Listeners hearing Eric “Red Mouth” Gebhardt for the first time will likely be surprised to learn that the Alabama-based singer-songwriter considers the proto-punk and hardcore of the ’70s and ’80s to be the foundation of his musical inspiration. Gebhardt’s latest record, 2014’s “Toska,” is a veritable stew of mostly rural and roots musics, filtered though they are through the warped lens of Gebhardt’s loopy perspective.
But therein lies the key. Because just as 1980s punk-rockers took the D.I.Y. spirit of punk as an open invitation to break the rules — even the rules, such as they were, of their own fledgling genre; consider the Meat Puppets’ hardcore-to-iconoclastic-country-rock transition, or the Minute Men’s delvings into moments of fractal avant-garde and jazz-inflected weirdness — so Gebhardt has taken that same anarchic spirit and applied it to the sounds he explored after hearing his first Ramones song roundabout 1990 or so.
“I had an older brother who was a skateboard kid, and he had all these cassettes of bands like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, Minor Threat,” says Gebhardt, in a recent phone conversation. “And I used to turn down the records I was listening to in my room so I could listen to his music. Growing up in a small town (Florence, near Muscle Shoals) in Alabama, those sounds I was hearing were extremely foreign to me.”
His love for, and absorption of, various punk rock artists proved to be a stepping-off point: “It became my first love,” he says. “I’d read interviews with some of my favorite artists, and I’d write down the names of bands they were into, and seek that stuff out. Like the Ramones were into ’60s girl groups, and the New York Dolls loved the Rolling Stones.”
Over time, Gebhardt discovered the likes of Kris Kristofferson and Captain Beefheart and early 20th-century delta blues. And when he picked up a guitar for the first time, still in his teens — “My first lesson just devolved into my teacher showing me Misfits songs,” he chuckles — all of that began coming back out, in a weird mish-mash of traditional styles rendered with rock instincts.
But Gebhardt, now 38, says it took some time for his artistic vision to gel. That happened, at last, with “Toska.” The record is hard to pigeonhole, to be sure, but it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say the album sounds a bit like what might happen if Tom Waits tapped Randy Newman for songwriting help, then recorded a full album on a week-long booze bender, backed by a crack team of Muscle Shoals-area session aces.
“I think with ‘Toska,’ I’ve perfected the mixture of all these styles that I’ve absorbed,” he says. “Because in my mind, Son House and the Stooges are no different from one another. And now those puzzle pieces are fitting together at last, perfected by the filter of my own brain.”
Coming soon, Gebhardt is prepared to drop the follow-up to “Toska,” a new album he says is already recorded and awaiting release. “It’s not ‘Toska,’ part two,” he promises. “But there is some bleedover.
“‘Toska’ was sort of a voodoo-blues experiment, and there is some of that on this record. But it branches out from there. There’s a full horn section. There’s even some doom-rock-influenced stuff, only with a horn section (!). I’m always trying to grow as a songwriter, and I think the songwriting has matured another step forward on the new one.”
Red Mouth will play Preservation Pub Sunday, July 31 at 10 p.m.