Ever heard of the Gourds? Maybe not — but even so, you have probably heard their music. Somewhere in the hard drive of your own computer probably lies the country/bluegrass cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice,” and you have probably never had reason to doubt its label as a Phish cover. Well, it’s not. It’s a Gourds cover. And it happens to pale in comparison to most of the Gourds’ wide repertoire of cross-genre songs with a southwestern flavor.
In the back room of Ray’s Pizzeria on Avenue of the Americas and 3rd Street, five people speak to each other from different tables, occupying the whole room. Kevin Russell, the Gourds’ lead singer, eats pizza while talking to old friends who walk in and out of the room. He sings along to the oldies station we can barely hear and raises an eyebrow when someone mentions that his girlfriend listens to his band ever since she found out they were into rap. Jay-Z and Missy Elliott, we are informed by drummer Keith Langford, figure prominently on the group’s road mix.
Meanwhile, no one seems to notice or care that I am sitting in on their dinner, nor do they wonder why I don’t seem to know anyone in the room. Supposedly, I am to interview Russell before his show, yet as dinner winds down and he is still chatting with old friends, the prospect of this seems to be getting slimmer. After dinner I follow Russell to the front of the Village Underground, where more conversations ensue — interrupted only by a teenaged girl asking Russell if he had tickets to tonight’s sold-out show.
Interestingly enough, the Gourds themselves do not seem to realize they are a nationally known band. A high school friend teases Russell like a proud older sister, “Look at this: you are sold OUT!” Nodding to me, she adds, “And what is this, you have paparazzi following you now?” Russell smiles wryly and responds, “I know, it’s all happening so fast,” before laughing healthily. Finally, Russell enters a room and turns around to tell me he will “find me later.” End of interview. Later in the week I contacted him again, and we spoke of the Gourds, their music, and their steadily growing success:
scene: You guys sold out at the Village Underground. How does it feel to be in the Northeast again?
Kevin Russell: It was a pretty good experience. The intensity of the place is not too interesting to me. But we had a lot of old friends show up. That is always a treat, to see old friends. Not a real good place to park a large van either. The show was incredible, though. All in all we love the Northeast.
scene: Is the intensity something you can feel at a show?
Russell: Well, yes. But that does not seem to have anything to do with a given city. It has more to do with having real Gourd-heads in the crowd. And then the size of the room to crowd has an effect as well. Also, it helps if there are not too many chairs and tables.
scene: Seems like there are more and more Gourd-heads these days. Do you find that your own music is evolving?
Russell: Of course, there is no way for it not to evolve. I suppose any group can become uninspired and numb over time. But for the time being we are inspired and grateful for our success. I think the next couple of records hold great promise.
scene: I was listening to one of your first albums, Dems Good Beeble, and in comparison to your newer work it seems to have a much darker underbelly, or perhaps a grittier underbelly.
Russell: That may be. The production quality is most surely darker and sloppier. The whole record was made for very little money. We were out at a ranch, Laurels Ranch, in Comfort, Texas, for a couple of weeks. The gear we used was portable A_DATs, which is cheap digital crap. It really does have a different feel to it. Another thing about the record is that it was a document of our first couple of years. The other records have newer songs.
scene: From covering Bob Dylan, to “Gin and Juice”, to the Stones, to Hank Williams, the Gourds seem to have a broad base of musical tastes and influences — how are these worked into your songwriting and your playing as a group?
Russell: Music is the glue of the universe. It soaks into everything. We are without a doubt fans of all types of music, literature, and culture and art. All these things and our own experiences form some kind of spiritual matter that we crush, squeeze and pulverize into the songs themselves. Makes for a dense sweet sometimes, and other times a coarse, loose, flappy thing.
scene: What do you think of Phish?
Russell: I know very little about them. I have heard a record once that was disjointed, fragmented and funny at times. I saw them on Austin City Limits. I found their performance to be somewhat boring, in an interesting way, if that makes any sense. What intrigues me most about them is the way they co-opted the Dead Society phenomenon. When the most interesting thing is the social dynamics of an audience, I think that means I am not that interested. About as exciting as observing an ant trail. If I smoke enough pot, an ant trail can be really entertaining.
scene: Are you resentful that they get credit for a song you actually perform?
Russell: No, not at all. In fact it is probably helpful that they deflected some of the attention for that. I like the confusion over it. I learned a lot about how Napster and Kazaa and other file-sharing things work.
scene: What have you been listening to lately?
Russell: Lately I have been downloading tons of music from Kazaa. There are tons of songs that I wanted without having to buy whole records. I really dig that new Missy Elliot song, “Work It.” Gary Stewart, Iron Maiden, Roger Miller, Mission Of Burma, Waylon, Public Enemy, Charlie Daniels, Skynyrd, Groucho Marx, Hank Jr., Conway Twitty, Ramones, Germs, Ted Hawkins, Leadbelly, Doc Watson, etc. Instead of listening to much lately I have been writing tons of songs on a ukulele. I have an old folk song book that I learn tunes out of and rework them with new words and some new musical variations. I love bending music and words into different creatures.
scene: What is the most important song, book and movie ever made for you?
Russell: Wow — that is big questions. Song, I don’t know. Book, probably the Bible, but other than the obvious answer — I would venture to say it is “A Little Book On The Human Shadow” by Robert Bly. Not because of the book as a great work, but because it introduced me to some ideas of Carl Jung and the poetic connection to the life of the psyche. It is a starting point for a spiritual growth I went through sometime in my 20s. I drastically altered who I was back then, which is typically what should occur at that age.
Movie, I do not really watch too many movies, like the other fellows. I really do not put too much value in movies or talkies or any other film. I really love Barton Fink, all the Coen brothers. But they are not important. I think maybe “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the Claymation things or puppets or whatever. But the image of Yukon Cornelius gave me a pattern for humanity to follow at an early age.
scene: The Gourds seem to have a myth built around them, from the many stories you collect about gourds to obscure lyrical references. Why the Gourds? Why Miniver Cheevey?
Russell: These are the Gourd mysteries that I cannot discuss in depth without entering the mythical steamy bowl of “silly-sybend” [Psylobin mushroom] chili.
scene: Finally, if you could cover any song that you haven’t yet, what would it be?
Russell: The theme from “Good Times,” Uncle Bud by Boozoo Chaviz, Fannin St. by Leadbelly, Tricky by Run DMC.