If you're the polite kind, you might refer to the music of High Point, N.C.'s Low Counts as stripped-down. If you have less-delicate sensibilities, you might call it "no bullshit." There is very little flab in the band's guitar-drums-that's-it sound, and even less wasted space. On their most recent album, 2015's Years Pass By, singer/guitarist Matt Walsh and drummer Austin Hicks often fuse to form a rhythmic juggernaut, with Hicks' full-kit drumming following Walsh's rusty-nails riffs rather than simply keeping time. There's some occasional augmentation (a frenzied guitar solo, layered percussion, or a hilariously out-of-control theremin), but the main meat of the record is the band's two-instrument bluesy boogie.
And Walsh does think of the Low Counts as a band. "We've never really looked at ourselves like a duo or tried to sell that idea, because we thought it was hip," he says. "The way we play puts out a lot of sound, and we work a lot harder than some bands with six members. We work harder with our instruments, but we also work harder than bands who just stand on the stage and play at the crowd. We're working hard, because there's not a bass that supports you or another lead instrument to fill in the cracks."
Walsh formed the Low Counts after a decade or so of making music in more traditional settings and growing frustrated, both with himself and the turmoil that seems to haunt every group. "Over the years, I saw a lot of bands who would break up in six months because there were four guys who couldn't get along, or couldn't get together logistically," he says. "There are myriad reasons why bands break up. So with me and Austin, it works out well that there's not another guy we have to make understand the ideas or go along with us. We don't have to be diplomatic. We both have the same tastes, and we both have the same outlook on music. So it makes it easier that there aren't two other guys that you have to sell an idea to."
But it wasn't completely just about having one less person to argue with; Walsh had hit a deadend in his songwriting. "The thing with me is I got to a point where I'd gone as far as I could with it without being a complete copycat," he says. "I didn't want to be in a glorified cover band. Originally, I learned all this stuff on guitar and went back to old sources from the '50s and '60s and tried to absorb it, and I felt like I had. I either wanted to start doing all original music and work on that or not do it anymore. At a certain point as a musician, you're supposed to be original. That's what I was trying to do was take those no-bullshit influences and try to put them into something that was what I could write about or make music I was looking to make."
Hicks' drumming is as dazzling as it is unpredictable, and that's exactly what Walsh wanted for the Low Counts. "He doesn't do what a lot of musicians tend to do after a while," Walsh says. "They start playing in a certain mode. It happens a lot with bands that have a certain genre that they're limited to. I came from a background of roots-music; I grew up on rural blues and rockabilly, and I found a lot of musicians play in a mode and they don't ever get out of it. Whereas with Austin, we throw everything at the wall and if it sticks, then great, that's where we'll go. To us, it's fun not to plan, or to play things we're not used to. We're always happy to abandon what we know to play something different."
In a field of two-piece bands that try to ape the White Stripes or the Black Keys, however, a guitar/drums group can run into some problems. "We've had a lot of sound guys that think we're like every other duo that's going to be loud and suck," Walsh says with a laugh. "They're always cool to us after they see us play and want to help us take our gear off the stage, but before they don't even want to talk to us."
As for the band's studio recordings, Walsh says that he and Hicks are happy to add extra elements as long as they make sense for the song. "We don't limit ourselves in the studio," he says. "If there's some kind of cool instrument or part that would make the song a better piece of art, we're not going to not do it because we can't reproduce it live. If we can't play it live, then no big deal. It's out there; we recorded it. Albums to me are like paintings; they're statements of a moment in time, or what you were thinking at that moment."