Nestled between Austin and San Antonio rests a city called New Braunfels, one Texas’s oldest cities and now the home base of the Zack Walther Band. On Wednesday nights, known locally as Walther Wednesdays, residents and fans from around Texas can drop into Freiheit Country Store to hear Zack Walther and Matt Briggs run through an impromptu set of songs with one of any like-minded musical talents.
On one of these nights, Blues Rock Review stopped in to catch the duo matching licks and lyrics with the legendary Susan Gibson, author of “Wide Open Spaces.” A showcase of talent followed with a setlist ranging from “Pancho and Lefty” to “I Want a New Drug” to “Eastbound and Down,” not to mention the great originals mixed in. Expertly blending harmonies and instruments with a relaxed feel matched by otherworldly technical chops, the audience listened, laughed and sang along into the crisp February night.
Before the show, Blues Rock Review had the pleasure of sitting down with Zack and Matt to pick their minds on music, art, family, and life.
When we sat down. You were talking about helping your buddy with a tune he had. You were saying some interesting things.
Zack Walther: Yeah. So, my buddy Mike Atkins and I wrote several songs on this record together. On The Westerner, we figured out pretty quickly that we sort of write really well together. And it’s taken me a long time to find some really good writing partners because, you know, you sort of gel and you’re able to sort of bounce ideas off each other in a way that the whole pride and ego sort of steps out of the room. And you’re writing it because you both have good ideas and the finished product typically is a really great song. With him, we’ve rarely sat down to write a song and written something that wouldn’t be on a record. So I mean, he’s a good writing partner in that aspect. So, on this particular song that we were talking about, he came and it was a fleshed out song that he had written and actually performed live at his local club, but he felt like he needed some help editing it and I am particularly critical of myself and lyrics when it comes to writing that I may take months or even years to finish a song.
That’s where co writing with somebody like him kind of comes in. I had a song that we wrote called “Bring on the Pain,” that I had started after I lost my youngest daughter to leukemia in 2015. I started this song but it was so new and fresh and painful to talk about that. Anyways, it was kind of too fresh on my mind, in my heart, that pain that I just had to sit. I just couldn’t get anywhere with it. And then four years later, he and I are writing together and he had recently lost his mother. I was like, “Well man, you’re kind of in that same place that I was. I want to share this with you.” So we wrote the song and we’re looking forward to it. It’s not on The Westerner, but it will be on the new record.
And this partner is someone who contributed on The Westerner?
ZW: Yes. So he helped me write. Mike Atkins is his name and he helped me write “Paying For it Now,” “Down for Whatever”(…) I have to look at the song list(…) one or two others. So we’ve sort of developed a rhythm in the writing studio and being able to write, and also this song that I was working on today. I was kind of working on my own. I’m just trying to be a little more critical when he’s not there just to kind of look at it from my point of view and say, “Well, this is really good. This is really good. This line needs work,” and I’ve got what he’s trying to say. I’m just trying to help him say it better, basically.
Something comes to my mind when you say that the writing process is what you’re talking about and the different ways of approaching it. You also mentioned just a minute ago that sometimes your song may start, and its endpoint doesn’t happen for a couple years.
So a question I would ask is how do you know when the song is done? When do you finally feel comfortable to say, “You know what, I can be on the song for the rest of my life,” versus, “You know what? I like the song.” I’d like to know when that is decided.
ZW: Typically it’s ready when you put it on a record. For me, I will write a song and get to a point where I think it’s good enough to play in a live setting. So at a show, much like tonight, where it’s a very casual show, I will play it for the first time and sort of gauge the reaction in the crowd, gauge my reaction of how I sang it, and sort of take mental notes of what worked and what didn’t work, so that I can go back into the writing room and say, “Okay, that line needed some work, or I didn’t deliver it exactly right. Is there a better way to deliver that melody with those lyrics?” Things like that. So, honestly, and I think you could probably ask any songwriter that you know, a song is probably never done, you just get to a point where you’re like, “Okay, it’s time to put it down and put it on a record,” and then move on to something else and sometimes, you know, that process does take a long time. Being around seasoned songwriters, this topic comes up and they’re like, “Yeah, sometimes you just got to put it down and start something else, and come back to it when it’s ready, you know that the song will tell you when it’s ready to come out and be done.”
