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An interview with Erik Brandt and Jeremy Szopinski of the Urban Hilbilly Quartet 
By Dave Draeger

A Friday night, late January. In a church sanctuary in the northern suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota, six Urban Hillbilly Quartet players start a slow groove. Lead vocalist and songwriter Erik Brandt strums his acoustic guitar, steps to the microphone and croons, "You said ‘Don't trespass on your property.’" After a few strums, he repeats the line. A few more strums and he leans back into the mic for the next line. 

Except the next line isn't there.

He looks around to the other musicians for help. Someone remembers a line of another verse, but no one can cough up the next line of the first verse. Everyone stops playing and Brandt apologizes to the audience. He finally recalls the line and they restart the groove.

A half a year off can do that to you. 

After completing a successful year on the road, covering each corner of the U.S., the Urban Hillbilly Quartet took a hiatus from performing. They returned to the lives they’d left behind in search of "making it" in the music business. 

This spring, they're back on stage--refreshed, happier, wiser--and proud of their new album, Amelia’s Boot (Fundamental Records), an impressive disc that pushes the group’s already eclectic sound into new territory. The group's identity was also tweaked by tacking Brandt's name onto the front, a move that allows some enhanced name recognition for his solo shows.

Over bowls of Japanese noodles in a Cathedral Hill restaurant, founding UHQ members Erik Brandt and guitarist Jeremy Szopinski talked about the lessons learned on the road and the new record. 

"Rock stardom isn't all that great--not that we've reached it," joked Brandt, who is happy to be back teaching English at a St. Paul high school. "Just doing UHQ, Jeremy didn't have time to paint, Greg (Tippett, bass) and Sena (Thompson, fiddle) didn't have time for their other music (Anahada Nada--a classical and jazz improvisation), and I simply didn't write any songs. I did all business," mimicking a cell phone with his thumb and pinky. "We're all at stages in our lives where I think we're done trying to be rock stars. Each of us has our own thing that we're doing which keeps us alive." 

Szopinski, whose artwork can be seen at jeremyszopinski.com, added, "I think we have a different attitude. We're playing some gigs and we've got the new record, but we're not really pushing that hard." 

Brandt picked the thread up again, "I think the wheel is turning on its own a little more now. I think we pushed the wheel all these years. We all know what it's like to tour now and what it's like in the music industry. We were just scratching the surface. What's nice is, having done what we've done, is that we can be selective about shows. We aren't always needing to get out to play--we used to play 8 shows a month--now we'll play once a month, maybe twice a month."

What have these folks been doing during the break? 

Thompson plays a couple of fiddle solos through a wah-wah pedal. Szopinski and Tippett sing backup vocals on a tune that evokes a blue-eyed soul feel. Brandt plays a jazz accordion solo and does some beat-poet rap. In addition to blazing through the Louvin Brothers' country-gospel 50's relic, "Great Atomic Power," they toss in a Herbie Hancock jazz tune.Except for the initial bout of lyrical amnesia, you'd swear they've been at this every night non-stop for a half-decade. 

"We were very tight as a band by the end of all the touring and we were able to pick it up pretty quickly," explained Brandt. "We hadn't played in 4 months, and only rehearsed a couple of times (before the January show). We hadn't been in a real studio since doing Beautiful Lazy in 2000." 

Amelia's Boot finds the band pulling away slightly from the Americana folk sound and heading more toward rock. And jazz. And a bit of doo-wop. And some dark, chaotic catharsis to boot. (The album is dedicated to the memory of Tim Fischer, a close friend of Brandt's who died suddenly and unexpectedly three years ago.) 

"I think we spent more time picking songs that fit together," said Szopinski. "Even if they are kind of crazy, they're not random-- they're a lot more thought out."

Brandt explained the album's flow. "I liked the idea of making something with movements. The instrumentals break it up. These will be nice transitions to the listener--now we are segueing from this style to that style, this topic to that topic."

"I don't know if the first three songs fit in any category. They're the Big Singles--those are the ones that'll take us straight to the top," Brandt grinned. 

He continues, "Then there are the jazzy tunes and then out of that comes a folk-driven instrumental which leads into "Sunshower" and "Shapes," which are the two folky songs. "October, St. Mary's" is much more mellow and melancholy, and it leads into the three songs about death. I'm worried about the last three songs. I don't even fully understand them. For a year or two I was afraid to answer the phone because I lost several people in about 8 months. It was about three years before I could deal with it. (Tim's) death encouraged me to live more. Do I want to do the 'right thing'--be a teacher, have health insurance, things you're supposed to do--or be in a rock band on tour? Comparatively, it sounds so irresponsible. I have a hard time justifying it, but why don't I try to live it while I have it?"

In addition to the current UHQ lineup (which numbers anywhere from four to six, depending on who's available), all but two of the band's former members made contributions to the album. Alex Oana, who's worked with Semisonic and Jonny Lang, returned as producer. Members of Ticklepenny Corner add the doo-wop harmonies on "Sunshower," local guitar whiz Dean Magraw lends guitar and electric sitar to a couple of songs, and 19-year-old Soren Kasperson, a family friend of Brandt's from Superior, Wiconsin, contributes several fine horn parts to the record's jazzy movement. Brandt explained, "He's just like me--a kid who grew up in middle of nowhere wanting to become a jazz cat. He had all these great licks. I said, 'You can come and play on my album & we don't have to 
hire someone to do it and you get a great experience.'"

Kasperson's flugelhorn solo is the centerpiece of Brandt's favorite cut, "More Blue." He sees it a cross between two of his favorite records: Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and The Waterboys' Fisherman's Blues

Szopinski described how the songs came together, "Erik makes a tape with a drum machine and gives us a couple of weeks to listen to it. We develop it a lot in the studio and Alex would suggest ideas." 

Brandt joked, "Actually Alex played all the instruments and we just sat around. Maybe it should be 'Alex Oana, Erik Brandt & the Urban Hillbilly Quartet.'"

Asked about distribution into Christian bookstores, Brandt said Amelia's Boot would only be available in Twin Cities independent record shops, online at Paste Music, and at shows. "Most of our sales--about 80%--come from live shows. We need to sell about 500 to break even."

"We kind of dance on the periphery of the Christian music scene--well, we dance on the periphery of all music scenes. "We first got involved (with Cornerstone Festival) when Jeff Foote, our first drummer, told me to mail a couple songs to this festival and I said "What are you talking about --sure, whatever." I'd never heard of it before, but they hired us to play on the Cornerstone Magazine stage. I looked at the web site and "What have we gotten into?"

"We owe a lot to the festival in a way. That gave us the courage to tour. We played there one time and had no idea what we were getting into and sold something like 100 CD’s in 45 minutes and we thought people across the country may actually be interested in what we're doing. Just about every place we played on tour someone from Cornerstone or someone who had heard about us from people who went to Cornerstone came to our shows."

Toward the end of the interview, Brandt asks the interviewer, "Does the whole 'Erik Brandt and UHQ'...does it sound vain?" 

"It's a little too late for that now," deadpans Szopinski.
 
 
 

 

 
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