Pop Culture

Artist Spotlight: Good Looks

The members who make up the Austin indie rock quartet Good Looks – Tyler Jordan, Jake Ames, Robert Cherry, and Phillip Dunne – were all born and raised in small Texas towns. Jordan and Ames met the Kerrville Folk Festival in Central Texas, where their circle of friends grew to include pre-Big Thief Adrienne Lenker and Buck Meek. After releasing records under a few different monikers (including one produced by Lenker and Meek), Good Looks’ radiant debut LP, Bummer Year, arrived via Keeled Scales in 2022, four years after it was originally completed. After the band celebrated the release with a hometown show, however, Ames was hit by a car and fractured his skull and tailbone; healing took time, but he quickly found he could still play guitar and sing, and has since fully recovered from his injuries. The following month, Good Looks reunited with producer/engineer Dan Duszynski to record their sophomore album, out today.

While debuting several of its songs on tour, the group was involved in another serious accident: their van was struck from behind by a car traveling at high speed, and within minutes, their vehicle – along with their instruments, merch, and records – was engulfed in flames. Thankfully, no one was seriously injured, and Jordan played some solo shows before the band joined him to finish the run. These hardships are undeniably an important part of the band’s story, but Jordan has yet to write a song about them. Still, Lived Here for a While is an auspicious and sneakily triumphant record that highlights their dynamic interplay, even during the more contemplative moments. The songs are, however open-hearted and anthemic, still centered around healing, whether dealing with family dysfunction, heartbreak, or the fractured country they call home. Jordan is a painfully aware songwriter, and his bandmates know how to tap into his concerns; together, they push through.

We caught up with Good Looks’ Tyler Jordan for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about his friendship with Jake Ames, his upbringing, the hardships the band has endure, and more.

I heard you’re out of town, is that right?

Yeah, I’m out at this folk festival right now. It’s an 18-day-long festival; I got here a little early to set up the camp. It’s called the Kerrville Folk Festival, it’s named after a little town. It’s been happening since 1972, and it’s awesome. I’ve been coming out here since 2009.

How does it feel this year?

Well, there aren’t many people here yet. It’s mostly older folks that I know. The first week, I usually just hang out by myself because it’s so much interaction and talking to people the rest of the time that it’s nice to hang out alone for a few days and get in the mindset. Mostly I’ve just been reading, swimming, getting coffee in town. It’s nice.

I know that’s where you met Jake as well. What are your memories of that time?

That’s right. We met out there maybe nine years ago. It’s been a long time. I volunteered for years at this festival, and he was on my crew – I ran this crew, which was kind of like a record store out at the folk festival. He was a friend of a friend, and I didn’t know him well. He was like a kid, you know. [laughs] Jake’s only a year younger than me, but he has a much younger spirit. He was probably 26 or 27, but he seemed like a teenager, very bright-eyed. Really how we got to know each other is we played this other folk festival – it was at the beach, and they had all these vacation rentals that they got for the artists, and they just happened to put us in the same little condo. We just hit it off and have been friends ever since. It took us a couple of years before we even started playing music together, but we would go to shows together a lot. Jake was new to Austin at that point, and I was showing him around and introducing him to the good bands in town.

On the song ‘Self-destructor’, you sort of address where your drive for music comes from, which I’m sure is a question that often gets directed at you. You sing, “Mine was put there by my parents, a place for me to hide/ And if I didn’t have it, I probably would have died.” It stands out as a single, but you feel the weight of it in the context of the songs that come before, like Day of Judgment’, which revolves around your upbringing in quite a detailed and visceral way. Can you talk more broadly about the role music had for you growing up in relation to these songs?

First off, I’m really impressed. That’s very thorough listening. I’ve had a few interviews so far and no one’s taken that out, so thank you for listening. But I… yeah, I had a hard childhood. My parents were extremely religious, and it’s kind of a small, cult-like religion. It’s very repressive and judgmental. I don’t know how to explain it, really, other than they think most of the world was going to hell. So, music was a lifeline. After seventh grade, I was homeschooled and cut off from the world in a lot of ways. I was 13 in the year 2000, so Napster and downloading music was the thing. I was just at the house, downloading music, listening to music, and it was my only contact with what normal people were like. [laughs] My parents and upbringing were so unusual, and even my town was very small and conservative. As soon as I picked up a guitar, I was writing in my room a lot. It was a two-story house, and my room was upstairs, and I could play guitar and sing all night without my parents hearing. It saved me through some really hard times.

