The Lone Star State produces an independent contemporary country sensation
By Bradley Weinholtz
Merging alternative and mainstream rock elements, classical training, and country storytelling, Breaking Southwest has quickly galloped onto the scene. The band's combined talents and diverse musical backgrounds have gelled into a flavorful contemporary country outfit that's going like a house on fire. Just a little over three years ago, the band was two guys jamming in their apartment; by New Year's Eve 2013 Breaking Southwest was performing in front of an audience of more than 35,000.
Founding members Kent Bell and Kyle Gaston met through a mutual friend and started performing at local venues around Northern Texas. Shortly after recording their first four songs in a Dallas studio, they were introduced to violinist/backup vocalist Shannon Ward. The chemistry was immediate and what ensued was a unique brand of music inflected by the soundtrack of trio's lives growing up in the Southwest.
Texas is the native home to a cavalcade of musical pioneers. Volumes have been written about the Texas music scene and the list of ceremonious of artists from deep in the heart of Texas. The roster is bursting with troubadours from the early days of ragtime, blues, traditional, folk, jazz, western, country, and rock into the contemporary artist of today. Here is a little Texas two-step name dropping of artists that have enriched our audio lives; Scott Joplin, Freddie King, Ernest Tubb, Bob Willis, T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, Albert Collins, Lightnin' Hopkins, George Jones, Rodger Miller, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbinson, Edgar Winter, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Guitar Watson, Eric Johnson, Selena, Dimebag Darrell, Janis Joplin, Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard, Vinne Paul, Stix Hooper, Gene Hoglan, Taylor Hawkins and Meatloaf.
A rich stew of Texas swing, blues, country, and rock influences is evident in the songs produced by Breaking Southwest. Listen closely and you'll hear echoes of the great artists of the region. Close your eyes and listen to the band's single "Breathe," and you'll feel the spirit of the past mixed with the complexities of today. Hop in your truck and crank up "Reckless and Wild" -a masterful mixture of country roots and a dash of blues and rock. At the heart of Breaking Southwest' is compelling storytelling coupled with infectious hooks.
The band has played over 100 shows, a 2013 highlight being that New Year's Eve gig in front of 35,000 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. They've also packed The House of Blues in Dallas and opened for notables such as Kellie Pickler, Billy Currington, Stoney LaRue, Johnny Cooper, Reckless Kelly, Roger Creager, and The O's
Breaking Southwest loves to interact with their fans and encourages them to come say hello and chat after the gig or on their Facebook page.
The windblown beach at Cabo San Lucas provides the perfect location for the "Breathe" video.
The core musicians in Breaking Southwest are:
Kent Bell (Vocals, Guitar) is a born and bred Texan who grew up on the sounds Garth Brooks, George Strait, and Tim McGraw-artists who still exert a powerful influence in his vocals. He played football and baseball through high school and captained the football team at Austin College where he graduated in 2008 with a degree in business. Playing music was always a dream, but didn't become a reality until he began playing guitar in church. But music took a back seat to sports and education-at least until Breaking Southwest came along. Today his music outlook is broader; he's as likely to listen to John Mayer and Maroon 5 as he would his original country heroes.
Kyle Gaston (Guitar, Vocals) grew up in a small East Texas town. His musical journey began at the age of 12 when his parents bought him a drum set for Christmas. He soon also took up bass and electric guitar while focusing on drums in school band classes. His heavy involvement in those music programs led to many Dallas area band gigs.
Shannon Ward (Violin, Vocals) Exposure to music via her mother and grandmother began early on; her on-pitch vocalizing made it clear that music was in her future. She began formal Suzuki Method violin at age three. An only child growing up in Oklahoma she began collaborating with professional musicians at 15. Shannon attributes her early skills with the violin along with dancing and singing to the development of her burgeoning confidence. As a teen she held the distinguished position of Concert Mistress of The Oklahoma Arts Institute Orchestra, Tulsa Youth Symphony Orchestra, and Arkansas Regional Chamber Orchestra. She also won seats with the National Youth Symphony Orchestra, and later interned with the Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra and played professionally with the Waco Symphony Orchestra. After moving to Dallas she landed a gig as the "fiddle girl" in the house band at the famous honky-tonk Gilley's Dallas. Shannon joined Breaking Southwest in 2010.
Breaking Southwest is backed by four more gifted musicians:
Bryan Meggison (Bass), Kerry West (Drums), Matt Aslanian (Guitars, Producing, Engineering, Songwriting, Arranging), and Joslin Dsouza (Keyboards, Vocals)
Breaking Southwest performs their hit "Reckless and Wild"
The HUB: Though there's a decided Nashville flavor to your vocals, your overall sound seems to owe as much to mainstream rock. Can you talk about what influences from both of those genres go into Breaking Southwest's music?
