Louisville-based Quiet Hollers have been rightfully lauded for their versatility before, but with the recent release of their third studio album Amen Breaks, they demonstrate just how wide-ranging their musical sensibilities have become. Achieving a synthesis of post-punk, indie pop, and alternative country without being beholden to any genre in particular, Amen Breaks finds the band exploring themes of mental health and spirituality with burning vocals and some of their most expressive lyrics yet.
American Songwriter caught up with frontman Shadwick Wilde to discuss the new LP, music industry injustice, and finding catharsis in playing live music.
You just released your third full-length Amen Breaks. When did you begin writing the album?
I began writing for Amen Breaks in the latter half of 2016. We had just come off of our first European tour, during which things had begun to change rapidly for the band. We’d never experienced a response like that at home in the states… Playing sold-out shows, being all over TV, radio, newspapers—it was surreal. But it made it imperative that we come back and do it again, for the band’s survival. To do that, the record label said we needed a new album. So I began writing from this place of awe, desperation, and utter terror at the world outside my microcosm. In an unusually prolific six months, I had written the bulk of the album. For contrast, the last one had taken almost two years.
Where does the album title Amen Breaks come from?
I recently learned about the “amen break” from an article my wife brought home from work (she’s a cognitive psychologist) about repetition, and why the brain prefers sounds that are familiar. I was fascinated by the story, and by how unknown the “amen break” phenomenon was outside of certain circles. Here we have a 6-second piece of music—a drum beat—that is the most widely borrowed (and perhaps stolen) piece of music in history. Yet its creator, G.C. Coleman, struggled for much of his life until he died destitute and homeless on the streets of Atlanta. It struck me as a perfect metaphor for the music industry, and for America, present day.
There are many questions of faith, spirituality, and religion in the lyrics of Amen Breaks. I lost my closest friend to suicide the year my daughter was born. The next year we lost my uncle to a fentanyl overdose. For the first time, I had to learn how to grieve—as a person who doesn’t believe in an afterlife—and still be compassionate to those friends and family who believe deeply that their loved one is in Heaven. That journey itself has been a deeply spiritual experience for me, a self-described atheist. So has music.
Do you guys have a songwriting process that you typically follow? If so, what does it look like?
I think the one unifying feature of my songs is that they’ve all come in their own time, and rarely ever when I’ve wanted them to. Most of the songs on Amen Breaks started as one line and a melody, which I would then have to chase down before it escaped my consciousness and try to understand what story, if any, it would lead me to.
How did you all first meet and start playing together?
Dave Chale and I met when I came to his studio to record a song. He’d just finished producing and mixing Low Cut Connie’s latest. We worked very well together, and he came onboard to produce the record. Later, he would become our drummer. Jim Bob and I met working at a bar. I kept seeing Aaron West in different bands, and I asked him to join very early on. Jake Hellman and I met after he auditioned for the band on YouTube. We loved his energy and his finesse with the bass.
How do you feel you’ve evolved as a band between your 2015 self-titled sophomore record and Amen Breaks?
To fans, the most obvious change will be Jake and Dave on the rhythm section. Both of them joined up just before this record. I’m continuing what I began doing on Quiet Hollers, trying to let the songs shape the direction of the music instead of letting the expectations of a genre shape the songs.
I read recently that you name psychedelic folk, punk, string quartets, warm synths, and drum machines as fundamental elements in the songs of Amen Breaks. What led you to move away from the alt-country sound of previous efforts?
My favorite artists are the kind who never make the same album twice. To stay true to your self and your art, you have to follow the muse. All I try to do in recording is remake the sounds in my head, and they’re always changing.
Mental health and mental illness are two key thematic underpinnings of Amen Breaks. What was it like to confront these difficult subjects in your music?
There’s a conversation happening about mental illness these days, and I can’t say it was all that difficult to talk about it in my music. These are things that have been with me my whole life. My mother and grandmother have both lived with depression, as do I. There’s addiction and alcoholism in my family. How rare is that, really? I think we’re all familiar with these subjects, though what we’re sometimes missing is talking about the larger social and cultural forces that also contribute to depression and anxiety. To paraphrase the cultural critic Henry Giroux: we’re addicted to consumerism, to the immediate, to the spectacle of violence. So many elements contribute to depression and anxiety. It’s talking about them that we’re just now getting used to.
How do you think the songs will translate from the record to live performances?
I love playing these songs live. It’s very cathartic for me… to put all of this difficult stuff out there, and have people singing it back to you… it’s a great feeling. Every song is different, every time you play it—and that’s part of the magic of live music. Using samples on this record came very naturally, I think because it emphasizes the idea that music is one thing, one entity, with many different moving parts. As music progresses, we see it repeating, recapitulating, and mutating, ultimately to mirror our collective human experience. I think this idea has become even more apparent, in our ever-connected world. I will say, there have been some funny looks when the 808s kick in, mostly from older white dudes.