By Drew AIles
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The title of "Reverend" is high on the list when Jason Downing breaks down his many duties in the Fort Collins-based quintet Musketeer Gripweed. "It's teaching and preaching," says Downing of his deeper mission in the folk, rock, roots and gospel outfit. "That's what I'm interested in having in the music — some kind of discernible message that's meaningful, that's centered around things like peace and love and treating each other better."
Downing is the first to acknowledge that the message may sound overly simple to some and downright hokey to others. He recalls how the title of the band's first album, Peace Will Win, earned its share of scoffs and sarcasm. Even so, spreading the gospel of decency and kindness is just as important to Downing as his roles in the group as guitarist, vocalist, harmonica player and songwriter.
And he's not the only member who feels that way. Since Downing founded the band nearly a decade ago with bassist and vocalist Ben Hockett, the principles of kindness have been central to the band's dynamic, as integral as musicianship and songwriting. "We built the band basically on a real simple premise: that you had to be a good person first. Second, you had to be a good person," Hockett says. "Third, you had to be able to play an instrument."
Speaking with the five members of Musketeer Gripweed (the name was one of John Lennon's pseudonyms), it's clear that each takes the commitment seriously. It's evident in their actions, from the way they communicate with one another to their shared goal of raising money for charity with the proceeds from their forthcoming album.
That sincerity is especially palpable in Downing, who cuts the image of a frontier preacher transported to the stage from another era. With his scraggly beard, wire-rimmed glasses and stage getup straight out of a Southern Baptist tent meeting, he's the very picture of earnestness when talking about the band's message.
Downing, who teaches sociology at Colorado State University, is also serious when he describes the group's musical style as "American ass-shake-stomp-holler." His words are even more heartfelt when he talks about spreading a message that's "a kick in the balls, but with a huge hug."
But that doesn't mean the band adheres to a rigid ideology, seeking frenzied followers or kicking off a cult. Musketeer's musical links to bands like the Black Crowes and the Grateful Dead are clear in its extended solos, folky song structures and lyrics that owe a lot to the blues. Messages of peace and activism come in nuanced forms, including tunes about rising up early in the morning and singing. Such messages could just as easily be a part of blues wails from the 1920s. "Some of it is more subtle; it's not right in your face," Hockett observes. "If you get into the lyrics of some of the songs, they're not in-your-face. The subtlety is there, and the message is there."
The music, on the other hand, is a little more pronounced. Floods and Fires, the group's fourth album, was produced by Jason Andres and recorded entirely in L.A., and it's a departure from the straightforward rock, folk and blues of earlier releases. A lot of that had to do with recording with Andres. "In the past, the producers for us have been the engineers," notes keyboardist Matt Goldberg. "This was the first time any of us experienced someone just watching over each of us and pushing us in ways we haven't been pushed."
The result is a record that veers from the band's fondness for structures and models pulled from old blues, folk and roots music. "I think it's edgier," says guitarist and vocalist Ehren Crumpler. "It's more electric, a harder-driving sound than we've had in the past." The recording sessions took place in Andres's studio in downtown L.A., nicknamed "The Fortress," and the band laid down the majority of Floods' ten tracks in less than a week. "Not to say that our other albums haven't been great," offers Crumpler, "but it was refreshing to come into a studio and have someone say, 'No, that's not good.'"
That kind of brutal honesty helped shape the sound and form of numbers like "Nine-Pound Hammer," which takes its cues from the vintage call-and-response style of Parchman Farm "freedom songs." It informed the driving country balladry of "End of the Day" and the thoughtful mood of "The Desert Is Out of Tune," one of the record's highlights.
"It's a definitive step forward in songwriting, and it's like the flood portion of the Floods and Fires album," Hockett says of "Desert." It started as a simple experiment when the band played the Joshua Tree Roots Music Festival in Southern California a couple of years ago; the original hook, meditative tempo and earnest vocals have since developed into a more significant achievement for the band. "It's got a broader, flowing feel to it," Hockett explains. "It's really turned into a composition for the band; it's way more in-depth than anything we've ever done."
This increased depth reflects Musketeer Gripweed's bigger mission for the album, which is set to drop in April. The band is already finalizing plans to donate money from sales of the album, online singles and poster art to NoCo Rebuilding Network, a nonprofit dedicated to helping local victims of recent disasters. "My interest with the preaching thing is not saying, 'You've got to do this,'" Downing insists. "It's so the next piece of art we do can really help people. The idea is to turn this album into a piece that can help our community" — specifically, those in Fort Collins, Estes Park and other northern Colorado communities hit by recent floods and fires. "We've got neighbors who lost their homes in these floods and these fires. We're talking about community and love, but it's not necessarily in a passive way. It's, 'Let get this done now.' It's urgent."
That sentiment goes back to the simple rules that Downing and Hockett made when they first decided to put the band together. The kindness factor has fueled the group's first eight years, and it's an attitude that's helped Musketeer Gripweed build connections with national acts like Trampled by Turtles and play high-profile festivals with the likes of Los Lobos. According to Downing, who cites dust-ups and dramas in numerous bands, it boils down to basic mental health.
"Life's too short to have that," Downing concludes. "It's friends and family first in this band, and we always keep that in mind."