Nashville's Blackfoot Gypsies spent the early part of their career making more out of less. Singer/guitarist Matthew Paige and drummer Zack Murphy made a raucous noise that managed to cover a lot of bases with pure volume alone. With Paige's roadhouse slide riding over Murphy's primal groove, the band came across less like the White Stripes and more like the Black Crowes, serving up a snake-hipped brand of loose, joyous blues-rock with just enough distortion around the edges.
Their recordings were a bit of a different story. Freed up in the studio from the straight-ahead duo approach, the band relied on overdubs to fill out their sound, which says something about the limitations of a two-piece lineup.
That's where bassist Dylan Whitlow and harmonica ace Ollie Dogg come in. Now the band's expanded palette has taken their sound from stripped-down to ferocious. No longer having to fill space with his guitar, Paige can let it rip with some particularly vicious slide playing and dirty blues solos, and Murphy can fuse with Whitlow to form a true rhythmic juggernaut. That foundation allows Dogg's serrated, amped-to-11 harp to power straight over the top of the band's music, spewing chromatic riffs everywhere. Though the band's most recent album, last year's Handle It, doesn't have Dogg and Whitlow on every track, it's still a huge step in the Gypsies' evolution.
"We were never really set on being a two-piece forever," Paige says. "That was just kind of our starting place. We enjoyed it and it was cool, but we always thought we'd expand eventually. When Dylan moved to town about three years after we started the band, he'd come to our shows and we'd go to his, so proposing a jam was kind of just the logical next step, because we liked the same records. It was really natural. And we brought Ollie in because I always wanted a harmonica player in the band. My favorite artists had harmonica players, like Muddy Waters and Willie Nelson."
Since Paige and Murphy were adding layers to the songs in the studio already, their writing process didn't change much for Handle It, but the arranging did. "There's more room in the music for a lot of stuff to happen," Paige says. "We used to have to make all the noise with me on guitar and him on drums, and now there's all this other stuff surrounding it so you don't have to play as much. That's really what changed, and it was nice. It was an adjustment, absolutely, but it was a good adjustment. I like playing with people, as opposed to making all the noise.
"Don't get me wrong, noise is fun, too," Paige is quick to add. "But this definitely opened up a lot of doors. Now we can be expressive with the music as opposed to being tied down with it. And since most of our stuff was recorded full-band style, now live, it actually sounds more like the record."
One of the hallmarks of Handle It were the layers of distortion that covered Paige's voice, a choice he now admits was both stylistic and personal. "I was still revealing my voice and it was taking a while," he says. "I always wanted to hide my voice, because I liked distorted vocals like on old blues records, and it blends in with the music more instead of standing out. But I was also coming in from another band where I wasn't the singer, necessarily, so it's been a slow unveiling of my voice. It's been a process. There was some insecurity on my end, but I also really like the way it sounds. If you listen to the White Stripes or the Black Keys, they have really cool, distorted vocals. So that was part of it."
There's a looser feel on Handle It than on the band's two previous releases, and Paige says that the band was determined to capture that more ragged feel this time around. "Looseness is hard to capture, but Handle It does a pretty good job," he says. "Looseness was what we've heard about the most from our live show. We weren't trying to recreate a live show. But we wanted to keep a good feeling on that record because we'd always been in the studio counting every minute and clutching every dollar and moving on as soon as we were done with something, just because we were pretty much out of money.
"We didn't have any extra money this time," Paige continues. "We just had somebody that would let us pay him later. So we took our time and intentionally made ourselves more comfortable. It was in a really cool, dingy, garage kind of place. It felt like an old Chess Records recording."