Don't call them bluegrass: Austin's own Whiskey Shivers aim to bringbarn-burning party rock to the masses
Austin’s barn-burning Whiskey Shivers finished 2011 on several “best new band” lists and are poised for a breakout year in 2012. They're releasing a 7” record today, actually — and an EP recorded at Gillian Welch’s studio is on the way.
The five-piece old-timey roots party band is on the upward slope of a classic 21st century band trajectory: They found each other on Craigslist in 2009 and made a name for themselves worldwide with a video that has over a quarter million views.
Locally, the band has poured everything they have into hundreds of gigs around town. “I averaged it out,” says upright bassist Andrew VanVoorhees. “We played three gigs a week last year.”
I caught up with the band on a particularly busy night; we met at Swan Dive on Red River before their first of two sound checks for their two Saturday night gigs.
VanVoorhees, dragging a standup bass and smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, was the first to figure out the doors were locked. Fiddler Bobby Fitzgerald and guitarist Jeff “Horti” Hortillosa were next to arrive, Bobby barefoot and still a little dazed from a party they played the night before. Banjo player Evan Heidtmann was last, stuck finding parking for the gig. Washboard player Joe Deuce would miss the sound check altogether.
The Whiskey Shivers love what they do, and are wildly entertained while doing it.
From finagling their way in to navigating double sound checks wedged into a night with multiple gigs, two things were already clear: The Whiskey Shivers love what they do, and are wildly entertained while doing it. “There’s a lot of stuff we think is hilarious,” Hortillosa says. “We laugh a lot, sometimes people laugh with us too,” VanVoorhees adds.
Only Deuce is from Austin, but the city is a perfect fit for this band that plays roots music with an indie attitude. “There’s an Austin thing where there’s a little bit of humor in everything you do. I think we fit in well with that,” VanVoorhees points out. “You hear things you don’t normally hear.”
Fitzgerald learned to play fiddle from a guy who played at square dances in his upstate New York hometown. Hortillosa grew up in Kentucky, but everybody points to Heidtmann, the banjo player who at this point in the conversation is still circling downtown looking for a parking spot, as the group's most legitimate musician.“We’ll talk for [Evan] here,” Hortillosa jokes. “He didn’t have TV growing up and his parents only had bluegrass records, that was his entertainment.”
The guys have played in other kinds of bands individually, from rockabilly to acoustic pop trios, but all have a mutual love for old music — as long as you don’t call it bluegrass.
Horti noted that their “barn-dance-y” music dates back before bluegrass, which came up in the 1940s with artists like Flat and Scruggs and Bill Monroe. However, this somewhat serious discussion quickly devolved into laughter (as most often happens).
VanVoorhees: If we were at some symposium or something … we’d just look… it's not safe to say.
Hortillosa: We got called out once at the Hole in the Wall by this girl, we’d been playing for like 45 minutes and she said, ‘So, you guys gonna play any bluegrass songs?’
VanVoorhees: I think we were playing Harvey Danger.
Fitzgerald: It’s trashgrass.
The guys love to play together and, for the past two years, took any gig they could get. They’ve played comedy shows and punk shows — even weddings. “I think the weddings have been pretty strange,” VanVoorhees says, noting that it’s a great way to make money. “And there’s free booze and food.”
Word spread of the band's talent after the video for “Gimme All Your Lovin’” hit YouTube. “That video has been huge for us,” Fitzgerald says, explaining that its origins were simple — they wanted to make a video. “Our buddy Rob Wadleigh was doing film stuff. He figured it all out.”
Hortillosa: It was sixteen hours lying underneath a giant shirt with four dudes in a warehouse.
Fitzgerald: Drinking whiskey out of a turkey baster.
“A turkey baster?” I needed clarification.
Fitzgerald: We had to lay on our backs and Kelsey, my fiancé, made the shirt. She was walking around with the turkey baster, squirting whiskey in our mouths while we were in the shirt.
VanVoorhees: We had no idea what was going on, we were just laying on benches.
Hortillosa: You know those sensory deprivation chambers, where you are surrounded by water? It was like that, only opposite; it was a sensory overload chamber.
That video has almost 350,000 views and has brought them national attention. The band now has a booking agent, a manager —and the engineer from the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack offering his services.
The band now has a booking agent, a manager —and the engineer from the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack offering his services.
VanVoorhees says that the gigs have been getting bigger and better.
“We have tunnel vision, we’re used to playing [tiny] stages,” Hortillosa says of a gig opening for Reverend Horton Heat at Antone’s. “I was looking at the people in front of us making sure they’re having a good time, then we look up and out, and there’s just more and more and more.”
But for guys who say they get bored when they’re not playing gigs, their manager is asking them to be more selective. “He already said ‘you guys might want to think about scaling it back,’” VanVoorhees laments.
Still, the band has a packed schedule, with five gigs coming up in February, including a 7” record release show tonight at the Scoot Inn. They recorded the record with their friends Hello Wheels, and it will be available at their shows as well as Waterloo and Breakaway Records.
In March they will hit the road for a brief tour before SXSW, where they’ve been accepted and plan to play some showcases (and hand out copies of the EP to anyone and everyone).
Their ultimate goal for the year is to be added to some summer festivals. Old Settlers, Kerrville folk festival and Austin City Limits are all in the crosshairs of the Whiskey Shivers — so watch out, world, the Shivers just might be coming for you.
The Whiskey Shivers will release their 7” record at the Scoot Inn on Friday, Feb. 10.