Hippies No More: Soulhat Redefines Its Image

The Austin Chronicle 12/2/94

by Mindy LaBernz

Bill Cassis is no hippie. It’s one of the first things he says and is, incidentally, one of the few juicy things he’ll actually say on the record. You see, not only is Soulhat’s guitar player and former manager intent on dispelling the hippie stigma that has tailed this Austin quartet since its earlier, groovier days at the Black Cat – where their long hair, and even longer Dead-like jams cemented their reputation as hippies – he’s also keenly aware of the importance of image, whether it be in the form of quotes to the press or the mysterious baubles and trinkets that dangle around his neck.

“Gris-gris,” he mumbles when asked the contents of the tiny knit bag that acts as charm for his necklace. Greed Weed? Why, that sounds hippie-ish.

“Na, gris-gris,” he says with a trace of contempt. Cocking a condescending brow he asks, “Do you like Dr. John?” Apparently, liking Dr. John and liking Dr. John are two different things. If one liked Dr. John one would know, among other things that his first solo album was entitled Gris-Gris, which means, literally, a kind of voodoo based on African deities and Christian relics (if you’re from down New Orleans way). Then again, it can simply be a fetish – a spiritual reminder of sorts.

In any case, Cassis refuses to expound on the subject, saying cryptically, “You’ll just have to find out about it for yourself.” So the first lesson of the day is not to judge a man by his jewelry. The second, then, is to not judge a band by its covers. Because not only does Cassis want to distance himself from the hippie trappings of his band’s black Cat days, when they were known to slip into the occasional Dead tune, he’ll go so far as to admit – some of you may want to take the younger hippies out of the room for this – he doesn’t even listen to the Grateful Dead.

“I don’t want to dog anybody,” says Cassis with practiced diplomacy, “but I don’t like the Dead.” Since Cassis grew up in rural Maryland listening to Texas blues like Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan, ZZ Top, and what he calls “mossy music,” like his father’s bluegrass or National Public Radio‘s country blues, one could conclude that he perceives the Dead to be butchers of his dear music. However, Cassis refuses to attack the band, insisting instead on saying something positive.

“I could say I love the way they do business,” he says. “Those people are some money-making sons of bitches they created something that’s amazing, that no one else has created.” Something sparks in his deep, green eyes, and reticent, sullen Bill gets enveloped by focused, driven Bill – the Bill who quite successfully took care of business before the band signed on with manager Marc Proct (Jimmie Vaughan, Arc Angels, Storyville).

Cassis rattles off Dead fun-facts like an evangelist repeats the Word. “Grateful Dead Productions has controlled everything from day one, and they’ve made millions and millions of dollars,” he asserts. “They have people who create a lifestyle around their music and their itineraries. I look up to that, but I don’t look up to their music at all. And I’m not into the scene.”

Another scene Soulhat is less a part of than one would expect is the Black Cat scene which has borne the likes of Little Sister and the Ugly Americans. Cassis says they’re all friends, keeping each other abreast of the things different record labels were telling them when they were all being courted. Still, he insists musical tastes differ within the scene. “There are a couple other local bands that have been put on that same neo-hippie plate [as Soulhat],” says the guitarist. “You’ll talk to them, and they like the Dead, Santana, and all the hippie stuff. I’m a fan of Carlos Santana – not what comes from his music, but his heart. He’s got a huge heart when it comes to his music.”

Soulhat’s music, especially what they were creating live three or four years ago with Live at the Black Cat (their now hard-to-find, independently-released cassette), and 1992’s Outdebox (which Epic rereleased last year), is partly to blame for the hippie moniker; Cassis does not deny that. But he does contend that the band’s free-flowing jam ethic was the inevitable by-product of having to fill a very long three-hour Black Cat slot and a young band extending its musical feelers.

