Celebrating twenty years as a band, Reckless Kelly - Cody and Willy Braun, David Abeyta, Jay Nazz and Joe Miller - released their ninth studio album, Sunset Motel, on September 23rd. Released on their own label, No Big Deal, and distributed by Thirty Tigers, the album is flush with roots rockers and ballads that showcase the musicianship and songcraft that have made the quintet staples in the Texas scene and beyond for the past two decades. Cody, Jay, and Willy graciously took some time during AmericanaFest to sit down and talk in-depth about the album, breaking through the noise and more.
So let's start off with the album's title, why did you choose to call the record Sunset Motel?
Willy Braun (WB): I pretty much knew “Sunset Motel” the song was going to make the record and to me, that title sounded like a classic record - in the way that a lot of great bands had their own motel or hotel album. I think it’s a strong song that lent itself to some pretty good artwork and then the whole thing kind of fell into place.
In the age when digital is king, Reckless Kelly still takes great pride in making complete albums that are accompanied by exceptionally done packaging. For Sunset Motel, they once again worked with the Grammy Award winning Dodds sisters of Backstage Design Studio. The packaging comes with a map insert and a room key that, as you hover over the map/drawings, reveals many unique surprises.
Speaking of the artwork, it’s so creatively done with lots of avenues to explore, like your previous album, Long Night Moon. Once again you collaborated with the Dodds, how much input did you have or did you let them run with it?
WB: The girls [Shauna and Sara Dodds] did most of it, but Cody and I drew some of the doodles and sketches on the backside of the map, which is a good size with the cd, but is even fuller size if you get the vinyl. [There are a limited number - 1000 - of the vinyl available.]
Cody Braun (CB): Willy came up with the idea to use the red and blue colors from the old Cracker Jack boxes, where you would get that thing so you could see the messages, and then the Dodds took it and ran with it. There are some really neat things with the album; for example, if you take the key and look at the road map from afar it’s a snake coiled up…and if you put the key over Mt. Rushmore, the faces change…to ours (laughing). And like Willy said, the vinyl is incredible. It comes with postcards and stationary from the hotel, and if you place the stationary on certain spots on the map it ties in with different lyrics and all this other stuff. It’s beyond cool.
To make the record, you guys returned to Arlyn Studios which is where your first record was made. Had you been back since?
WB: We did a sixteen song demo there fifteen years ago, on 9/11 actually. The first day we went in was September 11th, so it was kind of a weird place to be on that day. In fact, we almost canceled the session, but what else were we going to do? So we’d go record a track, catch up on what was going on on television and then record another track or two. Other than that, this is the only time we have been back because they were focusing on different things like editing, digital media, and soundtracks. The same people who own Arlyn own Pedernales, and so about a year ago they closed down that place, took all of the gear and re-did Arlyn; so it’s really a badass, top of the line studio right now.
CB: When we did the first record there we didn’t have any money and we didn’t know what we were doing. We ended up having to remix the entire record because we hired a producer who didn’t quite know what they were doing and Lisa and Freddy [Fletcher who co-own Arlyn] were so great about it. Then another time, a different producer almost burned Pedernales to the ground by accident, so we thought they’d never work with us again, but when we returned this time, Lisa was like “Of course, we love you guys!” I don’t know how or why she loves us but (laughing)…recording there again was really fun.
It was perfect timing too, and pretty nostalgic, going back there to work on this record for our 20th anniversary. It was the first opportunity we had to kick back and have fun in the studio - and we were having so much of it that we extended our ten-day stay to sixteen or seventeen. We didn’t want to leave.
Initially, you were going to use an outside producer, but you [Willy and Cody] ended up producing it with David.
WB: We were in talks with T Bone Burnett, but the schedules didn’t line up. So we finally had to pull the trigger and do it on our own - which worked out great I think.
Willy, you have said that you wrote thirty or so songs before narrowing it down to the thirteen on the record. How does it work with the rest of the band? Does everyone help in arranging and fleshing out the songs?
WB: I wrote 30-40 songs, but I didn’t bring all of them to the band because I could tell some of them weren’t that good. The process is kind of a long one, but we ended up working up 20-25 songs and cutting twenty of them with everyone helping to arrange them. Everyone also picks their favorites and lobbies for ones to make it and not make it. A couple of songs like “Give It Up,” which I didn’t think was all that strong, would not have made it, but Joe [Miller] really wanted to cut it…probably because it had a cool bass line (laughing). But once we cut it, it was actually pretty cool. So you never really know what’s going to make it or not until you give a song a try.
