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07 Oct 2013

A Southern Sound: Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires Are a Don't-Miss Band at the Joshua Tree Music Festival

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If commercial radio stations were interested in sharing great new music with listeners, perhaps you’d already have heard of Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires.

The recently formed Southern rock/alt-country band is bringing its gospel-influenced sound to the three-day Joshua Tree Music Festival on Friday, Oct. 11.

When I spoke to Bains over the phone, his thick Alabama accent was hard to ignore. I could also tell that he lives and breathes rock ’n’ roll, and he expresses a genuine sense of excitement when he talks about his music. The band from Birmingham formed in 2010, and the group has been receiving critical acclaim from independent music critics ever since.

Bains’ love of music goes back to when he heard gospel music for the first time as a child.

“The church I grew up in didn’t really do gospel music. It was more hymns and that kind of thing,” Bains said. “… My parents both worked, so I had a baby sitter growing up who was Pentecostal. She was exclusively into gospel music. I was exposed to different sorts of styles of church music growing up. That’s what was around, and I came to understand music through that perspective, looking back. ”

His roots in the church go back to his grandmother, who was a choir director; his grandfather was a vocal soloist in the church—and he taught Bains how to sing.

“We went to church every Sunday and choir practice once a week, and I guess we had what I would consider a strong religious foundation in our family, but we weren’t members of a fundamentalist congregation,” he said. “I would say it was a moderate theology that my family took seriously.”

One the band’s website, the members cite both punk-greats Fugazi and the Stooges as influences. Bains explained that while the Glory Fires don’t bear a musical resemblance to those bands, those bands nonetheless offer influences.

“Part of what has drawn me to play what I consider regional music or traditional music … was my exposure to punk rock ethos as I understood it,” he said. “It’s basically a galvanizing influence, clinging to your own experience and your own identity, however weird or marginal, or whatever it may be. For me, the deeper I got into punk rock, the more I started thinking about the ethos that was underlying it. … I did grow up in this regional culture and this musical tradition, so the “punk rock” thing I can do is own that, to reside in it and do something progressive and subversive from within that.”

Bains also “owns” a unique songwriting style.

“I usually start out trying to frame all my songs (from) an explicitly personal perspective. I try to limit my songs to my personal experience and knowledge,” he explained. “That’s been the guiding force, and the process has been just working at it. I have a really close friend who is a fiction writer, and he and I are sort of each other’s sounding boards and editors. After I’ve written a song about 150 times, I’ll send him a demo and the lyrics, and we’ll sort of talk about it.”

The band’s recently released album, There Is a Bomb in Gilead, has a thought-provoking and humorous story behind it. 

“When I was growing up, I heard a church song called ‘There Is a Balm in Gilead.’ I would hear people singing it in church and heard it on gospel tapes. … I guess I didn’t know what ‘balm’ meant at that age and never heard that word before. I thought the song was called ‘There Is a Bomb in Gilead,’ which I sort of struggled to wrap my head around as a child. I sort of came up with this long kind of justification for that phrase. I just remembered Jesus with the money-changers at the temples, and Jesus was sort of a bomb in that sense. With the current political climate, there is a bomb literally and figuratively in that part of the world right now.”

Bains said the band is close to finishing its follow-up album and hope to have it released in the spring of 2014.

“We have to get it to labels and see about all that,” he said.

Only several years in, the Glory Fires have already built a following.

“Every day when we’re on the road, there’s usually something exciting every day,” he said. “I remember the first time we were far away from home, and I saw somebody that I’ve never seen or met before, in a town I’ve never been in before, mouthing the words to one of our songs that we were playing. Vermont was the first (place) I really saw it, and it registered with me. It was pretty exciting and gratifying.”

Given the band’s uncharted and innovative style, the Glory Fires are definitely one of the acts at the Joshua Tree Music Festival that makes it worth attending—and one of the bands that you don’t want to miss.

The Joshua Tree Music Festival takes place Friday, Oct. 11, through Sunday, Oct. 13, at the Joshua Tree Lake Campground, 2601 Sunfair Road, Joshua Tree. A three-day pass is $110; passes for individual days are $40 to $60. For tickets or more information, visit www.joshuatreemusicfestival.com.

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