“It was a band that was brand new, and trying to explore the parameters of what their capabilities were playing together,” says Cassis, trying to lasso the abstract. “And one of the best ways to do it, is to play as much as you can to your limits. You kind of refine your sound as you play together. Many bands cannot play improvisationally, because they’ve never explored the limits of their communication. There’s a lot to be said for just letting the music flow out of you. And it wasn’t like we had a plan about how our music was going to develop. We follow a line of what feels good and we go for that.

“That’s one of the reasons why everybody was like [deep radio announcer voice]: ‘They’re doing it their own way. They’re turning down record company offers left and right, ladies and gentlemen. They’re in Con-Trol! It wasn’t because we were trying to do that either. It was just because those things at the time did not feel right so we did not do them.”

So Cassis would have us believe that the wildly successful, self-managed career trajectory Soulhat followed when they were still two words, before Epic Records took over, and Mr. big Wig executive producer Brendan O’Brien signed on – way back when every UT sorority and fraternity planned their social calendar around Soul Hat’s next trip to the bathroom – wasn’t his being savvy. He was merely following his karmic path.

“Maybe I’m a good bullshitter,” he says, lighting a cigarette. “Let’s say lucky. And lucky meaning someone who’s tuned into their path. Things happen for them because they follow that path, and when they deviate from it – like all of a sudden if I want to be a glam rock guy – probably they won’t be that successful. But if I take elements of those things that I really like, an d stay true to what feels right and what seems to be healthy for love or music, things usually turn out well.”

Kevin McKinney is not very cosmic. That’s straight from the monkey’s mouth. He’s not very bulky either. In fact, as Soulhat’s other guitarist unloads an amp from his car in front of Steamboat, he definitely looks like he might pull something. So this is the mighty Bonecrusher, the big manly voice that howls, “I just got back from Hell where I crushed the devil and fucked his wife and all the little demons as well.” Where’s the big, bad, bonecrushing snake? The bulldogs he keeps high on crack?

“That song’s supposed to be a joke, godammit!” he says with mock indignation and a big laugh. I like to be stupid. I’m not a brooder.” To be fair, that outburst didn’t happen until midway through dinner after incessant needling about how such an immediately likable, goofy-sweet guy could sing such dark, vile lyrics. As it turns out, the Bonecrusher is sort of his alter-ego, and his less gregarious drummer wrote the nastiest of the nasty lyrics. Still, try explaining that to his mother to whom he dedicates the song in a low gurgling voice.

For the most part, McKinney is a likeable bundle of insecurity, all shy grins and bemused laughter, and despite his definite distaste for all things analytical, he tries to give straight answers. For example, on the genesis of “Bonecrusher,” the song that’s nailing shut the coffin of Soulhat’s hippie-dippie reputation with one swoop of its ball-peen hammer middle finger, he offers:

“We were doing that first record at Arlyn Studios, and I had what they call a riff,” he says, giving “riff” the proper cartoonish, music critic inflection. “I suppose it might have been a sort of reaction to what we were doing at the time. I wanted to make a song that was completely loud and heavy. It was supposed to be a sort of joke song, just an excuse to turn it up.

“Now it’s on the radio,” says McKinney, rubbing the top of his ruddy, cropped Curious George haircut. “And it doesn’t really make any sense.” When asked about the huge chasm between the sound of Outdebox and Good to Be Gone, McKinney Spends less time trying to explain the band’s organic musical progression, and more time dwelling on people’s negative reactions.

“I get flak from a lot of people. They’re like, ‘Oh, so you’re some kind of grunge band now,” he says in his best dude voice. “Man, we just turned up the guitars – that’s really about it.” His tone isn’t so much defensive as it is apologetic. “That makes me sad, but I can understand where they’re coming from. They like the Dead; they like bluesy jams.”

His Mom, it seems, levied the most pointed criticism, as mothers are wont to do. “My moms gripe is that she can’t sing along with any of these songs,” relates McKinney. “Bill’s mom gave him that flak, too. She’s like, ‘This is nasty, this is dirty. This is gross.’

