Local Music Spotlight: The Lonesome Heroes
The Band: The Lonesome Heroes is a cosmic Americana foursome fronted by lead singer and songwriter Rich Russell. Other members of the band include bassist Brandon Gonzalez, drummer Ben Galloway, and lead guitarist Gary Newcomb (also of seminal Austin band Li’l Cap’n Travis. Other friends and occasional band members come and go, depending on the gig. Rich and Gary have been playing together for over 10 years.
Where/When: The Heroes will be playing this Friday, June 24, at Sagebrush from 11:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. They’ll also be playing at The Porch in San Marcos on Saturday, June 25 at 8:00 p.m. They have an album-release party scheduled for Saturday, July 16 at 10:30 p.m. at the Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company to celebrate the release of their latest, Rise and Fall. Their most recent residency was on Sunday afternoons in May at Lustre Pearl South on Menchaca Road. With a little luck, they’ll return there or to the White Horse in the fall for a regular stint.
What’s Special About This Artist: The Lonesome Heroes is one of the best Americana bands working in Austin. They have a mellow, upbeat sound distinguished by enigmatic lyrics that flow from Rich Russell’s seeming bemusement with whatever life throws his way. Their music is thoughtful and fun. A Lonesome Heroes show is good for two-stepping, kicking back with a few beers, or diving into their kaleidoscopic lyrics, like this gem from the album Can’t Stand Still:
So give me your whole heart and nothing more
Leave the light on and a key to your door
I’ll tiptoe in silence dancing ‘cross your floor
While you’re dreaming of moonbeams
That album was recognized by the Austin Chronicle as one of the best Austin albums of 2015. The song “Western Style Saloons” was featured in a soundtrack for the Netflix series Bloodline. The first release from Rise and Fall, “Lucky by Birth,” seems to bring the Heroes’ music ever closer to the intersection of indie and country, or maybe even more indie. The sound and lyrics evoke early Beck:
I’m just weak in the knees
I feel the debris
A bump on a log
One of the very best things the Heroes do is make offbeat, unserious music videos. Hopefully there are more to come with the new album.
Interview with Rich Russell
Q: How did the May residency at Lustre Pearl South come about?
A: We did some shows there in March. We’ve got a new album coming out that we’ll be touring for, so the residency is sort of a rehearsal for us. We might be getting another residency at the White Horse in the future, maybe every Wednesday in the fall.
Q: What’s the status of the new album?
A: We’re having a release party July 16th at ABGB. And we’re actually recording yet another album right now on top of that. Name TBD.
Q: Sounds like you’ve been writing a lot. What is your creative process like?
A: First, I have to credit Gary, who has produced the last three records and does a lot of the music arrangement. He’s a genius. I write the songs. I go on songwriting retreats. A friend of mine, Johan Wagner, hosts a retreat every year out west at Chinati Hot Springs called the Crooked Crow Songwriter’s Retreat. Every year there are 30+ songwriters. Everything on Rise and Fall was stuff I started working on at the retreat.
Q: How did you get involved in Crooked Crow?
A: We used to tour like crazy. We played 150+ road shows a year, and I never got to write. I was always managing. I met Johan at the Kerrville Folk Festival. He said, “Come out and cook for the retreat.” It was life-changing. Out in Chinati, I said to myself, “Holy sh*t, I’m an artist.” But I’m a sh*tty businessman. I had been negotiating for $600 gigs for Saturday nights in rural Wyoming. We toured Australia, and I ran up $15,000 in debt from that. I realized I needed to focus on writing and recording and stop chasing low-dollar gigs. Now I’ve been going to Johan’s retreat for eight years. He plays these classic songs and explains the musical origins. Everything in music is borrowed from something else. Nothing we do is truly original. For me it’s about respecting the work that’s come before and building on it. Two of our new songs have a melody like the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”
Q: What do you like best about Rise and Fall?
A: We cut it all live. No overdubs. We did five or six cuts of each song. The core is bass and drums and me singing live. It feels good not to obsess over it. And with our next record, which we’re also cutting live, that’s even more true. Ben (Galloway) is a great singer and it’s making me a better singer. We’re singing together; it corrects my pitch. It’s exciting to feel we’re still getting better. Recording live has power to it. Beyond that, I’m happy just to get the album released so I can get on with my life.
Q: Where did you record Rise and Fall?
A: Public Hi-Fi, Spoon’s studio here in town, just west of Mopac. Georgia Parker is on three tracks on the new album, but most of the rest of the new record will be just the basic lineup, the four of us. I really wanted to make the record as a band. We’ve finally graduated to being good. There’s been a lot of learning: how to sing right, how to record, capturing the feeling of the live take. I think it’s harder to polish something and give it feeling if you don’t capture that essence in the live recording.
