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The story of Good Looks was really just beginning on the night it came within inches of ending. Tyler Jordan, Jake Ames, Robert Cherry and Phillip Dunne were playing a sold-out show—their first—at Hotel Vegas on their Austin, Texas, home turf, celebrating the April 8 release of their debut record Bummer Year. “That show was maybe—yeah, definitely [in the] top two or three shows that I’ve ever played,” Jordan recalls. “The place between the last local show and that show is very different. It felt like, ‘Man, we have all the support in this moment. And we sold this club out.’ We were about as happy as you could be with a show. And then we were supposed to go on tour the next day.” Needless to say, things didn’t turn out that way.
“The night ended how the night normally ends,” he continues, “which is it’s me saying bye to Jake, because Jake is always the last one—he’s the most social of the group, and he’s always the last one to leave.” Jordan and Ames are not only bandmates, as Good Looks’ rhythm and lead guitarists, respectively, but also best friends—the former says their personalities “couldn’t be more opposite,” a dynamic key to both their personal and creative relationships. No sooner had Jordan laid down at home and run through his pre-tour checklist that night than he “got a text message from a friend saying that [Ames] had been taken to a hospital. Then I started calling emergency rooms and just trying to figure out what happened.”
The band would explain what had happened a few days later via social media: “After the show, Jake was walking to a friend’s car to get a ride home when he was struck by a vehicle. He has brain injuries, a fractured skull, a fractured tailbone, a broken bone in his ear, and probably more that we’re not aware of yet. We’re all rooting for Jake and praying for a full recovery.” Jordan started a GoFundMe to cover not only the expenses that Ames’ health insurance wouldn’t, but also his bandmate’s lost income: Good Looks were forced to cancel their tour to give Ames time to recover from his injuries, aiming to “get our big guy back on his feet and shredding gnarly solos like the good Lord put him on this planet to do.” The band later upped their initial $50,000 fundraising goal to $75,000—they’ve raised over $62,000 as of this writing.
Two weeks later, when we speak, Jordan is at Ames’ house in Austin, where he and his bandmate’s mom and girlfriend have been taking turns watching over him. Ames is doing “surprisingly well—just really incredible, considering how he was doing a week ago,” says Jordan. “Basically, since he got out of the hospital, it’s been a really steady increase every day.” His fractures are healing, and in many ways, Ames is back to being himself, but “the main day-to-day thing is his short-term memory is still kind of fucked up. He’s still struggling with words, like trying to find the right words.” Jordan acknowledges that “it’s a challenge predicting the way that traumatic brain injuries are gonna go,” and that “it’s hard to know what the long-term effects will be. [...] But it feels like he’s sitting at about 85 to 87% right now, and that feels great.”
Suffice to say, Good Looks have been on an emotional rollercoaster this month, and it’s one that Jordan is “still processing”—”I’ve never experienced anything like that before,” he says. “It was our bass player, Robert, [who] the next day was like, ‘Man, life is a sonofabitch.’” The “jarring” surreality of that night’s events stands out in his memory, but so does “just being so grateful. Had the car hit him a few inches [in] the other direction, he might not be on the planet.” Instead, the story of Good Looks goes on.
That story started about an hour south of Houston, in Jordan’s hometown of Lake Jackson, Texas, which he recalls as one of many “sort of faceless” Gulf Coast towns: It’s “very petrochemical-oriented—like half the people work at Dow Chemical,” he explains, and it’s “pretty redneck.” Jordan was raised in “a super-conservative sect of the Church of Christ,” a “very insulated” branch of Christianity he describes as “as close as you get to a cult without being on the lam.” But rather than growing up allowed only Christian music, Jordan had the opposite experience: His family’s church, like many Churches of Christ, practiced a cappella worship entirely devoid of instrumentals, which helped to mold both his singing ability and his listening habits. “That was a really cool way to grow up—about the only thing cool about growing up in that religion,” Jordan says with a laugh. “I wasn’t really allowed to listen to Christian music. So I still listened to secular music growing up, which was a godsend, I guess you could say.”