“Our first reaction was, “Well, we didn’t record it with you in mind,'” he continues. “but then I started listening to the songs and realized that I don’t even really sing on any of them. It’s sort of this talk-sing-yelling thing. It’s fun to yell, but it’s also fun to sing. Sometimes when I am up there, I’m thinking [in a tiny, gentle voice] ‘I should write something really pretty.'”

The band’s promotional-only acoustic CD, Too Gone To Be Good, a collection of quite pretty songs, has a lyric on it that says, loosely, if they can’t hear him, they can just turn it up on the mix. An angry dig at an overly aggressive producer, perhaps? Yet another theory is shot down when McKinney says he pays little attention to lyrics. On the subject of production, McKinney is quick to answer critics who think that producers Brendan O’Brien and NickDiDia (a pair who’ve worked with everyone from Aerosmith and Pearl Jam to the Red Hot Chili Peppers) were responsible for cultivating this harder Soulhat sound.

“That’s not true at all, because we’d written all these songs a long time before we even did this record,” explains McKinney., a scowl furrowing his brow. “None of them were any heavier sounding on the record than they should have been. So that whole thing makes me mad., because those guys were responsible for making it sound the way it does, but not for the style of music that we chose to put on it.”

The producers were, in fact, the ones who wanted to include the more mellow songs like “Preacher Man,” a song McKinney was hesitant about because he thought it was too old. As for the accusations that O’Brien got McKinney to turn it up and sing like a manly man, the singer says no. “The stuff called for it,” he stresses. “I needed to do it that way. I never really sang very loud. the soundman always used to complain that they couldn’t get my vocals. So I was like, alright, I’ll yell.” As for O’Brien’s influence, McKinney reveals that the A-list producer’s role in the production of Good To Be Gone was more as an objective ear than anything else – Soulhat’s two guitarists agree about his most important contribution: the organ part on “Preacher Man.”

“Brendan was not there, ever,” reveals McKinney. “He’s a great guy and really cool, but we were a little misguided in thinking he would be working on the record, when actually, he didn’t.” Were they disappointed? “Not really,” he says, “Only that we paid him a lot. Nick was really good to work with.” In fact, the band is actually given half the production credit on Good To Be Gone, and McKinney says they earned it. “No one ever really told us what to do. People say we signed with a record company, and they tell us what to do, but no one told us anything.”

When questioned about whether he expected the inevitable Pearl Jam comparisons, either for the producer association or the spooky, faceless cover art, he answers “sort of” to the former and “no way” to the latter.

“Way back before they were even Pearl Jam, er, back before they were popular.” fumbles McKinney, for some odd reason suddenly trying to be precise with his words. “You know, before they started getting airplay, a friend of ours said, ‘I heard this band that sounds kind of like you guys’.” He smirks and grumbles, “People sometimes try to tell me that I sing like Eddie Vedder. We seem to have like, a similar octave range. I never tried to sing like him or anything.”

Any Pearl Jam marketing strategy by the label was purely coincidental or non existent as far as the cover art for Good To Be Gone is concerned. (hold it next to the Seattle band’s Vs. album), since the band’s freaky friend and fellow Austin musician Earthpig that takes all the photos for the albums. “He just takes these crazy photos and we say that one, that one,” says McKinney, pointing at imaginary Earthpig photos in his half-eaten chicken pot pie. As for one of the band’s publicity shots, where the much-elder drummer, Barry “Frosty” Smith, is cloaked in black with his back to the camera – no record company image swindle there. “We don’t like to be smiley guys in photos, actin’ cool and stuff. We liked that picture because it was goofy, and it didn’t really have any of our faces in it.

“But the record company hates that,” he continues. “They’re like, ‘Your likenesses are so likable. We want to see you guys. That’s why we want to do a video.'” The idea of doing a video is not a popular one with the band, especially McKinney. He doesn’t even want to be in it. Then again, McKinney concedes, “If I see a video and it doesn’t have the band in it, I find myself wanting to see what the guys look like. So, I realize the importance of it.

