Ever since Kevin Russell’s band Shinyribs debuted its first release, Well After Awhile, in 2010, his shows have emanated the energy of a rowdy tent revival. People don’t attend a Shinyribs concert to stare at the spectacle—they come to get sucked onto a cyclone ride. Incorporating dance steps, colorful suits, a brass section called the Tijuana Train Wreck Horns, and backup singing by the Shiny Soul Sisters, the show innovates and improvises, even while it remains, in many ways, an old-fashioned show working a region the way bands have done for decades. Shinyribs’ fourth release, I Got Your Medicine, out February 24, presents a band that is at the height of its powers: tight, fun, and pushing its sweet spots. We caught up with Russell in his living room in January, a yellow notepad and guitar at the ready, to talk about how he got here.
Katy Vine: You grew up in Beaumont and Shreveport. Can you describe what music you heard as your taste was forming?
Kevin Russell: That time I heard a lot of different things in Beaumont, great music. I lived in a neighborhood full of boys. One of those older guys was Malcolm Gaskin and he had long hair and he walked around with a boombox and played the greatest music. That’s where I heard Waylon Jennings, Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall,” Willie and Family Live—we listened to that all the time. I mean, mostly we were out playing basketball till the sun went down, and sometimes we’d put speakers in the house windows and crank it. Then I moved at a tender age of about fourteen. My dad was a computer programmer for an oil supply company, so we moved to Atascocita right outside of Humble; it was a development on Lake Houston and that was upper-middle class at that point. It was culture shock for me, and I got really introverted and that’s when I started writing songs and focusing on music. I was an angry young man, and I got myself a boombox.
KV: You’re the new Malcolm.
KR: Yeah. I’m taking it with me. The Malcolm diaspora. So I walked around this neighborhood with a boombox. I made one ingenious modification. I was like: it’s stupid walking around with this handle. So I got a guitar strap and I had it made a leather strap, bolted in.
KV: When you get up on stage these days, you seem to be giving more of a showman’s show. You’ve got a tailored suit, you dance, you have backup performers. What influenced that?
KR: The only real show I saw back then was Elvis Presley. My mom took us to see Elvis Presley. It was incredible. That blew my mind. I was eight years old. Yeah, so to me that’s the greatest show I ever saw.
KV: When did you start wanting a big show like that?
KR: Much later. I had no fashion sense and no concept of how important image was. I was clueless for a long time about it. I just wanted to be good. I moved to Shreveport and started playing shows in Shreveport because the drinking age was 18. So I was paying biker bar when I was 17 called the Café Directoire. We’d got to New Orleans and see a lot of jazz shows. Saw Wynton Marsalis back then. Good jazz players in Shreveport, too. The Blade brothers. So I learned a lot about music there. And I didn’t understand at the time because I was more into the punk rock thing. I wanted to be Bob Mould or Paul Westerberg. Loud, roots-rock thing was going on. And then I thought we could make Shreveport like Minneapolis or Athens. All these regional places have their scenes and I thought: Shreveport, why not? Well, There’s a reason why not. Nobody wants it to be that. We made a lot off great friends there, but we left there and we moved to Dallas and we were very focused on Austin. Our band at that time, the Coyotes, were looking for a bass player. Jimmy Smith had seen our shows so he got a hold of one of us and next thing you know he was our bass player. And that’s where the Gourds started: with me and Jimmy. So that band, the Coyotes, played Dallas through those dark white funk days.
KV: And they were dark.
KR: It lasted. I don’t forget! I remember who they are! I won’t name names here. You know who you are. We were basically sloppy Husker Du. Country Husker Du at that point. Limping through in total obscurity through a plague of white funk. And we met kindred spirits along the way: Donny Ray Ford, Mark Rubin and Danny Barnes , Craig “Niteman” Taylor, all those Killbilly guys—we were friends with them. Some other punk rockers along with way. Rhett Miller when he was just a pretty-faced long hair boy baring his soul. So yeah, that was a great time but we kinda knew—every time we played a band from Austin like the Wild Seeds or the True Believers, they’d say, “You need to come to Austin.” So eventually we moved to Austin.
