Randy Reynolds is a musician’s musician. As the frontman of Leatherbag, he crafts sunny yet incisive roots rock songs. But when you talk to Reynolds, you can tell he’s not a guy who creates or even absorbs music on a surface level; he has a respect for the power of a well-written song that can stand the test of time and a connection with the musicians that create those songs.
Leatherbag is now performing every Thursday as part of their residency at Ruta Maya coffeehouse in South Austin, and to celebrate, the band is giving away a double EP on their Bandcamp page. Reynolds took a few minutes to talk about Leatherbag’s start, creating lasting music and being a music nerd.
In your interview with the Statesman, you talked a little bit about songwriters who thought that everything was owed to them. What kind of behaviors did you see, and how is your attitude different?
Randy Reynolds: You know, I try to talk about it without getting myself into trouble. But the word “entitlement” comes to mind quite often in the sense that people who play music and write music tend to feel like everyone’s supposed to give them a lot of respect and adulation, like, all the time. You’re supposed to be always hanging on every word that they have to say or something. And I just don’t understand that. People get angry if no one’s at their show, and it’s like, dude, you haven’t paid your dues enough to get people to the show. So I guess what that means is, like, people want the adulation but they don’t want to do all the work. Sometimes it means you have to play bars and no one’s there. And that’s just part of the job. There are lots of good bands playing in shitty bars right now, and I respect that a lot. That’s where you get good and how you learn to be professional with all of the little things that come with doing a show. But mainly more than anything, you’re writing words on paper and you’re putting them to music. It’s not rocket science, by any means, so someone who’s a teacher is just as important as anyone who is a songwriter. Probably far more important, really. So I guess that’s what I’m saying when I talk about that.
For you, what makes a good song?
Reynolds: I think dynamics and melody are the most important. There are lots of really good bands, but sometimes if you lack in dynamics, and across the board, if you’re talking indie rock, people will say, Sonic Youth doesn’t have melody. And I totally disagree with that. There’s tons of shit going in their songs that’s based in pop music and in hooks. And on the other end of that, you say, Daniel Johnston, he can’t sing, there’s no melody in his songs. That’s totally not true either. These are just random examples, but what I’m saying is, both of them have dynamics and melody in what they do, and that’s what works. Essentially, you need to create something that people kind of already understand, but you say it in a way that’s yours. You’re taking a tradition and moving it into a place that’s comfortable and somewhat evident of you.
Sometimes in your music, you make statements about music or musicians. How important is the lyrical aspect of a song to you?
Reynolds: It’s the most important, in my mind. It takes a really gifted musician to not be based in lyrics and be able to make someone feel something, and there are bands who are able to do that. Lyrically, it’s kind of strange, but somehow it works really well. But I find in my own writing, lyrics are the most important thing and I went through a lot of different things with it. Starting off, I was much more traditional folk: The words are everything, the music is just accompaniment to what you’re trying to say. But now in a rock format, I can say less but still get a larger point across, and I kind of like that minimalism and that sort of realism with words. Also, this is my vehicle or my outlet, so of course I’m going to say some things that either A) bother me or B) inspire me or C) make me happy or piss me off or whatever. But I think the really big thing that I’m learning is that, in rock format, things can be far more open-ended, which makes for kind of timeless music. If you can make things open-ended, that means other people can understand what you’re saying and take their own kind of idea with it, and it can still completely relate to them and relate to you at the same time. When I listen to Lou Reed, I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, but for some reason I believe I know what he’s talking about. It’s exciting and it makes me feel connected to him.
You guys recently started a residency at Ruta Maya. How did that come about?
Reynolds: The club or the coffeeshop, they contacted us and asked us if we wanted to do it, and was very open about. They wanted to have us, and they’ve really kind of done it on our terms. And all the bands who I got to do it are friends of mine or people that I really respect or people that I think are really great. It’s going well. The main thing for me was, I have about 20 or 25 songs right now that we’re playing at these residencies, between our older stuff and our newest record. And I’m trying to pull it down to figure out what songs really work. And we can do that playing every week. It’s essentially helping us get ready for possibly recording another record that might come out in 2012 if we spend 2011 recording. So it’s just a way for me to have an understanding of what songs work and what songs I need to throw away.
You’ve been giving away a couple of EPs free in celebration of this residency. Where do those songs fit into your catalog?