I want to jump to The Westerner now because there are ten songs on the album and three of them are songs that were on other records. Correct? So on this topic of when is the song done, when is it not? We’re talking about “Bad Girl,” “What Kind of Man,” and, I believe, “Bailey’s Light.” Those three songs have appeared before. Those songs have been recorded, but something makes you or maybe Matt (Briggs) bring the song back. Why?
ZW: Well, part of the decisions on the songs, “Bad Girl” and “What Kind of Man” is that they were recorded originally on an EP. So this (The Westerner) is a full length album. And to me as an artist(…) an EP(…) Yes, we put it out and it’s available for people to purchase and listen to anytime they want. However, you always want, as an artist who writes songs, if you’re writing for an album instead of just singles to put out, you want to have that cohesive, full length record that everybody can just put on their record player, or their CD player and just let it play. And those two songs, for one, sort of match the theme of The Westerner, which is a little more bluesy and more soulful. “Bad Girl” was something that, to me, was a strong enough song to be recorded again. “What Kind of Man” was probably the most important song on the record because it was kind of what started this more bluesy direction, and I wanted to take another swing at it in a way that would even accentuate that feel, that blues ethos, and the soulfulness of that song, to really bring the level of the whole album up, because I think it’s just a tremendously strong song. Both of those are, but particularly “What Kind of Man.”
Then the reason we recut “Bailey’s Light” was because on a previous full length album, Shake Off the Fuzz, we did it as an a capella song. It sounded kind of like a “chain gang” type of song. No instrumentation, just four part harmonies, things like that, and we started playing it live because people were asking for it. We just changed the arrangements and sped it up and gave it a whole new life. So, in my opinion, when we were we’re kind of rounding out the setlist of this album, I was like, “Well, this song has a whole new life to it, and it deserves to be recut in the way that we’ve been performing it, and can perform it until we don’t play it anymore.” But it’s one of those things that happens over time because we play so much and the transformation is exactly how we do it on stage now.
Why The Westerner as the title of this album? I’m looking at the cover compared to some of the other ones like Shake Off the Fuzz, and there’s a big difference. The name, it’s just one word. And the cover art is stylistically different. This seems to me a departure. Why?
ZW: Well, there is a definite direction change in the music. A lot of that just came from out of the tragedy of the loss of my daughter and things like that, but also just growing inside, emotionally and changing. I wanted to see soulfully, I wanted to sing. I wanted to make a record that was different and in a new direction. Honestly, when I came up with The Westerner, it wasn’t that I was trying to copy Chris Stapleton’s Traveller, it was just simple. You know, that the name was simple to me. The Westerner was simple. It was something to symbolize something new and exploring new landscapes of music, like going out to The West and being on The New Frontier. I guess the idea behind it originally, I think the art idea was to do some sort of like spaceman or something like we were trying to find some space, which is something which is really not easy. Unless you’re around NASA maybe. I don’t know that. That was kind of the original concept, but then the art direction of that, kind of gives it a whole ‘nother flair.
The song, “When the Show Comes to Town,” which was the other song that Mike helped on(…) We actually wrote the song and recorded the concept of the song without writing lyrics and so the melody and the band was all there was already, but he just hadn’t written the lyrics and the idea was like a showman or something like that, and basically just in the writing process, developed a kind of a circus, “big top” theme. You know, the greatest showman had just come out and it was it was kind of a big deal. So we just sort of let the song go where it went. And I love that song, and one of the lines in the song is basically describing the different acts in the show. “We’ve got cobra riding cowboys and the human cannonballs. Whatever your twisted heart desires.” Also, the cobra riding cowboys(…) Before we wrote that song that day, we went into a little boutique shop in downtown New Braunfels, and there was a t-shirt with a cowboy drawn, on a riding saddle, on a cobra snake. And I was like, “Oh, that’s a cool shirt.” And I said, “Cobra riding cowboy.” Phonetically, that’s just fantastic. So I was like, “Remember that for later.” And when the song started taking life in this direction of the big top, hey, when the show comes to town, you know, it is the best thing that’s ever come to town. The greatest night of your life, type of you know. It’s a power anthem, and so that one line sort of queued me in a visual idea. I was like, “Well, why don’t we take the cobra and cowboy and put that to something, some sort of landscape on a computer screen and then put it on the cover of the album.” So Michael’s daughter is very, very good at arts and doing computer graphics. She was the one that did the whole thing and we just kind of helped her with, “Yeah, that’s good, or do this or do that, so she helped.” Catherine is her name. Catherine Atkins, and she really helped that visual aspect of The Westerner.
