Ed Jurdi of Band of Heathens

Interview: Ed Jurdi of Band of Heathens


On an early June morning, Ed Jurdi is walking around his Asheville, N.C., home, taking a brief break before the band he co-founded almost two decades ago goes on the road again.

“Summer is a busy time for us, with festivals and touring,” the co-founder of the Band of Heathens says. “But it’s great to be out on the road again with the group. It feels like things are starting to return to normal, if there is any such thing.”

 Like many groups, the Band of Heathens are road warriors. Jurdi and co-founder Gordy Quist formed the group in Austin in 2005 and have since self-released all but their first album. They’ve weathered lineup changes, altered their sound in subtle but sure ways, and  built a devoted fan base that Jurdi describes as “second to none.”

 In a wide-ranging 45-minute interview, Jurdi and I talked about a host of topics, including the band’s origins and its do-it-yourself approach to the music business and touring. We get into the band and the pandemic, the Heathens relationship with their fans, new music, and playing covers versus original materials.

Americana Highways: Let’s go back to the beginning. You grew up in the Northeast, outside Boston. What brought you to Austin?

 Ed Jurdi: When my wife and I got married, we talked about moving somewhere else. I said, “Well, if we’re going to move, it needs to be somewhere where there’s some music going on.” From a financial perspective, the two places that looked like they might work for us at that point were Nashville and Austin.

 At that point, for me, Nashville was a little bit more buttoned-up than I was looking for, and I felt like Austin offered a nice alternative. I’d always just loved all the music that had come from there. I’d always listened to a lot of it. I had been there maybe once or twice before and really liked it a lot. That was really it, honestly. I wanted to be around more people that were into playing music and pursuing it.

 AH: How did the Band of Heathens begin?

 EJ: At the time, everyone was trying to do a residency gig. There was a club called Momo’s in Austin at the time. Gordy, Colin Brooks, and Brian Keane all had residency slots. Someone moved and left town or was bought-out and vacated the spot. I’d been in town a few months at that point and I’d gotten to know a couple of those guys just hanging out and jamming with them and whatnot.

 They put me up to take the final spot, and I did. That’s how it started. It was like 9, 10, 11, and midnight with everyone doing their own set, but all of us playing with each other. I would play guitar or keys in Gordy’s or Brian’s set, and Colin was playing guitar in Brian’s set and vice versa. There’s a lot of collaborating going on very naturally. At some point, someone suggested, “Hey, what if the four of us just do a songwriter in the round show but do it with a band.”

 We’re not just going to be sitting there trading stories and songs, but we’re going to do a show where we just pass the ball around and have a band back us, and instead of each of us doing an hour, we’ll do a two and a half-hour show or a three-hour show and take a little break in the middle. That’s really how it started.

 At that point, everyone was still pretty focused on their solo endeavors and pursuing those. This was just a fun release or a thing to do on Wednesday nights when we were in town. It was a lark more than anything. There was no pressure attached to it or anything like that. We just got into it.

 AH: What were those early days like?

 EJ: It was really loose. A lot of drinking. It was really passing a hat, honestly, more than anything. Really no design. It just caught on. People started coming out, and within a couple of months, it just started selling out. It was packed every week, and other musician friends would come down and hang out and sit in. It was a fun show. It was almost interactive with the audience because someone would come down to hang out and it would be “Hey, come on, sing a song.”

 It was just one of these things that it was almost an industry night for music, but the music fans in Austin are incredible too. The idea that they would support something like that helped give it life and legs.

 Austin was the place where if someone recognized that you had some ability or talent, they would really help push you along and introduce you to other people they thought you’d get along with or you could collaborate with. That was all very new and refreshing to me. It was just like, “Wow, this is exactly how it should be.” It was such an open and warm community, not just music, but for artists, writers, chefs everything. It was just bubbling. It was really a fun time to be there.

 The other thing too at that specific time was my age, I didn’t have kids yet. I was really available to be able to participate in that scene at the time.

 AH: Your first album was 2006’s Live from Momo’s, which came out on Fat Caddy Records, an indie label in Austin. Ironically, it’s the only record you didn’t self-release.

 EJ:,We didn’t know how long this was going to go on. We thought everybody’s going to want to get back to their solo careers and whatever they were doing before. So we said we should record a show, just to document it.

 Jon Pattillo, the guy who owned Fat Caddy Records record, said, “Well, hey, we should do that, and I will put it out.” We’re like, “Really? [chuckles] Okay.” That record is probably why the band ended up becoming a thing.

