Once upon a time, during a fateful South by Southwest a few years back, I was stuck in a situation where my band's van was toast and we were not able to buy a new one or finish the tour.
Having the next couple weeks off from work and a plentiful $160 in the bank, the reasonable decision seemed obvious: hitch a ride with another touring band leaving Austin and, you know, check out some glamorous locales I hadn't yet explored. Like, uh... Alabama. So I hopped into Brooklyn duo Japanther's big industrial van and headed into the Deep South for the next week.
Being that Japanther are a punk band, I was surprised by how excited they were to play a little town called Florence, Alabama. I was especially surprised to hear them describe the Pine Hill Haints—the band they couldn't wait to play the show with. "They play washboards... and a saw?" I asked. "The Pine Hill Haints are amazing," drummer Ian Vanek explained. "You are going to love them."
We entered the Black Owl—a screen-printing shop owned by two of the Haints, Jamie Barrier and his wife, Kat, that also served as the makeshift venue—and it took only about two seconds for the pure charm and hospitality of the place to bowl me over. And the show! The Haints had an old-timey microphone attached to a board with their hand-painted band logo on it—the setup had a rockabilly feel, but went way more Hasil Adkins once they started. Their songs were dirty, spooky, primal, and catchy. It was the strangest mix of traditional country-folk melodies, eerie peripheral instrumentation, spooky Southern swamp songs, a touch of Appalachia, and a little Buddy Holly–esque early-rock-'n'-roll-meets-DIY-punk. The charismatic foursome charged the room with a rare sound and presence—the instrumentation included a saw, a bucket bass, and a bare snare; the lyrics spun the most bizarre tales of girls, ghosts, and "catfish angels" (Jamie later explained this refers to the smiling waitresses that serve the catfish at the best local catfish joint). It felt like the music was born of a swirling, otherworldly energy, the specific tones and tunes secondary to the rhythm. It was captivating.
The lineup stars frontman/guitarist Jamie Barrier, Kat Barrier on mandolin, saw, and washboard, Matt Bakula on washtub bass and tenor banjo, and Ben Rhyne on snare drum. Self-described as "Alabama ghost music," they perform in a style that some consider culturally "dead," and their resurrection of the form is not unlike communing with the spirits of the past. The band is hard to keep in touch with because they never seem to answer cell phones or e-mail, and they appear to be off the grid in such a rare way that seems straight-up exotic. Kat once explained to me that their Facebook page was not even started by them. "Yeah, we should probably figure out a way to get access to that," she said, not particularly concerned.
After the Black Owl show, the ever-hospitable Jamie and Kat took us to their house in what seemed like the middle of nowhere; inside, it was equal parts country and punk-rock treasure trove. In the morning, Kat showed us their phenomenal record, occult, and comic-book collections while Jamie smoked a pipe and played fiddle on the porch. No pretense whatsoever, just pure Southern charm. Their keen obsessions with the occult, the Southern gothic, and ghosts in general are present in their musical approach, which seems to be combining spiritual mysticism with the quest for writing the perfect pop song.
The Pine Hill Haints have been at it a while—they formed in 1998 and have been touring ever since. At first sporadically releasing self-recordings out of their van (some of which include slapdash live takes that are more documentary than precious), they eventually captured the attention of K Records, which released four of their albums, announcing plans for a fifth LP due out this September, appropriately slated to be called The Magik Sounds of the Pine Hill Haints.
I recently got back in touch with Vanek about the preview video he made for the Haints' new album, which features them "screening shirts, skating, swimming, just living in the now and not being too into the future or past," Vanek said. "They're one of those [groups of] friends where it all blurs together and a beginning doesn't seem relevant. They're lovely folks, friends to the end, which is rare in music. You meet a lot of weirdos." Sometimes weird can be refreshing, though—this Alabama ghost music is some of the most unusual and strange stuff I've come across in ages, performed by kind and sincere people. Which, in this day and age, is about as weird as it gets.