Old Hat Americana
The broken-in nostalgia of Flatbed Honeymoon
By Christie MathernePosted Aug 31, 2011
If you’ve never looked up the definition of Americana, don’t – it won’t tell you much.
Americana is what happens when an English professor starts a band with two highly qualified blues guitarists and a drummer who bought his first drum kit from a guy named Whiskey Pete in Los Angeles. The four-piece Baton Rouge band, Flatbed Honeymoon, sticks with the Americana label simply because there’s nothing else that accurately describes them.
Songs in Americana
“What does it mean, anyway?” said Kevin Casper, drummer for Flatbed Honeymoon. “It’s rock-n-roll, a little bit rock, little bit of country…”
After listening to their self-titled first album and their recent follow-up, The Traveler, it’s clear that shoving them into a more specific genre would be tough. Yet, it’s also clear that everyone who hears their music will call them something different, and will be absolutely sure of the declaration.
Someone who doesn’t listen to much country would label Flatbed Honeymoon as “country,” while a contemporary country fan would say the opposite. They’ve got twang, for sure, but they’re not pop-oriented like today’s country chart-toppers. They’ve got ballads, but they’re not ballads that would cause a Texas Club patron to find a slow-dance partner. Some of the songs sound like Johnny Cash at his darkest, and then, there’s one song on The Traveler – “Me and the Boys” – that sounds more like an Irish drinking song than any of the above.
When a band isn’t quite a cookie-cutter fit, sometimes the best clue lies in the name they go by. Who would sleep in the bed of a truck on their honeymoon? A couple that not only doesn’t have a lot of money, but also doesn’t care much about money. In fact, they might even prefer the truck to a hotel room.
“That sort of works out well for us,” Casper responded to the suggestion. “We don’t make any money, and we don’t have any money.”
“There’s a certain kind of whimsy to it,” added guitarist and vocalist, Eric Schmitt. “It’s kind of like how I’ve always worn this hat when I play, and it’s all torn up. I like things that are kind of imperfect; there’s still something kind of beautiful to it.”
That’s the sort of lyrical sentiment you’ll find on The Traveler, more so than current country and folk motifs. As the album’s title suggests, there’s a lot of restlessness present. Many of the tracks are about traveling – some are fairly straightforward, while others offer a different perspective. In the case of “Nashville,” penned and sung by bassist Denise Brumfield, it’s seen from the side of a woman whose lover booked it to Tennessee, but it’s not about a broken country girl’s heart. Quite the opposite, actually, with lyrics like, “If I’d have woke up a little earlier/I’d have laid you in your grave,” and, “If you ever come back/I’ll throw some things at you.”
The Traveler is an accidental concept album, which is kind of unlikely, considering all four members of the band write their own songs.
“We realized we had a bunch of songs that were about traveling, being restless, different places… going places,” said guitarist Jimmy Sehon. “It’s a light theme going through the whole thing.”
The concept blossomed out of that coincidence, and was eventually tied together with a simple fragment of a melody. If you’re not looking for it, you might not notice it – the detail works on more of a subconscious level.
“I had this little guitar piece I was working with, and Eric started playing this nice melody over the top of it on the trumpet,” said Sehon. “So we decided to take that melody and intersperse it throughout the album, as a little motif to tie everything together.”
Right before the first cut, the melodic watermark makes its first appearance, and Schmitt’s trumpet repeats it in “Vagabond Heart.” You can hear him whistling it right before “Me and the Boys,” and, according to Sehon, “if you wait and don’t flip the needle right when it’s over,” the flourish ends the album. “Kind of like bookends to the whole thing,” Sehon said.
That sort of attention to detail during recording is a luxury that most independent bands can’t afford. Musicians generally spend very little time in the actual studio due to recording costs, but this time around, Flatbed Honeymoon reaped the benefits of doing it alone.
They were able to take their time with The Traveler because they recorded it in a room Schmitt built behind his house, and Casper had sound engineering experience and all the necessary equipment. The newfound freedom allowed them to expand their recording time to nine months of Saturday recording sessions (compared to two long weekends spent recording their first album). Much of that time was spent figuring out details that no one thinks about.
“A lot of it is trial and error,” said Sehon. “None of us are professional engineers, and it was a lot of moving mics around, trying to get certain sounds. And we could spend a week – and sometimes we did – placing a mic or getting a guitar sound.”
In the process, they stumbled across some techniques they might never have discovered had they not been stumbling.
“Me and Schmitt were in here one night [working on ‘The Traveler’] and it wasn’t really working,” Casper said of a certain 2 a.m. session. “So we just muted those tracks, and then we just started doing shakers, and high-hats, and…I don’t know, we just did a bunch of different sh*t. And a few days later, we got the session back up. It was a mess, because we’d done it while we were drunk, so we cleaned it up, and I just thought… I don’t remember doing this. But I would have never thought of how to do that. That song is one of my favorite parts of the album.”
Is dedication to detail a quality of Americana, or is it the raw complexity of lyrical mastery? Is it stumbling across a method or musical sequence that no one has ever played before during a tipsy recording session? Or is it just another word for country?
The straw hat of music
What you’ll find on the latest Flatbed Honeymoon album is the reason the American Music Association invented the term “Americana” in the 1990s.
They don’t fit in. By abridged definition, they are Americana, but that umbrella term covers country, soul, R&B, blues, folk, rock, indie, and any number of genre permutations critics can come up with in an attempt to put a sound into words – words that don’t quite fit them, either. After talking to Flatbed Honeymoon in Schmitt’s hardwood recording studio (which still smelled pleasantly of cedar chips), I reasoned that it might be better to rely on English professor Schmitt’s old hat metaphor:
“And I guess, in a way, that hat’s kind of like our band. We don’t worry about hiding those flaws; it’s just part of it. We have good songs, and we present them in a way, I guess you could say…it’s not really raw, because we’re fairly polished, but it’s not perfect.”
Flatbed Honeymoon sounds like your favorite hat feels: imperfect but perfectly broken-in, with an angle for every occasion; endearing, because it doesn’t fit anyone else’s head but yours.
Look up Flatbed Honeymoon on YouTube for a few gems, including a live clip of Eric Schmitt singing and playing the trumpet simultaneously.
For the real deal, experience Flatbed Honeymoon live at Red Star on Friday, September 2.