You spoke about how the concept came to be. When you write in general, do you tend to write lyrics first, or music first, or do they come together?
ZW: It depends. As to the record before, Shake Off The Fuzz, we really kind of fleshed that out in the way where we would just record the ideas, the riffs of the songs and sort of the structure of the songs. Then we sort of went back and recorded lyrics, things like that, which is a completely backwards way of what I was used to before. It’s stretching a different muscle in songwriting. However, I don’t think there’s a wrong way to do it. You know, the simplest form is guitar in hand, and writing and singing the melody, sort of humming the melody until words come out until the idea comes. Typically for me, it starts with a hook. So it starts with show man, you know, the song (“When The Show Comes to Town”) was “Showman,” but then I was like, well, that’s too close to “Soul Man,” which is Sam and Dave song. So that was when it transformed, and became “When The Show Comes to Town.”
But, you know, the idea spurs from conversation, right? If I’m having conversation with something, or somebody, and somebody says something or I say something, or I hear it on a movie, and I do(…) I should write that down. That’s a good song hook, or that’s the title or the idea of the song, and so, that’s typically where they come from. And then we write the songs in the studio, in a room, or write them in a car on the way down to a gig or something like that. It just varies from each song. As far as the end product, I am always as critical as I can be about lyrics and melody and the delivery, because to me, that’s kind of what is most important, because it’s going to be on a record for the rest of its life. It’s something that’s always there and I’m hoping that what I say matters and will continue to matter for years to come. So that’s the bar, you know, and that’s where you hope that what I’m saying is relevant for generations to come. Especially now that I have kids, they (the songs) are always pointed at them now. It’s like, “Hey man, don’t do this, or do this but don’t do this. And I did it this way, but don’t do it this way,” type of deal.
I’ll take that answer and go right into a question that wanted to ask about the third song off The Westerner, “Paying For it Now.” You’re gonna say, “do this, don’t do this.” That’s exactly where that song is going. Is there a story there? Is that all autobiographical?
ZW: No, I mean, some of it definitely. But I never owned a Coupe de Ville or, yeah, a ragtop. I’ve never had a convertible. It just, to me, that sounded cool. And, you know, we’re always as songwriters, we’re always trying to sound cool. But we’re also trying to sound intelligent and say things in a way that are catchy and hooky so that people remember them. So, as well as having meaning and affecting people in a positive manner, I don’t write songs that are going to leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth. Art is getting a reaction from people, whether it’s good or bad. That’s why people will nail a banana to the wall and call it art. My reaction is like, “That’s the stupidest thing ever.” But at the same time, you know, there has to be(…) there has to be some sort of standard, some gold standard to the song so that I can sleep better at night. But that song in particular, “Paying For it Now,” yeah, it comes from experience, life experience, and it’s basically singing to my kids saying, you know, “I did it this way.” It’s not necessarily saying don’t do it this way. But I mean, what the message of that song is that we learn from our mistakes. We learn from doing it our own way. And if we had the chance to do it over, maybe we do it differently. Maybe we wouldn’t be here in this place right now. But I mean, the music business is a perfect example of learning what not to do and what to do, and I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons in my life, because this is all I’ve ever done. Since I graduated high school, this is all I’ve ever wanted to do. And I’m very fortunate that I still get to make records and tour and play for fans.
Very cool. Because you mentioned your kids, and talk about a gold standard(…) from what I know about you, the song that was your first song was “Sounds of Silence,” I believe.
ZW: Yeah, that was probably the first song that I ever played live when I was 15.
So who in that vein, thinking about when you were a kid, which artists to you represent this gold standard that you talk about? What’s the gold standard? Who made you say, “This is what I want to do with my life. This is the greatest.”