Music served as both Jordan’s “refuge” and “escape,” from taping top-40 singles on his CD/tape player/radio combo at 10 years old to downloading songs by Nirvana, Mudhoney and “anything related to grunge” off Napster at 13. Soon after, he bought a Harvey Danger CD at a pawn shop, which led him to The Long Winters, and he “got into indie rock from there and just branched out.” He moved out of his parents’ house at 18, “like two or three days after my birthday,” and spent a year on his own in Lake Jackson, with plans to move away and make music. It was Spoon’s 2003 Austin City Limits debut, “when they were doing the rounds for [Kill the Moonlight],” that cemented his destination: Jordan remembers thinking, “Oh man, if these guys can do it in Austin, that’s where I need to go.” He jumped into the transition with both feet at 19, living in a converted nursing home-turned-co-op and busking on Sixth Street, playing mostly “horrible, terrible covers,” and “it took some time” for him to adjust to the city. “This is silly, but I grew up listening to a lot of Everclear,” Jordan says. “And he has this line [...] about shaking the dust from a small town off of you, and I think that is so, so true.”
Austin is where Good Looks as we know them formed, but it’s in the small town of Kerrville, Texas, which roughly triangulates Austin and San Antonio, where Jordan and Ames came to know each other. The pair met at the Kerrville Folk Festival, an “18-day-long festival that happens out in the Texas Hill Country” that they “go to religiously,” which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. “That’s how we met, and we just seemed to get along right from the beginning, but it took a while for us to mix our music together,” Jordan recalls. In the meantime, the festival served as a community that helped to foster and shape his songwriting: “There were years where I wasn’t really booking very many shows, or I just was down in depression, and that was always a reason to write, you know? Because I knew that I wanted to have songs to share with my friends who went out there.” Those friends came to include everyone from a pre-Big Thief Adrienne Lenker and Buck Meek to relative unknowns who “only write songs in their bedroom, but they’re incredible,” and Kerrville lifers who “have made songwriting their craft their entire lives.” By the time Jordan and Ames started playing together—with original bassist Anastasia Wright and drummer Dunne rounding out the band—the frontman had steeped himself in several lifetimes of songwriting.
The band spent a few years as Tyler Jordan & The Negative Space, self-releasing their full-length debut Everything You Have and Are in 2016—Jordan remains “really proud of the record,” though its promotion (or lack thereof) left it “pretty buried.” Lenker and Meek produced the album and contributed backing vocals and instrumentation, and their Big Thief bandmate James Krivchenia recorded and drummed on it. (Jordan and Ames have also released a couple of records through their “sister band,” The Stacks.) They sought out Dripping Springs, Texas-based producer Dan Duszynski (Loma, Cross Record, Jess Williamson), whom Wright knew, to oversee Bummer Year’s recording. It was only when they “went to shop this record around [and] found Keeled Scales” that they hit the reset button and changed their name. Wright, who remains “a close friend,” got busy with other projects and decided to step away from the band, with Cherry stepping into her spot. Goods Look were ready to go—and then came the coronavirus.
Jordan sighs deeply as he recalls, “We had this ready as the pandemic was starting to unravel, and we were just about to put the record out.” Neither the band, nor their label wanted to release the album while touring was impossible, “so then we had to press pause for a little bit, and I’m glad we waited.” As a result, though, Bummer Year might as well be a time machine: Jordan estimates most of the songs were written between 2015 and 2018, opening “a window into my severe depression at the time.” One track in particular, “Vision Boards,” finds Jordan lamenting his failure to make a viable living as a musician. “The irony is not lost on me that, as things are starting to roll our way [...] we’re out there playing the song about how it’s ‘not working out,’” he observes with a laugh.
Things are, indeed, working out for Good Looks, who landed their first official South by Southwest show this year, playing to “a packed room” at Keeled Scales’ showcase. Bummer Year’s acclaim echoed into the upper echelons of music media, with the album earning a positive Pitchfork review and a glowing shoutout from UPROXX’s Steven Hyden. Jordan says the band are “just so grateful” for the recognition they’re earning, but it still feels like the exception, not the rule: “We struggled for a long time to try to get to the place where we are right now,” he considers. “We got to a place where we were like, ‘I don’t think it’s ever gonna happen.’ Like, ‘I just can’t figure out how we’re ever going to make a living at this, or make it sustainable.’ So it’s really cool, after putting in so many years and so much effort, that it’s starting to pay off.” But even with the city of Austin’s support, including a grant that helped the band stay “above water” during Covid lockdown, the constant struggle to make ends meet is just “the reality of being a musician right now,” Jordan confirms.
