Working hard at playing together is easy for Los Colognes
Don’t bullshit Jay Rutherford. He’s not a hack. He’s not a burnout. He’s not on holiday in Nashville with his guitar and a handful of songs. The fact is, Jay Rutherford is serious, and he might be the most intellectual musician in East Nashville. His education in language, philosophy, and communications casts the line for his effortlessly prolific nature and ability to offer delightfully verbose commentary on subjects ranging from crock-pot cooking to the thought process motivating René Descartes.
Jay Rutherford might also be the goofiest, Vine app prolific, and most weirdly interesting musician in East Nashville. That’s saying a lot.
Jay, lead vocalist and guitarist for Los Colognes (pronounced “cologne” like the perfume plus “ace” like the World War II fighter pilot), doesn’t travel alone. His brand of thought-rock requires a sidekick, a partnerin- crime, a simpatico fella with equal or greater proportions of bizarre-i-tude. This would be drummer Aaron “Mort” Mortenson.
Mort delivers a “take it as it comes” attitude about life, but stares down his musical road with fierce passion.
Jay and Aaron grew up on the west side of Chicago and have been friends for more than 13 years. Inside this long-term relationship exists a trust framework so strong that when Mort, who was traveling from Chicago to Nashville playing sessions, suggested the duo make the move to Nashville, there was no question. They packed two sedans and made the drive to ... Franklin. “My friend lived in Franklin, and he had a house — but he backed out at the last minute,” Mort says with slight relief. “We accidentally moved to Inglewood,” Jay recalls. As the story goes, another friend suggested they look in East Nashville because it seemed to fit their lifestyle. Eventually, Mort convinced another friend from Chicago, bassist Gordon Persha, to move down. Gordon found a house across the street and shares it with keyboardist Micah Hulscher. Together with second keyboardist Chuck Foster, and guitar players Zach Setchfield and Wojtek Krupka, Los Colognes was born.
At the core of the band lies Jay and Mort. The band is an institution that exists solely on their complete financial, emotional and intellectual investments. For Jay and Mort, everything revolves around Los Colognes. Most notably, their social media endeavors.
If you haven’t downloaded Vine, do that now and follow Los Colognes. The guys dive into six seconds of looped humor with fervor. Mort and Jay both admit to serious consideration and thought for each outlandish Vine. They’ve coerced employees at Sam Ash to let them climb onto props and recruited innocent volunteers as extras. They’ve also poked fun at Mort’s nerd-turned-Internet-billionaire role in a Bart Durham commercial. If you haven’t seen that, it’s worth looking up.
Despite their goofy social media stunts, the guys are truly engrossed in their craft. Mort admits to four-hour-per-day drum marathons and lengthy in-depth expeditions into musical history. Right now he’s studying jazz bebop. This fast tempo style of playing requires extreme focus, physical stamina, and mental precision. “I’m only six months deep,” he says almost apologetically. “I’ve got seven more years before I feel like I can tell anybody that I’m attempting to play (bebop).” Already, Mort is so well respected that, by the time you finish this sentence, he could get a gig as a backing drummer for any player in town, but he’s using his spare time to explore a modern jazz technique because he genuinely enjoys musical theory and the relationships of various genres.
As a guitar player, Jay digs through layers of world sounds and grooves. He gently lifts elements of Afro-Cuban rhythm and weaves it into the Tulsa sound he and Mort have spent years developing. His lyrics are drawn from personal experience, but he leans into the language of literary masters like Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver all the while taking careful steps not to over-intellectualize any part of the song. Jay ensures that every word is within the listeners reach while every line offers a clever twist. “Less is more” is a general philosophy for the band. “If it feels like pulling a lot of weight, we’re not going to do the song,” Jay explains.
The lightness and looseness of the music is the most important element. Each phrase offers a turn as the mellow vibe rides easy over the gentle back of the groove. The guys describe the sound as a crock-pot, not a microwave. The longer the music sits in a slow boil, the richer it becomes. Don’t rush it, they say. The lyrics are laconic, and the music is played with finesse. The feel is quintessential J.J. Cale.
J.J. Cale is the godfather of the Tulsa sound. This loosey-goosey blend of blues, country and rock memorialized in his iconic songs like “Cocaine,” “Travelin’ Light” and “Clyde;” songs that have been reinterpreted by Eric Clapton, Widespread Panic and Waylon Jennings, respectively. Cale’s recordings span the years 1972 to 2009, and he shared a Grammy win with Clapton in 2008. Due to his reclusive nature, the entire Cale story is told though the music he made and the genre he left behind. Cale died in California on July 26 of this year.
Jay reflected on that day and admitted a deep sense of pain. At the same time, Cale’s passing was a bigger reason to showcase the Tulsa sound. As Jay explained it, “Taking it from a higher level, this was more of a cause for us to keep doing what we were doing and doing it in a way that honors that tradition.”
