There is an art form to marrying work from a popular debut album with all other proceeding records. The more records a band releases, the more puzzle pieces they have when creating a new set list that works night after night.
“I get bummed if I go see a band and they don’t play anything off the album I know—I know that feeling as well,” Banditos’ Stephen Alan Pierce II (vocals, banjo) admits over the phone. “That was one of the more difficult things to do with this album. When we were with Lucero at the beginning, we were trying to find a happy medium of putting out new stuff but also knowing there are going to be people who know the first album, too, and just want to hear those [songs].”
The rugged rock, bluesy and soulful outfit of Banditos have spent 2017 on and off the road backing bands like Lucero and St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Their sophomore album, “Visionland,” dropped in the middle of their tour in June. Pierce and the rest of the six-piece outfit will open for St. Paul and the Broken Bones this Friday at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater.
Pierce is joined by longtime friends Corey Parsons (vocals, guitar), powerhouse vocalist Mary Beth Richardson (tambourine), Randy Taylor Wade (percussion), Jeffery Daniel Vines (bass), and Jeffery David Salter (electric guitar, lap steel). Pierce says showcasing “Visionland” with this leg of the tour is about getting the point across of where they’re going in sound, while giving fans familiar work.
So far “Golden Grease,” “Waitin’” and “Still Sober (After All These Beers)” from 2015’s self-titled debut record work well with their continued progression toward rock ‘n’ roll on “Visionland.”
“I think it’s been pretty easy to pick out which songs to continue to play,” Pierce says. “Maybe someone else who hears the album will disagree. . . . But that’s where we really get enjoyment, getting to find that perfect playlist.”
Reviews for “Visionland” have been consistently positive—and not only for the work itself but what Banditos as a band is contributing to Southern rock. Pierce credits their wide range of interests and dabbling in everything from the traditional to the obscure like Japanese jazz as part of their appeal. They wanted to bring a weird mashup.
“We [don’t] listen to the same thing, and constantly try to find something that’s crazy and translate it,” he says. “We all listen to things that push our boundaries of understanding. . . . I guess we’ve just been architects of music and try to find some new way to twist it.”
For the most part, everyone lives in Nashville now, except for Pierce and Vines, who settled back in their home state of Alabama. Though they were old friends and played together for many years, their first album was still a learning process—to gel as a band, work together as a team and collaborate on writing.
“[The first album] was a lot more sporadic in times we got together to write,” Pierce says. “On this one, we pretty much just set aside a month or two of us camping out at my place or going up to Nashville to Jeff’s house. Wake up, eat, and get to writing.”
Before “Visionland” Parsons, Pierce and Richardson would come together with a bunch of lyrics and generic chord progressions. Then everyone else would add to it. However formed from the start, songs progressed in ways Pierce say wouldn’t have happened had they not all been together.
“I also feel like I experimented a lot with some different sounds,” he continues. “I got an amp now and pedals, and started getting more strange with the banjo. I decided to get more into its textures.”
The title track itself features a unique instrument they borrowed as well: the sitar. Pierce used it to play over the banjo melody. “It was really fun,” he continues. “It opened my eyes to seeing that we’ve got a lot of different songs and a lot of different themes. And I can expand on sounds; I don’t have to just have a banjo. I can have some weird instrument on a couple of songs.”
The Banditos brought on pianist Earl Poole Ball, who has associations with Johnny Cash and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll himself. “He actually turned down working with Elvis at one point because he was too busy,” Pierce tells. “He has an incredible history.”
It was by accident the band connected with Ball. They were at a bar one evening, taking a break from the studio and discussing their next steps with a local friend. Ball happened to be playing at the joint.
“We didn’t actually know who Earl was,” Pierce admits. “He was just some cool dude in a Hawaiian shirt, playing keys. We were talking about getting to the point where we needed to add secondary instruments. . . . [Our friend] walked up, grabbed Earl and set him at our table.”
Ball picked out three songs he wanted to play keys on, including “Healing Slow”—on which he played organ for the first time. “He kept joking: ‘I always wanted to play an organ part, but I’ll be damned if there wasn’t always a better organ player in the room,” Pierce recalls. “It was really cool because he got to try something new, and he killed it. I don’t know how there was always a better organ player in the room.”
Experiments on “Visionland” were aplenty. They tried autoharp on various songs and a backwards guitar solo that happened to work out at the end of the title track. Some didn’t make the cut, though, like clapping rhythms ended up being too “poppy.”
In the end, “Visionland” is the most vivid and visual for Banditos thus far. Aptly named after a defunct theme park in Alabama, the intro is a ‘60s psychedelic throwback, featuring summertime melodies before building up throughout the album—almost like slowly reaching the top of a roller coaster before the big drop.
While it tends to touch on current events as a whole and overarching themes of how people need to unite, “Visionland” is named after a park that was once a “glimmer of hope” for Birmingham. Pierce visited it as a preteen; a couple bandmates even worked there a bit. Some took tickets at the carousel while others did less luxurious jobs, like cleaning vomit out of the photo booth.
“It was on the other side of town that normally didn’t have much going for itself,” Pierce describes. “It was this incredible new water park with themed rides, roller coasters and whatnot. . . . It was [a place] where everybody finally had something to do. But then there was a corrupt mayor that kind of had his hands in the money of it. . . . [Visionland’s story] correlates with the state of world at the moment.”