Kent Bell: Our rock influence comes from Kyle and Matt. Kyle spent much of his time between 2003-2009 playing drums and guitar in rock bands in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Matt, our producer/guitar player, shares a similar background of playing in and producing rock bands in North Texas during that time period. They have been and still are big fans of rock music, so naturally their backgrounds influence our creative process in the studio. The "country" sound comes from a couple places. First, the writing tends to follow the country template of storytelling. It's not overly ambiguous or hard to understand. The objective is to tell interesting stories and/or invoke some type of real emotion from the listener. I think it's important that the writing is relatable and makes sense to the audience. Secondly, I think my voice is country to a certain extent. That just comes from me spending my childhood singing along to Garth Brooks, George Strait, Tim McGraw, etc. Thirdly, adding Shannon to the band, and her presence on the fiddle undoubtedly makes the tunes feel more country. You'll also hear pedal steel, banjo, dobro, & mandolin on the record, which all add more of that country flavor. The guitars definitely lean to the rock side while the other instrumentation, vocals, and writing lean country.
The HUB: Listening to "Reckless & Wild" and some of your other work, we were struck by the complexity of your arrangements. Though the music seems superficially dense, there's space in your mixes that allows each instrumental element to register. How do you achieve that in the studio?
Matt Aslanian: The space and perceived density in the mixes comes from the arrangements and a combination of EQ and compression. We work out the basic rhythm section during the demo phase, making sure the drums, bass, acoustic, and rhythm guitars work well together and properly support the vocal melody. During the tracking phase of the full production, once we have the rhythm section locked in, we experiment with auxiliary guitars, keys (piano, B3, synth elements), pedal steel, mandolin, and percussion to see what works best. We tend to track a ton of options and edit together different arrangements in Pro Tools. In the mix phase, compression, EQ, and time-based effects help each instrument sit in it's own spot in the mix...while still feeling glued together as a whole song.
The HUB: Did shooting your "Breathe" video in Mexico pose logistical challenges?
Kent Bell: No, it really wasn't too difficult. We took a minimal amount of gear to Mexico. The biggest pieces were the drums & keyboard. We didn't take amps or any big sound equipment, so it wasn't too bad. The biggest challenge was trying to shoot a video on a beach as a tropical storm was hitting us. In the video you can see how hard the wind is blowing, and the rain had stopped just long enough for us to run through the song four or five times and get enough footage for the video. Mat Thornbury, who shot the video, did an outstanding job, especially with the conditions we were up against.
The HUB: You have three core members. How did you meet and can you tell us about that defining moment when you decided you were destined to be together in a band?
Kyle Gaston: Kent and I met in 2010 through a mutual friend. We moved in together with two other guys, neither of us knowing one another, nor each other's musical ability. When I found out Kent played guitar and sang we started writing songs together. We cut a four song demo in two days at a Dallas studio. Soon after that, we went in and cut a full length record. That's when we began to add the "country" elements to the songs. After looking through social media sites and talking to musician acquaintances, we met Shannon Ward and clicked right off the bat. Shannon had been playing classical violin since she was three years old, and had also played fiddle with the house band at Gilley's Dallas. She was a perfect fit. After a few acoustic shows together, we decided it was time to expand and make this a fully functional group.
The HUB: How did the other players to join your band?
Kyle Gaston: Shannon was teaching violin at a local music studio and introduced us to Bryan who also taught there. Bryan Meggison is a graduate of UNT, has a degree in jazz performance, and is an amazing bass player. We went through three different drummers before we finally landed Kerry West. Kerry and I were friends from our hometown of Canton, TX, and have known each other for 11 years now. We played in a garage rock band together when we were both in high school. I always knew I wanted to have Kerry as a drummer for any project I was a part of. We are lucky to have him.
When it came time to record our second album, we wanted to go in a different direction, and that's where Matt came into play. In my early twenties I recorded a rock CD with producer/engineer Matt Aslanian at Maximedia Studios in Dallas. I hit Matt up when it came time to start recording. He engineered/produced and played guitar on the album. We were so excited with the finished product that we asked Matt if he wanted to start playing shows with us. It didn't take long for him to become a permanent member.
Our newest member Joslin Dsouza was the keyboard player of Matt's old band, Dirty Little Mouth. During the recording of our third album we brought him in for some studio work and he fit our mold perfectly. We have a very eclectic group of people, but everyone is in this for the same reason: to make good music.
The HUB: You have come a long way in only three years. How did you get the opportunity and what was it like playing in front of 35,000 at American Airlines Event Center on New Year's Eve?
Kyle Gaston: Every October, Texas Motor Speedway sponsors an event entitled the "Fast Track To Fame" competition. Bands submit their material, and the winner gets to play at New Year's Eve in Downtown Dallas. We submitted the band, made it to the top 20, and then received a phone call in early November that we had been chosen. It was a tremendous honor, and it made us step our game up even more as musicians. It was broadcast in over 700,000 homes and had over 35,000 in attendance. I think that show was a turning point in our careers.
The HUB: What's your songwriting process?
