Every garage band dreams of a spot with no neighbors, free of noise complaints and rental fees. Outside of bands successful enough to buy studios, few have it quite as good as Lawrence's Westerners, half of whose members live in an old farmhouse in the middle of a cornfield in rural-feeling North Lawrence.
The farmhouse, whose nearest neighbor is a chestnut orchard, acts as a home, and a practice and hangout space. The band, which loves to get loud, has no need to tone anything down out of neighborly courtesy.
Westerners has made quite a bit of progress for a band that came together a year ago. Mitch Hewlett, singer and guitarist, originally from Jacksonville, Florida, had been working on the band's principal material for years.
"I wasn't really doing anything with it," Hewlett admits. He had played and even toured with punk and metal bands in Springfield, Missouri, but ultimately felt that wasn't the style of music that spoke to him. He had met bass player Josh Hartranft while in Springfield, and after Hartranft moved into a large rented farmhouse on about 60 acres in Lecompton, Kansas, just north of Lawrence, Hewlett also began considering a move to the Lawrence area.
"It was called Farmer John," Hewlett says. "There is a huge barn out there, two stories. The first week I visited — they told me to come visit that week because they were putting on a big festival, and 300 to 400 people came to it. I thought 'hell yeah,' and moved here a week later."
Hewlett and Hartranft ended up moving to another farmhouse in North Lawrence, but they're still enjoying the space and freedom of semirural life.
Through social networks, the two hooked up with drummer Matt Mirsch, who grew up on the East Coast and relocated with his family to Topeka a number of years back. He has a degree in music education and works with drum lines in Topeka schools. He also plays with the Kansas City Rumble, the Chiefs' official drum line.
"It's a lot of fun," he says of playing with the Rumble. "I love it because I get to move around. When I'm onstage, I'm stuck to the seat. ... My favorite part of the Chiefs drum line is going up to the little kids and letting them play the drums."
This past January, Ben Childs added another guitar to Westerners. Childs, who was born and raised in England before moving to Wichita at age 7 with his family, met the group through friends and instantly fell into a musical groove with it.
The band recorded a four-song EP in January (available on Bandcamp), composed mostly of Hewlett's material that was written prior to his arrival in Kansas. The EP features the manic energy, driving guitar work and vocal harmonies that the band brings to its live shows, particularly on the track "Ugly Girls in Pretty Shoes." The recorded material captures angst and wit, and a sort of restless, caustic, youthful spirit reminiscent of some great '90s college rock by Stephen Malkmus and Jeff Tweedy.
Live shows are heavy on material written by Hewlett, but the band expects that to change as it pushes forward.
"It is moving towards a more collaborative process ... an equal-input sort of thing," Childs says. The band is working on building its local audience as it writes more material. August 10, Westerners played a first-anniversary show at the Granada with Paper Buffalo and Your Friend, quite easily Lawrence's hottest act of this past year. A couple of hundred local-music devotees were in attendance.
"For our first year, I didn't expect as much out of Lawrence," says Hewlett, describing the warmth the band is feeling from the local scene.
Childs adds: "When I started playing with them in January, I didn't anticipate playing the Granada in seven months."
Live, the band sounds more polished and possessed of a singular voice than most groups at this point. And while the relentless gigging continues, the band is writing new material and planning to record another EP in the fall.
"I'm surprised at how quickly it's all come together," Mirsch says. "We've exceeded what I was planning for at the two-year mark."