 Since that release, we’ve released everything ourselves. When we got ready to make our first studio record, which ended up coming out in 2008, we were working with Ray Wylie Hubbard. We went to Nashville and met with some labels and took some meetings. It’s like, “Man, this just seems like a glorified hack. It’s a bad loan with super high interest and no return. Let’s see if we could do this ourselves.”

 We put a little pitch deck together, and we raised a little money on our first record. I’m proud to say that we were able to pay all our investors back, and they made a return on their investment in the band, which is something in music that doesn’t happen very often [laughs]. Since that first record, we haven’t had to borrow money from anyone.

 More important than the money aspect of it, we never had to take a meeting and have someone say, “Hey, your band should sound like this.” Or, “You guys should make music that sounds like this.” Or, “Do a record that sounds like this.” We’ve just really been free to do whatever we want to do whenever we want to do it, which I think is another reason that we’ve been able to have some longevity.

 We’ve been able to be as creative as we want to and can. Those are our only limitations. As far as that goes, if you have some ability to be self-sufficient, it’s a pretty great time to be in a creative endeavor.

AH: The entrepreneurial side of this is a reality in music today, and some folks struggle with it. Being in a community like Austin, where it seems like almost everyone has to be self-sufficient, must have helped.

 EJ: Definitely. At that point in time, what I was seeing was a bunch of artists and musicians who could make a living playing in their community and doing some touring. Even when the biggest acts weren’t touring and they would come home, I would see them play at the Continental or the Saxon Club. They’d just be hanging out and doing gigs and sitting in with people around town.

 It’s just like, “Oh, this is what this is all about.” It’s about doing, it’s about being creative, making stuff and doing stuff, and going out and showcasing it. Austin really supported that. It was almost in the DNA of the community. It was like, “Oh, there’s a blueprint here for how you do this without having the support of a huge corporation behind you. You can make a life for yourself doing this and live in a way that is comfortable.”

 AH: Tell me about your Patreon page. You’ve managed to build that into a strong platform in a relatively short period of time.

 EJ: The best thing about Patreon is it’s been a really great way to motivate and instigate us to just do more creative work. One of the big tenets of the platform is that we share a new song every month with people who are part of the Patreon community. We need 20 songs to record a record, and we have to at least be writing and coming up with some new material every month.

 At the same time, it’s a lot of inside baseball stuff. If you have a question about how we recorded a song or how this idea came together or whatever, I can tell you about it. I’m happy to share that story with you.

 Patreon also is another way for us to cut out any middlemen. We’re literally able to go directly to our supporters with this platform completely unfiltered and completely unfettered. That’s really nice.

 AH: Now your band members are scattered all over the place, but you’re still recording in Austin and have your own studio. Does having that home base help?

 EJ: We made a couple of records with a producer, and he was also a great bass player, his name is George Reiff. He produced our Top Hat Crown record and our Sunday Morning Record album. George had a studio called The Finishing School, which is basically a studio that he built into his house. Unfortunately, George passed away (in 2017).

 George’s brother, Michael, was in the process of selling off George’s stuff. Gordy, with an investor friend and partner of ours, was able to make an offer to Michael to buy George’s house, the gear and the studio. He has since completely renovated it and is running it as a recording studio called The Finishing School.

 That’s where we do all of our recording now. Whenever we’re in Austin, it’s awesome. We have access to full-service recording studios where we do all our work whenever we get together to record. We did our livestream work there whenever we were able to get together during COVID times. We’re self-sufficient and can get all our work done in our own little space, which is pretty awesome. It’s a nice luxury.

 AH: When you’re touring, where are your biggest audiences around the country?

 EJ: There’s really no rhyme or reason to it. Obviously, Austin, Houston, Dallas are great markets for us. Colorado and the Pacific Northwest are too. We started going to Colorado pretty quick when we went outside Texas. Seattle’s always been really good for us. In the Southeast, it’s the Carolinas, Atlanta, and Nashville.

 We’ve been doing this a long time, nothing’s a slam dunk. I have no expectations that when we show up in D.C. that we’re going to have 700 people there. There are places where we’re still trying to continue to build markets. It’s just this never-ending cycle of making records or promoting them and going out and playing for people and slowly building things.

 Honestly, that’s really been the MO of our whole career. It’s funny because in music, it’s never looked at like that. If you had a business and your business grew 10% or 15% year over year, people would be like, “Man, this is really great. This is a great business, a great platform.” In music, if you’re not going from zero to a million, it’s like, “Oh, it’s not sexy, this is stalled out and dead in the water.” That’s what we’ve been doing the whole time. It’s just been growing like 10%, 15% every year.

