Considering their collective and altogether impressive pedigree, The Greenhornes are as delightfully unassuming as they come for an American rock ‘n’ roll band that enjoys the kind of whiplash praise they receive and the esteemed company they keep. Standing outside their hotel for a smoke break just off of the Bowery in downtown Manhattan on a chilly December morning, drummer Patrick Keeler (also of the Raconteurs) and frontman Craig Fox blend in among the other neighborhood denizens rushing to and fro. Bassist Jack Lawrence, perhaps the most recognizable member of the band thanks to his work with the snake-charming, barn-burning Dead Weather and the Raconteurs, is sitting quietly in the lobby’s tiny television room, with not an air of ego about him. Soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, Lawrence smiles easily, perhaps aware of the hot fuss his résumé inspires in others, or perhaps his midwest upbringing and new Nashville environs keep him grounded. Fox and Keeler (also a Nashville resident) are similarly as easy-going, and laughingly recount their recent trip to Europe in support of November’s critically acclaimed Third Man Records release Four Stars (“★★★★“), the trio’s fourth studio album, and first since 2002′s Dual Mono. They were away from their families for the Thanksgiving holiday, and in Holland of all places, where they had to make do with sausage atop mashed potatoes and some kind of spinach situation. It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks, and the guys, all in their mid-30s, are understandably exhausted.

These guys, who have known each other since they were teenagers, prefer to keep it simple, offering up a straightforward and passionately original mix of mid-1960s British Invasion rubbing up against early 1970s rock with few frills, although Four Stars tends to veer into unexpected and revelatory experimental and psychedelic territory with album highlights “Cave Drawings,” “Don’t Tell Henry” and “Hard to Find.” After an eight-year hiatus, this is a welcome change of course, injecting new relevance, vitality and vigor into their dynamic as a trio. From their inception as young guys kicking around Ohio looking to be a “bar band” who tackles Creedence Clearwater Revival on occasion to marking their 10-year anniversary as a group, to recording in Ohio and Nashville, and moving forward, the Greenhornes are relieved to be back in the van just like old times and doing what they do best: churning out some of the most authentic, down-to-earth, all-hands-on-deck American rock and roll there is.

How did the in-store performance at Grimey’s in Nashville go? Seems like a great place to reintroduce yourselves to the world after an extended hiatus.

Keeler: It went really well. We had played a few shows; we played The Basement about a month before that. They had a really good set-up there.

Bands love to record  there. Metallica did something (in 2008) as well as Cage the Elephant. I was browsing around in Grimey’s racks a couple weeks ago and found an original 7” of “We Are the World” and some old Steve Winwood vinyl singles.

Keeler: Yeah! The Miami Vice soundtrack, and “Axel F”!

I have “Axel F” on vinyl.

Keeler: That was my first 45! Somebody gave that to me in fourth grade for Christmas.

I think my first single was “Raspberry Beret.”

Fox: We were just talking about Prince this morning because he hung out at that taco place. And then we were like, “Oh, I thought he hung out at 7th Street.”

How did the UK shows go? You have always done well over there.

Lawrence: It’s hard to travel over there, but the shows were great.

Which of the shows do you think really came together with the new material?

Fox: London was a really good show. The best one we played was a couple days after that.

Keeler: Mark Watrous is playing keyboards with us. He played with Jack and I in the Raconteurs as an auxiliary guy. He [also] went out with Brendan (Benson) who plays guitar. The guy who records with us, Andrew Higley, he was on the record with us, and he’d done all the shows before this. So it was also getting a new keyboard player, and he did an amazing job. I think a couple days in we were starting to change it up.

Is he already broken in with the new material?

Lawrence: Let’s ask him!

Watrous: No, I’m fucking up everything!

Keeler: Where are you at percentage wise? Like, knowledge of the material?  [Laughs] He’s checking his notes.

Watrous: What did you guys tell me to say? It’s been better than when I played with the Beatles. It’s better than when I recorded on Let It Be.

Keeler: The last tours we did we just did as a three-piece. And that was great at the time, but I think coming back, especially on the new record, there’s a lot of keys. All the Greenhornes records have key keys [laughs] I guess! It was nice to have a keyboard player and Mark is great because he can do both.

It’s hard to believe that the span of time you were on hiatus also saw the 10 year-anniversary of the band in 2008.

[Laughs all around]

Fox: If anything, I’d rather not think about 10 years going by.

Keeler: How’s 14?

Fox: I guess it’s been awhile. [Laughs]

The band has existed in some degree, to my understanding, since you were in high school.

Keeler: Sort of, but not really. Craig and I went to high school together. When we first started, we were a five-piece. Four of us went to high school together, and three of us – the other two guys and myself – had a band. We would play in high school but we didn’t really do anything. Craig had a band in high school, too.

Fox: There was a version of us playing where it was me and Jack playing, and Brian Olive was playing. But that wasn’t the Greenhornes; that was free-form.

Lawrence: We were trying to be a bar band [laughs]!

Fox: [laughs] Playing oldies at sports bars!

Lawrence: Figuring out which Creedence song to play.

Fox: That was the big thing though, ‘Let’s be like Creedence!’

Keeler: But you were probably like, 19?

Lawrence: I was 18 or 19.

Fox: 20 or 19. I wasn’t old enough to drink yet.

Do you have a famous U2-type mythology about a note being posted to a bulletin board?

