If David Allan Coe's “If That Aint Country” comes on after Andy Sheppard has had more than a few Coors Lights (his favorite brand), he'll sing along without reservation to the line: Tryin' like the devil to find the Lord / Workin' like a nigger for my room and board. The 24-year old lead singer of Gypsy River Haunts, who plays ghostly, rollicking Western music, may have incredibly poor taste in the lyrics he quotes, but he's more country than racist.
Both he and guitarist Dustin Hollenbeck are L.A. transplants by way of Idaho. Speaking with them in the upstairs room of the Echo as rockers in cowboy hats jam downstairs, their pastoral roots show. Sheppard, who is small with shoulder-length hair, wears horn-rimmed glasses and jade bracelets, uses words like “spooker” (an affecting song) and writes songs with titles like “Rattlesnake Railroad.” He lives in a studio without a kitchen sink and does all his dishes “pup style.”
Hollenbeck says that L.A. can provide a fresh insight into the country way of life. “When I was 17 I wanted to get out of that area just because I had grown up there,” he says. “But when I got here I realized how much I actually loved it.” He seems nostalgic about tractors being used as transportation and high-school parties where they would steal as many wooden crates as they could from behind grocery stores and then drive out to canyons to have giant bonfires.
“Getting drunk at 12 and jumping over bonfires,” Sheppard interjects merrily.
“Yeah,” continues Hollenbeck, “every now and then someone would sorta kinda fall in the fire. It ends badly.” Throughout these remembrances the other two members of the Haunts, drummer Nic Morreale and standup bassist Johnny Latu, are smiling and silent. (They're from California, after all.) But for some reason two ragtag ramblers from Idaho and two guys from the Valley hit it off musically right away. “Within the first couple notes we figured out we were going to play music together,” says Latu.
The Haunts latest EP, Forgive Me, recorded in two days at Bedrock Studios in Echo Park and released in August, is a juxtaposition of uplifting tracks and booze-drenched melancholy. The theme of alcoholism is heavy in the Haunts' music, as it is in a lot of country music. “It's a very roots thing to drink … down there they go to church drunk,” says Sheppard. “It's a vice that helps you write in a more honest way.”
Forgive Me is solid effort, earnest rather than ironically pleased with itself. But that doesn't mean success is soon to come, or even imminent. Most country bands head to Nashville, not L.A., to try and make it — fellow Idahoans Olin and The Moon are probably the most talented band in Los Angeles right now without a record deal, though they did just sign to a major booking agency. But Hollenbeck says they don't have to play on exclusively country bills, maintaining that their ethos is more youthful than anything else. “We're young, we just wanna have fun,” he says. “We don't have to play with bands that are exactly like us.”
Gypsy River Haunts play tomorrow at UnderRats Gallery in Downtown L.A.