The Vegabonds are currently on tour, sharing the joy of live music, and gearing up for the release of their new album, Sinners and Saints, on September 24th from Blue Elan. Much of their music has a distinctly live feel and has seen some live play prior to release, bringing that energy home to audiences, and is their second 2021 release, following on from the EP The Vegabonds Live From West End Sound which arrived in March.
Their new album singles “Can’t Deal” and “Heartache and a Memory” give a solid idea of the sounds and themes from the upcoming collection, though forays into “Yacht Rock” vibes weave some new elements into their Southern Rock and Country influences this time around. I spoke with Vegabonds keyboardist and newly minted songwriter Beau Cooper about the genesis of the album and the recent steps he’s taken towards songwriting in his first-ever interview for the band.
Hannah Means-Shannon: With the live EP out so recently, and your previous album in 2019, you didn’t necessarily have to create and release an album this year. What led to that decision?
Beau Cooper: I feel like the record cycles are getting shorter for us. Every time we put out a record, it’s a little bit shorter between them. So maybe we’ll drop another record next year! It’s like the record cycles are getting exponentially quicker.
HMS: I know that some of these songs have a longer life for you, but did being off touring cause you to focus more on songwriting at all?
Beau Cooper: About half do have a longer life, I’d say off the top of my head. When the pandemic started, after losing show after show, we tried a couple of live streams, but then said, “Why don’t we just chill out for a while and see what happens?” We took about ten weeks off, which we’ve never done. The most we’ve taken off since I joined the band in 2014 was about a month. Ten weeks was a long time and I spent time outside. I went backpacking and stuff like that. I really believe in being productive while you’re not technically being productive to the outsider’s eye. When we got back, we pretty much wrote the song “Heartache and a Memory” as soon as we started jamming. I don’t think that would have happened if we’d been practicing once a week, doing a livestream every two weeks, or on a schedule. Taking that time off and coming back was super refreshing. I just loved improvising on that, and the other guys just stacked their stuff on top of it. It was the easiest song we’ve ever written and I think it’s my favorite. It’s like we all had the pieces of the treasure map, and when we got together, we had the whole map.
HMS: That song has a really interesting sound. I love the balance of Rock and Country elements. Some people talk about the harder aspects of relationships in songs, but I don’t feel like I’ve heard one with this perspective before, of knowing what’s coming in a relationship but not being quite there yet. That’s an intense feeling that I think people can relate to.
BC: One of my favorite lines, though I didn’t write the lyrics, is “I’ll take the blame, but woman, we were both wrong.” It’s a very adult, factual, adult way of accepting a breakup. In the band, we’re all in the span of 28 to 26 years old, and we’re not going to write a Pop song about being young forever and relationships lasting for eternity, so I think we were being realistic about relationships. But we also want to make you dance while thinking about it, so it all ain’t so bad.
HMS: There’s a directness to the approach of the whole album, which in some ways goes beyond even the lyrics. When you think about the previous album, V, do you see differences in sounds and ideas in comparison to Sinners and Saints?
BC: Oh yes. When I wrote “Party with Strangers”, I was listening to nothing but the Drive-By Truckers all day long. Eventually if you do that, you might write something that sounds a little like the Truckers, though we did it in a poppier way. I tend to put on the music I love, keeping it super low, so it’s quiet, and it gives me ideas and feelings that flow from there. This is kind of like passive writing rather than active writing.
We’re always going to be Country Rock and Alt Country, but recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Atlanta Rhythm Section. I grew up on that and my Dad went to a lot of their shows when he was in college. I’ve started noticing that they ride this line between rowdy Southern Rock and a Yacht Rock vibe. It’s groovy. When writing songs like “Heartache” and “Can’t Deal”, I think we can walk the same line that they did. I realized this recently. To me, Atlanta Rhythm Section is a great model for us in how we approach not just being one thing.
HMS: I feel like people are looking at different eras of music in a new way right now in terms of their value, and Yacht Rock is one of those possible reappraisals.
BC: Everything’s cool, and then it’s not, and then it comes back around again and is cool. We’re still living, somewhat, in the revival era. When do you think that started?
HMS: For me, it seems to tie in with the return of vinyl. I would say about ten years, maybe?
BC: I would say about 2011. It started with Folk music. Now that it’s been ten years, you can see things a little more clearly. We’re still living in the revival era, especially for Rock ‘n Roll, but maybe it’s Yacht Rock’s time. We need The Yacht Rocker Bible.
HMS: Compare the latest reaction to The Foo Fighters releasing The Bee Gees, which I totally listened to myself.
BC: We’re seeing a lot of people embrace that era. It’s cool to be riding the wave of that with everybody, even if unintentionally. Everything’s in style now. You can live in whatever musical universe you want to live in.
HMS: That’s a great way to put it. I feel like you can live in whatever kind of musical bubble you want, and that’s partly due to the fact that you can get ahold of older music now and listen to it on satellite radio, even.
BC: I hate people saying, “There’s no good music!” It’s like, “Dude, you just need to build a better musical universe for yourself. That’s your fault.” Nobody’s telling you what to listen to, you can customize your whole world sonically.
