ACL Interviews: South Austin Jug Band
In the week leading up to ACL, we had the pleasure of speaking with lead singer James Hyland of South Austin Jug Band. James and I discuss the departure of founding members of his band, why ACL is still a big deal, and why a Beck cover seemed like a good idea. Read the entire interview after the jump.
ATH: You guys have done a lot of ACL festivals at this point. Is it still an overwhelming experience to play or are you used to it by now?
JH: Yeah this will be our 5th one. I think the feeling leading up to it is a little different, but I am still very excited. It will of course be the biggest gig of the year. It’s honestly one of the best festivals put on not just in the country, but in the world. It’s a great collection of musicians, and it’s in our hometown so we get a great feeling of pride being able to do it.
ATH: You went up to New York’s Chelsea hotel to write your most recent album. How did that decision come about?
JH: We found ourselves in an odd situation really. A couple of core guys had walked away and quit the band and we really didn’t know what we were gonna do. We didn’t know if we would just change the name or start a new band. I think the decision to go to New York gave us an opportunity to make a little more serious album than we had made in the past. We had made albums that were a little more like sampler albums or maybe just things you see at a live show. This time we really made a more cohesive piece of art. We all wanted to make an album that we had all written together and not just show up on recording day with songs that we all wrote on our own. We made a real record this time and it was a lot of fun to make.
ATH: Why did you need to leave Austin’s hill country to do that?
JH: The writing environment where we were was a little stale and we had too many distractions. In New York, we really put the pressure on ourselves and I feel like we rose to the occasion. It was a gamble but we locked ourselves in a couple hotel rooms and forced ourselves to get to work. We were hoping the inspiration would find us up there and it did. You walk outside in New York and every block is a whole other world. It’s easy to be inspired in that city.
ATH: How is the sound on your new album Strange Invitation different than your previous efforts?
JH: The most noticeable difference that jumps right out is the drums on the album since we’d never used them before. Drums were just a step that was necessary in the evolution of this band. We weren’t sitting down writing just bluegrass songs. We didn’t feel like there was any need to continue in that vein so we just wanted to start creating any kind of music. Dennis, Brian and myself started writing together and it really took the three of us writing together to get this sound. It honestly incorporated everyone’s different influences. My heroes are the obvious guys like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, The Band, Johnny Cash, Beck and things like that. Brian’s more into things like Nine Inch Nails, and a lot of acoustic music. Dennis comes in with his real jazzy and bluegrass music too. Bring all those things together and I think that’s the only way you can describe our sound. Labels feel like they need to fit you in a specific genre but I feel like the best artists dip into all different sounds. That’s what separates artists from musicians I think.
ATH: Why did you decide to cover Beck on the new album?
JH: It was just something about that time and the music I was listening to. Something about his version of that song seemed to jump out and stick on me. I thought it’d be a complicated song to play but it’s really not. We got Dennis to recreate the loop that they use on his mandolin which was pretty neat.
ATH: Where did you come up with the new album cover?
JH: The album cover is a picture that was taken in Havana Cuba. I don’t know what the picture speaks to other folks, but my imagination was curious where the two guys on the cover were coming from. I also like that there are three characters when that’s actually all that was left of the band. On the cover there’s a conductor, a masked man, and a tank and I thought that was a lot of what we were going through. All the destruction going on with the two guys sort of just calmly walking by the tank really represented a lot about what we were going through.
ATH: Do you keep up with the original members of the band?
JH: Of course, I see them all the time. We’re all good buddies. The main reason people quit was Warren went off to college and our bass player got married, settled down and got into real estate. You can’t go through something like traveling all over the world in a suburban and not still be friends with these guys. We are very very close.
ATH: What inspired you to play the classic sound on Pickin’ and Grinnin’ and how did you progress to where you are today?
JH: I guess we’ve really just grown as artists. Our confidence has grown which helps us try new things. Sometimes people can get a little too comfortable and stick with the same process but were confident enough to try new things. We did have some people get upset about us adding drums but the number of people we have gained because of it outweighs that by ten. We just evolved, and we’ll continue to change.
ATH: Do you have requests to play the old songs and, if so, do you still play them?
JH: Oh yeah, we still do. Our live show is usually a couple hours long so we do everything. We’ll have a section of bluegrass, a section with just me, and then I’ll get offstage and they’ll do some real progressive acoustic songs. We try to give the crowd everything in a live show. I know times are hard and people don’t have a lot of money, so we have to take it serious when someone is nice enough to spend money on a ticket. We try to give them everything.
ATH: Where do you see yourself going from here?
JH: We want to make a live record first. Then we’ll go back into the studio and maybe make a real concept record. Maybe a two disk album about the idea of an evolving artist. We’re also heading out on a west coast tour in October.
ATH: What’s your favorite venue in Austin and also the country?
JH: In Austin would probably be The Backyard even though it’s unfortunately closing down soon. In the country, I would love to play Red Rocks but it’s more my favorite place to see a show. My favorite place that I’ve ever played is probably Golden Gate Park for sure.
ATH: I read that you guys are voting Obama. In five words or less, can you tell me why?
JH: Why not?
Thanks again to James for giving us the time to do this great interview. South Austin Jug Band plays all over our little city so check them out if you get the chance.
Photo credit on the cover image is to Anna Webber.