Tales of top hats, medicine men and synchronicity from The Band of Heathens
Gordy Quist is praying for a Texas flood. “It’s an outdoor gig here in Austin, and it’s like 110 degrees!” laments the singer-songwriter/guitarist. It seems Quist has just finished up a soundcheck for a hometown show with his quintet, The Band of Heathens.
The Heathens are set to appear at Kuumbwa Jazz on Saturday, Sept. 17 in support of their new Americana album, Top Hat Crown & the Clapmaster’s Son. While still peppered with the influences of bands like The Grateful Dead, The Band and The Black Crowes, the disc places a little more emphasis on the blues and R&B, than the group’s previous efforts.
Hold on … Top Hat and the who?
“I know, it’s a mouthful,” Quist chuckles. “All the radio people hate us! They’re like, ‘Man, you’d get a lot more spins if the title was easier to say. We don’t want to say the title every time!’”
The lengthy title is, in part, a reference to the album’s birthplace, Top Hat Studios. “From the beginning, there were some weird things happening around the Top Hat,” says Quist. For instance, the studio was originally based in downtown Austin, but it moved to a house in South Austin a number of years ago. At some point, an electrician who was doing some work in the house made a curious discovery: Though the studio’s owners hadn’t known it, all the wood used to frame the house bore a stamp with the words Top Hat Wood and a picture of a top hat.
In explanation of the other half of the album’s title, Quist says, “Late into the night, a lot of times you’ve gotta do something to keep everybody awake and focused, and sometimes just to keep things loose. And there was a character that we nicknamed Clap Masterson that would show up from time to time for inspiration.”
In light of this, it’s fitting that the album should open with a number called “Medicine Man”: “Might lose your house, might lose your home, but I’ll give you back more than you have known.” Quist, who sings lead on “Medicine Man,” says this tune could be about any number of characters. “In my head, it fits both in a positive light and in a negative light,” he notes. “You could paint certain political figures or any leader in our culture either way with that song. I didn’t want to commit to making the song about one person or one particular thing, because I think the character we had in mind was bigger than that. But certainly there are current leaders that come to mind with that.”
Quist found inspiration for “Medicine Man” in the diaries of 16th century Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. “He got shipwrecked in Florida and walked all the way along the Gulf Coast, trying to basically talk his way into safety with the local natives,” the musician explains. “He’d pretend to be a medicine man, a healer or god. He’d basically say whatever he needed to say to survive.”
Some voodoo references in “Medicine Man” establish a Louisana theme that runs throughout Top Hat Crown, especially on the final three songs: the deceptively bouncy “Free Again,” a cover of Leon Everette’s oddly prescient late ’70s tune “Hurricane,” and the low-key “Gris Gris Satchel,” inspired by the historical New Orleans Voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. Quist, who grew up outside of Houston, partially attributes the persistence of the Louisiana motif to the fact that the band first entered the studio to record the album in the midst of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. “And we’ve spent a good amount of time in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, so it’s definitely a place that’s near and dear to us,” he notes.
For a taste of New Orleans by way of Texas, check out The Band of Heathens’ Kuumbwa gig on Saturday. Top hats and medicine bags are optional.
The Band of Heathens plays at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17 at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $21/adv, $25/door. 427-2227.