Less than a week after Cale’s death, Los Colognes headlined a benefit show for fellow East Nashvillians and friends Luella and the Sun. As a tribute to Cale, they kicked off the night with “Call Me the Breeze” and dropped in other Cale tunes like “After Midnight.” Jay felt strongly that they could be torchbearers of Cale’s spirit and that now, more than ever, they need to deliver honest and high quality music that represents the best of what Cale offered.
To reach this level of authenticity, Los Colognes exists on a strict diet of not being on a strict diet. They are 100-percent committed to their sound and know that to get there requires flexibility in performance. Although they sometimes cycle through members in the band based on availability, their players don’t sit down with charts; instead, the approach they take is in alignment with the overall goal knowing the songs. The Tulsa sound requires some Zen and it’s no surprise that they host a band yoga night as opposed to rehearsals. “We don’t practice,” Mort says thoughtfully. “I don’t want to ‘learn it’ too much.”
To get to this point of knowing without knowing, they toiled through long days and late nights. Going back to their arrival in Nashville, Jay recalls some odd nights at venues less interested in their hook-averse song style. Though, Jay said Nashville was far quicker to catch on to their concept. “We could have played these songs for years in Chicago and no one would have ever gotten it,” Jays says of the J.J. Cale feel. With his lyrics striking much similarity to the vivid-yet-sparse style of John Prine, Los Colognes would surely find a welcome home in Nashville, and, at the 5 Spot, they found exactly what they needed.
Bolted into the late-night spot at the storied musicians hangout, Los Colognes explored their musical universe and invited other players to orbit around or fly by. In short order, they developed important relationships with musicians like Rayland Baxter, Nikki Lane, and Kevin Gordon. They developed a solid reputation as a backing band and played in support of future manager Jacob Jones. They played shows with and in support of The Lonely H, Luella and the Sun and Steelism. These groups are more than peers. Jay and Mort consider them some of the best musicians in town and value the strength of those relationships.
This rapid immersion into the East Nashville tableau strengthened their adoration for their new home. “Three days into [living here] I felt like this is where we need to be,” Mort said. Jay, who works on the west side, finds himself defending East Nashville at times. “When somebody says that East Nashville is just a hipster place, I say ‘No, it’s a place where people go to develop careers, to build studios, to work hard, to get better at their craft, create business models, develop companies and start families.’” Above it all they are proud to live here and appreciate the values of the community.
When they stepped into the studio to record their recent album “Working Together,” Mort and Jay found themselves in need of players because their semi-regular crew was booked and/ or out of town. Again, East Nashville delivered with generosity. Fellow musicians gave their time and expertise with as many as 15 different people appearing on the album. This notion of recruiting musicians for a recording session is far from original but the ease and speed at which this can be done in East Nashville is unique. “We don’t build a castle with a moat and say ‘This is my project and not yours,’” Jay explains. “Everyone stands on each others shoulder. Everyone is proud of each other’s.”
Moreover, the idea of gathering a group of talented players in different arrangements for different songs also taps into the J.J. Cale model. Find the right people with the right feel and don’t apply restrictions. The music will happen if everyone is open to explore.
As such, the music happened. “Working Together” opens with a 30-second bed of keyboard imagery and gentle single note guitar work seeping through an echo chamber. The slow boil warms into a reggae guitar riff and subtle line warning the listener that “Your king-size bed / has gone to your head.”
Talking through that reggae feel, Mort explains, “We worked on [King Size Bed] for a while going through several pocket attempts and groves.” The feel was just different enough that placing the song anywhere but first would sound odd. Jay adds, “Where else are we going to put a white-boy reggae song sung from the point of view of a female worried about her man cheating on her?”
The title song and album single, “Working Together,” captures a bit of Dire Straits and Grateful Dead. Taken from a particularly difficult experience in Jay’s personal life, the song “took five years to live and five minutes to write.” The song sat on the shelf for quite a while until one day, out of the blue, Jay returned to the demo tape and made a few adjustments to the music. After playing the new changes, he and Mort quickly discovered a hook strong enough to suit the clever refrain: “Working together is easy / Living together is hard.” With that, their most poppy song was written. “We never set out to write a single,” Mort says with surprise. “We just landed on it.”
Mort is surprised because the idea of “a single” is not their goal. Los Colognes is a lifestyle band creating a vibe that extends beyond the narrow reach of one song. Like The Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic and other long-term survivors in the lifestyle category, Los Colognes wants to be defined by the overall culture they promote rather than the type of radio station that plays their music. They know this road is long, but they look forward to the journey. They’re already earning some significant notches in their belt: They’ve signed a deal with Starbucks for in-store radio play; a West Coast tour is in the works for the fall; and they plan to stop in Chicago for a show at the end of the tour.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to have some exponential rise. I think it will be a slow burn, and that’s what the music is, so it’s appropriate,” Jay says quietly channeling a notion fit for a J.J. Cale tune. Maybe he’s right. Either way, it’s getting warmer around East Nashville, and Los Colognes is enjoying every minute of it.