The God Save the Queen City Festival gig at Snug Harbor is being billed as a “reunion” show. The Houston Brothers move at their own pace. You have taken several breaks over the years, only to come back with a new record or tour. Justin, your other band Ancient Cities is building some serious momentum. Matt, you just launched a general contractor’s business, among other endeavors. You’ve both got families. What’s in store for the band, and can fans like us start getting excited about another burst of output from The Houston Brothers?
Justin Faircloth (“JF”): – We’re certainly excited to be together again. Our output is at an interesting place right now. We’ve been away a couple years and are just starting to play together again. We’ve been learning new musical influences from each other and have two gigs lined up – the GSTQCF gig at Snug next week and then an HB2 opposition gig that our friends John Lindsay and Kenny Roby from Raleigh are organizing. We’re also excited to get back in the studio this winter. Both Matt and I have a lot of songs that we’ve built up over the years.
You mentioned that you’re learning new influences from each other. What have you been listening to that’s informing your current sound?
JF – I’ve been picking up a lot of new stuff with Ancient Cities – 70s psych stuff with keyboards. A little bit more synth stuff than we’ve done previously.
Matt Faircloth (“MF”) – I’ve been listening to and playing a lot of folk and bluegrass. Stripped down music, vocal heavy. I’m talking about the real bluegrass, not the flashy stuff. There’s some darkness. I’ve been playing in remote areas a lot where that’s pretty much the only thing I can play. And I’ve got my kids around, so playing acoustic is good for them. But I’ve also been working with a bass synth, which has a much bigger sound.
With the exception of the bass synth, you’re kind of on opposite ends of the spectrum there. How do those influences come together in the newest Houston Brothers sound?
JF – We’re really focused on live playing, which has to be to the point that it’s intuitive for Matt and me. Otherwise it all falls apart. We’re keeping it sparse, like bluegrass or folk music.
MF – I’ve been listening to brothers play together. The Louvins. The Stanleys. That’s kind of what it’s all about for us.
Benji Hughes is the headliner for the Snug gig. He’s had a big year, with the release of his album Songs in the Key of Animals on Merge Records and the corresponding attention from the national press. What has his music meant to you over the years?
JF – We haven’t seen him in a while, but he’s like family to us. Benji has been a tremendous influence, especially when it comes to songwriting. He’s taught me about lyrical composition and how not to take myself too seriously, but at the same time, to maintain high standards.
MF – Benji is just a great guy and has always been supportive of what we do. When we used to play gigs, we’d been unloading our gear – and we have way too much great for a two-piece – but we’d be unloading our gear and Benji would be there to help us carry it. He would carry some really heavy gear for us.
I know you played with him in The Goldenrods but I was curious if you ever had any interaction with Muscadine. I just think it’s awesome that Benji and Jonathan, through his work with Father John Misty, have become these quirky, Nilson-esque pop musicians. But Muscadine was a straight up grunge band.
JF – Benji and Jonathan [Wilson] were just starting to wind Muscadine down when I moved back to Charlotte from Portland. Benji and I started playing together as a two-piece for a while. Then Mark [Lynch], David [Kim], and Randolph [Lewis] joined, and then Matt became part of the band. And that’s how the Goldenrods got started.
MF – We kind of knew Jonathan [of Muscadine]. I remember some late nights playing folk songs with him at his house. That’s what the Charlotte music community is like. There are all these different bands and styles, but the musicians hang out and play together a lot.
Other artists on the GSTQC residency lineup include Troy Conn of The Fat Face Band and Jason Scavone. If I’m not mistaken, all of you went to West Charlotte High School. So did a bunch of other Charlotte musicians such as Grant Funderburk, Jon Licare, John Lindsay, Ward Duvall, and a bunch of others I'm not mentioning here. What was it about West Charlotte that produced such a talented and long-lasting group of musicians?
MF – Pretty sure it would have to be because of Mr. Davenport’s jazz band.