Jay Nazz (JN): It’s not like we have a dynamic where Willy writes a song and says it has to be a certain way. We always collectively end up on the same page at the final state of the tune, but some songs evolve differently in the studio from the way they started out. And others don’t need to evolve, they’re right where they’re supposed to be. It’s definitely nice to have that kind of dynamic in a band where we really don’t know what to expect and often watch as a song grows into something different.
CB: We always make records, whether concept records or not, that have a beginning and an ending with a nice up and down flow. So it’s really about finding the songs that flow and all work together collectively...and having a bunch of songs to choose from always makes it easier. And even with the ones that didn’t make the record – they’re still cool songs, they just didn’t fit in as well with the other ones.
Were all of the songs written since Long Night Moon or were some older?
WB: Other than “Buckaroo” and “Radio,” which is another one Joe rescued, they're all new. “Buckaroo” we pulled from a demo we cut a long time ago. I always liked the song, but it had more of a country type vibe that was different from the other records. After sitting on it, I said let’s bring this back and do it with a totally different attitude. We went into it with like a Nirvana meets country vibe and it came out pretty cool.
“Radio” I wrote for Good Luck and True Love, but it wasn’t quite there lyrically, so I went back and listened to it, thought the melody was pretty cool and kind of rewrote the whole thing. It ended up being one of my favorite tracks on the album.
CB: I think the timing of that song is more relevant to what’s happening now with radio and the industry. It makes a lot more sense to have that on a record now than years ago.
It is definitely a timely song. Robert Earl Keen has said he’d love a hit and would write specifically with getting one in mind. What about Reckless Kelly; after 20 years together and much success inside and outside of Texas, is that something you guys want?
WB: Not enough to force it. We don’t ever want to write songs about a pick-up truck or whatever the thing is to write about that everybody gets on, and puts out. We’ve always just wanted to make good records and music that we’re proud of and if one of those songs becomes a hit, then that’s awesome, but we don’t really want to do anything we normally wouldn’t do just to get a hit.
Reckless Kelly had a showcase at this year's AmericanaFest which was held in Nashville during the third week of September. Their forty-five minute set satisfied long-time fans in attendance as well as introduced their music to, and made new fans out of, listeners who were hearing them for the first time.
Many of the artists at AmericanaFest seem to follow the same mindset. They are doing things independently and staying true to themselves, and in doing so gaining a loyal following based around making music they’re proud of.
CB: Americana seems to be all of the underground bands that don’t have a spot in the mainstream. It’s fun to be a part of it right now especially when fans all of a sudden discover these bands they’ve never heard of – yet many are established, with sometimes several records behind them. It’s great to be a part of that.
And the Americana umbrella seems to be willing to embrace Texas-based artists pretty openly.
CB: Yeah, I think so. The Texas thing is spreading far and wide these days and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we really don’t compete with one another - we support one another. Randy Rogers and Cody Canada talk about us; we talk about Micky and the Motorcars and Stoney LaRue; and so once you find one band, you end up hearing about all of the rest of them. We tour together, play the same festivals and are on each other’s records.
The Texas thing used to be very specific, with bands just doing that - singing songs about Texas. Some bands, like us, Cross Canadian Ragweed and Jason Boland have always been on the cusp. We’re not necessarily Texas country, we don’t have any songs about Texas, and we aren’t from Texas, although we live there now, but we fit in there. And now there are bands who have branched out of that and fit into the Americana scene. It’s a cool thing to see bands broadening their horizons, rather than stick themselves into that one thing, which is very easy to do in Texas because you can make a really great living just playing Texas and catering to that crowd. But people like Jack Ingram and Robert Earl Keen wanted to get out and do other things and the Americana scene has allowed us, and those other bands, to have another place to hang our hat.
JN: I don’t mean this in a negative way, but for anyone who is looking for music…..well, there is just so much noise out there. And the goal for us is to get through the noise and reach the people who would enjoy listening to our music. So sometimes you might find a piggy back of sorts – if Texas music is coming into Americana it might help to reach the type of fan who likes a certain style of music. You just need to find different ways to get through the noise to get to those people who are out there. It’s a challenge, but you have to figure out ways to accomplish that.