Kent Bell: Typically Kyle, or Matt and Kyle together, will come up with a tune, and send it along to me to add lyrics. So, Kyle focuses on the musical side of the process, while I handle the lyrical part. It doesn't always work that way, sometimes Kyle will send me a lyric he has in his head and I'll expand on it; sometimes I'll send a chord progression to Kyle and he'll run with it. From there we'll take it into the studio and create a demo. The demo gives us a better idea of what the song is going to feel like. Do we like it? Do we hate it? What needs to be changed? What instruments should we add to it? Etc. After we answer those questions we'll begin the tracking process for the song.
The HUB: Aside from the fact that you're Texans, is there special significance to the band name?
Kent Bell: Well, clearly it's geographical, but I think it also signifies a sense of freedom or escape. We want to break our music and our personality as a band out of Texas, out of the Southwest, to as big an audience as we can find! At the same time it's a reminder of where we come from and where we go for that sense of home and solace.
The HUB: Your release "Tell the Devil" has a lot of great instrumentation. What additional instruments were used and who played them?
Matt Aslanian: This tune is a blast for us to play and was a fun one to build in the studio. It has a bit of a feel change in the bridge and sort of an extended instrumental section that we really stretch out when we play it live. The rhythm sections were the same players. I played the lead and slide guitars, banjo, and auxiliary percussion. Justin Haber, who co-wrote the song, played the mandolin. The legendary Milo Deering, who has contributed pedal steel, fiddle, and mandolin to many of our songs, played fiddle along with Shannon on this one.
The HUB: Given that your music ranges from modern country to rock and beyond, do you shape your set lists according to the venue you're playing or do you aim to mix things up?
Kent Bell: Yes, to a certain extent we'll construct the set list based on the venue and the audience we're expecting. We want people to enjoy the show and hear something that will move them in some way. We don't want to force anything on anyone. It doesn't change a lot, but we add and subtract a song here or there depending on what kind of audience we're playing for.
The HUB: If you had to deliver an "elevator pitch" to a record label exec, what would you say?
Kent Bell: That's a tough question. I feel like our product has the ability to be successful. I'm not saying it's guaranteed Grammy-winning material, but I do think it has value and a place in the market. With that being said, and knowing that we're only going to improve as songwriters and performers, I would make sure that the executive knew that with some help and resources behind us we will work harder, longer, and be as relentless, or more-so, than any other band or musician in the country. We LOVE what we do, we LOVE the creative process, and we LOVE trying to get better.
The HUB: The band is off to great start with the release of your eight songs EP Take a Moment in late 2013 and playing in Nashville in the early part of 2014. What projects are in the works for Breaking Southwest?
Kent Bell: At the top of our list of priorities aisre expanding our territory and starting to travel more. We want to make more trips to Nashville and try to meet some more people up there. Our other main priority is improving our live show. We know that if we want to be in the company of the elite country bands in the world then our live show needs to be up to par with those bands. Our live show needs to create "moments" that the audience will remember. We've already started the writing and demo processes for new material, and we've already started booking shows well into the summer. The ultimate goal is to keep the momentum moving forward. Our biggest fear is stagnation.
A montage of Breaking Southwest's January 2014 road trip to Nashville.
The Gear List
Kyle - Guitar
Gibson Les Paul Standard
Gretsch Brian Setzer Edition
57 Gretsch Silver Jet
Ernie Ball Regular Slinky Strings
Mesa TA30 w/ 2X12 Recto Cab
TC Electronic Corona Chorus
Fulltone Mosfet Full-Drive 2
Morley Bad Horsie 2 Wah
Paul Cochrane Timmy Overdrive
Matt - Guitar
LP Smartwood 'JTC' Custom Guitar
Fender Standard Stratocaster
Ernie Ball Strings, various sizes.
Mesa TA30 w/ 2x12 Recto Cab,
Fender Twin Reverb
TC Electronics Nova Delay
Electro Harmonix Memory Toy
Bryan - Bass
Fender Steve Bailey VI Jazz Bass
F Bass VF - 6
Fender® Super Bass 7250 6-M, NPS, Gauges: .030, .045, .065, .085, .105, .130
D'Addario Nickel Wound Gauges: .030, .045, .065, .085, .105, .130
Peterson Strobe Tuner
Boss Super Octave OC-3
Mono Bass Case
Shannon - Fiddle
Two handmade violins ... Both use "the realist" violin pickup, L.R. Baggs DI's, and boss tuners to mute. I use Dominant strings & Pirastro "Evah Pirazzi" strings, Mach one shoulder rests, and I have four bows that range from fine wood to carbon fiber which I rotate out depending on songs in the set.
Kerry - Drums
DW Collector's Series 5 piece maple drum set
Zildjian K Custom Series Cymbals (two 16" Dark Crashes, 22" K Custom Ride)
DW 5000 Bass Drum Pedal
Remo Pinstripe Drumheads
Vic Firth 7A Series Drumsticks
Shure SE215 In-ear monitors