Meet A Country Western: Minimal-minded Philadelphians making their way onto the scene

As the sun sets over Greys Ferry Skatepark, A Country Western was wrapping up their first-ever live set. A blurry blend of slow-core and ambient rock, it seemed only fitting that the band played under equally ethereal circumstances. With the sky melting behind them, their performance had the same hazy nostalgia as their namesake.

The Philadelphia-based trio composed of Derek Henegemihle, Erik Hilbert, and Garrett Miades released their self-titled debut over quarantine. A bleary-eyed lull, the album seems to only be on the brink of consciousness. Downtempo beats, distorted vocals, and drowsy guitars obscure their minimalist lyrics that mimic the half-formed thoughts you have right before falling asleep.

I caught up with them after the show to discuss Duster, DIY tape runs, and their upcoming album.

The Key: You just played your first show in over a year! How did it feel? What was going through your head? 

Derek Henegemihle: This was our first show ever actually as A Country Western. Garrett and I were in another band called Computer Dating. We played some shows with them, and that was cool. Jack, who was our bassist, went to California, he transferred schools. Garrett and I have been making music together since eighth grade, and we would put stuff out on the side. Once Computer Dating was over, we could focus on this. That was like March of last year when nothing was going on. 

TK: What were you doing right before this? Were you nervous to play? 

Garrett Miades: It was really weird. Both of us were pacing around our apartment trying to make sure we knew everything. 

DH: It’s not just a show cause a bunch of our friends were here. It’s also nerve-wracking to see people you haven’t seen in however long. Erik, do you get nervous? 

Erik Hilbert: I get nervous. I just drink a lot of coffee and get paranoid. 

TK: Since you wrote your self-titled over quarantine, were you even considering playing those songs live? Where you anxious to play them live?

GM: Yeah, totally. A lot of these songs we weren’t writing with the intent to play live. Especially at the beginning of quarantine, we were writing songs with a ton of parts. Then finally, we got connected to Erik who was able to play those parts beautifully.

DH: Yeah, but we didn’t play any songs from our self-titled. We played a live stream three or four months ago, and we played songs from it on that. This new album we’ll definitely be able to play live. We’ll get another person to play bass and stuff. 

TK: What’s the A Country Western origin story?

GM: I would say it all started in high school with Erik and Mo we all had bands throughout high school. Once we started the A Country Western project, it was just two of us. I feel like it was almost written out of desperation to just do shit with other people, so we were writing a ton. I guess the main birth of it is that we got sick of only playing at 40 bpm like slow-core and wanted to make some boppier stuff. 

DH: Garrett and I were in a band with our best friend Tyler in high school. It was called Slavs. I don’t even know if it’s still up online. 

GM: I took it down….

DH: It was some total high school shit.

EH: I still have a CD in my car.

DH: Oh shit, that’s so dope. We played in high school, and Tyler went to Temple, so it dissolved a little bit. Garrett and I got together and did that. Erik is like a cheat code at music, so we got him to help out. Computer Dating was just our super slow-core band that we started in college.

EH: We’ve all known each other since kindergarten. 

GM: Yeah, we all went to elementary school together. [Erik] was sitting next to me asking me for answers to our times tables.

TK: What was the process of writing and recording the self-titled like? Since it was during quarantine, I assume you weren’t able to see each other. 

GM: This guy [points to Derek] was doing all of the mixing and mastering. In the early days of COVID, when you weren’t seeing people.

DH: Like those first two weeks when you were literally scared to leave the threshold of your house. Garrett and I just used scraps of other recordings. We also recorded some stuff in my bedroom, which was a tiny little shoebox. Somehow we did it. It took us a month and a half, maybe from start to finish. 

TK: That’s it? 

DH: Yeah, probably because we had nothing else to do, I guess. This album that we’re working on now has taken like a year and a half. 

TK: Do you think that the isolation and uncertainty of last year influenced the album at all? 

GM: Absolutely, I think a lot of those songs are totally about that. Maybe subconsciously, since we didn’t write very meaningful lyrics or anything. 

DH: I think it has the sound of quarantine. There’s no real drums on it, it’s all midi stuff. It’s pretty wild that we were able to make it sound alright. That’s definitely how we figured out how to make music. We like to just scrap things together and not worry about it being in a studio with an engineer and shit. Erik knows that’s how Double Suede records stuff. 

EH: Yeah at home just patching stuff together like a big old quilt. 

TK: When you were working on the album what were you thinking about, listening to, interested in, inspired by, etc.? 

GM: I think quarantine opened a lot of doors to friendships with people outside of Philly. I’m sure you’re familiar with all of them but bands like Joyer, Waveform, Puslr. Even the local acts like Cooking [and] They Are Gutting A Body of Water.

DH: I think what Garrett means is that we started becoming like internet friends with all of those people, and we realized they liked the same sort of stuff we did. It was weird the little internet community we got ourselves into. We knew the people making our favorite music.

GM: Yeah, it was rare. That’s also how we met the label we’re on, Cooked Raw. We were huge fans of CLOTHESLINE FROM HELL and Sunforger. 

DH: I found the email that they had on Bandcamp, and I emailed Tyler. I was expecting him to be super professional and weird, and I was like yeah, here’s our music if you want to do anything. Then he emailed back and said he would put out our next release. I was just like, sick! That’s the best way to do it.

TK: Didn’t you do two runs of tapes? One on your own and then a re-issue through Cooked Raw? 

DH: We did. We had an arts and crafts session in my tiny bedroom. Me, Garrett, and my girlfriend were literally putting clear packing tape on the outside of the j-card so that we didn’t have to laminate it or anything. 