KV: Does anyone still say “come to Austin”?
KR: I’ve never told anyone that. Use your money wisely. It’s too expensive; you can’t pursue your art. I don’t know where to tell them to go. Temple? Temple is pretty cool. Some people are moving to Lockhart. I don’t know what prices are like. It may be cheap out there. I couldn’t live there because I would die from eating barbecue every day.
KV: What performers have informed elements you wanted to include into the Shinyribs act?
KR: I started doing more dance near the end of the Gourds, and I was trying to be a better showman. I felt like our shows needed to be better and I wanted to do my part. I don’t know that it was the right thing for the Gourds, exactly. They never gave me a hard time about it, though I don’t think they were crazy about it. They had different vision for the band. Ultimately that’s what happened. We grew up. Me and Jimmy had been playing together 25 years from the Coyote days through the Gourds and I think our friendship suffered and is still suffering because we did it too long. We should have stopped earlier. And I think what I learned is to listen to gut instinct.
KV: Were you self-conscious the first time you got up and started really milking the dance part of your show?
KR: No, no, no. I felt like I was free to do what I want. I spent many years thinking of great ideas for things to do on a show. I was writing a ton of songs, and stylistically the Gourds were moving a different way and I was exploring a lot of older music that I was interested in and stealing it.
KV: When you started performing as Shinyribs in Houston, it was just you.
KR: Yeah I started doing the solo gig in Houston at Under the Volcano for extra money. This is around 2008 when things were getting rough. The economy was in bad shape and that hit us pretty hard too—that, combined with digital sharing of music. YouTube, to be honest. Sales went way down. The music industry completely started to change. And ticket sales went down because nobody had money. People were freaking out. And gas went really high and that was killing us touring. So we needed money and I got this gig to make extra money for the family. That was a hard night, once a month. I started falling asleep at the wheel on the way back. I was like okay, I can’t do this anymore. So I started bring people with me to the gig and it just progressed from there. And those shows gave me confidence and a place to experiment with songs styles and ideas.
KV: Then you came to a fork in the road, I guess.
KR: I started adding people, and I had a great band and all these great songs we’d worked out and great arrangements. So I thought, Well, time to make a record. We started making records and the offers kept getting bigger along with the crowds until I saw it was going to surpass the Gourds. I tried to do both and because I didn’t want to just quit the Gourds. I had been playing with them so long. I was loyal to them. Whole families have been on that income; I didn’t want to be mean about it and put anybody in bad financial situation. So I tried to be in both for awhile till I had to devote more time to Shinyribs and that’s what started the whole argument about what led to the demise of that band. I started making more with Shinyribs quick because I could devote all my time to it creatively, musically, ticket sales—everything.
KV: Part of that shift to Shinyribs includes becoming the band leader, right?
KR: I make the decisions. So it’s where you’re eating that day. Or if you’re going to come home after a gig or stay. It’s easy. I just make the decision. I mean, they can do their own thing too. They are grown-ups with motor vehicles and money and credit cards. And Shinyribs band are all grown-ups. Self-motivated, smart, talented people.
KV: What is your process?
KR: I sit at this couch with this little nylon guitar most of the time or a uke. I go through phases of how I write. I change instruments sometimes. Sometimes I write on piano. I write on envelopes, like today I wrote on scrap paper. That’s my process. If I have an instrument in my hand I’m going to learn a song or write a song. Most of the time.
KV: So is this like eight hours?
