It's out there, right now, rolling from LA to Vegas. A glint in the low-afternoon sun, making a slow curve northeast through the Mojave Desert. Is it a buzzard? A stallion? A jackrabbit? Yes, it is. It's also a wily eight-piece band of merry shitkickers from Seattle called Country Lips who specialize in a fortified brand of slap-back, honky-tonk, and countrified rock and roll. If you like Merle Haggard, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and some of Skynyrd's jukier numbers, you'll want to step on into this. Their latest full-length, Nothing to My Name, was mixed by Stuart Sikes (Loretta Lynn, White Stripes, Cat Power, Modest Mouse), and with it, the Lips have made giant strides. Out of the gate on "Black Water," guitar-picked riffs and piano lock in and run together. They're shooting whiskey while shooting skeet, and they're nailing the same flying clay target right down the middle every time. Fiddle and mandolin rise out of the breakdown; somebody shimmies in the corner. The room stomps and spins. A three-part harmony rings up the chorus, and the tight-licked riff reloads again. Country Lips have recently retired their beloved, well-traveled van and acquired a bus, where they can spread out more. It's almost to Vegas now, heading past Sloan Canyon. The driver's the only one awake. No one slept the night before. The band spoke over beers before leaving on tour.
You all loved your old van. It was a good one. What are your top van stories?
Alex Leake: On the way to the Comet one time, we set the record for people transported in the van at 19. Plus all our gear, including a PA, I think, and a wheelchair. Then one time... [pauses] I'm gonna leave this one vague: We repeatedly backed it into a big firewood pile on a pitch-black dirt road in Indianola until somebody heard us and had to tell us there was something behind the van. We were trying to go swimming. The one time this van broke down on us, it was directly outside a casino [laughs]. She made sure we were taken care of, even when she couldn't continue to do it herself.
Describe the smell in that van.
Gus Clark: A special blend of warm male musk mixed with delicate spice notes and a stale Rainier finish. A combination of a ladies' locker room, a gay bar, and a natural hot springs. Summer was the best time to experience it, when all the juices would flow.
If the van were a person, who would it be?
Leake: Rob Ford.
If the van were food, what would it be?
Miles Burnett: Nachos with a side of bacon.
What kind of bus is your new bus? What does it smell like?
Austin Jacobsen: It's the type of bus they transport old people to casinos in. It's called the Cuddle Shuttle, and it smells like fresh-cut wood.
How did you all come to work on the album with Stuart Sikes? How was it working with him?
Hamilton Boyce: We were thinking about who, if we could get anyone in the world, would be the biggest badass to mix our record. I got super deep going through my record collection and looking at credits and asking around. Stuart has worked on so many great records, and I kept coming back to his name. Trevor [Pendras] and I talked a lot about what we wanted the record to be, and we ultimately decided he was the man for the job. I basically cold-called him and sent him our last record, and he was super nice. Duh, he's a Texan. And he said he was down to mix the record. His rates are very reasonable, especially as a Grammy winner, so we scraped together the money and sent him the tracks. He was really easy to work with and took all the input and references we gave him and made it sound great.
What was Stuart's process? Was it tricky not being there with him?
Boyce: Since we were working long-distance, his process was a little mysterious. We had a couple conversations on the phone, and then he did a mix of one song and sent it to us. We came up with some feedback, and then he would send us songs as he finished them. There were a few rounds of tweaks before we reached the final mix, but with each new round of mixes he sent, we'd get increasingly excited.
Where did Stuart struggle in the mixing?
Boyce: If I had to guess, I'd say his biggest struggle was either dealing with all our picky feedback or dealing with the mess of sounds we passed along to him. First of all, there are tons of people in the band. Second, we recorded all the initial tracks live in a big loft space, and there was tons of bleed between everything, plus overdubs on top of that. I don't know how he made it work, but he did.
Yeah, you all have like 17 people in your band. Is it hard to find space for all the sounds and players? How have you managed to carve out your sound and stake a claim?
Leake: It is a humbling process, but you've just got to learn to (A) shut up, (B) not take it personally when someone tells you to shut up, and (C) find a better way to tell people to shut up than just saying shut up. You can have some of the best times of your life when you are actively shutting up [laughs]. Learn to scream with your body language or something.
For the new album art, you've got a picture of a small child handling an ax. What does it mean? Innocence and danger?
Leake: The kid is Gunner! He's a good friend's son. He and the nephew of Eric Whitman, a founding member of the Country Lips, were featured on the cover of our Touched 10-inch, and Gunner has clearly grown up into a badass, ax-wielding young man. So we were like, "Let's run with this and see where this kid can take us." Country Lips are for the children.
Collectively, what is Country Lips' favorite album? How often do you argue about it?
Austin Jacobsen: It's a toss-up between Katy Perry's Teenage Dream and her more recent Prism. There isn't much dissonance within the group about this. We're patiently waiting for the day when she gets to hear Country Lips roar.
Please talk about writing "Juarez." Who's it about? Where were you when you wrote it? I want the whole story.
Trevor Pendras: We had ferried out to Bremerton. It was Halloween weekend 2011 at my dad's childhood home on the beautiful waterfront of Dyes Inlet. Hamilton, Miles, and I had gone out a day early to set up the portable studio and experiment with Four Loko—a cozy night in Kitsap County with a couple of close bros. Flash back to three months earlier: I was driving around Seattle in a box truck, working as a deliveryman for a food supply company. I heard on 99.3 La Grande a song called "Y Llegaste Tu," the version by Shaila Dúrcal, and it blew me away. The chorus just keeps going, making you wait and wait for it to resolve. So I figured I had to write a song like that. A song where, by the time the chorus finally finishes, you're pulling your hair out and writhing on the ground.
Back to Bremerton, the night before Halloween. We had our studio set up in my grandparents' old rambler house, we had our Four Lokos pouring, and I had a song that I wanted to finish. I played the chorus for Hamilton and Miles, and we started thinking about verses. I imposed some guidelines that were quickly broken—I decided each line of the verses would be two syllables. That rule lasted exactly one line. We decided we wanted it to be about a guy whose life fell apart. He can tell you exactly why and how, but can never really find a moment or decision made that he could or would have actually done differently. Also, he's going to end up dealing drugs in Juarez. He gets caught, gets off, but then gets hooked on his own product. He meets a girl, has a good time, and she dies somehow. It's not clear, and then the song ends.
We wrote the first verse, and then I hit a wall. So we went outside to do the second verse, onto the Sky Lounge, my family's name for the picnic table in the yard that looks out across Dyes Inlet to East Bremerton. It was probably 2 a.m.
We made a rough recording of the song that night. The chromatic walk-down riff that starts the song is the result of trying to write the bleakest guitar hook possible. Something that sounds like a guy's life dragging itself down the drain. Then the night spiraled away. Someone ended up outside naked in the rain, maybe me [laughs]. When the rest of the band showed up the next day, we played them the recording, and they seemed to like it.
We did multiple recordings, trying to get the desperation and sadness just right. The version we put on our record went through lots of edits, mostly us taking parts away, stripping it down as much as we could. Having played it live a lot, the arrangements had gotten kind of thick and messy, and it was Miles, I believe, who really pushed for a pared-down rendition. I'm glad he did. Even though I bet if you asked him he'd take out even more instruments. But this song seems to be a fan favorite, and I'm happy to let it continue to evolve. I think good songs can endure that.