This Saturday, the whiskey-and-distortion-fueled charms of American Gun will once again take over the Art Bar on a Valentine’s Day weekend. In this eighth iteration of the group’s annual Heartbreak Valentine’s, the band and a few of its musical friends will toast rock ‘n’ roll’s undying fascination with romances gone wrong. For many around Columbia’s music scene, it’s become a traditional escape from the sappiness that descends upon us this time each year. For American Gun, it’s become one of the few constants in the group’s tumultuous tenure.
“I think we must have named it that because of the album cover [of Dark Southern Hearts, the group’s 2006 debut],” recalls guitarist and lead singer Todd Mathis. The image depicts a bare rib cage vacant except for a heart that gushes a river of blood.
The quartet comes into this weekend’s show having finished one of its quietest years yet, playing only a handful of local dates and extending a break from the studio that extends back to 2011’s Therapy. Prior to these past few years, American Gun was known regionally as a troupe of relentless weekend warriors, churning out well-regarded albums with alacrity while playing 40 or 50 shows a year in an effort to escalate its popularity.
Some of the slowdown simply stems from members getting a little older, buying houses and starting families, but a lot of it, explains Mathis, was that they “just got tired of getting in at six in the morning and only having a couple hundred bucks to show for it. It was time to stop.”
The toll of this lifestyle has been evident in the band’s shifting lineup. Only Mathis and drummer Andrew Hoose have remained constant since the group formed in 2004, with lead guitarist Noel Rodgers joining up in 2008 following the departure of Jeff Crews, and Barry Corley coming on in 2012 to replace Kevin Kimbrell. In between, the band also streamlined its vocals with the exit of co-frontman Donald Merckle in 2009.
Somewhat cruelly, the band’s slide into a more sedentary approach came just as it was turning a creative corner, replacing a little bit of its natural twang with the noisier, guitar-heavy approach of its live shows. At least a few of the songs on Therapy displayed a distinctly different sound, with songs that felt a bit more indebted to the intricacies of The Hold Steady or Black Rebel Motorcycle Club than to the country-gone-punk approach of Lucero and Uncle Tupelo. Inclusions like “Lie to Me” and “Moving Down the Line” built more on sinewy riffs than common chord progressions, and layers of pedal distortion and textured guitar created a veneer almost antithetical to the barroom tearjerkers on which the group built its reputation.
“I started bringing in songs with a lot less structure,” Mathis recalls. “Writing really became a much more collaborative process. Noel has always added hooks and different things to the songs, and he has really taken things in a much more rock direction. If it weren’t for Noel bringing in the more rock edge, we’d [probably] still just be doing alt-country.”
Thus the band has kept up its creativity even as its pace has slowed, and the group hopes to showcase these new ideas on an even noisier EP to be released later this year. Mathis has also been working with Paul Bodamer, who helped produce Therapy, on a new recording studio, which should give the band more freedom to explore different approaches without having to worry so much about budgetary constraints.
Despite a decade on the scene and some diminished expectations, it’s hard not to feel like American Gun is still brimming with potential. But as he looks to the future, Mathis says the group only hopes to keep writing and playing, regardless of anything else.
“Our goal is still the same,” he declares, “to try and make a kick-ass record.”
Art Bar is at 1211 Park Street. Doors open at 8 p.m.; music starts at 9 p.m.; admission is $5. With Zach Seibert, Youth Model and Prairie Willows. Call 929-0158 or visit artbarsc.com for more information.
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