Q: How did the Lonesome Heroes get started?
A: When I moved to Austin, I played with a metal band, a bluegrass band, and then the Lonesome Heroes. We first got together in 2005. The band formally launched in 2006 with our first record. We started with a residency at Headhunters, which was featuring alt-country showcases and weird country music. Then we moved on to a residency at the Hole in the Wall and then started a residency in Luckenbach. We played there for about five months until they figured out we were too weird for Luckenbach.
Q: Your lyrics sound like scenes and sketches from various sources. Can you say more about your writing process?
A: I’ve never considered myself a musician. I was a lit major. I try not to be too heady. A lot of my songs are inspired by western landscapes. Also, I used the cut-up method, an approach William S. Burroughs helped popularize. For instance, take three crappy novels, cut them up with scissors, and recombine the pages. Ginsberg does not work for this. Danielle Steel works really well. It’s kind of still connected to your subconscious. I like to see what I can come up with from the same three books, scraps from things I hear people say. I write on scraps of paper. I had a binder. I left the binder at a gig. It’s lost, but I have recordings of it all.
Q: Your song “Western Style Saloons” has a curious reference. You sing, “I wish I could borrow Larry’s lighter and put my troubles to an end.” What’s that about?
A: That’s a reference to Ramsay Midwood’s last album, Larry Buys a Lighter. My song is about a dude who’s been on the road too long. I was inspired by Ramsay, who has a way of not caring in the way his sings. His voice isn’t emotive, but he’s playing really cool sh*t. He uses a straight J.J. Cale drumbeat. Dennis O’Donnell appears in the song. Dennis was manager of the Hole in the Wall before he took over at the White Horse and then Sagebrush. Dennis would bring us trays of shots. On that song I wrote “And then Dennis marches over with the whiskey and a devilish grin.” He was the Devil. And he’s more invested than anyone in keeping Austin music cool and weird.
Q: How do you describe your music? What genre would you place your work in?
A: We’re Americana, I guess. I say indie rock country. Alt-country used to work as a descriptor, but we don’t sound like alt-country now. I guess cosmic Americana works. We’re right between the hippies and the cowboys and the hipsters.
Q: What are your favorite Austin bands?
A: Li’l Cap’n Travis, Little Mazarn, David Longoria, the Weary Boys. The Weary Boys were our original rhythm section. I like Long River. They do fingerpicking, folk. I’m an indie rock guy. I like to listen to spacey art rock and then dance to country. My friend Jeff Johnston is in the duo Little Mazarn (with Lindsey Verrill). They had a Tuesday night residency recently at the Hole in the Wall. Must-see.
Q: In the summers, you play a bunch of gigs in Wyoming and nearby states. What’s the connection?
A: A while back we decided to go west. I love camping, the mountains. I use the band as a vessel to get out. It makes up for not making any money. So much of the last album (Can’t Stand Still) is about the West. We’re trying to drop that and move on. Still, Laramie is our other home base. I have a whole other band up there. We tour these little towns. The old hippies and cowboys come out. We’ve had the same gig in Jackson for 15 years and also in Centennial, a tiny town outside Laramie. We’ll be there in early July. Everyone is in tie-dye and has a snow mobile and a gun, and it doesn’t make sense. We played a total solar eclipse there four or five years ago. We opened for Reckless Kelly. We avoid that crowd now.
Q: Making ends meet as a musician can be challenging. How do you do it?
A: I used to have a house on Wilson Street, just south of the H-E-B on Oltorf. There were some old cottages. Janis used to live there way back. It was $500 a month for me. That was super doable as a musician in 2010. They tore those down and built condos. I used to do construction for 10 years. Then I was a Lyft driver for five years while playing music as much as I could. Now I deliver the Austin Chronicle. I’m the youngest member of the delivery team at 42. I’m lucky to own my house. It’s in the Holly neighborhood in East Austin. I rent it, and I live in the shed out back. I freelance all the way. I paint houses with my girlfriend, take odd jobs. I do sound for other bands. People know me; I get jobs. I say to younger musicians who are starting out that playing on the road is romantic, but make sure you have a side hustle so you can make your own art.
Q: You mentioned you’re a fan of KOOP. Do you have a favorite show?
A: Jamaican Gold, Art Baker’s show from 12-2 p.m. on Sundays. I also love the Thursday morning western swing show, The Lonesome Stranger. I always listen to it while I’m delivering the Chronicle. KOOP is a perfect model of what I love about Austin and what it used to be. It’s community. I would quit music if it wasn’t for the music community here.
Article by Fred Richardson