by Jordan Green
Matt Walsh, a guitar player in High Point with a strong pedigree in blues, rockabilly and roots music, had hit a creative dead-end in 2012.
“I had been writing songs for quite some time, playing roots music, rockabilly and eclectic stuff,” he recalled. “I was bored with it. I didn’t have the bravery to put my music out there. I couldn’t find anyone who was interested. I liked [what I was doing] too much. It was too safe. It wasn’t fun anymore, and I wasn’t finding out who I was.”
He decided to place a notice on Craigslist for a drummer that specified “no blues drummers or cover song artists,” and auditioned several players who sounded exactly like what he didn’t want.
Austin Hicks, who lives in Pilot Mountain, still had a week to go before graduating from high school. He knew he wasn’t interested in going to college and that he wanted to play music. There’s a significant age gap between the two: Walsh is 38, while Hicks is 21. But Hicks learned the three songs Walsh had posted online, and convinced Walsh to give him a shot.
“I drove to Pilot Mountain; my expectations were pretty low,” Walsh recalled in a recent interview. “I had gotten sour on finding someone to try to play with. I drove up to his house one afternoon and we just hit it off. ‘This is crazy,’ I told myself. To this day, he’s the one that I have the most in common with musically.”
By stripping down and simplifying, Walsh and Hicks developed a sound that was raw and feral — bigger than if there were four members in the band. Walsh’s blues owe more to the raucous flailing of Hound Dog Taylor or the drone-stomp of RL Burnside than the virtuosic note-soloing vibrato set as a standard by BB King. Hicks’ nimble percussion both propels and accommodates the mercurial changes in Walsh’s guitar playing.
Since joining forces as the Low Counts in early 2013, Walsh and Hicks have spun out a prolific run of original songs. They often begin with a chord progression that Walsh brings to Hicks, with vocals coming in after the instrumental parts are worked out. They’ve built a frenzied and cathartic live act, weeding out venues where people aren’t especially receptive while focusing on places where audiences feed back their energy.
The Low Counts closed last year with their second full-length album, Years Pass By, following the spring release of their Unsettled Days EP. On the new album, Walsh’s wounded howl, reminiscent of the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, well serves songs like “Keep It Burning,” “Satisfied,” “It’s Time” and the title track.
“Time ain’t on my side on my side/ hours just roll on by,” Walsh sings. “That clock on the wall keeps ticking strong/ Ain’t nothin’ round here lasts too long.”
Both in the studio and on stage, Walsh and Hicks try to maintain an element of surprise and risk.
“There’s a lot to be said about spontaneity,” Walsh said. “Music’s fun when it’s on the fly and it’s risky. The songs on the album we rehearsed twice before we recorded them. So many things in the studio that happen are so cool if you have the attitude that, ‘We’ve got one shot to do this.’”
Considering that they typically work their songs out in the studio, it’s sometimes a challenge to figure out how to play them live.
“When we record things in the studio, we don’t want to put any limitation on things,” Walsh said. “If they end up having 10 instruments on them to be a great song, we’ll do that. But when we go and play live with drums and guitar, there’s a lot of space to fill.”
The two musicians both earn their livelihoods from music, so they’ve learned to book gigs judiciously to make sure they bring back some money and have something left over to invest in recording. In their first year on the road, Walsh recalled that they played venues where people asked them to turn down the volume, complained that they weren’t playing enough covers, or they didn’t get paid. The experience has made them more picky and strategic, and now they generally stick to venues that are dedicated to live music.
“At some of the shows, there might be three people who dug it, and 10 rednecks at the bar who never turned their backs to look at us,” Walsh said. “We don’t even see those places anymore.”
While the Low Counts strive for creative risk in the studio, they approach playing live with total commitment and intensity.
“When we play live, Austin’s approach and mine is to go 150 percent — give people something that will blow their minds,” Walsh said. “It’s hard to impress people. Our whole mantra is we play as hard as possible and wear ourselves out, and do as much justice to the songs as we can. When we play live we go to a place where there’s not really too much thinking.”
The first meeting between Walsh and Hicks grounds their operating ethos as the Low Counts.
“When we met the first time and started playing, it was uncanny how we started playing together so naturally,” Hicks said. “Our intention is to give the audience the best performance that we can give them.”
“Everything’s been built off our first encounter,” he said. “We instantly started playing together, and it was like we were meant to play together. It sounded like we had been playing together for a year. We did our first gig unprepared. It was like, ‘We can do this. We know we can do this. So let’s go do it.’”