I think that also ties in with the world being so down for the past year. I knew one thing when we got back into the studio to work together, that we weren’t going to play a bunch of sad songs. We weren’t going to play anything slow and that really wasn’t for anybody else. I was thinking, “I’m just trying to be happy right now. I’m just trying to be okay.” So I think that’s why these songs happened. We just wanted to get through the year. We needed a pick-me-up. We were talking about creating a musical world as a listener, but the same things go for creators. You can create the musical world that you want to live in.
HMS: How does “Can’t Deal” tie into getting back together after your time off?
BC: It sounds like it’s from the same batch of writing, but I think I had all the lyrics and music for that one about two years before. What tied it all together was that I came up with the “Can’t Deal” lead riff right before the break.
HMS: Have you been writing songs more in recent years?
BC: “Can’t Deal” is the actually the first song that I wrote 100 percent of, though I was the head writer on “Party with Strangers”. I was kind of easing my way into writing. But I have been writing a lot more. I’ve always been a keyboard player, and I’ve been doing that since I was 8 years old, playing in bands since I was 12. I have always composed and written stuff, but I’m starting to consider myself more of a writer than a player, even though I still love playing. Writing just feels like it’s more of an achor in life. Your playing is always changing, and my chops change every day, but my writing is way more consistent. It might tie into the concept that the mind is more reliable than the body.
HMS: I can see how any kind of writing can evolve into a diary-like thing that helps you navigate through life, capturing what you were thinking and feeling at different times.
BC: Yes, it’s definitely made me more open as a person. You don’t really have a choice when writing songs, you have to be.
HMS: Especially if you’re sharing them with the whole world. Are you more of an active writer or a passive writer, as we were talking about?
BC: I do both. I do try to sit in front of my Wurlitzer every day and come up with something, or sit in front of my computer. But I try not to spend more time at a computer than at my instrument, or vice versa. They are both super valuable to me. I love passive writing, when you’re writing without meaning to, though.
Sometimes you can sit in your house trying to write a song, or sometimes you can go hang out with friends instead. And sometimes someone just says something cool and you notice it and say, “Okay, that was way easier.” It’s cool when instead of working for four hours, you can get something done in five minutes. I think iPhones help that a lot with voice memos and notes. I think there are a lot more passive writers these days than there were fifty years ago.
HMS: I think that’s true, though I’ve been surprised by some much older Rock ‘n Roll and Blues songwriters telling me that their preferred experience has always been just getting in a room with friends and hanging out. By the end of that time, they’ve written some songs together.
BC: Me and my buddy Ross [Beasley] live together, and he wrote “Leo Fender” and “Wings and Prayers” on this album. We’re roommates and there’s a little bit of that vibe. Since it’s just us in the house, we’re always a little bit on the clock. We’re never going to say to each other, “Hey, man, you want to go sit down and write a song?” But recently he was in his room playing guitar and I was in my room playing Wurly, and we were jamming separately. He didn’t know that we were jamming. I walked over to his room and said, “Hey, man, I think I’ve got a riff for that.” It’s the whole Steve Jobs concept of being in the office 24/7 so that ideas are always happening.
Though I don’t sit down to song write a lot, I will record a lot of riffs and bring them in. That’s how “Sinners and Saints” happened, I was just recording riffs. I brought that in to Daniel [Allen] and he already had the lyrics. He stacked them on top of each other and it all worked great. That was just something I recorded on my voice memo.
HMS: That’s a really powerful song.
BC: It’s a weird one!
HMS: It’s got a lot of elements layered together. It’s ambiguous and has a lot of possibilities to it. I feel like the keyboard part in that acts as powerfully as some of the lyrics and vocals do.
BC: I think that’s because it had to stand on its own before. There’s writing where a couple of guys get together with acoustic guitars and are playing chords, and they are trying to get the lyrics down. But that’s not really writing parts. Some songs I’ve written that way, like “Partyin’ with Strangers”. But I think on this record, I just got obsessed with parts that can stand on their own. That’s what I’m really after at this point in my life.
I love lyrics so much and I know there are people out there who just don’t care about them as long as it sounds cool and feels good. Lyrics are probably for a small majority people, and I hate saying that because I love lyrics. That’s my world. But I know that if a part can stand on its own, we can tie it all together.
But the lyrics to “Sinners and Saints” are probably my favorite lyrics that Danny has ever written. Every line is a zinger. They are really meaningful lyrics. When we play that song live, since we’ve started playing the new stuff, he sets it up so that it makes sense to the audience. He says, “This is something my granddad always told me.” And then the first line is, “Nothing comes easy and talk is cheap.” It just keeps flowing line after line. It grooves while being meaningful. If you can groove and be meaningful at the same time, that’s a great place to be.
I agree that people who say “There’s no good music coming out” are just too lazy to look or listen for it. There are so many people putting their hearts and souls into music, that if others would take the time to pay attention and give new music a chance, they would realize there is plenty of great new music.