Good Looks certainly don’t shy away from addressing such capitalist pitfalls in their music—press materials bill them as a “blue-collar political indie-rock band,” as well as “a bar band searching for common ground and yearning for a better system,” and Bummer Year is equal parts breakup and protest songs. Jordan serenades a lover named Lindsey on “Almost Automatic” and “Balmorhea,” then name-checks Donald Trump and Karl Marx on the title track and “First Crossing,“ respectively. On “Walker Lake,” Jordan ends the album with a sentiment that could easily be addressed to either a troubled loved one or our troubled country: “Drowning in your past, ain’t such a shame / Just know I love you, I hope you’ll be OK,” he sings. Even the relatively brief record’s tracklist was shaped by the capitalist structure in which it was created: “We needed to keep it somewhat short, just so that we [could] afford to get everything done on it,” Jordan explains. “The limitations of the system always seem to influence art, and probably influenced this project in a critical way.”
The record may criticize American systems, but it’s also completely of its country, with an idyllic sense of place that pervades its seven songs. From a spring-fed swimming pool in West Texas (“Balmorhea”) to the “clear, pristine water” (as Jordan describes it to me) of the Medina River outside San Antonio (“First Crossing”) and Nevada’s Walker Lake State Recreation Area (“Walker Lake”), Bummer Year is rooted in the American Southwest, as well as the outdoors in general. “A lot of my imagery is attached to swimming,” Jordan points out. On “21,” Jordan sings, “My body could be put to better use / Instead of working all day long / For someone else’s dream to come / Strip the value right out of my bones,” before imagining, “Wish that I was 21 / Somewhere swimming in the sun / Watch me floating weightless / I am free.” These halcyon moments are a refuge within a refuge for Jordan, who got “really into walking meditation,” “hiking and state parks” as a way of coping with the pandemic. Like Jordan himself, Good Looks’ songs are a little bit city and a little bit country: “I write everything on acoustic first and then bring it to the band, and we arrange it,” says Jordan, “so the songs are rooted in folk and Americana,” with Ames’ influence bringing shoegaze and psych-rock sounds to the forefront. His shimmering riffs buoy the heartsick balladry of “Balmorhea,” and drape a War on Drugs-y haze over tracks like “Bummer Year” and “First Crossing.” Live, “he improvises every solo, so you’re never gonna see him do the same song twice,” says Jordan, whose playing is “very buttoned down” by comparison (“I like structure a lot”).
A certain kind of chemical reaction takes place between Jordan and Ames on the best Good Looks songs, one particularly observable in the Audiotree Live session they recorded in March. Their performance is both intimate and energetic, as Cherry and Dunne lay a foundation while Jordan and Ames bounce riffs off each other on a lively “21” and “Bummer Year.” Ames outright shreds on “Almost Automatic,” but not before Good Looks trot out a new song: “Can You See Me Tonight,” which is “probably going to be a single” ahead of the band’s next record, Jordan says. They have “18 or 19” new tunes in the works, and they’re working on finding the shape of their Bummer Year follow-up (or follow-ups), as well as rescheduling their tour. Jordan and Ames have been “jamming a little bit” as Ames recovers, though he has one particularly difficult hurdle to clear: “The doctor said, ‘No amplified guitar for a month,’ so that’s going to be pretty hard.”
The next chapter of Good Looks’ story will take them to a familiar setting: The band will perform at the Kerrville Folk Festival in early June, returning triumphant to the community that pointed them down this path to begin with. “All of our energy right now is just making sure [Ames is] back to play the 50th anniversary Kerrville Folk Festival,” says Jordan. “If I was writing a movie, I couldn’t imagine a better comeback show. I’m just really hopeful, and that’s kind of the thing.”
Bummer Year is out now via Keeled Scales. Listen/buy here.
Scott Russell is Paste’s music editor and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.