Just as the city of Los Angeles is diving back into it’s routine after a long holiday as it prepares to take on award season, singer/songwriter Austin Hanks is gearing up to leave the chaos. After his second solo album release, Alabastard, he will be opening for ZZ Top on their upcoming tour, an opportunity which came about not just because of sheer talent, but also his longtime friendship with Billy Gibbons.
As an Alabama native, Hanks has been playing music non-stop since the fifth grade and is the former lead singer of the 90’s southern rock band, Slick Lilly. He has written six songs for the hit show Sons of Anarchy and recently co-penned one of ZZ Top’s songs from their new album La Futura.
With a regular Sunday gig at the famous Piano Bar in Hollywood, playing with top music legends who drop in unannounced, Hanks and his band The Kalifornia Kingsnakes have a built-in fan base that wants to see their home boy fly, but also want him to come back home. I caught up with Hanks at Tortilla Republic in West Hollywood, a cozy tequila bar close to his pad, where we had several something-infused margaritas. We laughed about how Billy Gibbons cries at tender commercials and how we react like kids when we have a Dolly Parton sighting in Hollywood. It wasn’t easy but I finally got the gracious, southern gentleman with his thick Delta accent to talk about himself a bit.
Okay. Let’s talk a little bit about Austin…
My favorite subject.
(Laugh) No, really, let’s talk about where you’re from. Birmingham, right?
Well, sort of. It’s about 45 minutes outside of Birmingham-
O.K. so rural, small town-
A little bitty town, um, it’s barely on the map, it’s the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, a place called Rattlesnake Mountain. We had to go thirty minutes to get food or gas or mail-
It’s way out there. My dad still lives there. There’s no cell reception, no…internet, nothing. It’s out on a lake in the middle of nowhere.
Do you go back often?
Yeah. I’m down there like three times a year. I’ll see him on this run.
And how did you start playing music?
In the fifth grade I got a guitar for Christmas and um, I’m left handed, naturally left handed, so I didn’t know any better. I’d never held a guitar. So, I just took the sucker, flipped it over, didn’t change the strings and just started banging on it, trying to find-
Wait, upside down?
Yeah, upside down and backwards.
But you seriously didn’t know-
I didn’t reverse the stings. So…I didn’t know that wasn’t correct, so I was trying to learn ZZ Top songs and Kiss songs and Cheap Trick songs by looking at pictures out of Creem and Hit Parade and Circus Magazine?
(Laughing) Wait, what?
I’d look at pictures of Ace Frehley’s guitar or Billy Gibbon’s guitar and I would take my keys, my tuning pegs, and turn them the way they looked in the picture- (we both laugh) and I thought that was in tune. It was awful, just awful.
So how did you end up so good?
It’s crazy, but over time, I realized I couldn’t learn any of the songs because I didn’t know how to tune, so I just started writing my own because I thought I just can’t cover other people’s stuff if I can’t figure out the tuning. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was in fifth grade. Anyway…we started a band and I wrote all these songs we could actually play and we just went from there. We did, just neighborhood shows, like every day, but when I got older, later in high school, we started playing clubs. And we would have to get special permission because we weren’t old enough to be there. Then we started opening for the hot bands around Birmingham, there were some hot ones, some guys who had national attention-
Yeah, because you guys are what, a couple hours drive from Muscle Shoals? How much of an influence was that?
I wasn’t cool enough at that age to know what that was yet. That took me a little while to- I became a huge Skynyrd fanatic. The very first record that anyone ever gave me was Second Helping. I saw some of that was Muscle Shoals recordings and stuff. I thought “Wow, that’s here.” With Sweet Home Alabama, I thought they were local, like a local band, but they were from Jacksonville, Fl. I didn’t know that. So, I had to do all this research and read magazines and found out they just loved Alabama because of Muscle Shoals, so that’s when I got into that place. Then I got into Elton John and Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger…all the groups that would come to Muscle Shoals and record, but I still thought of those as local bands. I didn’t know Aretha Franklin wasn’t from Alabama-
Yeah, because that’s how powerful Muscle Shoals was-
They were all neighbors, I thought. I didn’t know Elton John was British! (we both laugh) I thought he lived down the street. I thought, “Man, he makes great records.”
