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West Water Outlaws play outside the box on their new album

West Water Outlaws are wanted men.
West Water Outlaws are wanted men.
Lisa Siciliano

The lap steel guitar is a tough instrument to learn, but that's exactly why Will Buck of West Water Outlaws wanted to take a crack at it for his band's new album. "I've been playing guitar for about twenty years at this point," says Buck, who co-founded the Boulder-based quartet four years ago. "The lap steel has always been attractive. It's laid out in front of you, and I could always conceptualize it that way."

As the Outlaws prepared to enter the studio at the beginning of this year to record their first full-length release, Buck's casual interest in the instrument turned into something deeper, propelled by the fact that he and his bandmates were looking for a different sound for the new record. In contrast to the group's past recording experiences — studio sessions for EPs that had always been highly rehearsed and polished to a fault — Buck wanted the self-titled new album to sound spontaneous and gritty. So two weeks before the band was set to start laying down tracks, he decided to pick up the lap steel. "I wanted the inspiration that learning a new instrument brought to the album," Buck explains.

The members' push to break out of their comfort zone comes through clearly on high-energy anthems like "Caught in the Headlights," as well as the metal paean "665 (The Neighbor of the Beast)" and country-rock-inspired ballads like "Bless Your Soul." They drew inspiration from a variety of acts, including Iron Maiden and Alabama Shakes, and from songs like the centuries-old American murder ballad "Down in the Willow Garden" for different moments on the album.

While all of the tunes on West Water Outlaws gleefully cross genres, they also seethe with a visceral feel, a sound that's at once unpolished and tightly organized. That has a lot to do with how the group went about writing and recording. "The first two EPs, we did everything separately, different rooms and overdubs," notes bassist, keyboardist and backup vocalist Vince Ellwood. "On this album, we had live vocals while we were playing. Everyone was in one room playing together."

Even "Things I Meant to Say," an ambitious ballad with bright piano lines and earnest vocals that evoke the Beatles, came from casual and spontaneous cues. "I only had one or two mics on the drums, and Vince was sitting next to me playing the piano," recalls drummer Andrew Oakley. "We just did it. It ended up being one of our favorites."

The confidence to take those risks in the studio came from a year marked by growth. Indeed, the past twelve months have been all about focused transformation for the band. Since signing with a new promotion company last October, the Outlaws have worked tirelessly to reach the next level creatively. That's meant an unforgiving touring schedule, nonstop writing, and a recording process that spanned several months. "We went on a lengthy tour," Buck says. "We went to South by Southwest, and we rerecorded stuff when we got back. We felt like songs developed while we were out on the road."

The new album, recorded at UI Sound Studios in Boulder and produced by Evan Reeves, is a reflection of an even bigger journey, one that started four years ago, when lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Blake Rooker and Buck met as college students in Boulder and enlisted Ellwood and Oakley as a rhythm section. The name West Water Outlaws comes from a combined love of the outlaw lore of the Old West, the band's home base at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, and the guitar stylings of blues master Muddy Waters.

"We used to use practice as a time to maintain our skills," Ellwood recalls, noting how the guys' early gigs in Boulder, the house parties and basement sessions, were more of an exercise in experimentation than refined performances. "Now, every time we get together off the stage, it's purely about making new music." The Outlaws continue to evolve as performers thanks to relentless touring — playing countless gigs across the country that have racked up thousands of miles on an Ford E-350 van that they're still paying off. "We're really learning the ins and outs of how to interact with a crowd," says Rooker. "We've played for sold-out crowds at the Fox, and we've played for one alcoholic in a hellhole."

They've also progressed as songwriters, as evidenced by the material on West Water Outlaws, which reflects hard times and some tough lessons learned offstage in the past year. For example, the lead track, "Caught in the Headlights" — a frenzied rock plaint that takes a page straight from '80s power pop, with feedback-drenched lead guitar from Buck, relentless drumming from Oakley and Rooker's falsetto vocals — appears on the surface to be a song about being caught unawares by love, but the lyrics actually come from a much darker place.

This past January, Ellwood was driving back to the studio to meet the rest of the band when a motorcyclist ran a red light and shot out across a five-lane intersection without warning. Ellwood didn't have time to react. The others were prepping for a night session at the studio when they got the frantic call from their bassist and ended up canceling the session."Vince was terrified," Rooker recalls more than ten months later. "We called off the rest of the recording for the night."

The accident took more of an emotional toll than a physical one, as, fortunately, neither Ellwood nor the biker sustained serious injuries. Just the same, the incident had a profound impact, enough so that it ended up on the record. "I was having trouble finishing the lyrics in the studio for that one," Rooker remembers. "I wanted to rewrite the second verse, and I was having a hard time." He ended up finishing the tune, a key line of which includes imagery pulled from the accident ("Caught in the headlights/Left me cold in the street"). Rooker was clearly shaken by the whole thing, but he was able to channel the unsettling feelings from that evening into the song.

A dangerous accident may seem like a macabre source from which to wring inspiration for love-based lyrics, but Rooker and the group made the most out of potential trauma for the tune. Instead of writing a literal set of lyrics about the incident, they opted to cloak it in the best type of Muddy Waters or Led Zeppelin imagery. "We're open to any genre," says Rooker, "but we always wanted to be a rock-and-roll band."

That much is clear on West Water Outlaws. Even as the players pick up new instruments and experiment with different genres, West Water Outlaws' music remains rooted in a certain dynamic: Buck's lap steel still overlays lyrics about ill-fated love affairs, and Rooker's frenzied falsetto is at its most powerful when he sings of heartache. Even the tongue-in-cheek nods to the Devil on the band's more metal outings feel like they come from an honored tradition. It doesn't get much more rock-and-roll than that.

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