JF – Yeah, that jazz band was where I learned to play drums. We were always short on drummers, so I got to play drums a lot. But I was second chair. There was a guy ahead of me who was better
Do you know where Mr. Davenport went to school or received his training?
MF – No, but I know he was into Count Basie, Duke Ellington. Big band stuff like that. He used to talk about playing small jazz clubs around here. He would laugh about having to jump on stage and take the bass away from people who didn’t know what they were doing.
With venues like Snug Harbor, events like God Save the Queen City Festival, and artists like Benji Hughes, Ancient Cities and The Houston Brothers, the city of Charlotte has proven itself to be a vibrant place for local musicians. It is capable of supporting a musical community, producing talented artists, and providing top-notch experiences for fans and supporters. So why are music venues like The Double Door, Tremont Music Hall, the Chop Shop and Amos’ Southend closing their doors without reopening? I understand that real estate development makes the economics difficult in existing locations, but why aren’t at least some of these venues moving to lower-rent parts of town to keep the business going.
JF – There’s also a lot of historic buildings [not just music venues] that are being redeveloped, so the music venues are a part of that trend. And that bothers me. But Charlotte is a city where there is constant change. And there are a lot of entertainment options. I think a lot of these venue owners have been doing it for a long time and it’s a hard business. I think some of them are just ready to try something new.
Charlotte has a reputation of being a “corporate city.” Large numbers of young people move here, but they come for a career and a nine-to-five. It’s not like the Triangle where there are a lot of grad students or folks with jobs where they might not have to be at work bright and early the next day and therefore have no problem checking a band out on a Wednesday night. Charlotte doesn’t have that. Is there something wrong with Charlotte music fans?
JF – We’re not trying to criticize anyone. We just want to do our part to contribute and have something to say. And if it’s good enough, people will come check us out.
MF – I’m currently living in Southend and there are tons of young people. But there is no local music and barely any live music at all. I agree with you about Charlotte being a corporate city. Plus a lot of people leave town on the weekends.
JF – Charlotte as a city is just not as strong a supporter of arts and music as other towns are. Other cities and towns have the arts as a fixture of their identity, a central part of the collective lifestyle. Charlotte has never been this way. We certainly have the quality as far as artists and their work, but it remains an alternative to the mainstream. But the ones who are here, have been for a long time, are still working to help change that.
MF – We give a ton of credit to Dave [Collier] and Eric [Leaf] of Ink Floyd, who have organized God Save the Queen City Fest. It’s changed over the years but they’ve been able to keep it going with a real focus on Charlotte musicians. At this stage of my life, I’m not interested in the “look at me” element of being on stage. I’m much more interested in supporting what’s going on in Charlotte.
The mission of Cream Puff Records, as both a record store and music blog, is to highlight and celebrate the phenomenal musical heritage of North Carolina. While big-time acts like The Avett Brothers are crucial components of that legacy, we believe it’s the lesser-known artists that truly define our state’s musical legacy. One of those artists is Mitch Easter, with whom The Houston Brothers worked on your 2011 EP The Archer. What was it like working with him and can you comment on how his music has had an impact on The Houston Brothers?
JF – Working with Mitch was a ton of fun. We just mixed the record with him though. The way the Houston Brothers record is to do it all on our own, in a home studio or wherever. And then we bring a full record to an engineer to mix and do their best to make sense of it. So that makes it hard for a third-party to get fully invested in the creative process. But we love Mitch’s sound. I love the shimmering 60s qualities he brings. He’s got a Brian Wilson aesthetic. And a great studio.
MF – I just think it’s great how someone like him can follow his passion and create this awesome place out in the country [Fidelitorium Studios in Kernersville] and do what he loves and make great records. And he’s an entrepreneur.
How did you guys get connected with him?
MF – Brian McKenney made it happen. He was running Chocolate Lab records at the time. He released our record on his Chocolate Lab label and was doing PR for us.
JF – But we knew Mitch and had played with him. We played a couple of gigs with him back then.