Yeah, I could see that. So, how supportive were your parents of all this?
Here’s how supportive. My dad was a Birmingham policeman, so as an extra job he worked security at all the shows that came to town- the Civic Center, the Auditorium, all that. So, I would go with him as a young kid. I saw The Police, Kansas, ZZ Top, Cheap Trick, uh, whoever was huge at the moment. Whoever would come through our town and sell out our Civic Center- I got to see people like Joan Jett doing sound check and The Parliament Funkadelic members walking around in sweat pants, you know? Just working out and stuff. I got to see all the behind the scenes stuff and I just became madly infatuated with that whole world.
Not the usual childhood experience-
Yeah, they would ask me “Why are you here?’ And I would tell them my dad works there and they would take pictures with me, sign stuff for me. I have a notebook at home of all those autographs, the pics, the backstage passes. I collected guitar picks, too. I got a crazy good collection. It started in 1978 or 79.
Do you remember the first show?
The first one was Marshall Tucker Band and Firefall. It’s the first time I ever smelled pot.
How old were you?
I thought there was a skunk in the building! I honestly did. I told my little brother “I smell a skunk. That’s weird – how could he have gotten in here?”
(Laughing) Wait, how old? How old were you?
I don’t know. Maybe, seven or eight? I was scared to death. I would talk my dad into letting us go to some of these shows and people would think he was a bad parent, but he didn’t know the music. He would trust me to tell him and I was like “Oh, it’s like a church crowd. Marshall Tucker Band is like a church band.” And he would take me but then all the way home he would talk about “That was nothing but bikers, you shouldn’t have been there! That was dangerous for ya’ll.” And it was! He couldn’t keep an eye on us because he had work to do. So, me and my brother would walk around, a seven year old and a five year old, just terrified! There were just big, burly Sons of Anarchy looking guys everywhere. But, we got high fives the whole time. We ended up lovin’ it.
You were the lead singer of a band back home, not terribly long ago, Slick Lilly? What was that about?
The guitar player from Slick Lilly and I were at The Boston Show in 1979, just kids, and we shook hands and made a promise that we would play that room one day- we didn’t even have guitars yet. And we ended up playing there. Years and years later, we opened for a band called Drivin’ and Cryin’-
And you guys made three albums together, right?
Yeah. We did pretty good. We ended up on the road with Ted Nugent and Bad Company and Blues Traveler…The Black Crowes, Hootie and The Blowfish. Everybody that made it big, we were their opening act. And actually, Hootie was our opening act for a while.
No way. The artist now known as Darius Rucker?
Oh, yeah. We would do trade offs. We would go to the Carolinas and open shows for them, they would come to Birmingham and open shows for us.
That’s before Hold my Hand– before they really hit it big?
Yeah, right before. They were playing those songs but they weren’t out yet. That record was Rearview Mirror or something like that-
Cracked Rear View! It was awesome.
Yeah, that’s it. That record was being made when they were out with us.
And do you still play with Slick Lilly?
I still talk to them all the time. They’re all scattered about. One of them is a base player for Alejandro Escovedo, have you heard of him?
I have now.
He’s an alternative rock guy out of Austin, Texas. They still tour and do their thing but we’re all scattered. A couple of them are married and put down the guitars.
I listened to the Slick Lilly album Brotherhood all last week, and I loved it by the way-
Oh, you did? Oh, wow.
Yeah, that sound is so different from your new project, Alabastard–
We were heavy-
Your vocals are killer on that.
Thanks. An associated Press guy said, “If Sound Garden had been brought up at Graceland, you’d get Slick Lilly.” It was just a southern…sound.
And your keeping it a little softer on Alabastard, but it’s still very Southern Rock-
It’s kind of been full circle. I started out doing that and then we got into the Seattle thing, which influenced-
By “Seattle thing” you mean grunge?
Yeah. Like Sound Garden and Pearl Jam and all that – all of a sudden-really, all of a sudden those guys killed off the hair stuff that was going on- it just DIED! So, we kind of, gravitated toward that sound, but we never dressed like that. We kept the hair and the leather pants- we never did the combat boot thing with shorts.
