credit: Greg Giannukos
'Duende', the title of The Band of Heathens’ fifth studio album (and eighth overall, release January 2017), marks their tenth anniversary as a group, and it certainly applies to its overall theme about the collective search for connection and communion in a technology-fueled world increasingly splintered, distracted and lonely. As band co-founder Ed Jurdi, who first learned of the term, explains, “It’s the essence of the artist,” or as partner Gordy Quist says, “It’s a word we don’t have an equivalent for in English, Artistically, that’s where we tried to set the bar, to do what this band does best.”
Indeed, Duende lives up to those high ideals, a stylistically diverse effort that takes a leap beyond their last, more acoustic, introspective effort, 2013’s Sunday Morning Record, with an eclectic batch of material that shows where The Band of Heathens has been, but more importantly, where they are going.
There are high-energy rockers like the Keith Richards-Chuck Berry guitars and barrelhouse piano in “Trouble Came Early” as well as the Grateful Dead-by-way-of J.J. Cale Oklahoma boogie in “Keys to the Kingdom,” The Band-meets-New Orleans honky-tonk blues of “Sugar Queen,” the British Invasion harmonies laced through “Deep Is Love,” the south-of-the-border flavor of “Road Dust Wheels” and the New Riders pedal steel country twang of “Green Grass of California,” an ode to the more potent strains of sensimilla on the dispensary shelf and a fervent plea to “legalize it.” Duende also touches on some of The Band of Heathens’ favorite topics, from the sacrifices of a life lived on the road (“All I’m Asking”) to the limits of materialism (“Keys to the Kingdom”), social media absorption (“Cracking the Code”), and a moving depiction of Mexican immigration in an age of increased discrimination (“Road Dust Wheels”).
“Road Dust Wheels” is particular timely, dealing specifically with the migration of workers from Mexico and Latin America. “It’s not about the politics of the situation,” explains Jurdi, “but a meditation on people trying to get together to find their own slice of the American Dream, which has been our greatest export to the outside world. Unfortunately, we’ve got leaders trying to divide us, spitting venom and vitriol, trying to get elected by pitting us against each other rather than realizing, almost without exception, we create the same felling of community and connection, regardless of religion, race or immigration status.”
Similarly, according to Quist, “Keys to the Kingdom” is a portrait of someone who falls prey to the consumer culture of more, unable to enjoy the present because she’s obsessed with wanting more in the future… and it doesn’t end well. “Sugar Queen” is its sequel, the same character as a newly divorced cougar looking for love in a younger man, told from the perspective of that younger man, another song about the thirst for real connection.
Thematically, Quist’s “Cracking the Code” comes closest to reiterating the album’s desire to reconsider the value of relationships and priorities in a world of virtual reality and social media.
“While modern technology has certainly allowed us to stay in touch over vast distances – something a band that lives on the road certainly appreciates – it doesn’t really provide the authentic connection we crave,” says Gordy. “We’ve created a portal through which we lose ourselves and miss what’s really going on right in front of us, hiding the fact our supposed connected culture can be a really lonely place.”
“Deep Is Love” is another song about loneliness on the road, according to Quist. “At the time, I felt like I had all these tools to stay in touch with my family – from Facetime to Skype – but all the while we were missing the deeper connection that comes from being physically present in one another’s lives.”
Likewise, Jurdi describes “All I’m Asking” as a song about “missing his wife… lost opportunities, second chances and getting back to the place where it’s just about two people in the same room having a special moment together without outside interference.”
Armed with almost 40 songs all together, the group recorded in a variety of different locations, the majority in the Texas Treefort, a studio in their own Austin backyard, where they took advantage of the vintage broadcast tube equipment to create the album’s warm, inviting sound. All the tracks were initially laid down live in the studio by the full band, making an effort to keep the music infused with its “analog” elements as well as the communal feel.
“I feel the album brings together all our influences, everything we’ve done over the years as a band,” explains Jurdi. “We’ve touched on every part of our career… our roots, some singer/songwriter contemplative stuff, some high-energy rock ‘n’ roll. It’s all us, the record we were supposed to make. Ten years later, that’s what keeps us coming back.”