music (2006-24)

Van Wanted

Knoxville’s Cold Hands heats up the road

WARM HEART: Cold Hands wants you to dance.

Finding Jesus, Buddha and Quaker philosophy in the strangest places

THE CORNBREDBLUES BAND: It’ll hold down the fort.

by Molly Kincaid

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. Likewise, 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, the band’s sound doesn’t fall into the characteristically Knoxvillian range, most of which fits into pop, folk, bluegrass, or avant garde Pilot Light-ish rock. Cold Hands’ style 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.”

Who: Cold Hands w/ The Cheat and Engineering

Three Footnotes

by Kevin Crowe

"Once I get up there and start playing, it’s like crawling into the cockpit of a Tie Fighter,” says Jon Worley, frontman of the shoeless, hillbilly-and-proud-of-it Cornbredblues Band, an agglomeration of bluegrass, funk and a near-lethal dose of corn liquor. “Got instruments everywhere, everything’s crazy. I don’t know what’s going on. I ain’t got a clue. Just get on that horse and ride. Where we’re gonna go, we don’t know. But we’re gonna have fun getting there.

“I want to fulfill the same function that a shaman would in an agrarian society,” he goes on. “I put the bells and the whistles on, and crawl up in a hole in the mountains by myself and have my visions, write it down and bring it back down to the people.”

Worley claims to have died several times throughout his life, intense spiritual deaths, the result of those moments in life when you first begin to take a real look at yourself, only to find vast, empty tundra, frozen to the core. “I got in my rabbit,” Worley explains, “drove 280 miles to Kentucky, lived in a hole until I got my shit straightened in my head, got it straight enough to try to get up and walk on.”

That’s when the journey began to take focus. The kid who once held the juvenile arrest record in Morristown—the kid who was raised by his grandfather, who came from a long line of Southern Baptist preachers—finally found his ministry. It may not be the path that straightedge preacher-men would’ve picked for him, but it’s a path that allows him to find that sweet moment of spiritual peace, smack between Dionysian excess and Apollonian introspection. Yang and Yin, man. Yang and Yin.

“We found eternity,” Worley sings. “We were dancing naked.” It’s one of those deceptively simple lines, stripped bare, sung over unapologetically unornamented rhythms, backed by a clear, understated flute, like a medieval pastoral ballad—like a psalm, maybe. This is yet another one of Worley’s corn-bred spiritual exercises, the hope being that his music will allow audiences to experience some form of shared consciousness. “It’s eternal,” Worley explains, “and it’s never going to happen the way it’s happening then. It’s the most supreme feeling of being alive, to know that you’re so connected to somebody else, that you don’t have to think, it just is.”

And least that’s how the band will explain it, as its members attempt to piece together Tennessee’s musical heritage, strip it down, and make it psychedelic at the same time. “Have you ever read any of that Quaker literature?” Worley asks, quite unexpectedly. “Go up to Gilford Community College. It’s a cool place. I got stranded there one winter. Some 22-year old lesbian chick gave me a Bible called The Beatitudes of Christianity , which connected beatniks and preaching. It flipped my big chicken. And, many trips of LSD later, here we go.”

Somewhere along the line, after months of begging Manhattan’s to let him play his solo gig, Worley has found the right musical combination. He now takes care of the acoustic guitar, harmonica, keyboard, tambourine and vocals, backed by Daniel Broaderick’s electric-slide guitar. Then there are the guys who’re able to give Worley’s songs a full-bodied, olden roar, beats that speak through generations and genres. Shaggy grounds it with his bass thumps. Zac Manley keeps things together with a well-timed, cadenced drumbeat. And Daniel Lancaster brings the brass, playing the tenor sax like a down-home Coleman Hawkins. The Cornbredblues sound can be experimental, as Worley is apt to speak through an old, beat-up microphone, fuzzed-out with all the distortion his amps can muster, warping his voice into a gritty, guttural Peter Framptonian wail.

There may be layers to the sound when the band comes together for a prolonged jam session. But no matter how far out or acid-fried it may get at times, the music is always countrified, always backed by a simple philosophy.

“I wrote a paper called ‘Materialistic Self-assessment is the Cancer of the Self.’ Had three footnotes in it: Buddha, Jesus and Kierkegaard,” Worley says, adding: “I’m real big on the 11th Commandment. Love thy neighbor as thyself. If you know that, then you’re not going to rob your neighbor, because you know he’s a funk soul brother. You ain’t gonna covet thy neighbors wife, because you know that funk soul sister’s your funk soul brother’s mate.”

Worley wants to take his band into a bar in the middle of the night, because people who are drinking liquor and beer are usually doing it for the same reasons that other people wake up on Sunday mornings for church. “If you wanna know God, close your eyes,” Worley says, “because you’re a slice of divinity pie.” Sometimes it’s that simple.

Who: Cornbredblues Band