Band To Watch: Good Looks

Jackie Lee Young

Band To Watch: Good Looks

Jackie Lee Young

Tyler Jordan learned a lot of hard lessons from 15 mostly futile years trying to make a go of this indie rock thing, but few were more valuable than “say what you actually mean.” “If I’m writing a song to someone or about someone, I’d like them to know that,” he explains. And as excited as we are about Lived Here For A While, I can think of a few people who would not call Good Looks’ sophomore album “highly anticipated” – Christian fundamentalists, Jordan’s ex-girlfriend, his ex-bandmate, and even his own mother are all put on notice, often by name. Yet, when we speak about a month prior to the album’s release — it’s out this Friday via Keeled Scales — Jordan only regrets his words towards his least sympathetic targets: the joggers and farmers market merchants and tech developers who turned Austin into a place he had to leave after spending nearly half of his 37 years there.

“White Out” is the most overt example of why Jordan — now based in Lockhart, 45 minutes outside Austin — describes Good Looks as “socialist heartland rock.” If the sound often recalls Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen at their most robust and radio-friendly, Jordan’s lyrics preclude any possibility of being misappropriated for Republican stump speeches. He repeats “this used to be a Black neighborhood” throughout the chorus of “White Out,” contrasted with verses describing familiar gentrifiers who tried to turn Austin into the Silicon Valley of the South. “I was so bummed at what was happening around me, I kind of lashed out at the people beside me and not above me,” Jordan admits. “I actually don’t think that you solve gentrification through individual action.”

Jordan is wearing an Austin DSA hat during our Zoom call, and his explanation of “White Out” (as well as the similarly themed and similarly self-explanatory follow-up “Vultures”) mirrors a familiar set of mental gymnastics to anyone with politics similar to his own: How do progressives build a truly inclusive, populist movement when it necessitates the inclusion of people who might initially align with the enemy? Good Looks raised a few eyebrows with the title track from 2022’s Bummer Year, when Jordan recalled his high school friends who became Trump voters. “I don’t think they’re evil, even when they’re awful,” he sang, describing people who’d have your back in a bar fight or come to help you fix a tire “in some stupid jacked-up truck.”

Though such a sentiment from an indie rock band felt startling after six years of wan “both sides”-ism or pat invective, there’s plenty of precedent for this kind of character study – Drive-By Truckers, John Prine, Todd Synder, et al. artists who’ve earned a place as People’s Champs for their humanization of the dirtbag South. And Good Looks are an easy band to root for. It’d be accurate to call Bummer Year a “sleeper hit” in multiple ways; their debut slowly gained momentum through word of mouth after its initial release, and it had also been in hibernation for nearly four years before that. Good Looks finished Bummer Year in 2018, signed to Keeled Scales in 2019, and then put the release on pause as the pandemic dragged on. Once the album finally dropped in 2022, their hardships only escalated; after Good Looks played a celebratory release show in Austin, guitarist Jake Ames was struck by a car and suffered serious skull and tailbone injuries from which he has since fully recovered.

None of that is literally addressed on Lived Here For A While, not even on the song called “Broken Body.” Jordan had written the vast majority of the album prior to 2022, and “Desert” precedes even Bummer Year. Nevertheless, there’s an unmistakable urgency and ambition to Lived Here For A While that deviates from its predecessor’s more laissez faire approach, which was typified by pull quotes like “Wish that I was 21, somewhere floating in the sun” and “Making money from my art, man, just not working out.”

Still, it’s fair to say that Good Looks’ goals are more aligned with things breaking even rather than breaking big. “We’re all in our mid-to-late-30s and still trying to make an indie rock band livable, you know?” Jordan muses. “A lot of folks that are in our sphere are 10 years younger, and so I think it just says something about who we are. We are not giving up, there’s no Plan B, so when there are no other options, you just stay on course. Quitting has not seemed like it was possible.”

There’s a subtext throughout Lived Here For A While of leaving behind unhealthy personal relationships, so I’m not surprised that leaving Austin was part of that after the fact. What made you realize that it was time to finally move?

TYLER JORDAN: I want to be careful with the way that I answer this because there’s some things about Austin that I really love and there’s a really supportive music community. We’ve gotten a lot of love from the radio stations there like NPR and KUTX, and there’s a great non-profit called HAAM that gives free or low-cost healthcare to a lot of musicians in the city. But the culture has changed a lot over the past five to 10 years.

