After only a year together, Til Willis and Erratic Cowboy releases second album
Performing at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah, Okla., a few years back, the power went out on Til Wilis. The singer-songwriter was faced with a dilemma: vacate his cool basement platform for the steamy bar upstairs and perform unamplified, or lose his turn to play altogether. Willis decided to play.
“I walk in front of these tables — it’s kind of a restaurant bar upstairs, huge high ceilings, hot as can be up there, big picture of Woody Guthrie in the back — got up there and just started playing.”
Willis performed his set, rousing the crowd despite the heat and setbacks. At the end of the show, one of Woody Guthrie’s granddaughters approached Willis, explaining a family belief that Woody only kills the power on people he likes.
“It had happened to so many people when they start playing Woody Guthrie songs… It happened to Bruce Springsteen three times. Here he is having the big bucks to pay for stadium sound, for some reason when he starts playing Woody, the power goes. [Woody’s granddaughter said] ‘We take that as a big endorsement from beyond the grave.”
“You’re family, I guess I’ll take your word for it,” Willis told her.
For somebody once described by a concertgoer as Lawrence’s Bruce Springsteen (a reputation he takes with wry bemusement), Willis has learned to make the most out of a little, applying a practical and forward-thinking approach to songcraft, performance and recording. This has led to numerous shows throughout the region, a bevy of solo releases, and a fruitful relationship with his current band, Erratic Cowboy.
When we spoke to Willis nine months ago about the group’s first release, The Land of Sawdust and Spangles, the songwriter mentioned that he had two albums in the works. The group’s new album, "Crow, Soldier", to be self-released June 1 at The Bottleneck, is not one of those albums.
Willis says that the songwriting process for this project snowballed quickly. Initially it started off as one or two songs to record for a single, a way to have something new coming out. “But,” Willis explains, “by the time we actually got around to record, it was OK, well, now I got five songs ready to go, by the time we recorded those five, well I’ve got these as well. Next thing you know we’ve got 14 tracks.”
Like many songwriters worth their salt, lyrics and song ideas flow out of Willis. He says that while he knows some songwriters are successful in releasing 10 solid songs in a year, “at given day I’ve got 10 songs laying around.”
“I always figured ... if you’re gonna call yourself a songwriter then you need to write songs.”
Hence the new album, which formed organically between those other two projects Willis is prepping. One is an eclectic disc of solo material that should get released this year, and the other is something his band may assist with.
“I kind of like being on that 1960s schedule for recording. Every six months we need an album. You better be working” Willis jokes. Nearly all of the songs on "Crow, Soldier" were written since the last album. “Some of them just 24 hours before they were recorded,” says Willis.
He explains that for independent artists like his band, it is a huge benefit to always have something new coming out, a philosophy of music production shared by many of this generation, especially as technology has made creating and distributing music easier.
Like the band's last album, "Crow, Solider" was recorded in Wilis’s home in Lawrence, but with a crucial difference. “ [For] this album we wanted everything to be a little sharper… Not so loose, so we took time to not record all things live in the same room so we could have better control over it. Just [to] make it more professional sounding.”
The band also started discussing how to create music more in terms of dance and funk. While "The Land of Sawdust and Spangles" certainly has a few foot-jumping tracks, Willis reflects that the group intended that album to be a loose and ragged batch of songs.
“With this one we talked about wanting to have stuff that maybe you can even dance to, that was tight, that if you’re thinking about where you have to go in your part, think dance and grooveability.”
Willis mentions that key points of references for Crow, Solider were some of The Clash’s funkier tracks and the boogie of seventies-era Rolling Stones.
“It’s rock and roll, but has that swagger,” Willis explains.
The 14 tracks on "Crow, Soldier" are drawn from strong images and a hurtling sense of urgency, enhancing the band’s dynamism. Once he was comfortable with the click track levels, Willis would bump them up about three notches so his performances would be a little more off-kilter and sped up.
In addition, drummer Matt Otting and bassist Eric Binkley seemed to have eased more into their roles.
“They’re both real quick at picking up their parts and they’re committed to making original music…We’re pretty good at reading one another in the room,” Willis says.
“With this I think we concentrate a bit more, I think this is a lot more of a focused album — not to say The Land of Sawdust and Spangles is bad, it was almost a learning experience to get into this album,” says Otting. With "Crow, Soldier’s" groove-focused sound, the rhythm section that is Erratic Cowboy becomes more pronounced and expressive, something listeners will find immediate on powerhouse tracks like opener “Best We Can,” “Blue Impala” and “Working Down.”
Says Binkley, “compared to our last album, which had some more laid back stuff, this one is definitely more of a toe-tapper. As far as my basslines, I would say it’s got more of a funk feel.”
"Crow, Soldier" manages to cross a wide swath of styles and genres, with some tracks, like “California Widow,” evoking the dirge of a good Tom Waits song. Other tracks make serious good on the group’s promise of danceability. For a rock group rooted in standard formats, Til Willis & Erratic Cowboy conjure up some wild noises, with the presence of cheap pocket synths used to great effect on a few songs. The range of styles and sounds on "Crow, Solider" demonstrate that Til Willis and his bandmates are unafraid to write sincere songs while also indulging in noisy and abstract impulses.
The result is high-impact and affecting, building off of the lessons learned in their short time together. As Binkley says, the album “represents Til and our band, and what we can do.”
Til Willis & Erratic Cowboy CD Release Show 8 p.m. Saturday, June 1, The Bottleneck, 737 New Hampshire St.