By Brian F. Johnson
The music industry likes to dictate what bands should do — how often they record, how much of their life is spent on the road in a van and, most importantly, the arbitrary timeframe in which the industry thinks certain benchmarks should be met.
But the members of Fort Collins-based Musketeer Gripweed don’t adhere to those rules. It’s not that the revivalist gospel tent rockers can’t take advice or direction; quite the contrary, in fact. But the band decided early on to take all advice with a grain of salt, and to always shape that advice into what’s best for them. As the band prepared to release its fourth full-length Floods and Fires, frontman Jason Downing was bursting with excitement about where the group is, but mostly about how they did it all on their terms.
“The direction of where the band is heading has all been dictated by us. We could get in a van and do a million shows and leave our families hanging, but the reality is that we all believe we could do five or ten more albums over the next ten years if we pay attention to each other, if we’re mindful, and by doing it our way. A question that we ask all the time is, ‘Is it good for everybody?’” said Downing in a recent interview with The Marquee. “You know, what is the end game? Is it a record deal and doing 300 shows a year? Oh, and you have to do that in a certain amount of time? What our band says is, ‘That’s B.S.’ We’ve been peaking for however many years and this is the best thing we’ve done. This is out newest peak.”
That peak comes in the form of Fires and Floods, an album that sees the band taking one of its biggest leaps forward in its eight-year tenure. Downing said that a big part of that leap comes from letting go, surrendering part of their art, and taking suggestions. The band traveled to Los Angeles to record at the famed studio The Fortress (where Stone Temple Pilots used to practice), with its ivy covered brick walls that lead up to a towering ceiling. “We could have done what we did earlier, here, in a basement and turned out the same thing with the soul singers,” Downing said. “But it came down to making a step in the right direction and finding some growth. You know? How tall are your ceilings? Do you want Bonham sounding drums or not?”
At The Fortress, the band spent 12- to 14-hour days living and breathing the album, and producer Justin Andres pushed the group like no one had ever done before. “It became a lifestyle for us. We weren’t thinking, ‘Oh, my god. We’re on take 12 and we still have five tracks to do. We just focused on playing the best version of the song. And Justin really pushed us to try different things. Like, I’ve been with my voice for 40 years and I know what it can and can’t do. I had tried this one part and Justin told me sing it a different way than how I had done it for years, and I was like, ‘Dude, I can not sing that.’ And he got back at me and said ‘I know full well you can do it,’” said Downing.
Andres also had input on utilizing Musketeer Gripweed’s backup vocalists, The Black Swan Singers, much more sparingly than they had on 2012’s Straight Razor Revival; and he even suggested “countrifying-up” a song with the addition of pedal steel. “We were scared of that at first. A lot of it came down to letting go,” Downing said of Andres’ suggestions. “There was a point when we kind of just said, ‘Well, if he’s gotten us this far and he’s the guy, then let’s go with it and see what we get.’ It required taking a level of criticism that was way more than we’ve ever had before, but it worked.”
The album sees the group exploring their “American ass-shake-stomp-holler” rock and roll into some territory they’ve yet to explore, despite their grab-bag collection of genres. If their last effort Straight Razor Revival was in fifth gear the entire way, Floods and Fires shows the band now using the entire transmission, creating some of the most mellow and accessible Gripweed to date. It’s not just about the speed or rock factor either, but a sign of the band’s songwriting maturity. “Over time, I’ve become much more subtle with my writing,” Downing said. “Like, I can still write about things that are important to me, like social justice issues, without ramming them down people’s throats. And with these songs, it’s not like they’re screaming ‘I’m a flood song,’ or ‘I’m a fire song,’ but they’re a group of songs that fit together, and it’s pretty cool that half have that fire energy and the other half have that strange, different flood energy to them.”
All in all, Downing said he couldn’t be happier with where the band is and that they owe it as a group to the old adage his mother used to say to him. “God, I can hear her saying it now,” he laughed, “‘To thine own self be true.’ And we’ve done that as a band. We’ve taken advice and listened to people and then we’ve gone and done it for ourselves.”
:: Musketeer Gripweed ::
:: CD Release ::
:: w/ Ark Life and Constitution ::
:: Aggie Theater :: April 11 ::
Recommended if you Like:
• The Black Crowes
• The Bellrays
• Grateful Dead