A ‘Hot Mess’: A Conversation with the Owsley Brothers’ Jerad Reynolds

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In October of last year, I was searching for some new music and was immediately struck by the raw power and sound of the Owsley Brother’s track “Pure Lust” on the L.A. music blog Rollo & Grady. I took to writing about it in the only broken jigsaw puzzle form that I know for my blog A Circus Mind. A few weeks later I received an email from Jerad Reynolds, guitar player and lead singer for the Owsley Brothers, and over the course of the next couple months we stayed in contact chatting over email. Being an Austin resident, the topic of SXSW naturally came up and I was able to make an introduction between the band and festival bookers. I saw the Owsley Brothers live for the first time at the Do512 Lounge and was again captivated by their stripped-down sound, raw emotion and snarling guitars. We were formally introduced after the show, struck up a friendship, agreed to knock out an interview and pursue some creative endeavors together. Let’s pull the curtain back and find out a little about the Florida rockers.

Weeping Elvis: Tell me, what was your experience growing up in bands and how did you and the boys in the band get together?

Jerad Reynolds: I was 13 when I first picked up a guitar and at about 16 or 17 got a punk band together called Point Blank Range. A full on 80s, hardcore, Black Flag type thing. Played around in Kentucky, house parties mainly. Did that for a few years and when I was 21 I moved to Florida. I moved about 40 miles outside of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and that’s where I met up with Brian (lead guitar). We started a bluegrass band called The Waco Ramblers and did that for about three and a half years. I played fiddle and Brian played guitar. A banjo player and mandolin to round it out. We played all over the Gulf Coast, Nashville, Atlanta, Birmingham, all that. All the bluegrass festivals and jam band festivals. We released a self-titled album and knocked down about 700 shows over the three and half years, sometimes playing two, three shows a day. It burned everyone out, hard. Couple of guys in the band didn’t want to travel more than a week at a time, which held us back and we ended up worn down and going our separate ways in 2009.

WE: Where did all of that creative energy go when the bluegrass scene came to an end?

JR: That’s the period when I recorded “Pure Lust.” I was just at home, hanging out and then in the evenings I would go and spend a couple or three hours a day working on songs, messing with recorders. So I decided to start recording and I recorded all the parts myself. Drums and all. I mean any sound you hear on “Pure Lust” was all me. I mean the drums were kind of tricky because I used bits and pieces of sounds here and there, borrowed some stuff and set up microphones across the room to pick up the sounds of the whole room.

WE: Where did you record “Pure Lust”?

JR: In my bedroom over the course of a month, just casually working on it. No pressure really. I started the last week of July and had it finished by my birthday at the end of August. I started handing out copies after that to friends. And man, everyone kept telling me “Man, this is really good! Are you going to start a band or what?” And you know, I hadn’t planned on it at first, it was really just something to do. I don’t know if I really ever had major aspirations for it, it was more or less just a hobby.

WE: Where did the name Owsley Brothers come from?

JR: The name is actually from Owsley County, Kentucky, and I always wanted a “Brothers” band like the
Allman Brothers, so I just put the two together and there you go, Owsley Brothers.

WE: When did [bassist] Brian Wise and [drummer] John Tally get into the mix?

JR: Well, I definitely recruited both of them. I knew John from when I first moved to Florida and was knocking around Fort Walton Beach. He was the drummer who knew everybody, played in everyone’s band, and worked the sound for a lot of bands. And of course Brian and I played a ton of shows together in the bluegrass outfit and are constantly playing music together. We started rehearsing five nights a week and I had more songs ready to record. We hit the ground running.

WE:  We have talked a bit about poems and rock lyrics. What’s the difference between a rock lyric and a poem?

JR: I don’t see any difference; just it’s put to a melody.

WE: Do you find great poems that you have to tear down to fit a great melody?

JR: Oh yeah, for sure.

WE: Is that part of the puzzle?

JR: Yeah, it’s part of the puzzle. You can write some beautifully embellished words on a page and put them together so nicely on a page, but they can definitely not fit in the song you are trying to put together. So it’s a less-is-more type thing. The other part of the puzzle is what you should repeat; let’s say you’re writing a verse, verse, chorus, verse thing. How do you capture the essence of the song, the chorus section? I really try and sum up a song, or an idea of a song in a couple of three words or so. I think about that quite a bit. When you take “Hot Mess” for example, it’s a phrase that you hear everybody use. The middle section of the chorus is “I’m a hot hot mess,” then you got the hook, you know the “ah ah ah ah.” That was originally a bunch of words and it ended up being too much and very jumbled up and so I just cut that right on out and it just made it more of that moaning gut punch thing. I felt like it drove the point home more so than just telling people in words.

WE:  Do you ever find yourself trying to changing the music to fit the words or is it always changing the words to fit the music?

JR: I am usually fitting the words into the music. I know there are situations like that, because the words and the melody come from a place where I write without an instrument and keep building everything around that. Sometimes you get a real good melody in your head and you don’t have an instrument and you keep building the words and the melody until they are one. I don’t have a set writing process. I don’t sit down and say first I am going to do this and this and this. Each song is definitely its own unique little baby.

WE: What do you think is more exhilarating, something that comes out quick and easy like “Hot Mess” or a song that you have to work for?