(Laughing) That was never a good look.
Yeah, we fell through the cracks a little bit. Our timing was bad.
I think a lot of bands felt that way at that time. So, you said you met Billy Gibbons when you were younger, right?
Yeah, I did. The first time I met Billy was 1980. He signed some stuff for me when I was there with my dad. I asked Dusty Hill for a guitar pick-
For the collection?
(Laughs) Yeah, he plays bass for ZZ Top and he said “I would give you my thumb but I’m gonna need it for tonight.” I thought that was the coolest answer. He didn’t use picks, but that’s when I first met Billy. Of course, he doesn’t remember that because he meets so many people, and I was a little kid. So fast forward years later, we reconnected here in L.A. I moved out here because I signed a publishing deal with EMI, and they wanted me to write with their writers, who were all out here, so even though I didn’t want to- I was in Nashville, but I thought maybe it will be good. So I left, came here and that’s when I reconnected with Billy. We became best buds and started working together, writing, hanging out and running around. And now, it’s lead to a tour.
Yeah, the tour. I want to get to that in a minute but I want to talk about Alabastard first. Obviously you’re from Alabama but where did you come up with the name Alabastard?
I created that word out of the clear blue sky.
I love it, (both laugh) but what is it? What does it mean?
You know, the word didn’t exist. Like, every time I tried to type it in, I got corrected, so I had to go and trademark it…with the government.
(Laughing) Yeah, the government.
I thought it was the perfect word for a man who left his homeland in search of something else…well the literal phrase is Alabama Bastard. I just put them together and it means, “in search of something.” I’ve always been kind of nomadic and a drifter, so it was like the perfect word. Once it came to me, I knew that would be the name of the record, no matter what. No one is going to talk me out of it! And nobody tried.
The album itself, listening to it in its entirety and putting it up against your previous work, it seems like a love letter to yourself. There are these beautiful ballads and there’s some stuff about Birmingham and your friends are collaborating with you, and there is this rooty southern rock sound, it seems like your putting it all out there, but for you now. Is that what it’s meant to be?
Yeah. Yeah. I decided to quit thinking so much. I just decided, whatever I write, if I like it, it’s going to go on this record. So, I wrote twelve songs and there is one cover, so there are thirteen. The one cover is I’ll go crazy.
Yeah, the James Brown song. Your cover of that song is better than any of the James Brown versions I could find. It’s so- just so good. But why that song? Out of all the James Brown, or why James Brown at all?
Well, I was working with David Bianco, the producer, and he was playing it one day when I walked in and I said, “Oh man, I love that song.” And he said, “We should cut this.” I had never thought about it before, but he is a Grammy Award winning producer and even though I didn’t want any covers on the record-
But everyone has at least one cover now days-
I just wanted it to be 100% original, but it was a good idea so I agreed. Then he said, “We should get Jimmy Hall to duet it with you. “ I said, “I know him pretty well but I don’t know that he’ll do that.” But again, I thought it was such a good idea. So I called him and he was on board. So, we cut it and it worked out great. We slowed it down and made it kind of a “Tedeschi Trucks” sounding version..kind of sexy and slow. If you listen to the James Brown versions they are more coked up and fast. I’m not finding fault in his versions but we wanted it to lie back a little more and kind of groove. When we play it live, it’s three times as long.
Yes, I caught it at Good Times just a couple of months ago when Jimmy sang it with you live. Everyone loved that. You open with two ballads on the album, and then you hit us with this ornery version of I’ll go crazy, which catches listeners completely off-guard.
Yeah, thanks. It was sure fun to do.
I’ve heard you play live a lot and there is a song you do called Delta Torches, which you put on this album. For the longest time, really until now, I thought that song was a cover song. I would have probably bet my life on it, at one point, that it was an Allman Brothers song or something, but it’s not. That’s yours.
I get that all the time.
Oh, good. So, it’s not just me. It’s just a very timeless song. How did that one come to you?
