It’s an entertainment-writing cliche: An interview takes place over lunch, and the writer feels the need to point out what the interviewee is eating. You could probably compile into a book titled “Said Over Bites of Cobb Salad.”
But we’re talking to Sam Anderson, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter for Quaker City Night Hawks, the Fort Worth band whose songs include one called “Queso Blanco.” Under “influences” on its Facebook page, the group lists various Fort Worth Mexican and Tex-Mex spots, including Melis Taqueria, Salsa Limon, El Asadero (now Los Asaderos, unfortunately closed on Tuesdays, the day the interview took place) and more.
We’re at El Rancho Grande Restaurante, a 70-year-plus spot on North Main Street, a little south of the Stockyards, and Anderson is talking about the group’s new album, “QCNH,” which is due out Friday.
Anderson first hinted about the album to the Star-Telegram in June 2017, saying it was due for release in early 2018. That’s not a typo; things moved a little slowly than expected.
“We went through a lineup change,” Anderson says over a lunch combination plate. “That definitely slowed progress. Our bass player, Patrick Adams, left [he does play on the album]. Whenever that happens, especially when there’s only four people in the band anyway, and it’s one of the original members, you don’t just want to stick somebody in there.”
He adds that the band has a new manager, whom they met through country singer Shooter Jennings, one of the manager’s clients. “Once he started, it took a couple of months to get the wheels spinning and get that whole team process together, introducing him to the agent and the record label,” Anderson says.
As Anderson says this, his bandmates David Matsler (vocals, guitars, songwriting) and Aaron Haynes are already on the road, along with a new bass player, 22-year-old Maxwell Smith of Dallas, readying for a tour that has taken up much of February and will lead up to show at Fort Worth’s Shipping and Receiving Bar on March 1, the day the album is released. (If you want a preview, there will be a listening party at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Fort Worth Live, 306 Houston St. in downtown Fort Worth.)
It’s a crutch in music writing: Read almost any album review, and you’ll find the band compared to another band or, more likely, a “[blank] meets [blank]” mashup of bands. Sample from my email on another band: “With a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers vibe mixed with Imagine Dragons ...”
But this is Quaker City Night Hawks, a group known for combining elements of Southern rock, psychedelia and old-school soul in their musical stew, and it’s almost impossible to write about them without making reference to previous groups. On their fourth album, “QCNH,” there’s a folky road song called “Colorado” whose lyrics mention staring into a fire and thinking about life while on mushrooms; at the other extreme is “Hunter’s Moon,” which would not have sounded too out of place on a Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden album. The other eight cuts inspire something like “ZZ Top Meets Pink Floyd Meets Sam and Dave.”
The group even has a Sam and a Dave in it.
The roots of Quaker City Night Hawks begin in Lubbock, where Anderson was a student at Texas Tech when he met Matsler, who was attending South Plains College in nearby Levelland. South Plains has a bluegrass program, and Matsler was a mandolin major. With his family history, music kind of came naturally to him.
“My mom plays guitar and sings and writes music,” Matsler, who grew up a couple of hours north in Amarillo, says in a later phone interview. “Both my granddads played the piano, so we always had instruments around the house. At a young age, you’re naturally inclined to play them both because they make noise and because your family’s doing it and they’re having fun. And you can kind of experiment with how fun music can be.”
By the time he was 13, he’d become more serious about guitar, and he spent his high school years practicing. He was also writing, before he was out of middle school. “Looking back on it, it’s funny to call it ‘writing,’ but at the same time, it was the beginning of that essence of just sitting there with nothing and kind of fiddling around on the guitar until you get something,” Matsler says. “Even in high school, I was doing originals.”
By the time he was in his early 20s, he was trying to get gigs, playing a lot of acoustic shows at coffee shops and bars, selling CDs that he’d burned off his home computer. He performed a lot of covers, but he’d occasionally slip in an original. “When you’re playing at a chicken restaurant or a Chili’s or something out on the patio, you’ve got to play ‘Margaritaville’ or whatever,” he says. “And maybe you’d sneak in one of your songs. The best compliment ever would be that nobody left or jumped up and said, ‘Hey, what are you playing!?’ They all actually clapped [at that one I wrote] that’s not a Van Morrison song.”
Anderson grew up in Fort Worth, where his epiphany came when his dad took him to see ZZ Top at the Cotton Bowl. He was fascinated by lead guitarist Billy Gibbons and the band’s Texas-rooted sound.
“This was the first music that I’d heard where it was like, ‘This is where I’m from,’ “ Anderson says. “This was the first thing I identified as Texas music. Then there was Willie Nelson and running the gamut. That felt very definitely something I could get behind, because I had some sort of bloodline to it.”
In Lubbock, a mutual friend introduced Anderson to Matsler, and they became friends long before they started performing together. They’d pass around music that they liked — by the ‘90s, Anderson had developed an affinity for R&B acts such as Babyface and Boyz II Men, and both liked the ‘70s music they heard on classic-rock radio — and performing together became a natural progression.
Anderson returned to Fort Worth and Matsler moved to Austin, but they would still find ways to perform together. Matsler wasn’t digging Austin, and he came up to Fort Worth, moving into a house Anderson shared with other musicians. “When you’re in that close proximity with company that’s doing the same thing as you,” Anderson says, “It’s kinda hard not to combine forces.”
