The Band of Heathens makes it look easy. Since 2005, the group has specialized in a relaxed groove that can without warning turn raucous or sentimental. Consider this trajectory: Their rowdy 2008 self-titled debut slots perfectly next to your Black Crowes LPs, 2013’s Sunday Morning Record is a thinking person’s comedown album, and 2020’s The Stranger balances swagger with an ethereal soundscape. While their range impresses, so does their autonomy. They are one of the few bands that answer to no one but themselves, eschewing record deals in favor of releasing music on their own Band of Heathens Records.
But appearances are deceiving. Behind the scenes, the band– led by cofounders Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist– has stared down its share of challenges, including weathering the pandemic. While other bands folded or took a hiatus, BoH experienced a revitalization.
Jurdi says, “If anything, it empowered us, validated our whole mission as an independent band. This was just another situation where we were able to be light on our feet and nimble and quick and make quick decisions and implement them because we’re not waiting for anyone to tell us, ‘Yeah, you can do this, or you can’t do that.’ We’re completely in control of our destiny, which at times can be daunting. But at other times, it’s really rewarding when it goes right and comes together like that. Honestly, I think the biggest takeaway for us with the pandemic and the live stream was it showed how wonderful and supportive of a community of fans we had. They completely rallied around the band and lifted us up.”
Their DIY ethos, one people usually associate with punk bands, provided an advantage over groups that were left looking to their labels for guidance. Instead of giving in to radio silence, the group hosted The Good Time Supper Club, a weekly virtual concert that fans could watch via YouTube.
“We’ve been an independent band for seventeen years,” says Jurdi. “Our entire existence has been about being able to come up with creative solutions and navigate our way through things. Back in the day when labels were taking care of a lot of stuff for artists, we were forced to do that ourselves during pandemic. It was another hurdle that we just had to overcome. Like a lot of people, we were able to use some tools at our disposal. We came up with The Good Time Supper Club. We created this online fan community that, to our surprise, to be honest with you, really sustained us.”
As the pandemic offered a glimpse into a world without music, Jurdi developed a new appreciation for the band and the experiences it offers.
“With the pandemic and not being able to plug in and play loud music in a room with other people and connect with an audience, I’ve been doing that since I was ten years old. For my entire adult life, I’ve been on the road. To have that taken away was at first a shock, but once things started coming back online, and we were able to start playing shows again and get together, it was like, ‘Man, we won’t take this for granted anymore.’ It’s such a privilege to be able to do this.”
After the dust of lockdown had settled, the band reconvened in Austin at their studio, The Finishing School, to record their latest album, Simple Things, a heartfelt document of perseverance. Some artists might shrink in the face of uncertainty, but in this case, the band thrived.
Jurdi says, “Both Gordy and I have a pretty good habit and a pretty good work ethic in terms of always writing. I actually think the material came really easy. The writing was very easy, and then the recording was also very easy, which isn’t always the case. But I think there was a lot of emotional material to work from, coming out of the pandemic. If we had a theme record, this would almost be it. This really encapsulates the spirit of the band, our independent spirit, our ability to persevere and overcome a lot of the obstacles that have been thrown in our way over a number of years, and emerged victorious in most cases. That’s really the thematic heart of the record.”
Notably absent are the ambient textures of the previous record, Stranger. Instead, as the title suggests, Simple Things finds the band at their most elemental, a to-the-bone approach that mirrors the vulnerability of the album’s subject matter and the shared thrill among the members of finally having the chance to play live together after spending months apart.
“I don’t think [the lack of orchestration] was a conscious decision. I think every record we make is a reaction to the last record we made, coupled with whatever inputs are going into it, like things going on in the world. In this case, the pandemic’s a theme and us coming to terms with a lot of that stuff, trying to explain it, rationalize it through the music that we make. A lot of this record was just what the band sounds like in a room playing live. All the records we’ve done have been pretty much live. We’re always in the room together playing. With other records, we’ve had some more fun, deconstructing material and rebuilding it, being a little bit more playful with the sonics of it. But with this record, it’s funny because it’s not like we spent less time getting great sounds because, to me, this is the best sounding record we’ve ever made just in terms of the fidelity of it. This is really what the band sounds like playing in a room, but with fantastic gear and fantastic microphones.”
As Jurdi declares, in Simple Things the ring of survival carries the day. But there’s also the question of what to do after we’ve come out on the other side. We can shrug off distractions, as Jurdi suggests in the title track.
“That was one of the hardest songs for me to write. I came up with most of that really fast, but finishing it was a struggle because I think the song really hit home so much to me. There’s a lot of me and my life and my family in that track, so I really wanted to make sure it was right. That really did dawn on me at some point early in the pandemic. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t going 100 miles an hour, flying in a plane or speeding down the highway on a tour. I was home, having some time to reset and take some things in. I was able to appreciate being able to take a walk with my daughter after school, or going outside with my dog and seeing my neighbors and waving to them and creating relationships with them, or sitting out in the backyard and having a little bonfire in the springtime and looking up at the stars, all these things that we take for granted all the time. It’s just like, ‘Man, all this joy is around us all the time.’ But we’re all grinding on that hamster wheel where you forget to just take a deep breath and take it all in and think about all the things you have to be grateful for.”
“Don’t Let the Darkness” offers another answer– live in the now.
“I think it’s everyone’s challenge,” Jurdi says. “We all wanna be present in the moment that we’re in, but there’s so many things that can distract you from that, from technology to stress from your day-to-day life. You got bills, you got this, you got that. But I think when we’re all really feeling our best and at our best, we’re very present in the moment. And that idea stems from coming out of the pandemic. A lot of people I knew were down. It was really difficult. There was a lot of emotional baggage to deal with. That song started as a little bit of a pep talk to myself but became something that I wanted to share with other people because it was like, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of stuff you can beat yourself up about. We’ve all done lots of stuff wrong. You can’t go back and re-legislate your past and redo everything that you did wrong. But what can you do?’
“You can pick up from today and start doing better going forward and figure out a way to lift someone else up. You gotta just keep moving forward; you gotta keep pushing through. That’s really the only way to find a place where you can be content and also be of service to other people in your life. The idea that someone can depend on you, that you can be there for them and you can help lift them up and vice versa, that’s one of the greatest things about being a human.”