I think if I were 19 now, I would not move to Austin. It’s so inaccessible for young artists, where there was once all these spaces that could… kind of, like, fail is what I say. There were all these small venues throwing random bills, but it’s kind of like the Bay Area now where small venues are under so much pressure to put together a profitable show. That chokes out the entry level spaces, and I think the scene is maybe getting a little bit smaller because of the lack of affordability and that’s tied to all kinds of things, like this influx of tech. And I don’t fault those people for wanting a cheaper place to live, I get it. But I guess I was looking for some new experiences and…I feel like everything in Austin is so bougie. Maybe I was like the first-wave gentrification guy, you know what I mean? [Laughs] I liked all the hole-in-the-wall spots, and those are all gone, there’s no fucking diners or anything. It’s all just like, you know, $25 breakfast and brunch. And I’m like, man, I just want something that’s a little shitty, you know?

I imagine that’s certainly true in Austin, but that’s also the case anywhere in the South that gets pegged as a “cool place to live.” I’ve heard about it happening in Asheville, and when I went back to Athens, Georgia in 2016, there were all these condos and an Urban Outfitters downtown next to the 40 Watt. I’ve heard plenty of musicians talk about how important it is to have a chance to fail at shitty local clubs, are there any in particular that were formative for Good Looks?

JORDAN: Well, just a million shows where nobody showed up, right? Just so many of those. But that’s how you learn how to exist as an artist. You learn how to sing into a microphone, you learn how to talk to people, you learn how to move on stage, there’s all these lessons that go into making you a better writer and performer that might be easier to get now in other places. But I feel like we got lucky in Austin. I don’t think there is very much national music industry presence there. There’s a really great scene that goes to a certain point, but it’s hard to platform out of there in a lot of ways. Whereas I think maybe New York, Nashville, Chicago, LA, all those places, or somewhere that’s cheaper but close to one of those spots might be a better deal, you know?

On Bummer Year, a lot of people keyed on the lyrics from “Vision Boards” about the many ways being in an upstart indie rock band was “just not working out.” It seemed like there was a time during the pandemic where artists were trying to rethink how the music industry works, but by the time Bummer Year came out in the summer of 2022, things were mostly back to “normal.” Having experienced some degree of success since then, are things working out now? Or is there still some better way to do things?

JORDAN: I’m a socialist at heart, and I think that a lot of the problems with music are the problems with capitalism as a whole, you know? But I think we’re in a really specific subset of darkness because musicians don’t see themselves as workers. They see themselves as artists. We are so fucked, money-wise, that we don’t even look at it as a job. We’re not getting paid, we’re doing it for free. I don’t know how to make it better.

I mean, people always complain about the fact that you can’t sell records anymore and how Spotify is this evil thing. But being able to stream every song ever on your telephone is a net positive, right? It is so good for art, it’s so good for the listener. It’s sped up the process of creation and having these cross-world conversations in real time as opposed to scenes existing within a city. It all happens at once now, and that’s amazing and beautiful. But just like every other technological invention, capitalism comes along and wields it as this terrible thing that oppresses people. I don’t know if you solve that by having Spotify be more equitable. Maybe you unionize, maybe you put pressure on those entities, but I don’t know if it’s solvable.

Even if there’s a long history of leftist politics existing within the realms of “heartland rock” or “alt-country,” the sound itself tends to be not very far from genres more associated with conservatism. Have you gotten any backlash from the songs that most explicitly state your politics?

JORDAN: I’m sure there’s folks that have gotten off the train at some point. As we’ve been posting about Palestine, I’ve had a few negative interactions, but really just a couple. We played this small-town Oklahoma festival and did “Bummer Year” back to back with “If It’s Gone.” And it was really funny, clearly these folks never heard us, they walked in with their kids and when we played “Bummer Year,” they were looking at each other like, “I don’t know…” And then it gets to “If It’s Gone” and I say the line, “don’t believe in Jesus, God, or Buddha, or beyond,” and they scoop their kids up and leave. I’m sure it offends folks sometimes. But what was really crazy is afterwards, we’re talking to this guy that drives a lifted truck and has a crazy accent and it’s like, “Man, I just, I really love you guys.”