JR: Definitely something that comes out quick. It is like a gut punch when they come out fast. It’s like whoa! It has that cliché; everyone has heard this before, because it’s the true feeling of the song coming through you, that it’s not you writing the song, like you are really tapping into the cosmos.

WE: I was just reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and he talks about that sense of detachment.

JR: And I totally get that. You get the buzz off of those. The universe is coming through you, the channeling of the collective conscious or the collective unconscious, one of the two. I also really enjoy the crafting of the songs. That gets back to the puzzle aspect of creation and the mystery and building and the editing, chopping them up. When you finish, you look back and realize that they are really not that far off from the demos, it’s not like they evolve into something totally different. They are in line with it. Brian has a pretty good idea of the music and we are in tune to the less is more ethos. Our number one inclination is to take out rather to add notes. John has been a great supporter and has been selfless in the moving the project, the song, and the writing forward and that’s an awesome trait to have in a band member. We share ideas and he interprets those ideas with the whole in mind.

WE: All the members of the band come from a wide range of musical influences and tastes. From which well of inspiration did you draw upon for Cobalt?

JR: A lot of seventies rock influence runs through this album. Sabbath. Black Sabbath. I can hear it throughout the album. We may not sound like Sabbath, but Sabbath is something that we listen to constantly and we talk about constantly. We definitely have had many practice sessions where we take a break and start smoking cigarettes and watch Bill Ward go the fuck off. That’s just a starting point for everyone in the band. That’s the common link for us. The three of us were into Sabbath from a young
age and we each built our musical tastes from there.

WE:  What is it about Sabbath that you all have a connection with?

JR: Well they’re the perfect band. On a musical level it never stales. Their music is challenging and it still challenges me no matter how adept I get at my guitar and I always learn something from them. It’s that specific point in rock music with the blues-based early metal and the pre-punk thing going on with The Stooges and MC5, all aggression but still rock and blues.

WE: I can remember when I was about 10 years old listening to Led Zeppelin II in my living room, listening to “Whole Lotta Love” race around the living room and I got to that guitar jazz like freak out explosion and that was the first time I could feel rock and roll in my veins. When was that for you?

JR: And you came to it right. Sabbath was one of the real early ones that knocked me out. The first that hit me super hard and really got me, and the first cassette tape that I ever purchased was Guns n Roses’ Appetite for Destruction. I was eight years old in 1987 and I saw the video for “Welcome to the Jungle” and I was like OH! No one else had that pow to the jaw, that rock and roll gut punch the GNR had at that time. That was the start of my rock n roll journey followed by early Metallica and Sabbath. It was all intertwined with those three. A little later I got a hold of a Black Flag record and then in my late teens and early twenties I went even further back to the old old blues records. Son House, Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell. At the same time I was discovering the blues, I found myself captured by prewar bluegrass music. I was wrapped up in prewar music across the board, but Sabbath was always there, rotating between all the genres, clinging to me.

WE: Is there a track on Cobalt that you feel is all Sabbath?

JR: Oh yeah! Most definitely! And that one is “My Man Ed,” the whole Sabbath groove going on there. That was a fun one. I felt like that one had it going on there with the Sabbath vibe. But they all come from different places. For example, “Hot Mess” was not written on an electric. The whole song was just like the intro and then I stopped and broke it down and reworked it on the lower strings for an electric to try and pull the heaviness out of it. A lot of things have changed since the guys have joined the band. I try to write to their strengths. I try to take into account what they can do and definitely want to grow and expand constantly. We have a huge push to see what we can do.

WE: Where is the first place you look when you think about pushing yourself and growing?

JR: For me, I want to be able to grow vocally, see what I can do with my voice. Not just sing high or low but using my voice more like an instrument. Applying effects to my voice with the turned down swamp feel and some sound you didn’t know was the singer. Being able to take my voice out of its element and doing what I would find engaging if I was listening. Something I wouldn’t expect. I am really trying to go that route. I want to create a sound that is true to some serious rock but unique. And I think that we are on the right path.

WE: Who are you listening to that is on that path? Who pushes you?

JR: I am always listening. I am trying to find bands that challenge me. I love Man, Man. They are probably one of my favorite bands right now. Tom Waits continues to push his music, which in turn continues to push me. The music is unbelievable, the songwriting is unbelievable and he does things with his voice, that you either love it or hate it, he’s that guy, but each record he finds a new voice both literally and figuratively. In rock? There are some great fucking rock bands out there right now and a wave of bands actually playing rock. We get compared to the Black Keys and I have always thought they were on the right path for the longest time. I have always loved Jack White and his records and the way that he doesn’t bend to anyone or anything and you got to love that.

WE: What does the second half of 2012 hold for you and the Owsley Brothers?

JR: Oh man there is a lot to be excited about heading into the summer! Greg Vandy of KEXP in Seattle has started to play some tracks and we are being played on indie radio in Los Angeles, Tampa and New Orleans. We are hitting the road in September and October with dates in Austin during Austin City Limits and finishing the month up at the Music City Roots Volcano Room in Nashville on Halloween. We are also very excited about working with the fellas at Rollo & Grady on some music licensing and promotion for television and film. The summer and fall are jam packed!

WE: Well I am really excited to see you come back through Austin and to track your success throughout the summer and fall. Thanks for spending some time talking all things Owsley Brothers.

Austin-based music writer Ryan Cox also blogs at A Circus Mind. Thanks to Jerad Reynolds for his time.

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