KR: If I get a good idea I’ll follow it through, and that can take half an hour or two hours. I won’t work on it much longer. If it doesn’t write itself or fall into place lyrically then I’ll record the musical idea on a phone. I have a lot of those ideas, and then sometimes, like today, I picked up a riff and the first thing I played is the riff. I took my son to school and that riff is still in my head, and I keep singing it. And I come back and my wife’s about to go to work and then she’s gone, and I sat down and the riff is there. I’d figure out a chord thing and the words start coming of me and I take a break. I put out the trash or take dog out. And then I’m talking to my dog sometimes or I’m talking to myself and I remember that song and put some new words in. The song stays in my head for a little while. I’m not obsessive about it.
KV: Then you record it and take it to the band?
KR: Then I take it out to my shed where I have a studio. I have a drum machine, and I’ll get it in time and play a drum idea, get the feel of it. I have a good sense of rhythm and I try to make a unique rhythmic thing because I’m into that. The feel of it—it has to do with the guitar or the instrument and the drums. And I’ll add bass or another instrument just to add some harmony ideas or get some horn ideas with keyboards or my voice and ideas for what the Shiny Soul Sisters might sing. I think about that with the band in mind. It’s an arrangement sketch. Eventually, I’ll send those demos to the band, and they’ll listen and know them in their heads and we’ll have a rehearsal live here over a period of weeks. Lately, we’ve been re-learning some of the songs on the new record that we haven’t been playing live. There are a few we haven’t played since we recorded so we’ve been working on those three or four songs. Some we have been playing live going way back, like “Trouble, Trouble.” Or “Tub Gut Stump,” I’ve had that since the Gourds days. But they fit in this group of songs. You think a song is gone, you’ve been playing it forever and you’re tired of it. And then you make a record, and it works for that old song. And it’s kinda neat how they find new life.
KV: This is a great record. It feels like you’re listening to a classic record.
KR: We felt great the whole time. We still talk about that week. It was it was a love fest. It was the right time right place, all the right personnel. Dream job. It went by so fast. Within three days it was all done. It was all live. We rehearsed everything and had Jimbo Mathus produce it and directing us, and he’s a super colorful guy from Mississippi. Awesome character and brilliant musical guy. Real instinctive. He feels it.
KV: But the first time you’ll play it all is at Gruene Hall on February 24?
KR: Yup, at the Gruene Hall show. There are three or four we haven’t done live. We did them when we recorded and said, “We’ll wait till the record comes out.” I don’t know why—there’s so much material. That’s the problem I have now: how to make a set. I’ve been working up medleys like Willie does. I love that. I don’t know how the audience is going to react to it. It’s an old school thing: To do a medley of hits—popular songs people always ask for.
KV: What is different about this new record? Anything different in the way you recorded it, or in the intention?
KR: I was really into swamp pop music. That’s another offshoot of playing Houston—the Volcano specifically. The guys who I met there were swamp pop geeks. Roger Wood, who is a professor at Rice, has written great books about Houston blues, and Clinton Broussard from Port Arthur is a DJ and does a podcast called “A Day in the Life.” He made me CD comps of swamp pop. It’s an obscure genre. It’s regional, and I’ve really gotten into the idea of being regional. I think of Shinyribs as a regional band. It’s a romantic notion, but it’s a good business model. It’s easy. I’m making money around the region and I don’t have to tour. You work long weekends, but that’s what I would have to do like if I worked an antique show. That’s what I’m doing: running a musical antique show.
KV: Do you see regionalism as the future for more bands?
KR: Essentially that’s what all the red dirt bands are. It’s already a model. There have always been regional bands. You know, Bob Schneider is a regional guy; the model does really well for him. It’s a smart model. The way the music industry is, you can promote yourself cheaply and easily now and the internet is great for that. It is a good tool.
KV: Do you have any kind of schedule binding you to come out with new stuff or do you get to take however long you want making new stuff?
KR: I mean a lot of that based for me—I’m my own record label. And I’m like Prince in that I want to record a song one day and put it out the next. But there are reasons to wait and release it at the right time and get publicity set up. I understand that now. The best way to figure out it is to do it yourself. You pay out of pocket. You see the expenses. It has been an education for me.