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Until I saw the lyrics sheet, I didn’t realize the humming at the end of “If It’s Gone” is actually an “om.” I feel like there’s a spiritual questing going on throughout Lived Here For A While, how has your relationship with religion evolved over time?

JORDAN: I grew up super religious in a very conservative town, my folks were really kind of…”cult-like Christianity” is how I would describe it. My dad was a preacher. My granddad was a preacher. I had uncles that were preachers. I went to church every week. We would be out of town on vacation and we would go to church, you know? So I was really burned out on it for a long time, I became pretty atheist and so I just thought [religion] was for stupid people. For a long time, I would say I wasn’t spiritual at all, but in the last like four or five years, I’ve kind of gotten more into meditation and Thích Nhất Hạnh, that stream of Buddhism, which in some ways is the least religious string of it because like they don’t really believe in an afterlife at all. It’s more about peace in this moment and how we’re all connected and not necessarily individual and that has brought me a lot of peace.

How has your spiritual practice been strengthened or challenged by the hardships Good Looks has endured since Bummer Year? Was there a sense that “Hey, maybe this isn’t meant to be,” or “If we can get through this, we’re unstoppable”?

JORDAN: I think as a band, we’re really locked in on a goal. And everybody at this point has their lives really arranged to make this work. We all have day jobs that are somewhat compatible with the goal of being gone for months and not making any money. I think a lot of who I am is just the crazy, traumatic childhood stuff and having parents that were super harsh, judgmental, and religious. It made me really like stubborn and willful like, “I’m going to fucking do this,” you know what I mean? And so now when tragedy or something heavy happens – and I think this is probably a trauma response – I’m immediately thinking about how we’re gonna move through that.

So it stands to reason that anytime the word “mama” is used, it’s referring to your actual mother and it isn’t a kind of country-rock figure of speech.

JORDAN: No, all my songs are very literal. Over the years, they’ve had people’s names in them.

I was going to ask about “Vaughn”…

JORDAN: Vaughn is my partner that I live with, my girlfriend that I met during the pandemic. I was very excited about the relationship, and I wrote a song about it. And the song is named “Vaughn.”

Even beyond referring to people in your life by their actual names, is there a line between what you want to keep to yourself and what’s ethical to put in a song?

JORDAN: Everything. You have to be able to, it’s the ultimate truth. A lot of the songs that I write, especially the relationship songs, there’s a problem there and I’m trying to unravel it. All of my writing is for me, that’s what keeps the fire going. Bummer Year came out when I was 35, and I’ve been trying to do this since I was 19. That was the first record we had that was on a label, and the thing that keeps you sustained on that path is the connection to the writing. Everything else can go away and that’ll still be there – that moment of joy and creation is the point in life.

People ask questions about, “What was the concept when you’re writing this?” And I’m like, “There wasn’t one.” I was just trying to figure something out within my own brain. There’s some sort of unresolved feeling there and I’m trying to make sense of it and how I feel, because I’m a person that’s super-left brain and I don’t really feel very comfortable in emotions. Songs are a way to explore emotions, figure out what I actually think and trap those emotions and keep them in that place. And I can move on afterwards.

Have you ever surprised yourself while writing, like, “Wow, this is how I really feel”? And whether some of it was darker than you realized?

JORDAN: Growing up in that really religious household, I was writing songs before I moved out. But I had to hide a lot of what I was writing because it said something about my ideology and the world and how I viewed it that was different from my parents. Ever since then, I really don’t like censoring myself. I’m writing it for me, but I’m also writing it to them. I wrote “Desert” while I was still with my ex, and it was about someone that wasn’t my ex. So I sat on that song because [my ex] was a very jealous person and that that song wouldn’t have been handled well. But otherwise, if I think the song is good, no matter what it says or who it’s about, I think it’s worth putting out there. A lot of times, I think people are scared to say what they really feel, and so they settle on these blander kinds of emotions, or purposefully obscure what they’re talking about to protect themselves. A lot of times, the things that are the closest to you and the most vulnerable are the things that have the most value. I think that’s just where all the good stuff is, you know?

Lived Here For A While is out 6/7 on Keeled Scales.

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