by: Thomas D. Mooney
Something to this effect most likely happens each and every time a Crooks song comes on. More so than any other band within the roots music upheaval, Crooks are able to paint mini-films projected in your mind with their spaghetti western tinged style. It’s tumbleweeds rolling across dusty towns filled with gunslingers and outcasts.
It could be 1901 or 2001. Their characters could easily be from either. They’re a “restless bunch, from a restless land.” They’re real, yet have some mythic properties as well glamorized by 1960s Hollywood. Or they could very well be someone you’ve met in a dive bar or honky-tonk on a Saturday night. It’s something that rides the line of being both Doug Sahm and Ennio Morricone.
The Austin-based Crooks released their debut record “The Rain Will Come” last May and have been garnering praise ever since then from the likes of American Songwriter, Daytrotter, and Texas Monthly. American Songwriter summed them up as “a slice of country noir”–which couldn’t have been said better myself.
We caught up with lead vocalist Josh Mazour earlier this week to discuss their cinematic-honky tonk-roots rock blend of music, working with Texas Tornado Flaco Jimenez, and their upcoming Blue Light Show. Mazour and company will be playing Blue Light tonight (Jan 25.) along with Dirty River Boys.
New Slang: Your record “The Rain Will Come” came out last year. I didn’t hear it right when it came out, but started listening to it around August or so. It seems like the overall Crooks sound, you can categorize it as part of this uprising of roots music that’s really starting to happen here in Texas and in country music in general.
Josh Mazour: Yeah. I think it’s great. At the time, when we started this four-and-a-half years ago, slowly developing our sound, recording this and that. At the time, it didn’t seem like there was much of it. But it’s great that there’s more music out there and more places to play. More people who like to that sound. I think we kind of accidentally stumbled into it. We really didn’t know there was going to be all this support for it years down the road.
NS: There’s a definite honky-tonk sound in there as well. Like for example, the song “Bar Stool.” It really reminds me of old 1960s honky-tonk country artists. About when did you start getting into that kind of music? What did you grow up listening to?
JM: When I grew up, around 14, 15, 16, I was listening to a lot of alternative rock. Stuff like Nirvana, Mudhoney, and of that kind of stuff. It wasn’t until later in life that I became more interested in songwriting as a songwriter. That kind of lead me into old country–Townes Van Zandt, stuff like that. Slowly, more and more things become more of an influence. Kind of how things progressed. As far as the honky-tonk kind of sound, on the record, we kind of wanted to have a little bit of everything. We wanted that ’60s/’70s honky tonk sound. That outlaw country. Some of that spaghetti-western cinematic type of feel. And then there’s that bit of rock aspect in there too like on “Boulevard” and “Corn and Bread.” We’re trying to keep it diverse and all over the map. We want people to be like “Well, I don’t know what I’m going to hear next.” Plus it’s fun to write songs like that.
NS: Yeah. In the music, you can hear four or five definite influences. And it’s not even just from one song to the next. It’s often within the span of one song. Like you mentioned, there’s a spaghetti western vibe happening throughout. Matter of fact, I think the album cover definitely has a The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly homage going on.
JM: Yeah. We were kind of going for like an old spaghetti western movie poster feel for the artwork.
NS: Now I read you had Flaco Jimenez playing on the record. How was working with him?
JM: It was great. We had played a show with Texas Tornados while we were still writing songs for the record. We had written these songs where we had kind of written the accordion part–like how we sort of wanted it to work. We just then kind of gave it a shot and reached out to him. One thing lead to another and he was fully willing to do it. Working with him in the studio was kind of crazy because he’s been around the block more than a lot of people will be. It was really cool. We spent one full day working with him. It was great.
NS: Yeah. He’s definitely been around the block. Just a Texas legend. What’s something you learned from just watching him work in the studio?
JM: I think more than anything, he’s just a real comfortable and quiet guy. One thing I thought was really interesting was that he was really easy to work with in a sense that we had an idea of what we wanted him to play. Which, I feel like some people might not like that. Like when you bring in a big musician like him, they might be like “Why are you bringing me in? Why don’t you let me do what I want to do?” We had come up with a couple of loose melodies, but also wanted him to do his thing. Just go off in his own little world and move around. And he was totally willing to do it. I was really thankful for him doing it.
NS: Something else that I think adds to the spaghetti western flavor is, I guess I’d call them complement sounds and instruments, like the accordion, the horns. I’m assuming you guys don’t play any horns yourself.
JM: No, we do. Sam [Alberts] plays trumpet. He plays guitar, banjo, mandolin, and trumpet. He’ll play guitar and trumpet on one song. He’ll switch off. And we also now have an additional player now who wasn’t on the record. So we actually have two trumpet players for every show.
NS: Oh that’s great. What I was going to ask about originally was how the studio version of the songs differ from the live version. I know a lot of bands, they’ll have horns or something on their record, but don’t have them in the band when they’re touring. Like they’ll sometimes play with a horn section when they’re playing large shows or shows close to their base, but don’t typically tour with them.
JM: Yeah. I think that’s a good question. When we set off to record this record, we obviously had quite a lot of meetings with the producer. One of the things we regularly discussed was if we were going to do a record that sounded the same live or do we want to have something extra. But at the same time, now we’re able to do a lot of the things on the record. Now we’re able to integrate them into our live show. So originally, we weren’t doing like this little spaghetti guitar thing in the background of “One Way to Live.” Now we’ve got the players to be able to do it every show. The record definitely has that cinematic feel to it. That Morricone, spaghetti western feel. Live, you know is more interesting. It has more of a honky-tonk, outlaw country feel when you listen to the live set versus the album. We’re at full instruments now though.
NS: Yeah. That’s always great to hear. When bands are able to bring all the auxiliary pieces, it’s always great. “The Rain Will Come” came out last May. I’m guessing you guys aren’t racing into the studio by any means, but are currently working on some new material. What’s kind of going on right now with you guys as far as songwriting goes?
JM: We are definitely working on new material. That’s are favorite thing to do other than playing live shows. I don’t know when we’ll get back into the studio, but we probably have at least half the material ready for a new one. I don’t think I could really speak about what the next record would sound like, but we’ve got a few songs that really ’70s outlaw country. Like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings kind of stuff. And still trying to get this whole spaghetti western feel. And some little ballads, like some Marty Robbins type stuff. I think we’re just going to hone in on all the sounds, whatever genre they are. [We're] just trying to write better songs. I don’t know how it’ll all sound like. But, we have a lot of time.