Head for the Hills’ Blue Ruin effortlessly matches integrity against innovation. CMT Edge spoke with bassist and songwriter Matt Loewen about the sharp new collection, their bluegrass heroes and how living in Colorado shapes the band’s music.
“As tunes came together, we noticed several themes that emerged,” Loewen says. “One was this idea of sunset. ‘Blue ruin’ refers to that time when the sun’s going down. It’s a guiding factor. The natural environment in Colorado certainly affects our songwriting.”
CMT Edge: What intrigues you about sunset?
Loewen: I think it was something that coincidentally came up in a couple of tunes, and it was like, “Oh, I didn’t really think about that being present in that song.” One of the tunes in question is more a loss of innocence thing, and the other is a little more abstract than that. We thought it was interesting that that came about without really pushing too hard.
Tell the story behind writing the title track.
That was a tune that [singer-guitarist Adam Kinghorn] wrote, one of the earlier songs he wrote for the record. Like a lot of Head for the Hills tunes, it didn’t have a title for a long time. We were looking at the lyrics, and the idea was brought up: “Adam, find a term that’s synonymous with sunset.” The refrain is, “Daylight turns to night,” and that’s kind of trite for a title. So he did some research and came up with an old usage of the phrase “blue ruin.” Now, if you’re a gin drinker, you’ll be familiar with the fact that gin sometimes is called blue ruin. There’s also a pretty famous dive bar in Brooklyn called Blue Ruin, I guess.
Describe the band’s typical songwriting process.
We’re kind of in the “all of the above” camp on songwriting. I would say that a very small portion of this record was collaborative in the moment where the whole song comes together as a group. But it’s everything from one person bringing an entirely finished and arranged song with lyrics to two people coming with 80 percent of a song and filling in the other pieces. We definitely take a teamwork approach on a lot of it. Even the stuff that seems to be finished, we’ll get in there and tweak the arrangement sometimes and make it a Head for the Hills song.
Who brought in “Priscilla the Chinchilla”?
That’s Mike Chappell, the mandolin player. We want to have a blend of instrumentals and songs with words, and he was working on that tune. He brought that to the group to finish the end of it. That was another one that didn’t have a title. Coming from long days on the road being in the van, we were brainstorming in the front seat and that [title] was the most far-fetched idea that we came up with, but it was the one we ended up liking.
Then we got in the studio and basically did the whole track, and we felt like it needed another element. Mike brought up the idea of getting Mr. Andy Hall from the Infamous Stringdusters, who recently moved to Colorado. He’s basically right down the street in Lyons, so we had him lay down Dobro on it and really finish the tune off. We’re really happy with how it turned out.
Were you drawing from any particular songwriters for the album’s other instrumental, “Breakfast Noir”?
I think with “Breakfast Noir,” Adam had been listening to a lot of Django Reinhardt, and obviously we’ve been David Grisman fans from the beginning. We kind of melded those two things together and came up with that song. It’s a blend of different things. Sometimes I think that somebody gets a melody in their head or their fingers, and that leads the way, as well.
Do you improvise in the studio, or are the parts entirely scripted?
I would say a little from column A and a little from column B. We self-produced this record, and the songs were pretty close to finished, but we always at least try to leave our ears open. Everybody gets inflated in their own world, and you have your idea of what’s right for that song. A lot of times, it is right for the song, but being open-minded and allowing something fresh to float in can be really useful.
Describe Colorado songwriter and musician Benny Galloway’s impact on your band.
Yeah, we call him Burle. He’s had a big influence on us, and we’re good friends, as well. He’s one of those guys who’s a man from a different era, not to say he’s an old fogey, but he’s an amazing songwriter and he lives this life that’s not your typical musician life. He does his own thing. He was a butcher for a while in Boulder. He’s someone who inevitably in Colorado is one of the seminal people.
He was more than friendly toward us, and once we developed a relationship and got to know him, he’s one of the most generous musicians and songwriters that I’ve ever met — not only with his actual material but also with his knowledge. Adam will still bring a sheet of lyrics to him and say, “Burle, what do you think about this? What do we do with this?” He’s so happy to do that.
How does living in Colorado generally impact you as artists?
Hot Rize are always a big influence and a big part of what our idea of bluegrass is. You know, beyond that, just the overall feeling of open-mindedness of the audience here in Colorado is hard to articulate. It’s even different than Austin — I noticed that’s where your phone number came up as being from — which is also a super open-minded place. When it comes to bluegrass or anything adjacent to bluegrass, people get an idea in their head about what it should be. Thankfully, Colorado doesn’t really have that same issue or hang-up or history. That’s allowed us to do whatever we want and feel free to bring in the hip-hop or the indie rock influence.