Five months ago, Cruz Contreras was trying hard not to panic.
As the frontman of the Black Lillies, he'd spent the first few weeks of 2015 on a boat, playing his band's blend of Appalachian country and envelope-pushing Americana to passengers on the Cayamo Cruise. When the group returned home to Knoxville in February, though, Contreras realized he only had a few days left to whip up enough new material for their next album. The Black Lillies had already hired a producer for the project, Ryan Hewitt, and booked four days of studio time in Nashville. Everything had been scheduled. . .but the songs just weren't ready.
It took a winter storm and the arrival of a new bandmate to kickstart his engines. While Knoxville was pelted with ice and snow, Contreras holed up in his basement, where he spent 10 days writing songs that stretched the Black Lillies' roots-rock sound. Bowman Townsend, the group's drummer, joined him, as did Knoxville-area musician Sam Quinn, who'd kicked off his own career as one-half of underrated folk duo the Everybodyfields. Together, they dreamt up new songs like "Hard to Please," a funky barn burner shot through with blasts of brass and blues guitar. (Listen to the song — and get a glimpse of the album's artwork — above.)
"Our drummer came up with that guitar riff," Contreras says of "Hard to Please," which doubles as the album's title track. "That's probably the first writing collaboration on a Black Lillies record, and I think it's a great step. The whole notion of being hard to please really gelled with the band, too. We hired an outside producer for the first time. We recorded in Nashville for the first time. In the studio, where we used to play a song two or three times and then pick our favorite take, we wound up playing some songs more than 10 times, looking for the absolute best performance. We wouldn't accept anything less."
With longtime members Tom Pryor and Robert Richards now out of the band, Hard to Please is also a rallying cry from a band that's done some restructuring and recharging over the past half-year. Quinn has become a permanent member, and several guests — including solo artist Jill Andrews, Quinn's former partner in the Everybodyfields; Bill Reynolds, bass player for Band of Horses; and Daniel Donato, the 20 year-old guitar whiz kid who's been a staple on Nashville's honky-tonk scene since his teens — make guest appearances on the album, turning Hard to Please into the widest-reaching album of the band's career.
"There's a lot of diversity," adds Contreras. "Three or four songs land in the Motown and R&B-influenced vein. There's some rock stuff, too. Some country duets. A bit of the stripped-down bluegrass stuff. It's a complete record — one of the things you have to listen to the whole way through — and I think the name embodies the philosophy the band right now. We're surviving the changes and not settling for anything less than our best effort."
Hard to Please hits stores on October 2nd, with help from the Nashville-based Thirty Tigers. In the meantime, the Black Lillies — whose tour schedule often tops out at 200 gigs per year — will travel across most of the country, playing shows from Michigan to Montana.