ZW: Well, if you’re talking about influences, I mean definitely, you know, the music that I was raised on. Listening to LPs with the Beatles and The Beach Boys, and Jimi Hendrix. But, as a teenager growing up in the ’90s you know that the influence of alternative rock was a big deal, and as songwriters, we’re always subject to what we’re listening to at the time. There are a lot of creative and amazing songwriters in the Americana genre. These are songwriters from Nashville, these are songwriters from all over the country. But you know, they’re the ones that get the songs cut on the big, big labels and things like that. Anyways, for me, the gold standard are those initial influences that are the ones that leave the biggest mark. And, you know, Simon Garfunkel(…) Paul Simon is one of the greatest poets in American culture and then the duo of those two, they instilled the yearning for the harmonies and the structure of the songs. The Beatles, they were so groundbreaking in the structure and how they wrote the songs and the way the songs came together. Yeah, so we are all subject to our influences and what we listened to and what we’re listening to at the moment. I mean to me, you hear things on the radio, hear songs and say, “that’s great. I love the way that sounded.”
It takes it back to this album, The Westerner was to me kind of shaped by the the R&B blues albums of the ’60s and ’70s, your Otis Redding’s and Ray Charles, and because of my experience and time with Rodney Crowell whose become a mentor to me over the last couple of years. He personally encouraged me to dive into that music, which I never really listened to as a kid growing up or in the ’90s because it wasn’t popular then. It’s always been popular, but it was just something that wasn’t on my radar as a teenager, or, you know, for the 10 years following that. But the last five or 10 years, I’ve sort of been absorbing that, and the delivery, and the way that they lay back in the beat, the way that they vocalize the melody. It’s a little more to me, a little more special than the stuff that comes out of mainstream country music or pop these days. I mean, it’s kind of on the beat and those guys were always right behind it, and doing it in a much cooler way, and I think there’s a lot of music that’s stemming from that these days. I can strongly say that this record, The Westerner, and the feel of this record was heavily influenced by that.
Hey Matt (Briggs), thanks for joining us.
I’m going to change gears here for a second, because you guys have quite a history. I want to talk about that because I find it super interesting. Hopefully I don’t beat that horse to death, but I think it’s really interesting. Let’s go way back to the beginning. Okay? Way, way back. West Columbia.
ZW: Originally West Columbia in Brasilia County, which is southwest of Houston, about an hour, small town of 2,500 people and Matt was a product of Columbia High School band and I was the product of high school choir. We’ve been in music since the sixth grade. I remember as very young teenagers going over to his house and banging on drums and picking on guitars in the garage, because we had friends in the band and choir and other friends that were beginning their musical journeys. Whatever, but we decided that we had enough guys that played enough instruments that we could put together a band, a little garage band and that was kind of our first step. At that time we were too young and we weren’t really gigging, but we would just kind of get together on a whim maybe, you know, once a month or something like that. Say, “Hey, let’s get together and play some songs.” And the songs we were playing that was definitely something. I think I remember, I vividly remember Everclear’s “Santa Monica” being one of the first ones, because that was 1995, or somewhere around there. He and I had a band or two. Different bands in high school. He was in a band, a rock band and I was in a rock band.
Eventually, when we graduated high school we started kind of an all top 40 cover band that we could go and play in certain venues. We’d play country music, we’d play rock music, we’d play rap music, I mean, just all kinds. Matt was playing guitar. We had a drummer. We had a bass player, piano player, a girl on vocals. So we could cover all genres and just have a good time. It was a good way to cut our teeth and start learning the business side of music, which is getting paid to play, and then at the end of night, giving that up. Our parents loaned us some money to buy a PA system, which we paid back, through the gigs we played. That was a good way to sort of learn how to start a business and be able to afford to go play and have a PA system. To have a PA, you can actually play anywhere. From there, went to college, kind of kept that band going for a year or two.
Zach Walther and Matthew Briggs
Did you guys attend the same college?
ZW: After high school, I went to Southwest Texas State University of San Marcos, now Texas State. And Matt and a few of our buddies went to Wharton Junior College, which was pretty close to home. They were there for two years, and then after two years, he did come to Southwest. At that point, we decided we needed to start a new band. At the time, the Texas country scene was starting to explode, which was your Robert Earl Keen and Pat Green and Cory Morrow. These guys were kind of the forefront of that scene, at least to a 19 or 20-year-old kid, because they were singing songs about drinking beer and floating the river and partying and all things like that. All the things that we liked to do. So, we decided to kind of start a new band in college and we called it Rodger Wilko.
