It’s not too many bands that first come together for the purpose of performing Jesus and Mary Chain covers. But Cold Hands’ inception wasn’t just any cover act; this was the yearly Halloween show at Pilot Light—the one people gossip and speculate about for weeks before and after. By Knoxville standards, success here can make or break a band’s rep.
Despite those quirky beginnings two years ago, Henry Gibson and Zach Land, former Chelsea Horror bandmates, along with drummer Jason Bowman, are still going strong; their band Cold Hands is quickly becoming a recognizable name on the Knoxville scene. Well, to be honest, the dancy, ’80s-inspired rock act has gained more notoriety regionally; they say Knoxville audiences are a hard lot to gauge. “It’s that hometown syndrome,” says Gibson. “People don’t want to hear the same thing more than once…. We’re also a pretty hard band to categorize, as far as what people in this town like to groove to—we’re like that band that can play at Pilot Light, but do we really belong there?”
On the road, though, Cold Hands has amassed quite the following, as is evidenced by their sold-out merch stock. “We sold everything, all the CDs,” says Land.
“And we’re down to incredibly huge and incredibly tiny t-shirts,” adds Bowman.
“No, we’re even out of those muumuu-sized ones,” says Land.
Like a lot of bandmates that spend inordinate amounts of time together, Cold Hands members probably don’t even realize when they finish one another’s sentences. Maybe that’s because finishing a thought or a sound is an inherent part of the musical process. When they first started out, says Land, “We kind of had an idea of one or two directions we could go in. At first, we were really drone-y.”
“We could’ve gone Goth,” says a straight-faced Gibson. It’s unclear whether or not the lanky, always-grinning singer is joking.
“But we chose an upbeat path, rather than downbeat,” says Land. “We all got less self-conscious about what we wanted to do. At first, we were all trying to impress each other with this pretentious style.”
The band eventually settled into a style they say falls somewhere between Chelsea Horror (which was “more aggro”) and Gibson’s mellower solo act. “I wanted it to be frustration, because I was frustrated while I was making it. I’m still frustrated, whether sexually, politically or whatever,” says Gibson, who’s now nervously shifting his eyes around at the other tables on Barley’s patio—visibly anticipating the upcoming show. “We’ve gotten more angular, and I want to incorporate more sexuality.”
Land, leaning back leisurely and apparently not sharing in Gibson’s nerves, retorts, “You haven’t discussed that with me!”
Despite claims that Knoxville audiences don’t respond well, Cold Hands’ show at Barley’s has a good vibe. Gibson seems more at ease with a mic to hide behind, his quavering voice and lyrics—which have an immediacy that’s hard not to compare to Elliot Smith, despite the band’s new wave instrumental feel—corral the room’s attention easily.
This music begs to be danced to, as Land communicates through jerky hip turns and head bobs. Gibson might prod a static audience through plopping down on his knees to really nail a guitar riff once in a while. Just as Gibson had noted, Cold Hands’ sound doesn’t fall into the Knoxville range, most of which fits into pop, folk, bluegrass, or avant garde Pilot Light-ish rock; it more closely follows the national trend of jaunty shimmer rock, à la Bloc Party or Interpol.
There’s also an instantly endearing quality about Cold Hands’ live show, which may explain their success on the road. A favorite spot to play is Sylva, N.C., at a place called Guadalupe Café. “They love us there,” says Land, bewildered. “People request songs there. It’s crazy.”
But of course, the band has also had its share of “worst shows ever.” At one show in Kentucky, Gibson recalls, “They sandwiched us between a hard-core Goth and a hardcore Christian band. It was weird.” And then they traveled to Atlanta only to be booked for an open mic night. However, the short set won over much of the audience—one guy even passed them a hundred-dollar bill.
“I was like, dude, do I have to go to the bathroom with you now?” says Gibson.
The three road warriors intend on hitting the pavement again in September, once their full-length album is pressed on Knoxville’s New Beat Records. But first, they’ve got to invest in some quality wheels. In typical low-budget indie band fashion, the first van they bought was a lemon.
Amidst the masses of Knoxville bands that are content to play locally and work normal jobs, Cold Hands seems starry-eyed in comparison. “If we could make enough to sustain ourselves, we would do only this,” says Gibson. “We’re gonna try and take it all the way.”
“Ride it ’til the wheels fall off,” adds Land. Then, in that sardonic under-the-radar band humor, Bowman concludes, “Of course, owning a van would be helpful.”