GM: Shout-out to this specific dude that works at Staples, the one that’s near Ogden in South Philly. He cut us such a good deal. He cut the j-cards for us there for no charge he was so fucking cool. Do you remember him? 

DH: Yeah, no, that was cool. That whole experience was wild. 

GM: He was a big Deadhead.

DH: Yeah. We didn’t even sell the first batch. We made 30 or something, and we literally just gave them to people. It wasn’t too expensive to do, and people weren’t going to buy our stuff if they didn’t know who we were and you couldn’t play a show to promote your stuff. For a couple of days, we just drove around Philly dropping them off in mailboxes. Cooked Raw reached out about doing a re-issue because nobody from outside of Philly was able to get them. 

TK:  Why do you think physical music remains relevant despite the rise of streaming services like Spotify? 

EH: People like the art!

DH: Tapes just make sense. Tapes are popular for a reason because they’re super simple, and they look cool. 

GM: They look cool, and they sound a lot warmer. 

DH: It’s probably because all the Duster demos are just tapes ripped of their old demo tracks and stuff. The sound of the tape is cool too. 

A Country Western: photo by: Elijah Landsmark | Courtesy of the artist

TK: Going back to the self-titled, “Slugshot” is one of my favorite songs. Can you tell me about what was going on in your life when you wrote it? 

GM: I wrote that song in this room that I had in the apartment before the place that I live with him now. That place had no fucking windows, and I was just by myself at the beginning of quarantine. 

DH: That sucked.

GM: That did suck. That room was terrible. It’s in drop C, and I don’t think I was tuning my guitar all that often during quarantine. 

DH: That was one of the ones we wrote by literally texting each other WAV files. Garrett would mix something on Garageband or Logic and send it to me. I would download it from the text message convo and put it into Ableton, and add on to it. That one was cool, it was all Garrett. 

GM: I don’t know if there’s much substance to the song itself. That’s the only song I sing on the self-titled, and I remember being nervous as fuck about that. 

DH: You sing on “Good” too. 

GM: No, that’s all you, man. 

DH: Oh, well, it’s hard to tell. We like to pitch our voice down and fuck with it. Or we’ll play the track, record it a step higher than it would be, then transpose it all down, then record the vocals in the transposed version. It’s weird. I feel like it doesn’t sound anything like what we’re actually doing. 

EH: Then when we have to learn the songs, they’re all fucked up. We have to go into Ableton and figure out what key it’s actually in. 

DH: Yeah, it’s a process. That’s why there’s like two categories of songs for us. There are some songs we put out that we’ve recorded and there’s not a shot in hell we’re going to figure them out. 

GM: Yeah, that’s like what we were talking about earlier with the self-titled. Those songs weren’t written to be played live. I can’t even imagine Erik coming in and hearing all this shit and us being like yeah, that’s what it sounds like…but that’s not actually what it sounds like and, that’s not how you play it. 

TK: Your most recent release, “Going Home” was on a huge compilation called Through The Soil, which raised money for the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses’ COVID-19 Mental Health Support Fund. How did you get involved in that? It’s so cool that Sweet Trip was on there!

DH: We had the same reaction! We got involved pretty early on. The only big names we heard that were going to be on there were Spirit of the Beehive and Horse Jumper of Love. Everybody on there is great, but those two are like legendary. We saw that, and we were like, what the fuck? We’re going to be on a comp with those bands? Then for like two months, they kept letting us know more and more people that were going to be on it. It was great, and it’s an incredible cause. 

TK: Where did that song come from? Was it something you had been working on? 

GM: Generally, for the songs that I write, it’s some loop on a pedal that we have in our basement, and I play it for like three months. This just happened to be one of those types of songs, then Derek made it what it is now. 

DH: It started with just the acoustic part in the beginning. Basically, Garrett sent me that, and I was like, we need to make that a full song. We went full Elliott Smith on it. That was the first song we had completed for this new album. 

TK: I was going to ask you about that! What has it been like working on the new album? 

DH: It has taken a while. We moved into a new place, so we no longer have separate apartments and stuff. We live in West Philly, and we super lucked out with the place we got. We have a basement where we set up our recording studio, our equipment, and a drum set. It’s just a lot more technical, and it’s like 13 songs. It’s a lot more work. 

EH: There are live drums, and it’s a little less pieced together because each of us can play at least one of the parts. 

TK: How has working on this album been different than your experience with the self-titled? Have your influences changed? 

DH: Still COVID, and the depressing shit that happens all the time these days. It’s a lot of that, and I think that we’re just maturing as lyric writers. We’re conscious of what we’re writing about, so the songs mean something. It’s cool it’s like a perfect mix of all the music that we love. That’s what we kept on saying.

GM: Yeah, and I think the fact that it’s taken this long to write everything means it encompasses more than the self-titled did in a lot of ways. 

TK: What are some of the bands that you wanted to emulate on this record? 

GM: Stereolab has been a huge theme for sure.

DH: We haven’t really talked about this with anyone, but our name is A Country Western, and I guess we came up with that name because we always tried to have a western twang to the songs. I don’t know, we wanted to make them a little bit old cowboy sounding. It doesn’t come through a lot, but that’s always a thought.

GM: A couple of songs that are going to be on the album have country versions. 

See A Country Western on Thursday, September 2nd when they play Original 13 Ciderworks with They Are Gutting a Body of Water and Doused. More information can be found here; watch a visualizer for their self-titled album below.

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