Thirteen years can put a hell of a lot of wear and tear on even the hardiest of rock ’n’ roll bands. But don’t be fooled by all those hundreds of thousands of miles on Micky & the Motorcars’ odometer: pop the hood of Hearts From Above, the long-running Austin band’s seventh album, and you’ll find a brand-new engine, fine-tuned and good to run for at least as many more miles still ahead. And behind the wheel? Two brothers — Micky and Gary Braun — who by their own admission haven’t been this fired up about playing together since they first rode south from the Whitecloud Mountains of Idaho to stake their claim to the Texas and wider Americana music scenes.
Of course, that’s not to say that the years between then and now have been fallow for Micky & the Motorcars, who have spent the last decade and change establishing themselves as one of the exciting young roots-rock bands in the “Live Music Capital of the World” and growing their fanbase through constant touring and a fistful of increasingly confident releases. But Hearts From Above finds founding members Micky (lead vocals and guitar) and Gary (guitar, mandolin, harmonica, and vocals) invigorated and supercharged by a transfusion of new blood from fresh recruits Josh Owen (lead guitar, pedal steel guitar), Joe Fladger (bass), and Bobby Paugh (drums).
“I think that with the last record we were struggling a little bit just trying to keep the band afloat,” says Micky of 2011’s mature but rather ironically titled Raise My Glass, a compelling document of the band at its most ruminative and brooding. “We loved the songs and we loved that record, but everyone was in kind of a tough spot with the same-old/same-old, and I had just gone through a breakup, so it was definitely the harder, darker side of the Micky & the Motorcars. Hearts From Above is more about all of us being in a much better place now. Having the new guys with us now has just brought a lot higher energy level, both onstage and in the studio. It’s kind of like when we first got started 13 years ago. All of us are just having a blast.”
You can hear that born-again “blast” right from the start of Hearts From Above with the soaring title track, a song Micky started working on in the afterglow of a particularly inspiring show he caught by one of his biggest Austin heroes, Alejandro Escovedo. “Alejandro’s one of those guys who makes me want to be better,” Micky enthuses, “and all I wanted to do was go right home and write.”
He ended up co-writing “Hearts From Above” with Willy Braun, who, along with another older brother, Cody, actually moved to Austin a few years ahead of Micky and Gary with their own wildly popular Americana rock band, Reckless Kelly. But from the moment the Motorcars hit town and released their 2003 debut, Which Way From Here — followed by subsequent releases like 2004’s Ain’t In It For the Money,2007’s Careless, 2008’s Naïve, 2009’s Live at Billy Bob’s Texas, and Raise My Glass — Micky and Gary have proven time and again that while they may not have been the first band of Brauns to take Texas by storm, they can more than hold their own. They’ve made quite a name for themselves out on the road, too, touring on average 12 months out of the year across the United States and beyond. (Micky & the Motorcars have toured Europe three times and even recorded a live album over there, set for release when they return overseas early next year.)
Friendly competition aside, though, the four Braun brothers remain as supportive of each other today as they were as kids, when they all played together in their father Muzzie Braun’s country band throughout the Western United States and in front of millions of TV viewers on the Tonight Show (twice!) To wit: In addition to co-writing half of the songs on the album, Willy also produced Hearts From Above. And of course Cody (who’s produced Motorcars albums in the past) is a VIP guest on the record, too. As Gary proudly points out, all four Braun brothers can be heard singing on the song “Hearts From Above” — something that he says “hasn’t happened in the studio since we were teenagers.”
“Cody came into the studio when we were tracking and coached us pretty hard,” Gary continues. “He has a great ear for harmony and really helped us pick the right parts for the songs. And of course I have always liked working with Willy, and I don’t care if we are writing a song or building a doghouse. He’s a fun guy to be around, but he also knows when to be serious. He was really good at talking to the band getting the best takes we could.”
