SUGAR AND SHADOWS 


The sound of the Heathens a wistful, vaguely elegiac blend of melodic twang and rough-edged, rural pop — is immediately striking. It's the sort of sound that comes off as well-planned and thoughtfully belabored. It's the sort of sound that comes from bands who have been making music together for years. It's not the sort of sound that emerges from a slapdash crew of indie rockers on an open-mike night.

However, in the case of this Orlando band, that's exactly how their sound came about.

"I think our first real band practices were open-mike nights at Austin `Coffee and Film in Winter Park`," remembers bassist Chris Rae of the group's origins in March of 2005.

"It was very loose-knit," agrees vocalist and guitarist Matt Butcher. "People would sort of come and go. It wasn't until June `of 2005` that we had our first real lineup. That was when we decided to be a real band."

"Before then," laughs guitarist/banjo-player/keyboardist Chris Cucci, "there was usually more drinking than actual playing going on."

Drinking, it seems, played a big role in the group's formative phase — the group was kicked out of their first show at WPRK because they brought a bottle of Jim Beam to the college radio station's studios — and though it would be easy to romantically ascribe the rustic charm of the group's sound to whiskey-sipping, front-porch songwriting sessions, the truth isn't quite so sepia-toned.

"Matt wrote pretty much all the songs on the first album," says Rae. "From the beginning, we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to sound like. We haven't changed the songs too much from when we started playing them to how they ended up on the album."

That album — a 15-track disc released on Cucci's Post Records label entitled Big White House — is the oddest sort of debut: one that is instantly recognizable as the Heathens, but also one that doesn't sound a bit like them. Audiences have come to adore the Southern Gothic shambles of their live performances, as these joyously dour affairs involve multiple members on multiple instruments and quite a bit of audience interaction. A few tracks on the disc — the clap-along "See You There," the honky-tonk rumble of "Sex in Silent Films" — come close, but for the most part, Big White House is an altogether more sophisticated beast.

Steeped in elegant minimalism, Big White House uses a wide variety of instruments — in addition to Butcher, Cucci and Rae, fellow members Sean Moore (violin, trumpet) and Jeff Ilgenfritz (drums, guitar, keyboards) add significantly to the sonic soup. Ironically, though, with all this instrumental action, the predominant emphasis is on Butcher's lyrics, a decision the band says was completely intentional.

"Even though our sound is full and lush," says Rae, "we're actually trying to be as delicate as possible. I remember when Matt and I were doing `the now-defunct` On Cassette, I'd be playing bass and my hand would be dancing up and down the fretboard, and now it's a lot more simple. A lot of that simplicity is just so we can push the lyrics up to the front."

"A lot of the things Matt's singing about," continues Cucci, "there are some upbeat songs, but there's a lot of darkness to the songs too. It's not about happy stuff, but the music can be a little poppy sometimes."

"Most of the lyrics are pulled from real-life experiences," says Butcher. "Though there are some times when I take some poetic license, for the most part, these are things that have really happened to us. I always like matching — like Dylan does — these scathing lyrics with an upbeat melody. It's a hard pill to swallow sometimes, but putting a little sugar on it helps, you know?"

music@orlandoweekly.com

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