‘I actually don’t really like playing’

"I like everything except the 45 minutes!" says frontman Keith of American band The Cowboys

(Image: The Cowboys)

‘‘I’m a beer delivery driver, I deliver beer. That’s the day job.’’ 

A faceless voice – we were told this was ‘Keith’ speaking – flew from Chicago to York Campus in a matter of milliseconds, crackling through the laptop speakers. It was an unexpected answer, but we hadn’t been expecting convention from the American band The Cowboys either. They possess an ineffable sense of the weird, a je ne sais quois that makes them largely undefinable. 

Formed in Bloomington, Indiana, there is a certain nonchalance as Keith traces the band’s origins: ‘‘It was just in my early twenties. I thought: ‘I guess that’s the time to start’’. 

A successful basement show marked their first performance: ‘‘I just remember, the people were pretty stoked from the beginning…. the town really took to it.’’ Shows soon turned to online cassettes, and soon The Cowboys had their foot on the ladder. Again, Keith downplays any notions of stardom: ‘‘I mean, it was very organic and very…just normal. Just how it happened.’’ 

Naturally, we asked about where the name came from.  “I just said it as a joke, thinking it wouldn’t be taken seriously but he [bandmate Mark] actually really liked it and I was just ready to squash the whole debate because I just wanted to get out there and play shows.’’ 

It’s hard to believe an image as ubiquitous (and American) as the cowboy hadn’t already been used, but Keith claims: “at that time, there was no other band called The Cowboys, but what you don’t think about then is, now, when you’re naming your band or product or whatever, it’s gotta be easy to Google.’’ 

A detectable trace of antipathy seeped through as he spoke – this was not a frontman, or indeed a band, particularly enthralled with the commercial reality of music.  “I wish actually I could get away from relying on physical media, but the reality is that when you’re a smaller band on a smaller label, physical media is still actually really important.’’ Physical copies are not treasured but inconvenient.

Keith recounts: ‘‘I dated someone that worked for a major record label, Dead Oceans, a big indie label…and just hearing how the sausage was made – so to speak – just the advertising and marketing, I was just like ‘ugh’, I don’t know if we’re cut out for that, posting on Instagram as much as bands do. 

“We try and keep it like, here’s the information you need, this record’s coming out, here’s the dates, fuck off.’’ 

Here was the cavalier energy that so fits their name and characterised their early sound – frenetic, punky songs that leap out of the speakers then quickly vanish. If their attitude has remained the same, their sound has not. 

Keith claims ‘‘songwriting is really just like a sponge…y’know, I love it all, pretty much.’’ Disparate names from Roy Orbison to Tom Verlaine to Mozart are grouped into one, and in Keith’s words “that’s all contributing to the stew.’’

Equally, the band’s experience has increased their breadth: ‘‘Yeah, I mean, what I was writing about when I started was very different to what I’m writing about now. I’m 32 now and when I first started I was like 23, so a little bit of mellowing has happened, I suppose.’’ 

Fitting with their small town garage band origins, The Cowboys started out “a little faster and a little more punky.”

“I still love that style of music,” he tells us, but “you can’t run from who you are. At the end of the day, I’m a guy from the American Midwest, so I think the music reflects that.”

He mentions some of the early music he put out with the band, including one of their first albums which featured a man with a fishing rod caught in a compromising position: “those early covers are funny, that’s just kinda that thing where you’re not really thinking about this stuff long term, y’know.

“Those first cassettes were more debaucherous times in those days, just kinda soaking that up.”

Now, he says “we’re probably a little more tasteful.”

Tasteful is one way to describe the band’s latest albums, The Bottom of a Rotten Flower and Sultan of Squat, both boasting slick production quality and a more established sound.

Keith isn’t entirely in love with them though, he still has reservations about instantly endorsing their most recent work as the best they’ve ever done: “we went in thinking we’re just gonna be straight, y’know, microphones on the instruments, not a lot of dirt or stuff.”

But, he says, “we think it maybe is a little too clean?”

The band have no struggle moving, it seems – there’s a dynamism to their all-American stew of a sound. 

Johnny Drives a Beater, from their latest album, “could’ve been on the first record or something,” with its clashy punk energy. Meanwhile, the jarringly slow ballad, She’s not your baby anymore has “not even an ounce of humour or irony” and reverberates with enough 50s rock and roll riffs to make you nostalgic for an era you never lived through.

Talking of nostalgia, there’s one thing Keith’s not particularly bothered about: touring.

“I actually don’t really like playing,” he says to us down the microphone. At this, we pause for a moment, not quite knowing what to say.

“I don’t, I’m probably the only one,” he says.

“I like being in a different city; I like seeing a new place, new faces; being in a different weird bar, or venue. I like everything except the 45 minutes.”

“Basically I should be the driver, not the singer. I should drive the van, or something!”

Keith mentions Bowie, trying to explain himself: “he didn’t like it. And that was surprising, because he, more than anyone, was the consummate, the showman and stuff. You’d think that someone like Bowie would have to like it. But he said he didn’t really like it, so, there’s a lot of them.”

A lot of them are his favourites, he tells us, mentioning the likes of Jimmy D, XTC, and Brian Wilson. 

After chatting about the band and its influences, and Keith’s hatred of actually being frontman, we then move onto the inevitable question of what the band will be up to next.

“Uh, it’s gonna be an album first before touring.”

We then ask the question on all our readers’ lips: are The Cowboys ever coming to the UK? 

“I’ve heard, if I’m being honest, that the UK is kind of tricky…I’ve heard it’s not like the rest of Europe in that people say, just play London.”

Tentatively, we float the idea of York: “Well, actually, since I’m talking to you maybe I will.” Can the hallowed gates of V-bar get Keith to finally relish the ‘45 minutes’? Only time will tell.

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