Recorded in early 2014 at Austin’s 12th Street Sound and funded by the Motorcars’ first-ever Kickstarter campaign, Hearts From Above is packed with assertive songs destined to become crowd favorites; indeed, some of the songs already are road-tested keepers — most notably the epic album closer, “Tonight We Ride,” which Micky describes as an “anthem for soldiers and cowboys and cowgirls and bikers — really, anybody that sticks together as a team.”
“We’ve been doing that song live for probably almost a year now, and it’s starting to get to the point where the crowd is shouting out for it,” says Micky, who co-wrote the tune with Willy and Brian Keane. “That’s a really great sign when you haven’t even recorded a song yet and people are already requesting it!”
One of Micky’s other personal favorites on Hearts From Above is the swaggering “Hurt Again,” which he co-wrote with Jason Eady. “That one’s the wild card,” he says with a laugh, “because Jason is best known for his country stuff, but that’s probably the most rocking song on the whole record. I really love the opening line, ‘The taxi’s running waiting right outside/There’s a look of shame girl that you can’t hide,’ because I feel like it just reaches out and grabs people right out of the gate, and then it’s just rock ’n’ roll from then on out and it never lets up.
“We actually started out a lot more country,” he continues. “Before the Motorcars, I came straight out of a country band and then playing in a bluegrass band after that for a couple of summers on and off. But as we all got older, we started playing more and more rock ’n’ roll, and for me, ‘Hurt Again’ really expresses our ability to do that.“
Although Micky fronts the band, Gary’s brotherly harmonies and back-up vocals (not to mention his myriad instrumental chops) have been a key element of the Motorcars’ sound from day one. He also steps forward to sing a song or two of his own on every album, and his two tracks on Hearts From Above are among the album’s highlights: the hooky, up-tempo “Led Me the Wrong Way” and the haunting “Sun Now Stands,” a powerful account of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians of the Pacific Northwest.
“I had the idea to write about the Nez Perce and how they were kicked off their land and instead of staying on the reservation that the government had put them on, they decided to make a break for it and try to escape to Canada,” says Gary. “After awhile I realized it was going to be pretty hard to cram that whole story into a four-minute song, so that’s when I called Willy and as luck would have it, he had just finished a book on the topic and was also planning on writing a song about it. We got together the next day and got to work, and I think it took us about four hours to write the whole thing from start to finish.”
The poignancy of “Sun Now Stands” is matched elsewhere on Hearts From Above by the album’s one cover, “Sister Lost Soul” — a song that the aforementioned Alejandro Escovedo wrote for his acclaimed 2008 album Real Animal as a tribute to fallen brothers in musical arms.
“That song is very sentimental to me, and the whole band, really,” Micky explains. “We kind of do that one as a tribute to our good friend Mark McCoy, who was with us forever. We lost him last year in a boating accident.” McCoy, the Motorcars’ original bassist, died a year after leaving the band to move back home to Idaho. Micky also sings “Sister Lost Soul” in memory of another late friend who helped teach him guitar and introduced him to the music of Van Morrison and a lot of other great songwriters and rock acts.
“As we get older, we all start to lose friends, and whether they’re really close friends or even acquaintances you just kind of knew, it’s always a sad thing to see people have to go through things like that,” Micky explains. “And that song is just kind of a tip of the hat to all those guys. It’s an anthem for them and for the people that miss them.”
Bittersweet though it may be, the song fits Hearts From Above‘s spirit like a glove. For Micky and Gary Braun, who’ve driven the Motorcars together now for more than a dozen years, as well as for the newer members helping them steer the band further on down the highway, it’s a celebration of where they’ve been, where they’re headed, and most of all, where they are right now.
“Apart from how we’re all much happier now in regards to our relationships and personal lives, I think I was really able to just write about how grateful we are to get to do what we do,” says Micky. “I think all of us in general are in a pretty good spot right now. We’re happy to be on the road and to be putting out music, and we’re grateful to our fans for helping out on the Kickstarter project and for showing up at shows. We just seem to be in a very positive place, and I feel like this record really represents that.”