You know what they say about 99 percent perspiration? Well, it's true."
Donnie Jerome, bassist for Denver's Local 33, is commenting on the fact that it's taken his band seven years to release its debut full-length, Hearts That Bend. The outfit was formed in 1998 by singer/guitarist Eric Lowe, the only remaining original member, and has since weathered a storm of shakeups and setbacks in its attempt to forge a lasting document of its sound. With Hearts, Lowe, Jerome, drummer Steve Richards and guitarist Paul Childs have finally brought inspiration to a boil. The disc is a grit-etched reminder of all that is pure, simple and honest about country and rock, a ten-song pep talk for anyone who's ever stared down misery, mortality and the void of the open road and lived to tell the tale. Tenacious and tender, it's a true product of the salt and sweat of the earth.
Sitting around the kitchen table in the cluttered, cozy house Lowe shares with his wife, Lara, and their three young kids, it's easy to see where the songwriter is coming from. Easter eggs simmer on the stove. Bottles of Budweiser are supplied in a steady stream. Steve Earle blasts from the stereo. Circled by his bandmates, Lowe himself leans back in his chair and pushes back the bill of his trucker hat, which reads "Iron Workers Local 33."
"I grew up in upstate New York, in this town called Newark, about forty minutes east of Rochester," he recounts. "My parents were divorced. My mom raised me pretty much most of my life, and I saw my dad on the weekends. Newark was a farmer, blue-collar town. The only thing we had going for us was the Erie Canal; that pretty much put us on the map. Other than that, it was just farmland -- potatoes, corn. It was mostly rural, but we had a couple factories that did a lot of plastics and copper. And the next town over from us had a plant that made garbage bags. The big thing to do back then was to go to these bonfire parties at night when it was twenty below zero. Some guys would get a keg, and someone got the music cranking. That's all you could really do in this town is drink. Or play music. There was nothing else going on, so that's what we did."
Lowe picked up the guitar at age twelve, but soon switched to bass because, as he puts it, "guitar players were a dime a dozen." Of course, as a teenager in small-town USA during the '80s, he and his friends had one abiding passion: metal.
"I was totally into Metal Church, Saxon, Iron Maiden, Raven, Megadeth," Lowe lists with a grin. "There was, like, one classic-rock station in town, so I had that as well as my dad's country music -- Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. That was my background, my base.
"The '80s were cool," he continues, "because you could really be involved in heavy metal, but you could have this new-wave side, too. We were into Modern English, A Flock of Seagulls, the Smiths. When MTV broke, it was like this whole world opened up. All of a sudden, there was more to life than Molly Hatchet and Black Sabbath. The thing about upstate New York is, there really isn't a lot of diversity going on. It's just a simple life growing up."
Things soon got more complicated. After rocking out in bars and bowling alleys across Newark throughout his adolescence, Lowe yanked up his roots, settling briefly in New Jersey and then following a girlfriend to Colorado in 1992. Still on bass, he quickly hooked up with a number of musical projects, most notably the Christines, an ill-fated, shoegazer-tinged group then tapped as one of Denver's "next big things." When the Christines imploded, Lowe was working a warehouse job -- "something that doesn't take a lot of brainpower," he comments. "You could work all day and play music all night."
Lowe picked up the guitar again and started writing his own songs. Consequently, Honeydew was born, a self-described "Midwest breadbasket rock band." It was one of his own bandmates in Honeydew who lent the inspiration for his next outfit, Local 33.
"I was playing with this guy named Jim Sweeney, and he was really into Uncle Tupelo," Lowe remembers. "I'd never heard of them. I was just blown away. I was starting to write more folky kind of stuff, which really didn't work with what Honeydew was doing. The sound that was in my head was really close to what I heard in Uncle Tupelo -- true to heart, cool melodies. I felt like I could relate to these guys, because we pretty much had the same upbringing. When I heard them, I thought, 'Fuck, this is what I want to do.' But I wasn't like, 'Okay, I've reached this point in my life where I'm going to write some blue-collar, dirty-bar kind of rock and roll.' It just poured out."
After Honeydew dissolved, Local 33 hit the ground running. With the recruitment of guitarist Brian Bourgault, now a noted singer-songwriter in his own right, the quartet recorded two homemade, lo-fi demo EPs, Foundations and I'll Move On. When Jerome -- whose distinguished resumé includes stints with the Fine Print, the Flatlanders, the Capitol Hillbillies, Ruby My Dear, the Honky Tonk Hangovers, and Ethyl and the Regulars -- hopped on board in 2000, it seemed like Lowe's songs had finally found the perfect vehicle, and Local 33 found itself playing successively bigger shows and accruing a passionate fan base.
"I got to the point where I just wanted to write songs from the heart," he notes, "and not try to not have more hooks than a tackle box. The trick is to take a simple idea and make it complex. It's not how you play those three or four chords; it's what you take out of them. If you write good lyrics with a good vocal melody, you kind of forget about the three-chord thing."
Lowe's quest for simplicity, though, was starting to get hampered by a frustrating string of lineup changes. "The first three years of the band was like trial and error -- and trial by fire," he explains. "We had so many drummers and guitar players. Just as soon as things got going, somebody would quit and I'd have to start all over again. It was almost like it was cursed." And although the addition of former Rainville drummer Richards was a boon, the Local 33 machine soon started spluttering. In 2003, still without a long-player to show for its years of effort, a fed-up Lowe called it quits.
"I got so used to people quitting, I stopped taking it personally," he admits. "But still, I just got burned out."
After a year-long hiatus, Lowe, Richards and Jerome started itching to play together again. Enlisting another Rainville alumnus, Paul Childs, a lick-wielding guitarist who also served in Mary Beth Abella's band, Local 33 renewed its union and began laboring intently on a full-length CD. After an arduous recording process spread over several months, the act gave birth to Hearts That Bend.
Resounding with twangy riffs, locomotive force and a deep strain of desperation, Hearts is almost overwhelming, with songs that oscillate between acoustic rustle and industrial-sized blocks of distortion, broken up by Lowe's cracked, corn-fed croon. Written almost entirely in character, the album scans like X-rays of heartache and eroded souls. "I have a hard time singing about myself," the singer confesses, "so I channel everything through a fictitious person or someone I used to know."
And although the sole Jerome-penned track, a rousing slab of vintage cow punk called "Four Letter Word," offers a brief intermission, the psychic weight of Hearts is lightened only by its soaring, sky-wide melodies.
"Some guy came up to Donnie at a show and said, 'Your songs are so energetic and upbeat,'" Lowe recalls with a laugh. "And Donnie was like, 'Are you kidding me? Eric's lyrics are so depressing; you have to actually listen to them. All the songs are about death or drinking.' We've got the happiest songs about loneliness, death and being drunk you've ever heard."
Such a worldview, of course, comes straight out of the type of bleak, dead-end existence in which Lowe came of age back in rural New York. And although he's come a long way, both geographically and mentally, his roots -- just like his heart -- stay pinned squarely on his sleeve.
"Hell, yeah, upstate New York," he says with simple, homespun pride. "That's a huge part of my life. I live in Denver, but I'm not from Denver. I don't write about anything in Denver. It's all about my past and where I'm from, really. That's where I get my inspiration. It's what I'm all about."
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