CB: For me, the Texas thing is filling the void of what country music used to be. If you want to listen to pedal steel, fiddle, harmonies and story songs, then Texas country is where it’s at. I think it’s an important void that needs to be filled because country music on the radio, well, it’s what some people like, but it’s not country music. Americana is a little deeper. The fans of Americana are the ones that dig in a little bit more and want to hear something with a little more soul to it. There’s a lot of great stuff if you dive into that world.
Absolutely and I think people are willing to take that dive.
So do you think with all of the attention that AmericanaFest and the artists are getting, that there might be a shift?
CB: No. If you’re not in bed with major labels and giving them a percentage of what you do they’re not going to let you in. That’s just the way it is, well, it’s my opinion, but it doesn’t matter who you are or how good you are, if they’re not getting a big chunk of it, you’re not going to get on the radio.
This release has been receiving a great deal of press with song premieres in noteworthy publications and the album itself premiering in its entirety on Team Coco. Pretty big deal.
CB: Yeah it’s great. It got about 12,000 listens the first day which is pretty neat.
JN: Going back to talking about breaking through the noise, these types of premieres we have had are significant to me because it may be opening up a musical door to someone who hasn’t heard us before, helping us reach a broader base. It's exciting to break through and find that person who will benefit emotionally, or in whatever way, from hearing your music.
CB: It’s almost like you don’t need radio anymore to have success. Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton are prime examples of people who have accomplished that. And that goes to show you that you can break through without major labels or the support of the mainstream [radio]. You don’t have to rely on that old school way that believed that if you’re not on the radio then you’re not relevant.
And particularly in Texas, but outside as well, do you feel like you guys have accomplished that?
CB: Yeah absolutely. We’re so happy to be making a living doing what we love. We all own our own home, car and have health insurance, so I don’t know what else there is. In our minds, it’s been a lot of work, but I don’t know what else we really have to have in order to feel like were successful.
Before we end I wanted to circle back to the record. One particular song that is a current favorite is “Forever Today.” Is there a story behind that one?
WB: I can’t really remember where I got that line from, but most of my songs start off with something someone said, something I read or heard or something that may have happened. The song may start off somewhat true, but as I’m writing the song evolves and so by the time a song is completed it’s 90% fiction. I try not to be too specific when I write either, so the listener can relate to it on their own level; if you kind of tell people what it’s about it might spoil their ideas. This one’s going to be good with the wedding scene though (laughing).
The album begins with “How Can You Love Him” and closes with “Under Lucky Stars,” which reminds me of Long Night Moon. Is there any particular reason you bookended the album that way?
WB: This was a really hard album to sequence for some reason because there were a few songs on it that didn’t really fit anywhere. I couldn’t imagine “Lucky Stars” being anywhere but the end because anything after it would just seem weird to me. “Radio” was also tough because it’s such a rocker and “Volcano” was another one that snuck in there at the buzzer – we weren’t even going to put that one on the album until the very last minute. So it was a tough one, but what I usually do is put the songs on a cd and listen while I’m driving around in my truck. In the end, I got it to where it finally worked and that was really all about what song sounds good going into the next one; that’s the only rhyme or reason to it.
Finally, there are so many new and rising artists here at AmericanaFest. Who have you guys been listening to lately?
WB: I’ve been listening to this band from Sweden, First Aid Kit. Their music was the soundtrack to some skiing video I saw somewhere and the song was just so awesome that I stopped the video, looked them up and ten minutes later downloaded every single one of their records. Jazz actually told me about them two years ago, but I just wasn't listening....
JN: It takes him about two years to process anything I tell him (laughing). When I’m at home I listen to so much vinyl. I re-celebrate the music I've been listening to forever, by listening to it again on my turntable. I also really like Paul Thorn. We’ve been doing some shows with those guys and they’re so awesome. The band is great, his songs are great, and he’s such an awesome personality in the way he works the crowd. He did Merlefest last year and a friend of mine who was at the show and he said he’ll be playing Merlefest for the rest of his life due to how he got the crowd totally wrapped into his set.
CB: The Cactus Blossoms. I stumbled into their set at a festival in Chicago that we were both playing. They have such a terrific old school kind of sound. I also go to the record store and buy stuff that I may have missed the first time around, stuff that may have come out before I was even born or maybe the record of someone I'm just discovering. There’s so much music out there from all different genres that what I like doing is finding stuff that’s older and unheard of - the bands that slipped through the cracks.
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RK will be at City Winery NYC on October 25th with Micky and The Motorcars. Purchase tickets here.