How the ‘60s, nonchalance and Sugar in the Raw shaped The Low Counts’ new album

ROCK OF AGES: “When we play festivals ... our demographic is anyone from 10 years old to like 80,” The Low Counts frontman Matt Walsh says. “It’s so crazy to see hipster kids digging it, and then you look over and see 50-year-old trucker dudes digging it. Then you look down the road, and there’s grandma dancing.” Album cover design by Matthew Pfahlert

With minimally processed lyrics, dense beats and a guitar that comes wailing from the depths of rock ‘n’ roll history, The Low Counts’ music speaks to the gut, not the brain. Rhythms come tempered by blues and soul. Guitar solos convey attitude over intricacy. The two-man band’s high-glycemic tunes are familiar on first listen, and fans get a dozen new ones at the release party for Years Pass By. That show takes place at The Grey Eagle Friday, Dec. 11.

“Our approach to this has always been, in my mind, like a band out of the ’60s — raw and giving it everything,” says frontman Matt Walsh, who sourced his musical partner, drummer Austin Hicks, from Craigslist in 2013.

“I got responses from all kinds of weirdos,” Walsh says, adding that a few musical meetups proved to be “absolute nightmares” before Hicks showed up. But chemistry between the two was immediately evident. “About a week or so later, we went and did our first gig,” Walsh says, “and we haven’t really stopped since.”

Years Pass By, The Low Counts’ sophomore full-length, was recorded live, in a basement studio in Kernersville, over the course of four days. Not only will the work be released independently of a label, but Walsh and Hicks also mixed and mastered the album themselves.

Photo of Jones courtesy of the band
Photo of Jones courtesy of the band

Although these latest lyrics from Walsh sound like surveys of his own life, few lines are autobiographical. “A lot of times, they’re just stories. They’re just painting scenarios,” he says.

Walsh makes his brush strokes in record time, often penning an entire song in roughly five minutes, he says. The haste shows up in basic rhymes like “Come and take my hand / I’ll make you understand,” but Walsh openly asserts he’s no prophet, and neither are his tales meant to be statements. At its core, this band is about energy or, more specifically, the transfer of it.

“It’s usually the simplest, dumbest crap you can come up with that is the best,” Walsh says. “What helps is not treating these songs like they’re gems or babies.”

Hicks agrees: “[The simple ones] are usually the songs that get stuck in your head the most.”

It’s that alignment of ideals that makes Walsh and Hicks such agreeable companions. The pair speak of silky smooth brainstorming sessions and get giddy at the mention of their instrumental writing.

“When he sends me a song, usually I’ll just set my drums up and play something to it,” Hicks says. “And it’s there,” Walsh finishes. That quick, often unspoken process, they say, is “where you really get the natural high.” The two hope their anti-perfectionist method to music making, which flies in the face of peers’ more calculated and careful approaches, will embolden others to try creating.

The no-frills ethos also applies to Walsh’s guitar, which bends and shakes from basic effects (rather than a cornucopia of modern pedals) on the new album. “I’m kind of a freak for tremolo and slapback,” he says. Like his horn-enamored predecessors from the ’50s, Walsh delights in undermining his guitar’s identity by manipulating it to sound like a dissimilar instrument or human voice. Likewise, Walsh’s own volume fluctuations, which stem from his unique attack-and-release style of singing, are an added source of color.

To achieve a fuller sound, The Low Counts recorded bass parts on a handful of songs, and Walsh borrowed a friend’s theremin for use in a few numbers (when a toy ray gun fell through). The album’s crowning innovation, however, was Hicks’ remedy for overly bright maracas.

Photo of Hicks courtesy of the band
Photo of Hicks courtesy of the band

“We wanted to use something that was going to absorb the shake a little more. Lo and behold, we had a box of Sugar in the Raw,” he says. “It came out at just low enough a volume and sat perfectly in the song. … There was another plastic box of sugar we used, too. That was a different brand, of course.” Among others, “Satisfied” and “Broken Bridge” contain the granular accompaniment.

Although the duo’s music begins with a remarkably short gestation period, it continues to develop in and out of the studio. In fact, Walsh says, it’s months of live improvisations that reveal what a song really is — and that keep things fresh for the crowd.

“We really aspire to give people a show,” Walsh says, calling The Low Counts’ performances frenzied affairs. “So many people throw that word around — ‘show’ — and then you go see them, and it’s just some dudes standing there onstage in toboggans and tight jeans. … It’s a look more than anything else. We want people to have an experience when they come see us, like people had in the ’60s and ’70s at rock concerts.”

WHAT: The Low Counts with Parodi Kings

WHERE: The Grey Eagle, thegreyeagle.com

WHEN: Friday, Dec. 11, 9 p.m. $7 advance/$10 day of show

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About Kat McReynolds
Kat studied entrepreneurship and music business at the University of Miami and earned her MBA at Appalachian State University. Follow me @katmAVL

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