Delta Torches is a true story. I had a girlfriend a while back that I had a huge fight with. We were together for six years, and she was in Birmingham. I just started driving after a terrible fight, and I would pull over every few miles and check my answering machine, way before cell phones. I wanted to see if she had left me a message. When I got to Tyler, Texas, she had left a message so I left her one saying I was turning around and I could be back in Birmingham before sunrise. That whole song is 100% real.
Those are the lyrics. When did you write it?
Ten years after all that happened. I wrote the lyrics like a poem and then I put it away and forgot all about it. Then I found it when Bianco told me to revisit some old stuff. I found those lyrics and wrote the rest on the spot.
It seems pretty personal when you listen to it.
I messed up and was flirting with a friend of hers…that’s why the song says “it took a big left for me to see things right.” It was me trying to accept responsibility for that. We were together for a long time.
And now her story is on the album.
She doesn’t know that. I should probably call her and tell her. She’s’ married with kids. Her husband may not like that.
(Laughing) He probably wouldn’t.
Yeah, but she needs to know that song is about her.
I’ll bet she’ll figure it out when she hears it. The other song that seems like it came from somewhere pretty personal for you is Birmingham. It sounds like there is a love/hate thing going on with you and that place-
Yeah, that’s inspired by a really good buddy of mine, whom I was in a band with for decades. He got into some drugs and some bad stuff and he burned every bridge in that town. His old job wouldn’t hire him back; no one wanted anything to do with him. Old clubs he used to play wouldn’t hire him anymore and so, that’s actually his story. I wrote it with a friend of mine named Kenneth Brian, who opens for Lucinda Williams. We were talking about him, because after he played with me for so long, he went and played for Kenneth. He is a wonderful person but just got in a bad way with some stuff and never got back into a good setting with Birmingham. He had to move. He moved to Austin and now he’s thriving and doing great.
That’s nice that you wrote it for him from his perspective.
I haven’t told him that either.
You’re running behind, Austin.
(Laughs) Yeah, I got some calls to make.
So, what is your writing process like? Do some things come easily and other things you have to disappear for a while for?
If it becomes too laborious, I’ll drop it. Usually things come out of the blue and I’ll just get a title or an idea, and if I don’t sit down and work on it, it will go away forever. I have a bad work ethic that way, I’ll go to the gym or hang with buddies or whatever, but for the process of Alabastard, I had to learn to stop doing that.
And when you do that, do things come pretty quickly?
About 15 minutes. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and write something down and then look at it again in the morning and it’s complete crap. But then sometimes…like that song Aching Need.
A definite favorite.
Aching Need was about my Granddaddy and my Grandmother. When he died, she was useless. They were so close, she had no will to live anymore and within three months, she was gone too. She was in perfect health but died of natural causes. Her will to live just completely went away. There are countless examples of that. I tried to put into words…just a fraction of what they must be feeling…when your soul mate of 60 years is gone all of a sudden. It’s impossible to put into words. I tried real hard. My grandmother just couldn’t – she couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t stop thinking about him; she didn’t know how to function without him. It was rough and then she died too.
That song was on your first solo album, Salt of the Earth. You carried it over because of your grandparents?
That, and because Bianco really liked it. He asked if we could do another version of it. I was against that idea at first too, because the song was used on a lot of TV shows and stuff, but we decided to cut it with a different approach. We decided to do it just like we do on Sunday afternoons at The Piano Bar, cutting it completely live. He hit roll tape and me and Brian and the guys just played it – its all 100% live.
Bones, Muscle and Blood sounds live too. The guitar on that! Is that all you?
Yeah, except the slides. That’s Ricky Medlocke, lead guitarist for Lynyrd Skynyrd. But all the nasty, rough solos…that’s me.
The dirty south stuff.
Yeah, anything that sounds like it’s got bbq stains on it, that’s mine.
(Laughs) So, how important was it for you to work with David Bianco on this?
We were shopping around for people…some very well respected, very well known guys, but once I met him, we just fell in love with each other. He was perfect. We got along so well and he is such a sweet guy. He’s easy to work with, so many good stories. I mean, from Bob Dylan to Duran Duran-
Yeah Danzig and Emmy Lou Harris. Lucinda Williams, Queen, Johnny Cash…just everybody. He knows what he’s doing. He gave me complete creative freedom. He never told me how it was going to be done. He would just ask, “What do you think about this?” I loved that.