I was gonna ask about Rodger Wilko. I look at your guys’ discography and I see that there have been different people in the bands, and always the core unit, Zach and Matt, and but the name is always changing. Why? I’m curious.
ZW: What is the answer to that? I don’t know(…) A lot of times the name changes because the band changes. The members changed. So you know, with Roger Wilco, it was the core of Matt, and Stephanie and myself. We were kind of a core and then when we disbanded the three of us split off. I started my own bands without Matt and Stephanie, and they went on and created a band. That was when I created Zach Walther and the Cronkites, which was just a clever thing that came up one night at a gig and it kind of stuck. That was a whole new group of guys that I was playing with. Then you know, a few years go by and a member will leave here, or a member leave there. Then eventually, you look around and nobody is the same. So then the band sort of changes. It becomes the Zack Walther Band. Different projects hold different band members, which means we can create a new band name. So, typically it’s us because we’re always trying new things, starting new projects and recording something that we can give to people, and that way we can have an excuse to change the name. Consistently it’s always been for the last 10 years the Zack Walther Band.
Matt, this piggybacks off of something that Zach had mentioned earlier. Zack said that growing up, once he got to a certain age, music is what he wanted to do. He went to school for music, went to school for voice. What I know about you, Matt, you went to school, I believe originally for art.
Matt Briggs: Yes sir.
So, I guess I’d call them the teenage, high school, college years. Zach is doing what he’s doing. You’re not there yet. Was there a moment, or was it a progression, where your idea of going to school for arts and perhaps becoming a teacher changes over to say, “You know what, I’m going with my buddy Zack and we’re gonna make music.” How did that happen?
MB: You know? I guess the cool thing about Zach and I is like, we talked at the very beginning, I was a band nerd. He was a choir dork, right? As we’re walking the halls of our high school and everybody’s getting trophies for football and all that other stuff, music was a way that we could kind of breakthrough and make a statement for what me and Zach we’re always doing. We were surfing, we were skating. None of that had trophies, there’s no ribbons or anything like that. So, you know, as we started music and started playing, it was always something that Zach and I just kind of came together on. At all times, no matter where we went, like I said, Zach went off to Southwest Texas and I went to junior college. I was studying art instead of the music thing, but we always came together. At that time, we had a band called Shiner West.
So that’s one I hadn’t heard of.
MB: That’s another one that we were playing.
ZW: That was the top 40 type band.
MB: And, you know, no matter what, Zach and I have always come back together since we’ve known each other. I kept thinking, my family’s all law enforcement and education. That’s what they do. Either you went to the military or you started teaching. So I went and got that master’s degree in art, thinking I was going to teach art and I wanted that to be my job. I never went and painted for fun on the weekend with my friends. I went and played music for fun or for friends. And I always thought that art was always something that I had to study every day. These studio hours again, every class in the art program is four hours long. And I’m taking four classes, some of us sometimes had 16 hours a day just pumping out art, studying art, just art, art, art, art. Well, by the time I finally got through with the master’s program, I was like, “This sucks man. Art is no longer fun.” I don’t look at the painting anymore and go like, “Man, I can’t wait to go paint that.” Where music was still that way for me. I’m kind of glad I didn’t study music, or I might be teaching art right now, you know? Or might be doing art.
ZW: And he (Matt) is now teaching music.
MB: So that was kind of a weird thing. You know, as all this kind of developed, and I came back to Zach, I kind of reinvented myself again in the last seven years or so. I started teaching music. So, Zach and I have a school in New Braunfels, and we have 60 kids that come through there. In total, like five or so teachers that teach. We also record some of our students there, and some friends, and record Zack’s records. I did learn, you know, going through the art side. It was really neat because they did teach you the business side of art. You need to sell yourself. You just can’t go out there and just starve as an artist. So, I did take some points from the art program. I guess technically Zach is my boss, but it’s someone I want to work for. It’s fun. It’s not like I come in every day and stress out over the music or stress on what we’re doing. And we continue to reinvent ourselves in the sound. So it’s always a constant growing thing. That’s always something different every record which is fun for me as well.
