When The Black Keys and The White Stripes first crashed the rock scene 10 years ago, their primal, garage-blues sound was considered revolutionary. Even more earth-shaking was their two-piece format: Where was the bass player? No second guitarist? How could they sound so full being just a duo? North Carolina’s The Low Counts carry on that stripped-down tradition, but what sets Matt Walsh and Bryon Smallwood apart are their roots. Walsh cut his teeth on the purist blues and rockabilly scene, while Smallwood comes from a Southern punk background, which means The Low Counts’ swampy, scuzzy, shit-kicking result represents a reinvention of each man’s musical personality. Walsh chatted about the new band’s spontaneous combustion, their first album and how difficult it is to bring something new to the table.
Folio Weekly: Given your and Bryon’s divergent musical pasts, how did you come together to form The Low Counts?
Matt Walsh: I was doing a lot of rockabilly, blues and roots music, and I wanted to mix all of that together into one sound. Bryon, who lives here in Statesville, N.C., was in same boat.
F.W.: Did you start off saying “We’re going to limit this to a duo”?
M.W.: No, we never intended to just be a duo. But we couldn’t find a bass player who lived close by, and as we kept playing and writing, we said, “We’ll figure out the meat and bones, then hopefully bring somebody in who can learn the stuff.” But that never really happened. The first show we did, our bass player couldn’t make it, so instead of canceling, we covered the gig. And afterwards we thought, “There wasn’t really anything missing.” Plus it’s a lot more cost-efficient. [Laughs.] No van — just a hatchback with an amp, guitar, drums and two people.
F.W.: So it’s more of an economic decision than anything.
M.W.: It’s getting harder and harder for independent musicians to tour in this economy, and if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, you know? People like The Low Counts this way. We’re not bound to the idea of being a duo, however; we might add something later if we can afford it. But right now it just works.
F.W.: According to your website, the two of you reportedly wrote 20 songs in less than three weeks. Was this project all about originals from the start?
M.W.: Definitely. I put out an album under my own name in 2007 that did well with roots radio and college stations, but I felt like I was only on the verge of where I wanted to go. I wanted to be more original outside that format, and I didn’t feel like I was getting my creativity out like I wanted. Now, when I take lyrics or a guitar structure to Bryon, what he puts behind it is 100 percent different than what I expected, which is cool. And honestly, that’s what was tripping me up before. So it’s all originals. I love old roots music, but after 50 years, how many more times can you play that kind of song and still put an original spin on it?
F.W.: Do The Low Counts have an album out yet?
M.W.: We’ve recorded all the rough tracks for it, and we’ll probably do some overdubs to give it some variety in the sound — but only to the extent that we can reproduce it live. We’re looking at releasing later this fall.
F.W.: Even though you’ve both been playing music for a long time, is it challenging as a relatively new band, to build a new audience?
M.W.: That’s a funny question. We’ve only been together for six months, and sometimes clubs will bite on us right away — and then it does better than my solo stuff. But other times, it can be hard because we don’t have any reviews yet. But it seems like no matter where we go, we get a great response. I have run into a couple of the rootsier clubs feeling that we’re not traditional enough, but I think some people just get stuck in a mold and don’t want to hear anything new.
F.W.: If you’re a fan of raw music, though, there’s no way you won’t like The Low Counts.
M.W.: A lot of people that listen to the blues are from the ’60s and are programmed to be more open-minded about music. But some older cats, man … if I told ’em I listened to hip-hop, they’d turn their noses up at me and say, “What the f*ck’s wrong with you?” But that’s what we’re going for with The Low Counts — anything abrasive, whether it’s blues, country, hip-hop or whatever. It’s just gotta be rocking and have an edge to it. Hell-raising kind of stuff, you know?