ACL Festival 2011
Festival Fever

ACL interview: Cowboy and Indian's Daniel James and Jazz Mills on band dynamics and the feel of the fest

ACL interview: Cowboy and Indian's Daniel James and Jazz Mills on band dynamics and the feel of the fest

Austin Photo Set: News_Sam_ACL 2011_Cowboy and Indian_September 2011_3
Photo by Jessica Pages
Austin Photo Set: News_Sam_ACL 2011_Cowboy and Indian_September 2011_1
Photo by Jessica Pages
Austin Photo Set: News_Sam_ACL 2011_Cowboy and Indian_September 2011_2
Photo by Jessica Pages
Austin Photo Set: News_Sam_ACL 2011_Cowboy and Indian_September 2011_4
Photo by Jessica Pages
Austin Photo Set: News_Sam_ACL 2011_Cowboy and Indian_September 2011_5
Photo by Jessica Pages
Austin Photo Set: News_Sam_ACL 2011_Cowboy and Indian_September 2011_3
Austin Photo Set: News_Sam_ACL 2011_Cowboy and Indian_September 2011_1
Austin Photo Set: News_Sam_ACL 2011_Cowboy and Indian_September 2011_2
Austin Photo Set: News_Sam_ACL 2011_Cowboy and Indian_September 2011_4
Austin Photo Set: News_Sam_ACL 2011_Cowboy and Indian_September 2011_5

To say that Cowboy and Indian—an oft-shifting collective of musicians producing dreamy, bluesy tunes with a satisfyingly vintage feel—are an Austin-based band isn’t wrong, but it’s not the whole story.

In fact, the group’s members spend time in cities across the country (when they’re not extensively touring, that is), though they do have one thing in common: they all consider this city their home.

The group includes singer and guitar player Daniel James (also of Leopold and his Fiction), chanteuse Jazz Mills and guitar-slash-banjoist, Jesse Plemons (whose name might ring a bell for fans of FNL), along with drummer Dorian Colbert, Peder Gilham on bass, vocalist Stephanie Hunt and her sister, Phoebe, a fiddler whose unexpected solos add a layer of retro-Americana nostalgia to Cowboy and Indian’s usually soft, vocal-driven sound.

We sat down with Jazz Mills and Daniel James after their Saturday afternoon ACL set to talk about the fest, the band and the “texture” of their sound.   

How’s your ACL been so far?

JM: It’s been really great, the festival was awesome and it didn’t start raining until just after our set, and there were a lot of our friends there and a lot of new faces, so it was fun for us. Then it started pouring, and I’m actually kind of glad—it’s cooled off, and I don’t mind the rain.

Jazz, what’s it like playing a festival, in the heat, while also pregnant?

JM: Well, you know, I guess it’s as hard as I make it; it can be really hard, but it’s more of a mental battle than it is a physical one, most of the time. You always pretty much physically feel the same, for the most part, and if you’re in a bad mood, then you feel a lot worse, and if you can tough it out, then it’s fine. I was really happy to be here this morning; we’re all such good friends, and my mom was here, a lot of our parents were here. It was special, to have her onstage with me. 

How big is the band, currently?

DJ: Today’s lineup, we had seven people; it’s all like family, we all kind of come and go, we expand to seven and contract down to three sometimes. Any combination works, really.  Today was our full lineup, with seven.

Does playing in Austin, even at a big festival like this, feel different than playing other places on tour?

DJ: Definitely. The cool part about this band is that, with our seven members, we’re all from different cities, we all currently live in different cities. Los Angeles is a hometown too, and we just played a festival out there, so it’s very similar in a sense. But at the same time, Austin is home for everyone. There was a good portion of the crowd we recognized today, and that’s always a great feeling, when you have new fans and old fans, you really get to bridge the gap.

What’s it like trying to coordinate such a large band, when you’re spread out, too?

JM: It’s not too hard, everybody has their iPhones on them all the time, so you can email each other new songs and new ideas and new lyrics, all that stuff. We’re all really committed to doing it, so we talk all the time. Even if we’re not in the same city, we’re all in each others lives all the time. Like Dorian, our drummer, said the other day, it’s almost been better for us because we’re around each other so much already, with the amount we tour, that the space is nice. We’ve had probably about two weeks downtime from touring in the past year and a half, but having that space of knowing that Peter’s going to be in Colorado for a month, or Jesse and Stephanie are going to be in LA for awhile, or it’s just us three touring, it keeps not only the performance and the songwriting fresh for the audience, but for us as well, we’re constantly in a new scene with each other.

You have a really unique sound, and use some instruments that aren’t common in contemporary bands, like the fiddle; what’s your inspiration to include those elements?

DJ: Well, she’s a family member, literally; her and Stephanie are sisters, so to bring the fiddle in… when we started this group, Jazz and Jesse brought me on our of necessity, because of a tour, and Jesse couldn’t make it all with just electric guitar. And after that we were like, that’s enough, we don’t need anything more. But then we started playing with a bass player, and it worked. And he’s a friend of ours. Everyone you see up there is a friend, or family, or close enough to be family, and everyone has found their little niche. If you play fiddle, it’s going to be on there. Jesse plays a little banjo, and we use it. Whatever we can get our hands on and fit into a song, we’ll use it.

What’s funny is that there’s an Appalachian feel to what we do, you know, sort of woodsy, mountains, stuff like that, and what’s funny is the fiddle doesn’t usually end up on that stuff, where it’s obvious—we’ll use it in things that are huge, and expansive, just to create texture. That’s kind of how everyone’s fitting in. I’m still in another band that plays really heavy rock and roll, and it’s really heavy, it’s really guitar-oriented, but with this band I may be playing guitar, but it doesn’t feel like it, it’s like a paintbrush. That’s really how we’re feeling towards most of the instruments: if you step back, what gives the listener the most complete palette to digest.

I loved the men’s room concerts you did at SXSW a few years ago—was there an outcome to that “campaign”?

JM: That, I guess, is one small part of how I ended up meeting Jesse and how we blossomed into Cowboy and Indian. We did that whole thing as a joke, I wasn’t trying to promote myself as a solo artist, I was basically working with a producer at the time who’s a really goofy guy, and he was like, we’ve got to do something that’ll get you arrested. And so he came up with me touring, I think we did like twelve different bathrooms downtown. Jesse did it with me, and it was one of the first things we did together.

Do you find that Jesse’s acting gets highlighted a lot in relation to the band?

JM: He gets a lot of attention—there are definitely people at shows that are like, Crucifictorious! But we don’t really promote it because we don’t want to take that route, he doesn’t want to take that route, and so we steer clear of it. But I’d say yeah, every other show, there’s someone there who’s a big Friday Night Lights fan. But Stephanie’s an actress as well, Phoebe’s been in a really amazing band, Dorian’s played with a lot of other artists, Peder knows a lot of people, we’ve both been in different bands, so everybody’s pulling something different in.

Have you had a chance to see any other bands today?

DJ: I haven’t seen one. It’d be nice to see Stevie Wonder, but I don’t know if we’ll make it—we went to sleep last night at three, after a full day and a show at night, so we’ll see.

Did you play one of the aftershows last night?

DJ: We did. There’s so much going on here now, it’s kind of starting to be a little like SXSW, where it’s all over the place and there’s always something going on.

JM: We played at Momo’s, and the owner is a friend of ours, the people that work there are friends of ours, and we know most of the people there, so it’s like we’re all going to our house to hang out and play and jam. It was fun to go be there with all of our friends and a few new faces; every time we play, there’s such a family vibe there.

ACL does feel a lot like summer camp.

DJ: That’s what this feels like to me, yesterday too. It’s just fun.