Kevin Russell never slows down. Since calling it quits with his beloved band The Gourds in 2013, the Austin musician has been devoting nearly every waking hour to his band Shinyribs. Russell formed the group as a side project of The Gourds when the band was still going strong. It soon became clear that Shinyribs would need to be a full time job in order for it to satisfy the demand of an increasingly devoted fanbase in Austin and beyond. Whereas The Gourds dwelled in their own realm of cow punk and Southern roots rock, Shinyribs steered closer to swamp pop, New Orleans R&B, and Gulf Coast soul. Over the course of three albums, Russell has continued to expand the size of his band and in turn the sound.
On the fourth Shinyribs album, I Got Your Medicine, the harmonies and brass are bigger than ever. It also finds Russell tapping into a new charisma as a bandleader and as a songwriter as he mines the New Orleans R&B and swamp pop sounds that are so near and dear to his heart. To nail this sound, Russell enlisted the producing prowess of Southern stalwart Jimbo Mathus. The resulting album is only further proof that Shinyribs is one of the best bands around at a time when we could all use a little musical release. In between leading his massive band and waxing poetic on any given topic, Russell also finds time to record covers of unexpected tunes on his ukulele while sitting behind the wheel of his car. Recently, I had the chance to speak with this tried and true performer about the new album, his love of swamp pop, making songs about tacos, and much more.
The title of the album is I Got Your Medicine. It’s safe to say we all need a little medicine right now in some form of another. What was the inspiration for the title?
It was a little bit inspired by a personal experience of a friend of mine and his wife, and some hard times they went through. They were both on lots of heavy medicine, like anti-psychotic stuff. I have this feeling that most people are on some kind of drug, mostly prescription drugs these days – I really feel like that’s true. There’re plenty of people doing illegal drugs but kind of a disturbing thought to me is how many people are on legal drugs. Some of it is totally legitimate needed understandable stuff, but some of the behavioral designer drugs, I don’t know much about those but I’m always surprised when a friend of mine is on them. When I learned how many friends of mine were on these medicines, I was a little shocked by it. I kind of went through a phase where it seemed like most people I knew were on them.
My friend and his wife went through some hard times and I helped them financially and spiritually, and really any way I could. Their car broke down and they lived out in the country, and he was always having to get her medicine. A major part of their life was getting tattooed and getting medicine. I remember him calling her from the Walgreen’s or whatever, having a little argument on the phone, and he was like, “I got your medicine” [laughs]. A little bit of commentary on that was kind of the inspiration for the song, but a bigger picture is that it’s a really common thing these days. It’s almost a nice thing to say now, like a husband might say to his wife, “It’ll be alright, I got your medicine, don’t worry.”
Your perspective on that is kind of interesting because on the one hand the context of the story is fairly dark and the commentary on society is troubling, but then it’s like you’ve spun it into this happy thing about relief.
I see what’s going on in our society pretty darkly like most people do, but then you take each person individually and most are sweet and they’re not trying to be hateful or earn membership in whatever negative club they’ve joined. Your average Trump voters, I know lots of them, are nice people one on one. Then you put them all together [laughs] and it gets dark. It’s definitely a weird phenomenon.
In that same song you say a line about a mall dying inside you and I read that you love dying and abandoned malls. What’s the story behind that?
There’s something peaceful and interesting about malls that are dying. You go to them and most of the stores are gone – I just love those kind of malls [laughs]. So the idea of the mall dying inside of you is just trying to write those emotional things inside of us and putting them into words that make sense. There are a lot of people who buy into a materialistic life in America buying a bunch of crap. I’m right there with everybody, but I’ve always thought I shouldn’t be that way…but I still end up with a bunch of crap anyway. It’s just that feeling of like, where does all this crap get you? It gets you nowhere. To some degree, all of our lives are just like one big dying mall.
That sounds so tragic.
I never bought into that dream, but still here I am in the dying mall and I kind of like it.
Going off of the album title and Shinyribs live shows is this idea of relief and escaping for a good time. Do you feel pressure as an artist to offer some kind of statement or is it a statement in and of itself to take a different road and offer people a chance to take their minds off of things?
For a while it seems like the entertainment world of the last twenty years has been focused on the confessionalism of a lot of the songwriters, especially in pop music. You get this highly sophomoric confessional stuff. I don’t want to hear about fucking personal life problems, I’ve got enough of my own! To me I’m writing blues songs, if you get down to them it’s not all roses. But I’m writing them and I’m singing them not to escape it but to forget about it for a little while. Blues can be sorrowful and roll in self-pity, or you can have a good time and dance. You can still be singing about your troubles but you can do it and have a good time while you’re doing it…that’s kind of what I’m going for I think.
That seems to be similar to a lot of your inspirations, like old school New Orleans R&B, swamp pop, and stuff like that. For this album were there certain records or artists that inspired the songs and the vibe you’re talking about?
All of the New Orleans R&B stuff like Dave Bartholomew, those bands he had, Allen Toussaint. Then the swamp pop guys who are lesser known; Cookie and the Cupcakes, Sunny & the Sunliners. Even Doug Sahm, a lot of his early stuff was swamp pop.
“Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” comes to mind.
That’s a swamp pop song! He kind of brought it into the Tex Mex thing and gave it a San Antonio flare, which was great. The swamp pop guys to me were like, they didn’t have the chops of the New Orleans guys but they were trying to play that R&B stuff. At the same time over in Jamaica those guys were trying to play the New Orleans R&B stuff. I think the heart of this record is inspired by that city and that history. Really across the Gulf Coast, that’s kind of why I picked Sugar Hill Studios in Houston to record because a lot of that stuff went down there.
The band’s sound has developed into something bigger and brassier with each album. What do you think drives you to keep pushing for a bigger sound?
It comes down to my personnel, the evolution of the people that come into my life musically, I’m just kinda what drives it. A few years ago I played a wedding and the groom told me to hire a horn section because he wanted to hear me with horns, and he gave me a list of covers he wanted me to do. So I did and was like, wow that’s cool, and I started doing some other gigs with them. Once that was happening, I was missing the harmony singing so I tried to find a way to do that and eventually I came up with the idea of adding two girl back-up singers, which is another classic element to this style of music. We did a Valentine’s show two years ago with them for the first time and it was so great, so it seemed like a no-brainer to go in that direction. I’m just following what happens; I’m open to the world and all people I meet. Fans and musicians alike, I’m reaching out to the world and trying to be supportive of other people as much as I can. It feels good to be that way.
Compared to the Gourds where everyone contributed almost equally in a democratic way, you’ve become a full on bandleader of a larger outfit. What’s it like leading so many people both in the studio and in the road?
I think in the Gourds the challenge was that we all had veto power. It was like a five-way gay sexless marriage and it was hard because we were all equal. I can see why Congress has such a hard time with that many people trying to agree on something. With Shinyribs I was like, I see now I have to be the leader and make the decisions, and that sounded good to meA good leader is also a follower, so I’ve learned a lot. I learned a lot from the Gourds days about how to communicate with people, how to treat people with more respect, even when people act stupid. You can’t necessarily yell at them, you have to understand to help them get through it. I have a great group of people who buy into what I do, enjoy it, and want to be part of it. That’s a key thing. I’m a big sports fan and I love the model of the San Antonio Spurs. I’d say we’re the San Antonio Spurs of swamp pop.
Based on all of your work as a songwriter but especially in Shinyribs, food is a frequent topic. Do you consciously try and work your favorite foods into songs or does it happen naturally?
It happens naturally. I love food. Music I think is my religion but my drug of choice is food. I’m a big food person, probably too much of one. Growing up with my mom’s good cooking and I love to cook myself and eat. I wax poetic about food. It’s one of the great things about life, so naturally it makes its way into my songs.
Is there a particular eatery or dish that you’ve always wanted to write a song about?
I wrote “Donut Taco Palace” just because every time I drove by that would pop in my head, so I was like I had to write this song to get it out of my head. When we rehearse now I go to this other taco place called Macho Taco. I feel guilty, like maybe I should write them a song too. Then I’m like, if I write another taco song, people are gonna be like, c’mon man you already wrote a taco song!
They’ll start booking you for kids parties.
Yeah, my long-awaited concept record. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Taco Band or something.
You have a big band and are based in Austin, Texas. That city has changed dramatically over the last handful of years. Do you have any comment on places like Austin becoming havens for the rich and how that affects musicians?
Affordability is a problem for everyone and it’s going to affect the culture of the city in a lot of ways. I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about it, but ultimately you just have to live with it. If I was a young musician in Austin right now, if I was as poor as I was when I was twenty-something, I wouldn’t be in Austin. I would go where it was cheap. That’s why I came to Austin, because it was cheap and I could work as little as possible and just play music. I don’t know if that’s possible here anymore. But the middle class has always been a huge contributor to rock and roll, you know, kids from the suburbs who have a little bit of money. Rock and roll as we know it today I think sprang from the middle class, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing. So not a lot has changed except that the inner cities have become desirable by everyone now, not just the bohemians. It forces everyone out. I live out in the suburbs now, I just kept moving further out and I didn’t like architecturally what was going on in the middle of Austin. I was really disturbed by the fact that the city had no architectural oversight for the neighborhoods. It’s kind of embarrassing; you can build this giant post-modern angular monstrosity right next to a 1950s ranch house. It makes no damn sense and I didn’t want to live in that. I’m glad I left because if you go down certain streets in Austin now it looks like Frank Lloyd Wright exploded. It’s a very nouveau riche kind of thing, kind of disappointing, but I don’t lose any sleep over it [laughs].
Ultimately, I just want to live somewhere where people will leave me alone and I can do what I want. That used to be in the city but now I couldn’t do the stuff I do without noise complaints. I like where the city is at, it’s thriving and reinventing itself constantly. A lot of people are coming here with not a lot of money and they’re making it, they just have to bust their ass to do it. That’s the trade-off, I never had to work that hard. I just wanted to live an artist life and I still do. I’ve been successful and the city has treated me well, so I’m grateful for that.
Shinyribs release I Got Your Medicine on February 24th. For more music and info visit shinyribs.org.