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Conversations: Ed Jurdi
Band of Heathens co-founder talks about group's origins, slow build to success
The Band of Heathens’ Ed Jurdi performing at Union Stage in Washington, D.C. — May 2022
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 that I’ve broken into two installments, 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. In the second part, we get into the band and the pandemic, the Heathens relationship with their fans, new music, and playing covers versus original material.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s go back to the beginning. You grew up in the Northeast, outside Boston. What brought you to Austin?
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.
How did the Band of Heathens begin?
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.
What were those early days like?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
Tell me about your Patreon page. You’ve managed to build that into a strong platform in a relatively short period of time.
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.
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?
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.
When you’re touring, where are your biggest audiences around the country?
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.
The group performing at Hill Country BBQ in Washington, D.C. on New Year’s Eve 2019.
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.
This interview was published on the Americana Highways website in a condensed version. Click on the link below for part 2.
Go to the link below for a review of the group’s May 2022 show at Union Stage in Washington, D.C., with a video of photo highlights set to a live version of “Look at Miss Ohio.” To see full albums of the two BOH shows I’ve shot, go here and here.
The Band of Heathens will be on the road all summer, including a performance Aug. 4 at The Bullpen in Washington, D.C. For tour dates, go here.