“Is this part of the interview, or is this friendship?” Gordon Persha, bassist for Los Colognes, asked me as we stood among throngs of tie-dye clad Grateful Dead fans in the center of Wrigley Field.
To be fair, I had only just met Gordon and the rest of Los Colognes a week and a half before in Raleigh, NC, for the exclusive purpose of attending their gig at The Pour House Music Hall and interviewing them beforehand.
That’s why, with guitarist and singer Jay Rutherford’s spot-on impression of Almost Famous’ Lester Bangs still ringing in my ears—“you cannot make friends with the rockstars”—I paused for a moment, wondering how this night fit into the article I would eventually write about the Nashville-based band. Were they buttering me up to compose a glowing review of their latest album, The Wave? Or were we all just reveling in the fact that we happened to be in Chicago at the same time on the same night that Dead and Company was finishing its summer tour?
I chose to think the latter as I took a sip of my $10 beer, laughed at Gordon, and responded with… what else? “Friendship.”
After all, I had left my notebook back in North Carolina, and the battery power in my recorder was running low. And then somewhere between Scarlet Begonias and Fire on the Mountain, I felt like my answer was affirmed. The night would simply be about enjoying some of the most iconic songs performed by my new friends’ musical heroes—Bob Weir, anyone?
I admit, it’s something to see admiration and excitement for a band or a record, an author or a book, in some creative person who you also respect. So I won’t downplay how cool it was for me to witness up close and in person how Los Colognes geeked out over the Dead. These guys are fans. Just give Jay 30 seconds, and he’ll explain to you how Jerry Garcia is the great archetypal hero… seriously, he will. And almost any article you Google about the band references 80s Grateful Dead vibes (they’re even playing a set of Grateful Dead tunes as part of Ain’t No Place I’d Rather Be: Jerry Garcia’s 75th Birthday Celebration at The Basement East in Nashville on Aug. 2). But don’t let that fool you. They’re more cutting edge than they are cover band (though the irony isn’t lost that their name was once The Clones).
“Our whole approach is just try to be true to what we know,” Jay told me back in Raleigh at The Pour House, somewhere between sound check and their opening notes of Sneakin’ Breadcrumbs. “We don’t know a ton but what we do know we feel pretty convicted about.
“We’ve been doing this for so long and come through so many scenes, we’re always going to be a little skeptical of any kind of concentrated trends,” Jay said. “What we do within ourselves, that’s what matters for our own survival.”
For Jay and the rest of the band, they call that working
together smarter, not harder.
That includes spending time at home between tours writing for the next album, working on new sounds, learning to play their instruments better, and leaning on places like The 5 Spot in Nashville as an incubator and musical community. “There’s a million things you can do to keep yourself centered, to be calm in the storm of the cycle,” Jay said.
“But if you kill yourself on the road without partnering with material that’s got legs, you burn out,” drummer Aaron “Mort” Mortenson told me. “It’s not like back in the day when you put your sticker on a bathroom wall.”
It’s a funny thought when you’re sitting in a green room where nearly every surface is covered by some band’s sticker. But by every account I’ve heard, the landscape today looks different than, say, how it must have appeared to Jay’s great archetypal hero, although some of the semantics seem to remain the same.
“You’ve gotta be grateful all the time,” Jay said, “but not just grateful. You’ve got to fight and want it to a maddening sense.”
After all, it’s a mad business to get into in the first place, Mort admitted. “Being in a band is kind of like the dumbest thing anybody can really attempt to do. It’s the worst business model.”
Yet somehow, these guys have managed to build a brand and a business, or as they like to say, been able to ride the wave—putting out three records in four years under the Los Colognes name while touring regularly and expanding their fan base to include average people like me and not-so-average admirers like Jason Isbell (he follows them on Instagram, so I think that counts).
But arriving at this point hasn’t simply been a result of serendipity. Some of that is surely due to the psychological makeup of the people in the band—“it takes a lot of spiritual maturity,” Jay said—and having a sound that’s able to progress and evolve, while still tapping into traditions that have stood the test of time.
Jay: What has been more true over time? In a Darwinian sense? The blues. The blues is true. There’s a million shitty versions of it, but at the core, it’s true. And if you see a thousand shitty reiterations of something, it probably means that that something had a lot of truth to offer.
Mort: The hamburger is true. But you’ve had bad hamburgers. But when a hamburger is true, look out. You’d eat how many of them? You’d eat all of them because they’re that good. Food and music have a lot of similarities in that respect.
Jay: What’s the Shakespeare line? If music be the food of love, play on!
I think you can easily hear that in songs on The Wave, which they put out in May of this year, two years after their second record, Dos, was released.
“This record was written for the end goal, but sometimes that’s not the case,” Mort said. “Sometimes we have a bunch of disparate kinds of ideas that we try to rope in thematically. But for The Wave, they all kind of felt like they were in the same zone and written with the other songs in mind.”
That’s another thing I think you can hear in this record. Each time I listen (and I have many, many times already), I think of that line from the Roman Candle song, Why Modern Radio Is A-OK… “and 10 songs on a record sounded like a string of pearls.” Each song can stand on its own, but each song also manages to flow into the next like a… dare I say it? Wave.
So sure, I could recommend individual tracks off the album (top one right now is crowd favorite Molly B Good), but my suggestion would be to listen from start to finish. If you have an hour to watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians, you have 43 minutes to dedicate to these 10 pearls.
And you might as well get on board now because these guys don’t plan on going anywhere soon. “We’re totally committed. We want to keep the art of rock and roll alive and make it exciting for people,” Mort said. “If we get our grip locked onto something, you’re gonna be stuck with us… and we’ll just play until we die.”
Rachel Landen is a Raleigh-based writer who likes her fashion Penny Lane and her music indie. Find her @landenrachel.