Fly me to the Moon
Like Matsler, Haynes — no relation to Warren Haynes of Allman Brothers/Gov’t Mule fame or to Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers — grew up around music. Specifically, in his case, one uncle who played drums.
“He was probably 15 to 20 years older than me,” Haynes says. “There was a drum set at my grandparents’ house, and it was a thing that when I was super-little, they wouldn’t let me touch. Then I finally got to the point where I was banging on the pots and pans doing the cliched stuff that you’d hear about. Then they’d let me hit on that drum set every now and then. It just made sense to me.”
He joined the Night Hawks shortly before the release of their third studio album, “El Astronauta,” in 2016. But he goes way back before that with Anderson as part of a band called Sam Anderson and the Thrift Store Troubadours. “It’s a great name if you’re Sam,” Haynes says wryly during a phone interview. “If you’re one of the Thrift Store Troubadours, you’re kinda out to dry.”
Haynes says this was around 2005, when the center of the burgeoning Fort Worth music scene was the now-defunct Moon Bar on West Berry Street. He says he can’t recall where he and Anderson actually met, but he says that he can almost guarantee that it was at a bar. “We were probably in our early 20s, and we only hung around other musicians,” Haynes says. “So it was just this scene of, ‘Somebody has an idea to start a band,’ and if there were enough people around at that moment, they’d start a band.”
Musicians would play shows for beer and gas money. Haynes says that there were nights that they’d play two shows at the Moon and then play another show at the nearby Cellar. “It wasn’t anything like it is now, where the music scene is a little more fertile,” he says. “It was more difficult back then to book things, so if we found a bar that would let us go, that was our place, and we lived and died there.”
According to an epic story in Lone Star Music Magazine, Anderson was inspired by Mark Twain to come up with the Quaker City Night Hawks name, an allusion to the U.S.S. Quaker City, which the author journeyed on in his book “Innocents Abroad.” He formed the band with Matsler, adding original bassist Adams and original drummer Matt Mabe, who signed on, according to the LSM Magazine story, after Anderson told him “I have this idea for a band: ZZ Top but with John Bonham on drums.”
They gigged continually in Fort Worth, playing bars, festivals, the Near Southside’s First Friday on the Green series, and more before releasing their debut, “¡Torquila Torquila!” to critical acclaim in 2011. Anderson says he thinks the band misfired a bit with its second album, 2013’s “Honcho,” but that it came into its own with “El Astronauta,” released in 2016.
“With the recent success we’d experienced, we were definitely getting pigeonholed pretty hard into the Texas country-music scene,” Anderson says. “Whether we knew it or not, we were trying to absorb ourselves into being a rock band on that scene. [With ‘El Astronauta’], it was like, ‘[expletive] that scene and [expletive] trying to be absorbed into it.’ “
The band has received some national attention: “Cold Blues,” a “¡Torquila! Torquila!” track, was featured in the TV biker drama “Sons of Anarchy,” and Rolling Stone reported on videos from “El Astronauta” and has done several reports about the development of “QCNH.” They have also toured relentlessly, opening for Chris Stapleton (“Suit in the Back,” which is getting some airplay on KKXT/91.7 FM, is about an incident that happened on the Stapleton tour) and others, and recently doing their first spin through Europe. On the current tour, they’ve been pushing the “QCNH” stuff pretty heavily — and although it can be pretty risky to lean hard on new material, they say the response has been good.
And this is an album that, according to the publicity material, takes inspiration from artists ranging from Heart (“Elijah Ramsey,” one of the album’s best tracks, which also owes a debt to Steve Earle) to the late Malian musician Ali Farka Toure.
“We cast a wide net on this one,” Anderson says. “I feel like we’ve been doing that with each record. It’s been a little bit wider, a little bit weirder each time.”
Eyes on further success
“QCNH” was recorded at Niles City Sound, the same Fort Worth studio where Leon Bridges records. Bridges, who has won Grammys and appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” late-night talk shows and more, is one of Fort Worth’s biggest success stories of the past few years.
That seems like a path that the Night Hawks could follow. Public-radio station KXT is also playing “Better in the Morning,” the lead track from “QCNH,” but although the album is a mix of the adventurous and the accessible, even the most accessible stuff might have a tough time getting onto modern commercial radio. But anything from the album would be a fit for a musical-guest slot on, say, “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” or “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.”
“We’d love to be on ‘SNL’ and do some late shows,” Anderson says. “I don’t think there’s ever been an actual mark that we set out to hit. I think the mark was, ‘We’d like to do this for a living.’ So whatever we can do to make this work as a living, anything to make this a viable career option where I’m not delivering pizzas.” (Which he did, for Perrotti’s Pizza in Fort Worth.)
Haynes is a little bit more emphatic: “Once you have a record that you really believe in, you have to be able to get it out in front of a lot of people,” he says. “There’s so much [bad] music out there today, and there’s a lot of great music, and it’s really hard to get your stuff in front of people. But we’ve done that for the past couple of years, and now we have a record that we really believe in.”
Matsler’s take: “It’s funny, because we’ve blown through goals. That’s the problem with goals: When I started it was like, once this happened, that’s it. You pretty much sit back and relax. We’ve blown through a lot of goals int he past couple of years. It’s time for us to come up with some new goals, I guess, but it’s pretty cool to have met a lot of my personal ones.”
This story includes material from Star-Telegram archives.
Quaker City Night Hawks Album Release Party
9 p.m. Friday
Shipping and Receiving Bar
201 S. Calhoun St.