ZW: Music as it should, evolves over the years. And just as a sidebar, even though he was in art school and I was going to college, we were both going to college at the same time. We were always playing. There was never a time that we weren’t having gigs. When we were in college, he was at Junior College, close to home, I would drive home on the weekends, and we’d have gigs around that area. And then when he moved up to San Marcos and we were starting a new band there, we were playing clubs in San Marcos and Austin and surrounding areas, and then branching out further and further. That was kind of how we started. We’re were just constantly touring and I know towards the end of our time in college, I was telling my professors, first day classes, “I’ll be here but I may be sleep because I was in Oklahoma the night before.” It would happen. We’d driven all night through from Oklahoma to get to a midterm or final, but it’s just something we’ve always done. And school, at least for me, I can’t speak for Matt, but for me, it was always a backup plan. My parents always wanted me and my brother to go and do that. Pursue your dreams, but also make sure you have something to fall back on. And that’s where our degrees come from that we get to use that so(…)
Well, you sort of use your degree, right? You were at school for music.
ZW: I was, but I didn’t finish. I have a minor in music. I finished in geography actually, because I was in the sound recording program, which was always kind of a backup plan. Anyways, I would be on the recording side of music, but I just wasn’t cut out for that program. I mean, my passion was playing and performing and being on stage and writing music.
This one’s directed to Matt as well, because just a few minutes ago, you mentioned that in one of these bands you were playing guitar. There was someone else on the drums. Going back even further, there’s the guy in the band (Matt) and the guy in the choir (Zack). The guy in the band, Matt Briggs, was originally put on a saxophone, much to his chagrin. Saxophone, guitar, drums(…) you’re not a one trick pony. What is it that makes you choose drums? Why is that what it is after you’ve done all these other things?
ZW: Because I say so. (Everyone laughs heartily)
MB: I remember going to some of those first concerts. My mom was a teacher and they would do these programs where bands would come and play for the students. I remember sitting there through a two hour show and just watching the drummer the entire time, conduct the band, lead the band, you know, lay down that solid foundation for everybody to do their plan.
ZW: I’m what you would say is the front man, but Matt is the bandleader. Okay. So he conducts the band. He keeps the band together and allows me to be the idiot on stage.
MB: That’s true. I remember just always wanting to be the drummer and also that personality for some reason. They say that the drummer, and in a lot of these bands, when I read interviews, the drummer’s the one who’s always doing a lot of the, I guess controlling, truly the controlling of the project. That’s very much true. I’m always trying to sway Zach to my side of things, I guess. But yeah, super bummer, man. So you talked about the saxophone. I did get stuck on the saxophone. But that kind of became the cool thing later, because all my friends that went and played drums, that’s pretty much the extent of what they do. They’re great drummers and they’re fantastic. But because I learned a little bit of that theory, and on the other side, I’m able to go in and do all these other instruments,
ZW: Melody and notes and things like that.
MB: Because I had trained, I guess I probably played saxophone for six years, marched it and everything, and then a symbol girl got sick. They’re like, “We need someone to mark symbols for this competition.” I was like, “That’s me. I’m your symbol girl.” (Much laughter again)
MB: I marched symbols and I never looked back.
It’s interesting because looking at you, I wouldn’t take you for a symbol girl. (Laughter)
I don’t know if it was the beard, I just(…)
MB: The symbols, the bass drum, the snare drum, the quads, the clans and then later I actually got a scholarship to junior college where I marched on their drumline for two years. And, yeah, I love it. I love drums, but today I’m trying to push myself to do something different, at all times. I’ve been playing drums just my feet, guitar with my hands. That’s been the new setup.
Okay, so talking about setup and roles within the band, because that was interesting when you mentioned that, hey, drummer, also bandleader. If I take four things here, and it’s probably going to be different for each of you: 1. the writing of the song, whether it’s the music or the lyrics, 2. leading of the band or the production of what gets recorded, 3. being voice and 4. your main instrument, how do you rank those yourselves? Obviously they’re all important but how do you rank them in terms of importance within The Zack Walther Band?
