Since 2009, on record and on stage, the trio Natural Child has represented the pinnacle of boozy, baked garage rock. But a funny thing has happened to Wes Traylor, Seth Murray, and Zack Martin on the way to the top of the prodigious Burger Records heap: The three Tennessee natives have morphed their Southern-fried slop into a crisp, tightly drawn amalgamation of country, boogie, and psychedelic rock.
Now, when Natural Child plays live, they let their songs build slowly, avoiding the beer-drenched histrionics for which they were once famous. Sure, the climaxes of standout tracks like “Don’t the Time Pass Quickly” and “Firewater Liquor” are still sexy as hell, but Martin’s taut drumming is a lesson in the power of restraint; Taylor’s elastic bass riffs slip and slide in service to the almighty groove; and Murray’s six-string work strikes the perfect balance between shred-tastic and sedentary.
On the 2014 album Dancin’ with Wolves, soulful keyboards from Benny Divine and sultry pedal steel from Luke Schneider added further elegant underpinning. Traylor and Murray still trade off lyrics that specialize in hazy late nights, bleary-eyed mornings, and swaggering hook-ups. But the more measured, even subdued nature of Dancin’ with Wolves and the band’s subsequent live shows said it all: Natural Child circa 2015 is a far different band than the one that put a woman’s naked derriere on the cover of their 2012 album For the Love of the Game.
“We’re all grown men now,” Murray tells Folio Weekly. “We’ve been a band for six years, and we’ve been stuck [being portrayed] as teenagers almost the whole time. But at a certain point, anybody can be crazy, loud, and not very good at their instruments. So growing up is cool. I’m happy about that. The most positive way I can put it is we’re dedicated to continually getting better at performing and writing new songs.”
The onstage side of that equation has been perfected the old-fashioned way: grinding through more than 200 shows a year in American dive bars and European beer halls. “The touring has been insane,” Murray says. “You can’t really spend 24 hours a day with other people for that long without taking a breather every now and then. And when you play the same songs over and over, you start to burn out. Nobody wants to hear us still playing For the Love of the Game, so we’re finally learning to slow down on touring.”
That steadier pace resulted in an as-yet-unnamed new album, which Murray describes as “a real KFC buffet of a record.” Look for more of Divine’s keys this time around; Murray calls the New Orleans native a “full-fledged member of the band” and says he’ll have equal songwriting credit when the new material is released later this year. “I don’t think Benny can ever leave,” Murray laughs. “He’s awesome. He steers us in certain musical directions that we wouldn’t always go — and they’re always for the better. Plus, it’s nice to have somebody else that can solo besides me.”
So is it Divine’s presence alone that has transformed Natural Child from a hot onstage mess that’s always threatening to run gleefully off the rails into a cohesive unit that’s more refined and comfortable easing into its slow-building jams? Murray chalks it up to a collective evolution: “We’ve got a job to do up there, and we love doing it. We’re a lot happier with each other when we’re playing good music. That’s the number one thing.”
To those St. Augustine superfans who fondly (or faintly) remember raging with Natural Child in the past after the band has torn Shanghai Nobby’s a new asshole, don’t despair: Murray says the band members’ offstage personae haven’t changed at all. “We’re still pretty wild. Partying is just what we do. Plus, we save it up more for tour now.”
Even though they’re selling out two-night stands in New York City, playing top-tier summer gatherings like Hangout Music Festival in Alabama and Wakarusa Music Festival in Arkansas, and even plotting an African tour, Murray says Florida is always a welcome pit stop for Natural Child. “Wes and I were born and raised in Nashville, so we can’t really leave,” he says. “But it’s kind of weird here now — very competitive. We go onstage and people just watch our hands,
like they’re going to unlock some kind of secret. They don’t really get into the show. But then we play St. Augustine or Orlando and people go crazy.”