Charleston singer-songwriter Hans Wenzel had written most of his first EP, 2015’s Greyhound ’77, while living in Greenville. This time around, the songs were all written in Charleston, many with guitarist Chris Fulmer, and Wenzel had an ambitious idea about how he wanted to record them.
“The plan was to record each song in a different local studio and do one song a month,” Wenzel says. “Kind of like the Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways but more of a Charleston byways-type thing. We wanted each song to have its own distinct sound.”
That plan stayed in place for exactly two songs. After recording one track, “Devil’s Tea,” at Truphonic Recording Studios, the band moved on to Mantis Records and basically set up shop. “After we recorded the second track at Mantis with (producer/engineer) Mitch Webb, we went back because the sound and the experience were really great. Mitch is a great producer. We decided that we really liked it there, and we’d record the rest of the songs there.”
One listen to the new album Lost & Lawless proves that their instincts were correct. The sound on the album is wide open, drenching Fulmer’s reverb-heavy guitar and Wenzel’s whiskey-sour wail with echo and allowing the rhythm section plenty of room to dig into the loping, mid-tempo rockers. Despite the decidedly “big” sound, each element is still easy to pick out, and nothing sounds blurred or blunted.
That production serves a strong batch of songs well, and the mostly acoustic vibe of Wenzel’s first EP has been replaced with a rough, raw style that sits comfortably on the fence between rock muscle and country twang. At their best moments, Wenzel & the Eighty-Sixers sound like someone threw the Drive-By Truckers and John Hiatt’s Goners into a room and told them to work something out.
It’s a nicely cohesive sound, and definitely a new one for Wenzel, who moved from heavy metal to acoustic folk before moving to Charleston and meeting Fulmer.
“A change of scenery can be a pretty powerful thing,” he says. “Once I got to Charleston and kind of took in the whole vibe and the scene of Charleston, it really inspired me to start writing stuff, especially once I hooked up with Chris Fulmer. He had a lot of good story ideas, and he’s just a great guitar player and knows how to add to things. We wrote a lot of stuff together, or he’d have an idea and I’d go and write the song and then come back and we’d work it out.”
The mix of country and raucous rock was a surprise for Wenzel, who never considered himself much of a country musician. “I didn’t go into this with a particular genre in mind,” he says. “I just kind of felt that Charleston vibe, and felt what was going on musically, and was introduced to a lot of new music that inspired me in terms of writing these songs.”
And he definitely got a vibe from Fulmer, a skilled guitarist and arranger who sparked Wenzel’s writing. “Chris really brought that country edge,” he says. “He’s really proficient at what they call ‘chicken-pickin’. His style is really tasteful and raw and full of emotion. He’s really nice, but he’s really passionate and emotional and you can really hear it in his playing.
“He’s also a much better guitar player than I am,” Wenzel adds with a laugh. “And so he can hear problems that I didn’t hear and do things that I couldn’t do on guitar that made the songs so much better. He’s so good at hearing a song and instinctively knowing what’s going to serve that song best.”
As for his singing, which can possess true sadness or a gospel excitation on some songs, Wenzel says he didn’t really have to adapt too much to the new musical setting. “Vocals have always been a natural thing,” he says. “I’ve always heard melodies that come off of the chord progressions and riffs and tried to arrange them in a way that works well. I wanted them to work well together.”
In fact, the pairing of Fulmer and Wenzel was so potent that they had a lot more songs done than the ones that ended up being on Lost & Lawless; the tracks they chose were simply the ones that fit together the best. “All the songs on the album are very different from one another,” Wenzel says. “But they work together as one piece.”