MB: I would say every project that we do has been different. When it began, that was just being on the road. When I first came back to Zach I was drumming. You know, he already had a bunch of guys that were already doing things. We’d start a new project and things kind of switch. On one record, Zach might do all the guitar, and all the writing, and all the singing. On the next record he might share some of that with me, share some of the writing. I might play more guitar than he plays guitar, he just kind of throws it back and forth. We just kind of make what we need to make this project go forward. That is kind of what our motto is, I guess.
ZW: What I would say is the song obviously comes first. I mean, there has to be a song to play in order to make music. And then at that point, I guess recording it, and arranging it, which is a partnership between Matt and I. We both sit behind the console, while each one is actually cutting the song. Then we both have ideas that sort of meld together and create the sound of the record. And then the other side of that is the touring business side which is what we’ve streamlined into The Zack Walther Band. That is the part facing the world. Streamlining and creating music and not having to go out and make this huge production in order to make a huge sound. I mean with three guys were able to do drums, bass guitar, three part harmony, piano, all of that, which is a huge wall of sound. So we figured out a way to do it minimally and still afford to be on the road touring and making a living at it. We rarely have to leave the state of Texas. We have families, we’re married, we have kids and obviously that’s very important to us as well. So you know, we’re in a place, we’ve created a product out of minimal bodies. We don’t need a six-piece band to go out in this day and age with how many bands there are and how many people are putting out records, and going out and touring. It’s really hard to make a living, feeding seven, eight mouths. And in our case, it’s only three.
I want to talk about something, and that’s your guys’ style of music. What it screams to me is minimalism. Not that you strip it all the way down to something like a bird pecking against a wall. Not to that extreme, but to the degree that there are spaces in songs where you can tell that your abilities would allow you guys to really expand musically in certain passages. Instead, you keep it close to the core of the song. I noticed this mostly with your (Zack) guitar playing, and also your (Matt) drumming.
ZW: Over the years it’s been an evolution. It’s something that we’ve kind of figured out over the process of making records, with producers and without producers, and overdubs and “Here’s some more guitars. Here’s some more guitars on this track.” And you realize that the more that you layer stuff, sometimes it just gets too cluttered. It gets too crowded and on the song there is no space. I think we both had that in common and we wanted to strive for more space, allowing for the song to breathe, allowing for the recording to breathe and to kind of give a special groove to the song. There are songs on this album that probably don’t even have any symbols. There’s where it’s just kind of kick snare, but it’s all about the way that it’s presented on the record, and recorded. Same way with guitar or anything, you know, it’s just the less is more and that’s kind of been our motto in the last couple of albums that we’ve done.
Matt, your drum setup(…) I think you guys both agree, it’s not the average drum setup.
MB: Man, if you go back and look at pictures of me when I was 16 years old, I had like a 100 piece drum kit. I wanted to be Neil Peart, you know I had toms on toms on symbols on my set, and two snare drums. It just after the years of loading all that shit(…) So, okay, laziness. Yes. Is that what you’re gonna say?
I was gonna ask. Jokes aside, is part of it because it was too much of a hassle? Is that truly part of the decision?
MB: Yeah man, and also, without all that distraction it really does focus you on what’s really important about the song. I’ll go watch some of these drummers and you can tell the younger drummers are all over the place. It takes away from it. It takes years to play less. I was on the road with with a band named JJ Gray and Mofro. Watching those guys, he had Derek Trucks as a drummer subbing for this run, and he played a bass drum, a snare drum, and a ride cymbal live in a high hat. And they were selling out these clubs and these theaters and it was packed, and he was doing drum solos on it and making all these sounds out of three things. When I got home from that, that’s when I told Zach, “Things have got to change.” I will go back and listen to my sound and listen to that guy’s drumming and be like, “You’re not even. Now even though I’m playing all this stuff. It’s not even in the same ballpark. This guy’s way, way more advanced.” Little by little, we went to just like a bass drum, snare drum, hi hat. Eventually we found this suitcase thing and we’ve been running with the suitcase bass drum sets and it’s just the best thing since sliced bread.
There’s something I definitely want to get to. Just walking up to the stage here at Freiheit. I see a picture of your (Matt) music school. This last album, The Westerner, was recorded in your studio, correct?
MB: The Beagle’s Nest. We call it The Beagle’s Nest.
