They say New York is the city where dreams come true. While most of us may have lost faith in that movie fantasy, Austin Nelson and Jason Rueger may have proved that cliché can still hold some merit; even if they weren’t exactly seeking the place it led them. Maybe that explains why Curtin, the collaboration project between the two, is so hard to pin down; it’s embedded in the nature of pure happenstance. Serendipity, I suppose. In an attempt to uncover some of the mystery around the unknown band, I had the pleasure of speaking with Austin earlier this month. As he stood outside a historic home in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, he was willing to share an insight into their first full-length album, the origins of Curtin and all the memories of being on the road with Jason.
The guys actually met before the idea of Curtin was born; Rueger was involved with another project, Country Mice, and Nelson was a photographer and writer living in Brooklyn. Upon the request of a friend, Austin found himself in the Bowery Ballroom to cover one of Country Mice’s shows despite the pouring rain and overcoming a recent cold (talk about loyalty). It goes without saying that he was at least mildly impressed by the band when he featured them soon afterwards on Interview Magazine. Although, I doubt he expected to be contacted a few months later when Jason was in need of a drummer for their upcoming tour. In fact, Austin doesn’t recall ever mentioning he played the drums, nor had he ever been in a band. Maybe he just looked like a guy with good rhythm.
When the tour ended and their attention shifted to producing a new album, Austin and Jason were the only two able to continue on. Unwilling to refer to themselves as Country Mice with two-thirds of their band missing, the duo crafted Curtin instead. Besides, Austin noted the album was already beginning to shift in a completely new direction. Specifically, the album I’m referencing is One for the Doghearted, released in late September, and not the self-titled EP prior to it. Jason had actually recorded and produced that earlier composition in his apartment as a small side project under the same moniker, before Austin brought in an element of percussion. No one had even heard Jason’s bedroom tapes until one night on the Country Mice tour when they were asked to play an impromptu show and instead of setting up a full band, Jason took the stage alone.
According to Austin, One for the Doghearted marked a strange transitional stage; they’d left Country Mice, Jason’s wife had moved to Chicago and Austin relocated from Brooklyn to Charleston, where he is originally from. While he refrained from calling it moody, he admitted that the album is “definitely a gamut of emotions.” The Shakespearean insult “doghearted” that inspired the title was thanks to the printed list posted on Austin’s refrigerator, lingering from an old English class. The actual production of the album took place in Charleston inside of Austin’s grandparents’ 1939 home, which he bought and renovated into a recording studio. The cozy atmosphere was much appreciated whenever they hunkered down for three to four months to create the record.
As mentioned earlier, pinning down their sound is difficult; you can identify the bittersweet quirkiness inspired by Wilco yet there is an ephemeral eeriness weaved into the music. If anything, the album rings true to Austin and Justin’s nature. There are tracks reminiscent of road-trips; open air and endless pavements are seemingly captured on “Great White” and “Better Ride.” While “Funeral” reflects long distances travelled with an old western blues twang. There is just something about the lulling rhythm and riff of the guitar that feels as though you’re in an old boxcar, looking out at miles of barren desert. Oddly enough, their band name was actually inspired by the character Bob Curtin in the 1948 western film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
While solemnity definitely permeates the album, they somehow weave in enough of a nonchalant tone to keep the music from becoming weighed down. The contribution on four tracks from Mikael Jorgensen, the keyboardist of Wilco, was one of the major factors that added a brighter sound. “Flood” probably balances that soft yet powerful dynamic the best, pulling in one of the strongest rock elements on the whole album at the end. The tone is also significantly uplifted when Jason’s voice is clear and audible, rather than the low whisper he utilizes for a majority of the album. The juxtaposition between whispers and compelling verses is exemplified on “My Meadowlark,” which is also a personal favorite.
Due to the two not living together, as Austin pointed out, they’re always finding different things and adding in their own pieces to the music, often surprising each other. The variation of influences likely points to the alternate nature of their music and it tends to lead an even fuller sound. Although Austin did mention that several people have told them it definitely sounds like a “southern record,” despite their origin in New York. Perhaps that was due to reaching out to sound designer Andrew Tracy, whom Austin grew up with in Charleston, to polish and mix the album. Or perhaps the comforting atmosphere inside their authentic studio wove itself into the album as well. It just goes to show that an album really is a reflection of the artists’ life.
After the album was finished, Jason returned to his wife in Chicago and Austin remained here in the same historic city that he grew up in. The album was actually finished nearly a year ago but various restraints that come with independent production caused a delay. Since the release in late September, the two have spent the past month touring across the east from Alabama to Canada. And due to that delay, half of the material they’re performing is actually completely new to their audience.
If you’re interested in listening to them first-hand, Charleston will actually be their grand finale. On the 29th of October, they’ll be performing at Redux studios as a part of Revival Entertainment Company’s fall music series. Lindsey Mills will be opening for the two with her acoustic blues, detailing her Florida lifestyle of swamps and suburbia. While this will likely be Curtin’s last show for the year, I doubt it’ll be last we hear from them.
Tickets to the Redux show here.