Reynolds: They were two EPs that were done in 2009, and I was only able to do a limited run of them, and it’s funny. Not everyone was completely happy with the mixes. So when this residency came about, I got with my friend and remixed both of the EPs and put them on one disc. And I feel like, at this point in time, I’ve always been a big supporter of giving away music. People’s paychecks and everything else, you make money by playing live. You have to go and play. That’s how you make money. Records, you do that because you love it and you do it so people have something to listen to. But I had these things from 2009 that are out of print, so I was like, let’s remix it and put some new art. And Bandcamp is such a great thing because you can give away high quality mp3s, and you can give them away or have people pay what they want or whatever it might be. And I just think it’s a great idea to get people listening to your music and not feeling like, if the band put it up there, then they’re not gonna feel that bad about taking it. There’s so many people that are on the line about, is this good or is this bad? I think it’s great because if you don’t have access to music, people don’t have the money to go spend $15 to $18 on a CD. And I don’t even use CDs unless I’m in my car. I listen to everything on my computer. I used to have hundreds of records and the big player and everything, but when you move a lot, it’s like, fuck this. I don’t need this thing. It sounds the same on the computer.
Can you talk a little bit about how you got to Austin and started playing music? You started in Houston, right?
Reynolds: Right. I wasn’t playing out in Houston. I was just there. I was just writing in Houston. I maybe played a couple of shows, but it was a terribly nerve-wracking thing. And Houston is not a place for a dude and a guitar to show up. You had to have some shitty rock metal band or something like that.
Play a lot of covers or something?
Reynolds: Right. I would go to Fitzgerald’s and the biggest draw they had was for like a Pink Floyd cover band. Fitzgerald’s has changed quite a bit, but that’s what was bringing people out. But I’ve been in Austin for five years; I really like it. I was working like three jobs and I left because there was a hurricane, Rita, which was right after Katrina. I’d just gotten a divorce and I was living with my friend who was in this band, Jude/Ross. But at the time, he wasn’t in that band. We were just living together and we were both songwriters. When the storm was coming, they told everyone they had to evacuate. And he looked at me and said, this is my grandmother’s house. If it’s gone, we don’t have a place to live. So, I had a friend here in Austin and I packed whatever I had at his house, which wasn’t very much, and just stayed here. And when I did that, it was weird for a little bit but I got on my feet. I had a job; I was working at this coffeeshop, Café Caffeine, which is like at Mary Street in South Austin. I would be working and I would come out from behind the counter and play the open mike and then go back to work. So that was where I started playing and I eventually got to the point where I would play like a full set there on off-nights. And things just kept snowballing, mainly because I was kicking out a record every year on my own. I had a friend at a studio, we’d been close friends for years, and I just recorded whenever I possibly could.
I noticed on the Leatherbag Facebook page that you’ll wish happy birthday to influential rock figures, like Elvis Costello. Do you just know that trivia offhand, or is that something you read about a lot?
Reynolds: I don’t know. Music nerds. I’m super into records, and I’m super into specific people who aren’t necessarily thought about. I mean, Elvis Costello, people think that he’s famous, but I don’t think that he is. I think that a certain group of people really, really love him. But that guy is an obvious, just by the way that I look, I’ve always wanted to be like that guy in the sense that he’s a great songwriter. But he’s also like a fuckin’ punk rock dude, but he can also do all kinds of things, and I really relate to that. It gets boring to do one kind of thing, especially when you have so many options musically. I guess the most important to me that happened recently, and I never thought I’d be into this, when I was in junior high. Or, I was probably in elementary school. But I remember Kurt Cobain died, and all these people were really upset. And I was like, whatever. I don’t know that guy. None of us know that guy. Why’s everybody upset? But when Alex Chilton passed away at South By this past year, I was really upset by it. And it’s really dumb, but that guy’s music has been probably the most important thing to me of everything that I’ve listened to in my life. So that was a really big deal.
So you’ve kind of found a very personal connection to these people through their music.
Reynolds: Right. You can’t even pretend to know these people. And you hear stories, and they’re actually not that nice. But as far as the music is concerned, absolutely. Your whole identity in some ways is based in people’s ideas.
Made in Austin is regular Red River Noise feature that showcases some of Austin’s best up-and-coming independent bands. Check back often to see what undiscovered talent we’ll interview next.