 We’re willing to put in the work and put in the time. The reward is getting to actually do the work, making music and records and playing shows. That’s always been there for us. As long as the money can support that, you can continue to do it.

It’s just like, “Oh, this is what this is all about.” It’s about doing, it’s about being creative, making stuff and doing stuff,and going out and showcasing it. Austin really supported that. It was almost in the DNA of the community. It was like, “Oh, there’s a blueprint here for how you do this without having the support of a huge corporation behind you. You can make a life for yourself doing this and live in a way that is comfortable.”

Americana Highways: How did “Remote Transmissions” become part of your Zoom broadcasts?

Ed Jurdi: When we started with the Zoom things, we were just experimenting with stuff. We were reading Shakespeare and doing Goop Ridiculous sketches early on. We thought it would be a couple of months we wouldn’t be able to tour. Then it was five months. Then seven months. As we started seeing that rolling up in front of us, it’s like, “All right, well, maybe we should invite some friends on just to check in with them, to be guests.”

The idea was fans of theirs can tune into our livestream, and we can turn our fans on to them. We should talk and catch up and see what’s going on with them in their world. And then it became, if we’re going to do that, let’s collaborate on a song.

Everyone had mobile recording setups and little studios at home. It’s like, “Why don’t we collaborate?” We’re like, “Let’s pick a cover song.” We ended up doing like 45 of those. It was super fun.

AH: Are you pleased with how the “Good Time Supper Club” evolved?

EJ: We’re all able to swap songs and literally pass the ball around again. In a lot of ways, it was almost like going back to how the band started It was very loose, improvisational, a lot of just figuring stuff out on the fly. As we got into doing it more, we obviously got better at doing it. I felt like we were able to produce a show that had some production quality for people that had better sound systems or video systems at home to watch and enjoy.

With limited abilities, sometimes you end up being able to do cool things. “Remote Transmissions” was one, being able to collaborate with so many awesome friends who happen to be great artists and creative people. It was something that we would have never been able to do not faced with those circumstances. Everyone was home and everyone had time.

Just being able to cover such a wide spectrum of music through doing that was just super fun. Every week, we had work to do — a project to work on — and something to keep us sane. It was like, “Let’s put our heads together. Let’s be creative. Let’s find stuff to do.” It’s definitely the ultimate case of making lemonade out of lemons.

We were able to sustain ourselves financially through the whole pandemic. Everybody paid their bills and rent through what was an otherwise impossible time for people that normally make a living traveling and playing shows for people in public spaces.

The engagement between the band and your fan base is unlike a lot of relationships I’ve seen before. You have a very active Patreon page, for example. How did the pandemic change that?

As artists, we might get to meet two or three people after a show if we’re at the merchandise booth or something like that and get to talk to them for a couple of minutes.

Throughout the pandemic, every week with the Good Time Supper Club show, we started seeing familiar faces. Gordy and I were also doing a lot of private Zoom concerts on the weekends. We’d have a half-hour, 45 minutes to get to talk to them and get to know them.

We started to develop these friendships. It was a connection that was helpful for them and for us in terms of just surviving the insanity of the pandemic. We were able to connect with folks and put faces to names of people that have supported what we do for a long time. It’s really become like our extended family.

These people are big fans of the band, but they’re also big supporters of everyone as individuals. On this last tour we did, in a few places, a big group of folks got together through meeting in the Good Time Supper Club on Patreon and through our fan site (the One Foot in the Ether chat group on Facebook). It’s really cool to see it. It’s been an unexpected delight and a bonus that this has just popped up.

AH: Are you planning to release more Remote Transmissions? The first was labeled as Volume 1.

EJ: I think so. I would imagine there’s going to be some subsequent volumes in the future. The response to that has been great. People have really loved it. We don’t have specific plans to do it right now because we have a lot of original music that we want to release.

I definitely could see more of that stuff coming out because there was such a breadth that we were able to cover, which was super fun from a creative point of view. There’s like 45 tracks. Honestly, picking 10 was nearly impossible. [chuckles] That was just like throwing darts.

AH: What’s the difference between performing something you wrote and a cover?

EJ: Sometimes when you’re performing other people’s material, there’s a liberating aspect to it. You can appreciate it for just being a great song and you can inhabit the character or the characters that live in the song. We usually want to do something different with them than the original version. Usually, you hear someone do a cover, there’s always “the version of the song.” A lot of times trying to replicate that is just a losing battle.