Beyond what you guys write and play, it sounds like you’re pretty involved in the community. You spoke about the school. You guys work for kids. I guess I just want to ask you to talk a little bit about it because a lot of people are into their work, their art, and that’s it. And then they go home and they do their thing, but it seems like you guys are very involved. What’s the drive behind that? Why do you do it?
ZW: Matt has kept an event that he does every year for the last 15 years.
MB: It’s 17 this year.
ZW: 17 years where he does a hair drive and it was just an idea that he had. He had long hair and decided he wanted to cut it and donate it, so why not put on a music festival and ask our friends to come play, and have everybody come donate their hair. He’s been doing it for 17 years. I have a foundation that my wife and I started called Linen-Aid where we raise money for families that have sick kids in the hospital. It’s a similar format, which is we do a concert and little music festival and raise money. We also love this town because of the incredible music scene and this tight-knit group of musicians and venues that are in the New Braunfels area. There’s quite often a benefit on the weekends, and on almost every weekend of the year people are raising money for different causes. We get asked to do that a lot, which we always do if we can do it. It’s just important to me personally because this is a town that got behind me and my wife in a time of need, a time of tragedy. I always, always try to pay it forward as much as we can, because this community can really rally behind somebody in need. They also appreciate people like us who are kind of New Braunfels’s sons, that that live here and work here. We appreciate the fans and the fans appreciate the music.
I want to finish up with a little bit of talk about the present, a little bit about the past, a bit about the future. So it’s been you guys playing and recording for over two decades, touring and playing different venues. What is next for you guys? Are you already focusing on the next album? Are you looking to do more at The Beagle’s Nest and other side projects for other people?
ZW: Well, The Zack Walther band is to me and to Matt a partnership between the two of us. It is my name but it’s still something that we do and create together, hopefully until the day that we decide we don’t want to make music anymore. And we’re fortunate enough to actually play music with our best friends every night, so it’s weird when I have to go play a show without him. Let’s just say that’s because it’s kind of like a marriage. We’ve known each other longer than we’ve known our wives, and we know what the other person is thinking. As far as the future, you know, we’re touring The Westerner and are working on promoting that. But, like I was saying earlier today, we’re writing for the next album. It’s never a stop and sort of smell the roses type of thing, at least it has never been that way for us. It’s something that we just kind of continue doing, and we’re always hoping for the game changing hit and striving for that success. At the same time, I feel like we’ve come to a place of success. I mean, it may be different than what we thought success was 20 years ago. The fact that we’re still here and we’re talking to you today, and the fact that we’re about to play a gig in front of a lot of fans, and the fact that we’re able to do that day in day out, making a living at it(…) I mean, that to me is the success story. Making music and making records continually, which is not a cheap and easy thing to do, especially if you want to promote it and let people know that it’s there, that’s a hard thing. Yeah, the internet is a great thing, but it’s sort of leveled the playing field in the sense that nobody’s selling records anymore, you know? So, we’re relying on shows, we’re relying on people coming and buying tickets. Tonight’s a free show and that’s okay. We love doing free shows and stuff like that. Anyways, I think that the future is very bright for both of us. As far as recording, that will always be something that we do, and hopefully that’s something we always do together, because we make really good music together. It’s a lot of fun and if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.
MB: Yeah, I mean as far as the future is concerned, if we just continue on the same track that we’re on today that would be perfect. I get to go on the road and make music for a living and hang out with my best friend four nights a week. You know, it’s every once a while, we’ll go talk to our old high school buddies and listen to what they do. I couldn’t imagine it. Still here. So, as far as my studio and everything else, they kind of go hand in hand. Zach comes over and teaches. All these students and stuff that come to the shows and see us perform get to actually come and learn from us. The studio gets a lot of recognition because Zach is out pushing his records talking about the studio and it’s kind of on autopilot. Zach’s growing, the studio’s growing and everything’s going good. We’ve never had that wake up moment yet where we have to say, “Oh, my God, maybe one day we can’t do this.” We just never had that. I just turned 40 last week and I feel like I’m 25, you know? And as long as I get to play music, man, that’s all that’s all I really want.
That’s awesome. Alright guys. Thank you so much. On behalf of Blues Rock Review, this has been great. I’m looking forward to the show.
Interview by Willie Witten