And obviously it was easy to get Billy to collaborate since you guys are friends but how did the tour happen?
Billy said, “Let’s go have some fun.” He called CAA and let them know he wanted me to go. It seemed like a crazy idea at first but now it’s a reality-
Is this your first time touring with him?
Yeah, it is. We’ve played with him a million times but this is our very first time to go out.
Are the Kalifornia Kingsnakes joining for the tour?
Some of them. I’m limited on who I can take because the change over between bands is extensive, so it won’t be everyone. We are going out as a four piece.
So Brian Simpson, obviously, and-
Yeah and Eliot Lorango on base. Not sure which drummer we are taking yet because I think Jamie Douglas is tied up. They wont let me bring a keyboard player and I would love more than anything to take Carl Byron, I mean I would LOVE for Carl to be there, but it just can’t be done. They wouldn’t let me bring him.
You financed some of this album together through Pledge music. How was that experience for you?
It was good but it was tough. I’m not good at the campaigning stuff, tugging on shirts, you know? “Hey I know your baby is sick but can you pre-buy my record?” It felt a little weird but it’s the way things work now. Crowd Funding has taken the place of record labels. People were pretty enthusiastic and wanted to be apart of it. Everybody dove in. It worked. I’m a little shy or apprehensive, I guess, about hitting people up all the time so it was really hard for me to do that. But yeah, I would do it again.
You have a built in audience with the Piano Bar crowd, at the very least. Let’s talk a little about the Piano Bar and what it has meant for you. Obviously they are relocating due to gentrification in Hollywood, so there is some time off for you, but will you return to your Sunday gig there after the tour?
Yes! 100%. It’s my favorite gig of all time. That is live at Madison Square Garden in my head. I love it that much. The Piano Bar is that one spot in the whole city of LA where you can go see a band for free, see a really good band for free, and as long as you buy drinks and hang out, you can see really stellar stuff. LA Times calls it the “CBGB of the West Coast.” We started playing there seven years ago and it’s gone every Sunday for seven years.
And you rarely missed a Sunday.
I think I missed five Sundays in seven years. That experience really molded me. I learned so much. I thought I knew a pretty good amount of shit…I didn’t know anything. That gig taught me how to turn a three minute song into a fifteen minute song, how to improvise…I didn’t really know how to do any of that stuff well. I liked rigid, planned, controlled sets. This was like a Grateful Dead showdown, just completely opposite of anything I knew. I had to learn how to roll with it and I am so glad I did that and have that experience now. It taught me so much. I wouldn’t trade those seven years of shows for anything I’ve ever done. They were that important to me. And you know that place is tiny, so sometimes we would play to five people, sometimes 150.
And you had legendary guests drop in, like Billy or Rob-
Rob Stone. Jimmy Vivino from Conan O’Brien’s band. Steve Ferrone, drummer for Tom Petty-
Who also plays on Alabastard?
Yep. Who else…uh, Ryan Bingham, a lot of country guys. David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, Harry Connick, Jr. There were only four people there that day that he got up and played with us. Four people saw that.
No way, how did I miss that?
Harry Connick Jr. showed up. He was up there doing his New Orleans thing. It was just one of those magical settings where it was real inviting, unintimidating. The musicians wanted to be apart of it. Billy Gibbons was definitely our most loyal guest. He probably set in four dozen times with us. Always fun. We never knew what was going to happen next. And the last show in the old location was really emotional. I almost cried several times, but we’re gonna do it again at the new Piano Bar, which you’ve had a sneak preview of. It’s gonna be, maybe even better, I don’t know.
I think it’ll be better.
Yeah, I like the way they got the set up. I think it will. It’ll be even better.
You can purchase Hank’s new album, Alabastard, on itunes and other music retailers. Catch him on tour with ZZ Top kicking off in Mobile, Alabama on February 18.
Interview by Bylle Breaux / Photos by Matt Stasi and Karen Walker Chamberlin
Published in National Rock Review