Ten years into the life of Quaker City Night Hawks, David Matsler and Sam Anderson had to stop and think about what they were doing. After three albums of fuzzed-out blues-rock, the last of which — 2016’s El Astronauta — was a sci-fi-themed concept record, QCNH needed a new drummer and bassist. So they did what any self-respecting rock band would do: They got heavier — and weirder.
“We have a completely different set of weapons now and that opens so many doors for us,” says Anderson, who shares singing and guitar-playing duties with Matsler, from a hotel room in Wichita, Kansas. He’s sitting between Matsler and the band’s new drummer, Aaron Haynes, all three of whom are wearing sunglasses, even though the blinds are drawn behind them. “As many different genres as we touch on — as scatterbrained as we are — it’s going to get even worse. I’m excited about that.”
There are no overt themes on QCNH’s latest LP, titled simply QCNH, other than that of a band that’s found its literal and metaphorical grooves. But the album, the band’s second with Nashville label Lightning Rod Records, is the Forth Worth, Texas, quartet’s most musically ambitious, scrubbing away the overdriven guitars of records past for a cleaner, rougher sound. There may be fewer UFO sightings, but QCNH stretches into several spaced-out interludes. It even includes some honest-to-goodness ballads.
Those last two additions should come as no surprise for a pair of guys who got their start playing open-mic nights in Lubbock a decade and a half ago. “We were pulling our hair out on the songwriter circuit, getting paid in soup and coffee instead of cash,” remembers Anderson. He and Matsler eventually migrated east to Fort Worth, where, after playing in separate projects, they came together to form QCNH. “You do that songwriter stuff so long that you get this pent-up aggression where you just want to be fucking loud for a little bit and not care if people can talk over it — because they can’t,” says Anderson.
That, in essence, has been the band’s driving influence ever since. Getting started, however, meant learning how to stretch things out, with weekly residencies that lasted three or four hours at a time. Anderson remembers one particular “shithole” bar where they had one of their first recurring gigs. “We’d do two hour-and-a-half to two-hour sets with wet T-shirt contests and turtle races in between. They’d have 30-cent hurricanes,” he says, laughing and shaking his head. “We really got to test how badly we wanted to be in a rock & roll band at that point.”
Though Haynes, who also plays drums for the Texas Gentlemen, is new to the lineup since El Astronauta, he’s hardly new to QCNH. “I have a weird perspective because I was there when this band started,” he says, pointing out that he’d played with Anderson in a previous band. Not surprisingly, Haynes has slotted in with ease. “It’s fun to play drums in a slightly more primal way. Really, that’s how they were intended. The nuance of drums is great, but sometimes you just need to tell ’em what you’re thinking, and the one way to do that is to play hard, play heavy.”
Together with new bassist Maxwell Smith, Haynes has helped lock in a tight rhythm section on QCNH, one that swings as well as swaggers. As a point of reference, the new lineup reprises “Fox in the Henhouse,” originally the leadoff track to their second album, Honcho. Haynes’ fills and hi-hats are especially prominent on the sludgy “Hunter’s Moon,” but never is the new dynamic more apparent than on “Suit in the Back,” a souped-up boogie about the unglamorous side of being a touring band — i.e. getting busted for drugs. “That, for me, is the closest we’ve gotten to this dance-y, even disco-type thing, mixed with rock & roll,” says Anderson.
Life on the road pops up on a far different song, “Colorado,” a dreamlike ballad written by Matlser that weaves in and out of border crossings and desert wastelands, tinged by the enticing, far-off mirage of packing it all in and heading for California. Matlser stretches things out even further on the surreal “Elijah Ramsey,” a dystopian prog-rock epic that gets turned inside-out by its companion piece, the comparatively jagged “Grackle King,” which together form a 10-minute suite on the back end of the record.
“I’m from Amarillo. It looks like a different planet out there. Hell, we were driving in New Mexico and Sam and Maxwell saw this straight-up, legitimate UFO flying over where Roswell would be. When you’re out in the desert, that stuff doesn’t surprise you as much,” says Matsler, as though an alien encounter would be the most predictable thing in the world. Speaking of which, Matsler even recalls meeting a man in the west Texas town of Marfa who credited his barbecue recipe to extraterrestrials. “Everybody asked where he got it from, and he said he got abducted by aliens, who took him into their spaceship and ran him through how to make this brisket,” he says.
However oblique the storytelling can get, QCNH‘s sci-fi leanings often carry a political undercurrent, which really only becomes explicit on “Freedom,” the final — and angriest — song on the album. “We were more mad about shit back then [on the band’s earlier albums]. We’re old and mellow now,” Matsler says with a laugh. True enough, the DNA of the music hasn’t changed much since those singer-songwriter days, no matter how much the volume has gone up. “We played an acoustic thing for the radio station today and played a couple songs off the record. It’s funny because they worked really nice as acoustic songs,” Matsler adds.
Not that the band is about to retreat from the pure, unadulterated fun of making lots and lots of noise. If anything, they’re ready to double down, feeling all the more emboldened by their first trip to Europe, where they played in support of fellow Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke and will be returning later in the year. Playing overseas, they found audiences who weren’t so quick to compare them to ZZ Top or to call them Lynyrd Skynyrd lookalikes.
“It’s nice to play places where they don’t think you’re a country band. We can play a tune like ‘Hunters Moon’ — which really is a metal song — we can do that now and explore territory outside that for the next record,” says Haynes, already looking forward to what comes next. “We can be heavier and don’t have to be a band you can two-step to, to have anybody in the bar.”