to a lesser extent, Phish) as a business model, the Gourds have built their success from the ground up. Releasing albums at a regular pace, touring constantly, opening its live sets to tapers and spreading the word via the Internet, the band has built a solid foundation of genuine music fans.

"We're really starting to see the fruits of that approach. But it was hard for a lot of years. Those early years is where a lot of bands like to have that cushy tour support and in the process pretty much sign away their mechanical royalties," says Russell. "We didn't want to do that. So it was lean for a while there. But with word of mouth and the 'Net, things have really taken off.

"Like on the first date of this tour in Missoula. It's like a little town of 50,000 people in the middle of Montana and there was 400 people in the place just rocking their ass off; we were dumfounded by that."

Something that may dumfound Gourds audiences is the group's proclivity for wild cover songs. A visit to the band's unofficial Web site is an eye-opener, as it offers a trove of live MP3s featuring genre-bending deconstructions of Snoop Dogg (including a breathtaking medley of "Gin and Juice," the Stones' "Miss You" and Lou Reed's "Heroin") as well as everything from the Beatles and Blind Blake to Big Star and Buck Owens.

"One of my favorite things is to take a song we love and do it our own way," says Russell of the band's well-known penchant for interpreting others' material. "I think more bands should try and do that.

"I mean, we like to be all over the map, and most of the people who're gonna come see us, a lot of them will be realmusic lovers -- people who are into all kinds of things. That's the way we are," says Russell. "Why not apply that to what we do? We can play anything we want, pretty much. Our thing is, if it works, if it sounds good, we'll play it."

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