The affable Erik Brandt was surprisingly specific when asked to describe what his group’s name, The Urban Hillbilly Quartet, means.
“‘Urban’ describes the rock; ‘hillbilly’ is the Americana, folk and country;
and ‘quartet’ is jazz, improvisation and our instrumental music, with tinges of eastern European melodies. Some are the Israeli, funky minor melodies that all of us like.”
As it turns out, the Quartet’s versatile music is sui generis: “Our diversity is a blessing and a curse,” says Brandt. “Record stores don’t know where to shelve us, radio stations don’t know where to play us.”
Short of live performance, UHQ’s folky eclecticism and underlying wit can be best experienced on The A List (Fundamental Records). The album includes highly representative selections from the band’s first six years of recording, and its offbeat packaging (designed by Ben Levitz of Studio On Fire) includes a cartoon biography by Andy Devore and a wry “historical” commentary by Noah Riemer of the UHQ-influenced band Ticklepenny Corner.
“We love to mess around with our music,” says Brandt, 30, who is one-fourth of the glue that holds this musical amalgam together, along with the robust fiddling of Sena Thompson, the angular strumming of guitarist Jeremy Szopinski and the versatile work of Sena’s husband, bassist Greg Tippett.
The gumbo of UHQ music “just happens,” says Brandt, who’s been teaching high school English since before starting the band. “I’m really into folk and country, Jeremy is into rock and blues, Sena is into classical, jazz and hip hop, and Greg is into prog rock and jam bands.”
Much of the music’s ethnic flavor comes from Brandt’s accordion, which is featured on the lovely “Amy’s Ring Waltz.”
“I was playing in a college band that did R.E.M. covers, and I think Mike Mills played some accordion, so I bought a used one.” Brandt currently studies the instrument under the tutelage of Dan Newton, the “Daddy Squeeze” of Prairie Home Companion.
Having been raised in a Wisconsin town, he spent one year in Australia (where “St. Paul Town” was written) as an exchange student. He has traveled to Canada and Great Britain, and currently teaches in an urban high school
at which half of the students are Hmong (and where his wife Hanna
“I’m just interested in life,” he says. “I always saw myself as a rural teacher, but my first job was in the city — a wonderful but rough inner-city school. My school is the United Nations all the time!”
Wonderful but rough — also an apt description of the energetic, sophisticated Urban Hillbilly Quartet.