“I find myself criticizing what other people are doing just like people are probably criticizing us for what we’re doing,” admits McKinney, leaking his characteristic insecurity. “I’m definitely unsure of what i am doing at this moment.” Two years ago, things didn’t quite seem to matter so much. “We were just having a good time. We played a how, it was over and we had a good time.” He grabs his stomach and mimes a big belly laugh. “It was like, Ah, ha, ha….”

Since his comedic bits are usually a diversionary technique used to avoid a subject that makes him uneasy, I persist. Why does it suddenly matter? “Because there are records being promoted, and people with opinions writing things about them,” he concludes. And opinions affect him because he writes most of the songs. (The bulk of Good To Be Gone came from diddling about on his beloved four-track.)

The surest conclusion to be drawn from McKinney is that Soulhat has few, if pressing, aspirations for fame and fortune. “Hope,” he says, shaking his head. “Is that sad?” Without waiting for an answer, he continues: “That’s why it’s weird to be in this position, because we’re with a record company that probably would like ot see us there.” Should the band, perhaps, have stayed with indie labels? “I don’t know” is his genuinely puzzled response. “I don’t know.”

On a midnight drive to Baton Rouge, bassist Brian Walsh reads to the band from the video prospectus of their next single, “Good to Be Gone.”

I’m not lip-synching,” states McKinney from the back of the van where he was thought to be asleep. Walsh giggles as he reads the auteur’s clumsy prose, amused not only by the director’s limited grasp of English grammar, but also by the seriousness with which the subject is treated. but his laughter is not mean-spirited, as Walsh is by far the kindest, most helpful member of the band – a trait that will later come in handy.

At a truck stop close to the Texas/Louisiana border, Walsh takes over driving duties from Cassis. McKinney, who doesn’t enjoy responsibility as much as the others, sleeps through the trip. As with most discussions, with Walsh, our first conversation falls at the sleepiest of times. With any luck, though, we’ll catch a beautiful sunrise as we pass over the spooky swamp foliage around the Atchafalaya Causeway.

As it turns out, the sky eases from a gray mist to a light blue haze and explodes into a dazzling, ruddy-orange glow…”Over the chemical fields of Lake Charles,” walsh says with a laugh. Then true to his polite character he consoles, “It’s still pretty, though.”

Easy-going. Considerate. Tactful. While the others grumble off the record (of course, some people had no qualms leaving them on the record), Walsh seems to genuinely have few negative things to say. And he’s also the first band member to stress the band’s natural musical progression without all the ethereal gobbledegook.

The most ornery he gets is on the subject of Lake Charles, which he has hated ever since he got pulled over and searched there a couple of years ago. In his case, the injustice of probable cause is glaring. Who could suspect wrongdoing from such a genuine, honest face? “Well, it was back when I had my long hair, he says, trying to offer an explanation.

Later, after too little rest and too much sound-checking, Walsh and I conduct more drowsy interviewing in his hotel room. Having covered the Zen of Soulhat with Cassis and the insecurities of Soulhat with McKinney, it seems appropriate to do some fact-checking with Walsh (besides, he’s a tough interview because he’s just so damn nice.) He confirms the oft-told Soulhat legend and updates it a bit. All but drummer Smith did, in fact, attend Southwestern University and were in the same fraternity, Kappa Sigma. Walsh graduated, however, when the other two were just freshmen and lived in neighboring Leander.

Cassis had been playing with E.R. Shorts and invited McKinney to play with them for SXSW. As the Shorts gig petered out, the two guitarists worked on getting a band together. “One summer I moved to Austin,” recounts Walsh, “and Kevin called me and said, ‘Hey, do you want to come up here and jam? I’ve got a four track.'”

