In 2012 in a small town called Palestine, Texas, population 18,383, a new undefinable sound was born. Through years of hard work, hard play, and a whole lot of Texas Silver Star Whiskey, five musicians from East Texas created a new music genre that fuses heavy guitar riffs, gritty melodic vocals with a little southern twang.
The band is Blacktop Mojo and the genre is Texas Grunge.
Matt James, lead vocalist of the band, told me the story of how he came to be a part of this unique group of guys. Born in Rusk Texas, Matt’s family moved around a lot, which he attributes to creating his diverse musical tastes. “In a big city you’ve got hard rock stations and stuff, but in the small towns all I got on the radio was Tejano and Country music. That lent to a lot of different experience in a lot of different genres at a young age”.
Matt started formally singing in front of people while he was in college at Northwestern State University in Louisiana. As a football player, he joined the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and led worship singing and playing the acoustic guitar. Before that, he recalls the only singing he did was alone in his apartment and occasionally at parties, when he “got some whiskey down”. Graduating with a degree in biomedical science, Matt lined up a job working in tech support. But something in him led him to start a new journey pursuing a career in music. “My family was really supportive”, he remembers. “I told them I wanted to do music and they supported me all the way. All our parents support us (in the band), which is really great”.
Matt met Blacktop Mojo percussionist Nathan Gillis through mutual friends in 2012, and the two bonded over a love of music and whiskey. Together with Ryan Kiefer (lead guitar/backing vocals), Kenneth Irwin (guitar/backing vocals) and Matt Curtis (bass), the band started out playing country music in local Texas venues. As they began writing their first album “I Am”, they found their sound was morphing into something heavy and more rock oriented.
Blacktop Mojo released their second album “Burn the Ships” on Cuhmon Records in March of 2017 and their cover of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” has gained almost two million views on YouTube. In creating the album, the band brought on veteran Blacktop Mojo collaborator Philip Mosley, the producer of their first album, along with co-producers Steve Melton and Jimmy Johnson, who have worked with bands Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Rolling Stones, to name a few. “Steve definitely brought a bigger sound I would say as far as tracking and getting the sounds that we wanted”, Matt recalls. “It was an honor and definitely a privilege to work with him. As far as working with Jimmy, he’s a very artist-friendly producer. He’s all about what the artist brings to the table and he doesn’t want to change a whole lot.”
The result? Heavy, slow-grinding sounds that simultaneously soothe and bludgeon.
The band members’ diverse background lends to the wide variety of inspiration for the songs on “Burn the Ships”. “Pyromaniac” was inspired by relationships-gone-bad, “Prodigal” came from the desire to leave a small town and pursue bigger dreams, “Shadows on the Wall” is a nod to a Plato allegory and the title track “Burn the Ships” described the band’s transition from day job workers to full-time musicians.
One of the most powerful songs, “Sweat”, is a tribute to hard working laborers, inspired by Matt’s younger years working for his Grandfather. “My Granddad has a fertilizer spreading dealership that I would work at every summer”, Matt recalls. “Burning up in the sun, 110 degrees, feeling like a piece of bacon in a frying pan; that really stuck with me throughout my life. Where I’m from, there are a lot of oil workers that have to go off and leave their family for a couple weeks at a time, a month at a time, and just work their asses off no matter what conditions or what’s going on. They never stop. So [the song] “Sweat” is kind of a song about them. For sure.”
Those days are long gone for the five members of Blacktop Mojo. When they aren’t touring the country in their 15-passenger van, playing acoustically for radio stations and live at venues big and small, the roommates are drinking their Texas Silver Star Whiskey, playing Rainbow Six Siege, responding to fan messages on social media and writing songs (all of the band members write songs, which differentiates the group from many other groups today). They can also be seen in humorous home-made videos posted on social media, which makes the band all the more unique and loveable.
As Matt James will tell you, the band is just starting out but they have no intentions of stopping. When asked what advice he has for new bands trying to break onto the scene, he had this to say: “Play a lot. Practice a lot and get really good at what you do. Practice playing in front of people because if you get really good at playing in front of people and master your instrument, then people will come. There’s no sense in worrying about getting famous, making it big or anything like that if you can’t even master what you do. Never be satisfied. Always be working to better yourself as a musician. That’s what we do. We’re always working to better ourselves”. That dedication and persistence that Matt talked about paid off for Blacktop Mojo in the form of a raw, addictive new sound: Texas Grunge. Invite some friends over, grab a bottle or two of Texas Silver Star whiskey and crank up some “Burn the Ships”! Your neighbors will thank you for it.
The album’s first release “Where the Wind Blows” is at #30 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Songs chart and it’s still climbing. “Burn the Ships” is available for purchase on iTunes, Amazon and “crashing loudly through a set of speakers on a stage near you”.
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