If it were 1921 and you heard at random that Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas were coming to town, you might lock your doors in fear of being mowed down by a Tommy gun at the hands of two savage and depraved, gin-crazed hoods. But of course it’s not 1921, it’s 2013! And Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas would be none other than Widowspeak, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, self-ascribed purveyors of “cowboy grunge” and “heartland rock.” Their forthcoming EP, The Swamps, continues along the path paved by Almanac, which, released on Captured Tracks in January 2013, was Widowspeak’s first output as a two-piece. For their latest, Hamilton’s airy vocal delivery (reminiscent of and oft-compared to Hope Sandoval) is appropriately pervasive throughout The Swamps, which floats ethereally through oaks and bogs of a Southern landscape they’ve driven countless times on tour. And Thomas—not to be construed as second fiddle, by any means—deftly applies an understated Western handle to the song craft, carving a distinctive niche for Widowspeak’s music and allowing them to subtly separate from the more obvious comparisons to Cults and the aforementioned Mazzy Star.
And life as a tandem is good. Time in the van of late has been spent listening to Tropicalia compilations of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Os Mutantes and the likes of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. Having just played Austin City Limits the week before, Hamilton and Thomas are currently taking a little break in Texas’ fabulous lone freak harbor, Austin. Hamilton, in fact, was awaiting a guest bartender shift at Mohawk’s later that night (“I’ve only bartended twice in my life, and I was really terrible both times”) when she took a little time to catch up with Submerge.
So The Swamps EP is your second release in less than a year—you’ve been real busy, I have to assume.
We did a three-month-long tour starting with South By [Southwest], and were gone until midway through June and then did another three-week support tour; the EP kind of just happened ‘cause we were cooped up in the car all the time. I was doing a lot of writing trying to think of what our next record was going to sound like. And even though we haven’t made headway on that record, we realized we had these songs that weren’t necessarily made for the LP but were their own cohesive idea… A lot of them were about driving through the South, but honestly I was motivated a little bit about not wanting to live in New York anymore.
You grew up in Tacoma, Wash. right? Do you miss the wide open spaces of the West Coast after having lived in New York for a while?
I definitely miss seeing any semblance of natural environment. There are amazing things about New York, but I think what draws me to a place is looking out the window and seeing a tree, or a cactus, or a mountain. I’ve lived there for seven years, and it’s not like I’m turning my back on it, but I’m keeping my ears open for wherever…[maybe] someplace you can actually afford to be a creative person.
Prior to Almanac, Michael Stasiak—who was a founding member—had left the band, which ultimately made Almanac something of a reinvention of the group.
Basically our entire songwriting process changed.
I would imagine there must have been some general strife in losing your band mate, so was there greater ease in the whole process of putting Swamps together since it’s been just you and Robert for some time?
Definitely. With Almanac it’s not that we were rushed or were even rushing ourselves; it was kind of wanting to prove that we could do it. We wanted to make a record. So when Michael amicably decided he didn’t want to be in the band anymore, we were like, “Well we’re gonna do it! It doesn’t matter!” And with The Swamps, we’d been touring a lot and had fallen into a good routine, writing in hotel rooms, working really well together. When I first met Rob we had to write together, and the band was fun, but we didn’t really expect anything out of it. I didn’t expect to have this rapport in writing with him that I do now.
I read an interview where you embraced the exposure you’ve received from having “Harsh Realm” featured in American Horror Story, which I think is the right way to feel about it. Do you find it interesting how the furthering of technology and the scope of online media and so forth has made the concept of “selling out” kind of antiquated?
I think there’s always tasteful ways to go about doing it, and then there’s ways that you can just feel in the pit of your stomach are not a good representation of you or your band. The thing with synching is that we didn’t realize how much money was in that sort of thing. We didn’t even realize we’d get paid for it—and we haven’t gotten much—but so many people are watching and so many people are getting exposed to the soundtracks… I’ve seen so many bands get the attention they deserve because of random spots. Shows aren’t the evil behemoth people think they can be, and I don’t think commercials are by default, [either].
I think mainstream media these days has the capacity to be a lot more hip than when we were kids. I’m 30, and I don’t remember hearing anything cool in commercials or on network television when I was younger.
A lot of musicians I’ve respected have done commercials. I heard a Joanna Newsome song in an HSBC ad. Kurt Vile is in a couple commercials. In an interview he said something like, “Hey, I have a family.” And it’s true. It’s a job, and I don’t know if it’s fair for anybody who’s not in that position to say you have to stick to some sort of antiquated idea of “musicians don’t do this.”
I’m curious: Does the lameness of Matchbox 20’s Rob Thomas have anything to do with Rob going by Robert Earl Thomas?
[Laughs] Kind of a little bit. On the one hand, he’s actually Robert Earl Thomas III, and his dad goes by Rob. But also, he makes a ton of jokes whenever Matchbox 20 gets on the radio. Like, “Hey guys, this is me! I’m killin’ it!” And anytime it’s 3 a.m. he’ll bust into song.
Now permit me to ask a personal question I don’t know the answer to… Are you and Rob a couple?
[Pauses, laughs.] It’s funny, we’ve actually never been asked that in an interview. Yes. We’ve actually never told any media, and it doesn’t matter if it’s out there. It’s funny because we were always wondering when somebody would ask us. But it’s a relatively new development; we weren’t when we started. I think through the process of recording the last [couple] records, we just kinda started seeing each other. I don’t know if it’s like chicken-or-the-egg of being so intertwined creatively, but I feel like we probably could’ve continued making records if we weren’t [involved]; but I can’t even imagine it because so much time has been spent in this band that it’s kind of become my life.