Keeler: No, with me and the other guys, Jared (McKinney) and Brian, we were all in marching band together. It was not that geeky to be in band.

Fox: They played rock ‘n’ roll songs.

Keeler: Yeah, we had electric guitar and played classic rock, basically.  It was a 300-piece marching band; a third of the whole high school was in band. There were about 40 kids or so that were in stage band and there were two drum sets, keyboards, electric bass, you know. And a 30-piece horn section which played like, Chicago. [Laughs] That’s how Jared, Brian and I started playing together.

Did playing classic rock in marching band, or perhaps the Ohio music scene at the time influence your sound as a band?

Keeler: I dunno. I guess that was the kind of music my dad listened to and that’s the kind of music that I’ve always played. You know, just kind of… classic rock.

Was the decision to record Four Stars in Ohio one of comfort level or tradition?

Fox: I guess comfort level. That’s where we always recorded. We recorded the music tracks there and some of the other stuff in Nashville. I guess we talked about going somewhere else but then I don’t think we did.

Keeler: And it was an issue of budget. It was us doing it ourselves for whatever reason.

Lawrence: We had recorded four in Nashville and did demos that never went anywhere. So I think going back to Ohio was inevitable, and that’s where John (Curley) wanted to do it with us.

Fox: We kind of didn’t know what we were going to record, and then spend time in the studio because we are comfortable there, and have John tell us what to do. Having his opinion and not some stranger telling you that we’re… I dunno. [Laughs]

Are you all in one room jamming, or does everyone come to the studio with pre-written melodies and rhythms in mind?

Fox: I remember that we had a practice space and played the songs maybe once, and then we recorded a rough… maybe some short vocals. Some of the songs we played once or twice there; the newer songs that we hadn’t played live and then we just went to the studio.

Lawrence: Most of it was recorded there in the studio. Before, with our other albums, we’d play the songs out live, and then I think with this one, there were only a few that we had played live.

Keeler: The lyrics hadn’t really been written yet. Maybe just outlines and stuff. It took us a long time to make the record just because there was no budget. Jack and I were living in Nashville, so it was just about finding time. Craig ended up coming down. He’d finished the lyrics and came down to Nashville, and we recorded the vocals with Brendan Benson. Especially with melodies, and the cadence of lyrics… the way he can craft them is amazing.

Thematically, it feels like something heavy is hanging over the record. Many songs are about closing the door on something or just being over it, so to speak, in several regards. Even the lead single is called “Saying Goodbye.”

Fox: Probably! [Laughs] I noticed that, but at the time it wasn’t intentional.

Were you writing from personal experience or observation?

Fox: A little bit of making up stuff and maybe a little of personal. Like, “My Sparrow” originally started out as a bluegrass song. I always wanted to write a bluegrass song, and they always talk about a bird being a girl. There’s always something about birds. So that’s how that started.

Your performances on “Cave Drawings” and “Need Your Love” are extraordinary. Did those two tracks really cook in the studio for you?

Keeler: It’s funny, because actually both songs started out in a completely different way. “Need Your Love” we had recorded and used to play live, and it had a different feel to it. We’ve done that a lot with songs that we’ve already recorded to make it more fun. Like with this cover we do, “I’ll Go Crazy” by James Brown. We used to play it like the James Brown tune as much as we could.

Similarly, “Go Tell Henry” and “Hard to Find” feel like important songs for the band to release at this stage in your careers – really showcasing everyone’s strengths in comparison to the previous Greenhornes releases. Was there a sense of that in the studio while recording those tracks?

Keeler: “Go Tell Henry” was the first time Jack sang on lead.

How did that come about?

Lawrence: I had that bass line in my head for awhile and then came up with the words in the studio. There was a xylophone, and a fabric over the microphone that made it sound breathy. It turned out a lot more experimental than I had thought it would.

Do you think that if you make another record after this that you might go in a more experimental direction?

Fox: It’s always fun to record something that you’ve never played before…

Lawrence: …That you’re not burnt out on. That was a lot with this album. Since writing it [there], it felt more free. I think that’s why it got more psychedelic.

Keeler: It’s the most time we’ve had in the studio. As a band, it’s probably the most time we’ve spent working on something.

Which is crazy, considering how long other bands take to finish a record.

Keeler: Probably all told, it was three and a half weeks, maybe, over a couple of years.

Fox: Time, hourly-wise, it was probably five days of actual work.

Keeler: There was no pressure to get it done. There was no producer telling us to do something, or labels. It was just us on our own making a record, and there was all these new songs to be played. It was fun. It was the first time we’d done anything like that.

–Carrie Alison

  1. [...] The Greenhornes are set to mount a lengthy spring tour of the US on March 20th in support of their recently released, and critically acclaimed, effort  **** (Four Stars). Brimming with their long-standing formula of classic American rock ‘n’ roll with flourishes of psychedelica, Four Stars is yet another jewel in the crown of a frequently underestimated force on the indie circuit. Be sure to check out our recent feature interview with Craig Fox, Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence, where they discuss album standouts “Cave Drawings” and ”Go Tell Henry,” and what it means to be back in the game after a long (and unfortunate) hiatus. [...]

  2. [...] band Jeff The Brotherhood. Set to kick off May 5, the Sixties-flecked garage pop maestros (and recent Sentimentalist interview subjects) who are still relentlessly touring behind their November Third Man Records release [...]