The Highway Kind lives for the magic groove
Like it or not, ZZ Top is still out there. Matt Camirand went to see them in Seattle last month, and came back relieved and inspired to find that the six-legged, dual-bearded boogie machine from Houston, Tejas, still stands for what’s right and good in rock music.
“They sound exactly the same,” he says. “The guitar tones sound badass. They’ve never gone the Line 6 amp route. They play slower, but it’s okay. It’s a blues thing. They get more into a groove, and because of those fuckin’ beards and sunglasses, they don’t really look any older or younger than they did. It’s like they’re stuck in time. It’s rad.”
Camirand is sitting in his living room with drummer Mark Karpinski (or Karp, as he’s known to pretty much everyone), while the ZZ Top box set, Chrome, Smoke & BBQ, spins away in the background. We’re supposed to be discussing the Highway Kind, the ’70s-inspired, head-trip three-piece that Camirand casually started fronting as guitarist-vocalist a couple years ago during breaks in his Black Mountain schedule, with Karp and bassist Cristin Heck.
Instead, our conversation goes all over the map, possibly thanks to the empty cans of Coors Lite scattered everywhere. (It’s 1:30 in the afternoon.) Camirand does, at least, commit a minute or two to revealing what went down with his departure from Black Mountain in January.
“It’s that same old shit,” he says with a shrug. “Spending way too much time together in small areas like vans and airports and hotel rooms and band rooms, people start butting heads, and then two years later it’s hard to get out because it’s become a job, but it’s also not fun. So when I left, or was told to leave, it was a pretty big weight off my shoulders, actually.”
Sounds like it was more than that. For his part, Karp was seriously untethered after the demise of his band, No Horses, in 2009—“I needed something to do, badly,” he says, with slightly alarming intensity—while Camirand appears to be having the time of his life now that he’s back in his own comfort zone.
“I warm up the fuckin’ tube amps, like, two hours before we start playing,” he states. “I cannot wait to jam. It’s been a pretty big wake-up call.”
Then there’s Heck, who was a phenomenon waiting to happen. She was dating Camirand when he discovered that she played a little bass “in high school”. So he handed over his rig and Heck turned out to be… Camirand struggles to find the right phrase. How about groove monster?
“Exactly,” he says. “I was like, ‘Fuck you.’ She’s a natural. Some people can play but they don’t have the feel, and Cristin definitely has both of those.”
You can hear it on the debut 7-inch that the band released in July, a fuzz-heavy two-fer in which Camirand applies buzz-saw riffs to Karp and Heck’s deep and natural pocket, especially on the A-side “Young & Strong”, which sounds like “Voodoo Chile” crashing into their velvet-painting spliff bunker.
“It’s really important to me that we’re not just a heavy band,” Camirand says. “Even in Black Mountain, all the songs that I loved were always the ones with the groove. There has to be groove. I listen to Motown, R&B, soul, Stax—that’s my first love. And if you can put a heavy guitar riff over it, for me that’s magic.” Looking over at Karp, Camirand praises the drummer’s “inherently laid-back feel.”
“Even when it’s heavy, he’s laid-back,” he continues. “It doesn’t feel rushed; there’s no anxiety in it; it’s subtle, but it’s not. Go listen to fuckin’ Lars What’s-his-nuts from Metallica—he’s basically there to keep the song moving forward, but he has no feel at all. He’s a terrible drummer. It’s just like pots and pans crashing together. It does what it’s supposed to do for Metallica, but to me it’s not drumming. It’s not drumming like I think of drumming.”
This leads to much debate over the merits (or lack thereof) of metal and the relative awesomeness of AC/DC. (“It’s swagger; it’s behind the beat; it’s not angry,” Camirand evangelizes.) But the fact is that Camirand and Karp both keep one big foot (each) in the kind of dusty Americana the former was pursuing with his last solo project, Blood Meridian. The Highway Kind, in fact, takes its name from a Townes Van Zandt song, but somewhere along the way, things got loud.
“It’s a confidence thing,” Camirand reasons. “It was more and more fun, and more and more relaxed, and then you buy a fuzz pedal and they don’t have a quiet setting.” There were some other factors in their development, like Camirand’s strict diet of ZZ Top, and at least one other, slightly more obscure rave. Asked about the album they’re working on, Camirand brings up a hard-edged psychedelic soul outfit outta early-’70s Detroit called Black Merda.
“Black Merda is my number-one songwriting inspiration,” he announces. “I love that band. They’re like the Hendrix I can listen to without thinking about Hendrix. They’re an awesome black rock band, which is exactly what I think the Highway Kind is like.”
Okay, is he gonna say it?
“The Highway Kind is basically my black rock band,” he says with a grin.
He said it!
The Highway Kind play at the Rickshaw Theatre on Saturday (October 6).