For a while, the threesome didn’t even have a drummer, using Paul Mills and eventually Ian Bailey. “Ian was leaving for three weeks to play with Van Wilks in the Virgin Islands, and he said he’d get us a drummer.” The band should be forever indebted to Bailey for the drummer he supplied them with. His quiet influence is deafening.

Drummer Smith is, at first, all that his nickname Frosty implies. That he has no desire to speak with a writer is icily clear from the ignored attempts at conversation, aborted questions, and unreturned smiles. Still, what can you expect from a man whose musical experience spans almost 50 years, and has included everything from studio work in L.A. to gigs with Sly Stone and Parliament/Funkadelic? No doubt those years have included one too many run-ins with cocksure music critics, most of whom boast the musical vocabulary of an organ grinder’s monkey.

Although the respectful thing would be not to bother him, journalists rarely do the respectful thing. Besides, if anyone’s take on this whole hippie nonsense would be interesting, it would be someone who’s lived through that era. McKinney even claims that it was Smith who was quoted as saying the band sounded like a cross between SRV and the Grateful Dead when he first heard them.

That’s what writers tend to do, quote people out off context,” he says after finally coming down to the room at Walsh’s request (thank you, Brian). So, that’s not, in fact what was said? He pauses as if to decide whether he will answer the question. “I don’t look at the band as a Grateful Dead band,” he says finally. And as if baiting me to do what writers do, he adds, “I hate the Grateful Dead.”

Initially, he provides no explication for his terse answers. “I don’t want to talk about that,” he shoots. “My likes and dislikes don’t matter. they’re like assholes – everybody’s got one.”

The rapid-fire curtness continues: Why did he settle down with Soulhat? “I haven’t settled down,” he snaps. He does other projects? “Yeaah, it’s what I do,” he snaps again. “Alejandro Escovedo. Toni Price. Junior Brown’s album, This is just what takes up the majority of my time,” he says. And the reason? “Because it’s the nature of the beast. It takes a lot of time. We’re gone a lot.”

But why is the beast not Alejandro or Junior Brown? “Because all those people in Austin generally only work once in a while,” he states flatly. “There’s no one working constantly. This band happens to work a lot.” Is there not a more musical reason to be in Soulhat? “Yeah, it’s the only reason I do stuff.” but you just said… OK, so what was the spark with these guys? “It wasn’t a spark, it was more of a natural progression that just sort of progressed. And that’s what happened,” he explains in a matter-of-fact manner.

Eventually, though, this matter-of-fact gate breaks down, and Smith gushes forth with articulate insights on music, generations, and his likes and dislikes. But only after he gets his disdain for music critics off his chest. His ire surfaces in his response to the so-called neo-hippie title that has been bestowed upon everyone from Phish to labelmates Spin Doctors and former touring pals Blues Traveler.

“It’s very important for the press and people that write to have labels,” explains Smith, “because most of the writers that cover music or any of the arts don’t have direction without a label. Most of them haven’t really studied or know what they’re talking about, so you have this group of people asking you questions, taking away form you , and putting it into their own perspective, which can sometimes be very narrow and sometimes miss the mark completely.”

Without any prodding, he continues. “So what happened was Rolling Stone specifically called it the new wave, the new hippie movement. They had a name for it. So every fucking writer in the country had a place to go, ‘Now we know what thus stuff is, now we have a name for it.’ All new bands fell under that category until people had [time] to really look at them and say, ‘Oh, well, they’re not that now.'”

He does concede, however, that music trends exist based on generational archiving – though that doesn’t mean he has to like it. “How many people are at the tip of the cornucopia?” he asks. “Only a handful of people have changed the direction of music. The Miles Davises – those people in rock or music in general who actually take the music and make it go somewhere. The Beatles – they changed the direction. The rest of us are king of following along in the cornucopia of creativity.