When you hear Elvis, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, or Aretha Franklin sing a song, you think, “Oh, that’s one of their songs.” Whoever wrote it is almost immaterial at a certain point. When you’re presenting other people’s material, if you’re able to step into the shoes of the song and inhabit it in a way that’s just genuine, that’s the goal.

A song like “Look at Miss Ohio”, for example, is something that’s been a staple in our live shows and our catalog for a long time. That’s a great song by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings that they do in a very specific way with two acoustic guitars. That’s really awesome, but in the setting of this band and in this format, how can we do something different with it. I feel like we find a way to do that with that song.

What’s interesting is Remote Transmissions was actually a digression from the way we normally approach doing covers because we were all working remotely. Usually, the song would start with one person laying down the foundation of a track. We had to play it pretty close, pretty faithfully to the original. We couldn’t collaborate in the same room and bounce these ideas off and have something become something that it wasn’t. We needed a tangible point to start from, and I think it turned out pretty well.

AH: Let’s talk about transitions. Over the years, the Band of Heathens has gone through two major lineup changes, with only you and Gordy as the constants. The first was before the recording of “Sunday Morning Record,” when co-founder Colin Brooks left; the second was just within the past couple of months, when Richard Millsap and Jessie Wilson departed just before your most recent tour. How do you deal with those changes?

EJ: Gordy and I have been partners for 17 years now in this thing. Trevor, our keyboard player, has been in the band for 12, or 13, but really has been in and out involved since the beginning.

I’ve been a fan of bands forever. Over time, bands change. Everybody has their favorite time of a band, or whatever. I think a lot of that has to do with whenever you’re introduced to the music, and you come into it. If you’ve listened to our band for a long time, we’ve had a couple of pretty substantial changes, and the sound and the vibe of things has shifted a bit, but with the original intent and spirit of it always being intact.

In our best world, you get together with other people and you’re collaborating with them, and that’s always something that is sustainable. It’s always something that is exciting for everyone creatively. It works for you financially, and it’s something that can continue indefinitely. That’s who we’ve always invested in and believed in.

Like everybody knows, there’s life. [chuckles] That gets in the way, and people have other ideas. They want to do different things, and they have other opportunities, and that’s what happens. At that point, we’ve always been faced with, “All right, are we going to keep going or are we going to do something else?”

With Gordy and me being the primary songwriters and singers in the band, for lack of a better way of putting it, we felt like the spirit and the intent of what we’re doing and the sound of it is intact enough that we could continue to pursue what we’re doing with a different rhythm section at this point.

If we felt like we couldn’t do that, we would stop doing it, or we would do something different. Or Gordy and I would do something different and call it something different. We never really had that feeling.

AH: When I saw you in D.C. in May, you could see the new band members — bass player Nick Jay and drummer Clint Simmons — are really good.

EJ: I think this iteration of the band might the best vocal iteration of the band, which is great, minus the fact that I couldn’t sing when you came to see our show. We have five guys in the band now that can all really sing well. That’s super exciting, and I’m sure that’s going to inform what we do whenever it’s time to make a record with this group of people. That’s really the only way to approach it, I think.

I think we’re appreciative of what we were able to do with Richard and Jesse when they were in the band. It was an awesome time for the band, it’s super creative. Now, it’s like, “Okay, well, we’re on to a new phase now. Clint, our drummer, and Nate, the bass player, these guys are super creative, super talented guys. Let’s figure out where their talents lie and how we can incorporate it into what we do and make that something really cool.” It’s just new challenges, new things to explore.

AH: What’s next for the band?

EJ: We have a record that’s mixed and in the can that should be coming out sometime next year. We’re just finishing up some stuff, figuring out artwork and coming up with an album title. When you’re working in a collaborative, those are the things that always [chuckles] take a little while to be able to get a consensus on, but that’s always fun.

For us, the last bunch of years have been a really creative and prolific period for us. We have a lot of music coming out. Every month for the next five months, we’re dropping some singles that are probably going to be part of a larger collection at some point. We called it “Cutting Room Floor,” and it consists of extra songs from the last several records we’ve made. I think we’ve had 10 or 15 extra songs on each of them that we’re completely recorded and mixed and everything. We’re starting to slowly release those.

We have a lot of music to put out, and then we’ll have some shows to come out and support them. It’s great. We’re super excited about all of it.

Enjoy our review of Remote Transmissions Vol. 1, here: REVIEW: The Band of Heathens “Remote Transmissions Vol. 1

Check out our earlier show review of the Band of Heathens, here: Show Review: Band of Heathens at Union Stage in DC

Find more info on Ed Jurdi and the Band of Heathens here: https://bandofheathens.com

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