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Erik Brandt Discusses 20+ Years of Local Americana Mainstays the Urban Hillbilly Quartet, Thursday Show at Palmer’s [Interview]

Erik Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet (photo by Nick Greseth)
Erik Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet (photo by Nick Greseth)

Erik Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet have been one of the most successful Americana bands in Minnesota for nearly 25 years. Their music combines folk, rock, jazz, country, blues, and even Middle Eastern music in a singularly creative way.

The South of Dark EP, their twelfth release, came out last year. Its five songs show the versatility of the band, featuring straightforward folk (“Beautiful Mess”), melodic pop (the title track), heavy folk/rock (“Just Us”) and dark Americana (“Rearview Mirror”).

Their next show is at Palmer’s on Thursday. To gear up for it, UHQ leader Erik Brandt sat down with Music in Minnesota’s Erik Ritland to discuss the history of the band, their current album and incarnation, and how to best support local artists.

MiM: The Urban Hillbilly Quartet has been around for over 20 years. You’ve toured internationally and won local awards. How has your music evolved?

Erik: We’ve been at it nearly 24 years! Hard to believe at times.

Our music has evolved to match the skills, talents and interests of the band members. There have been core players who have been with the band the entire time – me and Jeremy (Szopinski, UHQ lead guitarist) – and lots of other people over the years. We are constantly adapting our sound and always trying to grow as artists. I think I have evolved considerably as a songwriter since 1995, and I think the band overall is more focused on delivering them well in live shows.

MiM: What are your favorite/most memorable accomplishments?

Erik Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet (photo by Nick Greseth)
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Erik Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet (photo by Nick Greseth)

Erik: Some include: 1) having the audacity to tour the USA and internationally – and doing it successfully 2) staying friends with everyone in the band over the years 3) continuing to record and make quality music 4) seeing fans from 20+ years ago rediscover us and start attending shows after being away to have families 5) playing a gig in London to an audience of people I’ve never seen before and having them sing along to songs I had written.

MiM: What can someone expect at an Urban Hillbilly Quartet show in 2019?

Erik: Four muscular, wind-swept, dashing, suave, ravishing middle-aged men playing original Americana music.

MiMUHQ is known for mixing in well-chosen covers in with their originals. What sorts of songs do you cover? How do you approach covers? How do you figure out a balance between them and your own material?

Erik: Basically, we don’t want to be bored and we don’t want our audience to be bored. We try to find things that we can play with some authenticity or be able to put our own stamp on. There are some covers we’ve been playing forever, like Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” to songs we’ve recently started playing, like Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.”

Mixed up in all of that are jazz instruments like Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” and a number of Eastern European tunes that we love.

MiMYour last release, South of Dark, came out last year. Tell us a bit about it and a couple of your favorite tracks from it.

Erik: Thanks for asking.  Did you know that you can buy it online?  Check it out at www.UrbanHillbillyQuartet.com. 

This was an album that nearly didn’t happen. We tracked it and the sessions sat mostly untouched for about 9 months. The engineer wasn’t convinced by the recordings. A couple of the songs had some structural problems that he was right about and the tunes needed reworking. I was determined to give it another chance, however, and when we listened to it we realized that most of it would work fine and we tracked two additional tunes to make it a complete EP.

I’m particularly proud of the tune “Just Us” because I think the message of “there is no them, only us” is always relevant – but particularly now when there is a lot of “othering” going on around us. I also think the band simply rocks this tune on the EP.

Erik Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet (photo by Nick Greseth)
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Erik Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet (photo by Nick Greseth)

I also like “Better Days” because I love the Mavericks and wanted to honor them with a song in their style – but also because I worked really hard to make this song poetical, yet positive about love. It’s really, really hard to write a positive love song that isn’t nauseatingly corny and I think I did it.

MiMYou’ll be playing at Palmers on Thursday. In an email to your mailing list, you describe it as “back to where the band got its start.” Tell us about that, and a little bit about those days.

Erik: We actually got our start on the West Bank in general – at the old New Riverside Cafe (long gone), the 400 Bar (also gone), and the Viking Bar (sadly, also gone).  We also played the Cedar quite a bit back then too. The Viking Bar, however, is where we had an every Thursday night slot. Those were some fun, rough gigs. All kinds of characters went in there and they were often pretty aggressive toward us with their heckling. It was a good experience and I learned a lot about being a performer, writing a set list, and handling difficult audiences there.

MiMAnything else prospective attendees should know about Erik Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet?

Erik: I think some things people should not only know about us, but about all local bands are:

1) Show up to their shows when you can – it really makes a difference – even if you can only drop by for a bit.

2) If a tips jar comes around, put money in there – it makes a difference

3) If you’re ever on the fence about buying a local artist’s CD, just do it. You have no idea how much it means to them and you get to go home with some fantastic music.

4) You should know that while artists are honored that you stream them on Spotify, etc., that they get paid nearly nothing for those plays. I’ve had songs exceed 10,000 plays only to be paid around a dollar…whereas those same plays on radio stations would have garnered hundreds of dollars. Ask your local stations to play the local artists you like.

5) “Like” the bands you like on Facebook and the other social media platforms they use. Venues and radio stations check those avenues and the numbers “add up.”

Also, in addition to our show at Palmer’s on April 11th, we’ll be playing the Como Lake Pavilion on Friday, May 17th. The latter show is a great one to bring the family out to see.

Be sure to catch Erik and the band at Palmers on Thursday.

Written by Erik Ritland

Erik is a journalist and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. In addition to writing and editing for a number of local outlets, he founded Rambling On, a Minnesota-focused blog and podcast about music, sports, and culture, in 2012. He began working for Music in Minnesota in 2018 and is a writer, editor, and social media content strategist.

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