“I’m drawing from stuff as far back as the forties ’cause I’m an older guy,” he continues. “So all that stuff in the Sixties and Seventies is all blended in there. So you have a new group of people who discover some music now that’s 20 or 30 years old, and it’s like brand new to them. I mean, I go to the store and hear people saying, ‘Have you heard this new band? They’re called the Doors.” What am I supposed to say? ‘Yeah. I’ve heard the Doors. I could spend hours telling you about them.”

He maintains that he respects his own bandmates’ musical discoveries because they, in turn, introduce him to music he’s unfamiliar with. He sites as examples everything from Ed Hall to Talk Talk to David Sylvian to the Orb. His main criterion for listening to contemporary groups is that he be able to lean something from them. “If there’s nothing there for me, I pass on it,” says Smith. Like Nine Inch Nails; “it’s just stuff I’ve heard before, so I pass on it, not because they’re bad, just because there are no surprises.”

Considering he’s been around for every turn in rock & roll’s pothole-strewn road, Smith’s opinions on the subject are strong. “The only thing I heard in the Seventies that was a turn around was David Bowie,” he ventures. “That was actually new sounding stuff: new mixes, a glam style, really interesting songs. you know, stuff people didn’t sing about, a guy taking his protein pills out in space.” He also manages to pluck another act from the stink, listing the Sex Pistols as of of his all-time favorite bands. “Who’s beaten the Sex Pistols?” he asks. “Even though Sid couldn’t play, you listen to “Holidays in the Su,” or some of those songs, and the they’re just all out. Nirvana came close on some stuff, but pound for pound no one’s beaten the Sex Pistols – just like nobody’s beaten the Stones for just solid rock & roll. They play bad, they slow down, they speed up, and here they are, pound for pound hard to beat. I wouldn’t want to go up against them.”

His take on the current punk resurgence is more social than musical. “I feel this generation doesn’t have any martyrs, and they don’t have any real heroes,” says Smith. “All the other generations I’ve been through had somewhere to focus their rage. This particular generation doesn’t have a focus, so it’s turned inward. They’re basically mad at themselves. I really don’t care to sit and hear somebody say, ‘Fuck you, I’m not going to do this. Fuck you, I’m not going to do that.’ Well, you know, find somebody who cares, because if you don’t, I don’t.”

The younger members of Soulhat have very obviously been influenced by Smith, which is precisely why his likes and dislikes are relevant. McKinney speaks reverently of Smith’s freakiness, and of his decision not to shave his beard until he turns 50. Walsh, who switched from guitar to bass when he joined the band, has undoubtedly learned fathoms about rhythm. Cassis, on more than one occasion, alludes in conversation to things Smith speaks about at length, and with much more confidence.

And then there’s the matter of the gris-gris.

“That’s the word he’s chosen because he’s enchanted with that particular genre of stuff,” explains Smith. “It could be called totems. It could be called gris-gris, juju, or any of those kind of words. I personally don’t call mine any name, because actually it’s not. I don’t have any potions, or anything.” Ironically, Smith will elaborate were Cassis would not. “Whatever you’ve chosen to focus on, it helps you maintain that focus. So I carry things that are in line with my focus and spirituality – to keep that happening so my lines are open because I’m in a communication kind of business.”

Two hours later, Smith sits amidst his elaborate cymbal configuration, bathed in an empyrean light. A big, mystical, cool guy, his sleeveless black shirt exposing his vast tattooed arms, Smith seems to be at the epicenter of the band, the stage, the entire club. True to his word, the band plays like an ensemble, not a rhythm section backing dueling guitars. As Cassis said earlier, traces of Smith’s blues influences are noticeable in his playing, but on this night they certainly do not detract from the whole – though McKinney, who’s twitching about in the middle of the stage, eyes closed, wild grin, plastered on his face, might. As the band lurches into “Bonecrusher,” McKinney bends down to pick up a remnant of last night’s Halloween show. Rising, his grin spreads as he sprouts pink bunny ears. Grabbing a pair of fake nose glasses from the soundboard, he finished crushin’ bones. For the moment, in control.

Copyright © 1994 the Austin Chronicle