Was music also an escape from that world, or were you sort of subconsciously writing about it?

I don’t know. At the time, I was just writing songs about girls. [laughs] It was a very basic, primitive drive to write songs. Maybe it was also to be understood. And I was obsessed with the idea of being a rock and roll star – as a kid, you’re dreaming, anything is possible. It’s so long ago, it’s hard to understand what the motivations were back then; you’re just doing it, like breathing.

One thing that struck me is that while there are songs about romantic relationships on the album, it really addresses family directly, all the way through to the closer. From a lyrical perspective, was it daunting to have that be an overriding thread on the album, rather than including more veiled references?

I just write very literally and directly; that’s just my writing style. Partially because if I’ve written a song about someone, I want them to know it’s about them. [laughs] That’s how I move through songwriting, I try to be as honest and vulnerable as possible. It’s just upfront, and that’s the story. I understand some people are more private or some things are too personal to share, but I don’t think I ever feel that. Like I said, one of my drives for songwriting is to be understood. If I can do that in plain language and have it be clear what I’m talking about, then I feel like I succeed in those moments.

But I think that’s maybe what people like about the songwriting, too. As a kid, I was always frustrated when I’d listen to other artists and wanted to know more of the story. You hear a song and you’re like, “What are they talking about?” I want there to be a story that’s easy to follow along. I grew up listening to a lot of grunge music, I was really into Nirvana and Alice in Chains, all of these ‘90s alternative bands, and everything is so obscure. The lyrics are nonsense sometimes. I think sometimes my writing is almost a reaction to that.

The final song on the record specifically, ‘Why Don’t You Believe Me?’, feels like a plea to be understood. It’s not just plainly presenting a story, like you said, but almost like a letter. Was that a conscious way of making it even more direct?

I’m not sure. I will say, there’s a lot of flow to it. It’s often the opposite of self-consciousness. A lot of times, writing, you’re just tapping into something; some people think it’s the universe, I think maybe it’s just your subconscious. I don’t really know what it is, but you just get into a flow. I think the best songs, you’re maybe not thinking too much, you’re just doing it. It’s not something I’m really thinking about.

I’m curious if it’s the same for the instrumentation. ‘Day of Judgment’ is also one of the noisier songs on the album, which is indicative of a larger musical shift from Bummer Year. Would you say that the themes of these songs ended up defining the direction you went with them musically?

This is a roundabout response, but I write the songs alone, and I come up with the chord progressions and words by myself. Then I bring the songs, kind of fully-formed but just guitar, to the band, and then we arrange together. They’re very separate, in a lot of ways. I don’t think about that aspect of it a lot. We get in the room, and we start working on a song, and we make choices based on just what we think sounds good. I think the shift in the sound from one record to the next has to do with there being a lot of time in between. The first record was recorded in 2018, and we had to wait a long time to put it out because of the pandemic. Those songs are from 2015 to 2018, and most of these songs were written during the pandemic. So, I think there’s just a shift in style because there’s growth in what we were listening to and interested in.

And then the other thing, I think Jake is fully formed as a guitar player now. When the first record came out, he was figuring it out, but between the two records, he’s become outrageously good. I think guitar players are like songwriters too, in the sense that they find their voice or style, and I think he has found his style. I think that had a lot to do with it. Specifically with ‘Self-destructor’, I never would have arranged a song like that. When he started playing the guitar part on the verse with the sixteenth notes, it made me angry. I was like, “Why so many notes?” I was immediately againist it, and the other guys in the band had to be like, “No, no, it’s cool.” So, some of it’s just a push and pull. A lot of what I think we do well is the juxtaposition between Jake and me. We have very different brains and very different musical interests, and a lot of the sound is those two things synthesized.

I’m interested in that separation you mentioned, before and after you bring the songs to the band. The story of Lived Here for a While, as it’s laid out in the press release, is framed between two accidents: one during the launch party for Bummer Year in April 2022, and the other on the first day of your tour in July 2023. I understand that these songs were already written before Jake’s accident, and I’m curious how they existed in your mind before you had to think about recording or performing them, and the ways they were transformed afterward. When you think back on it, how do you conceptualize that trajectory?

Most of these songs, like I said, are from the pandemic. The song ‘If It’s Gone’ is a breakup song – I went through that breakup kind of on day one of the pandemic. Everything was shutting down, SXSW got cancelled, and I was in this band with my partner at the time. We had a tour planned for April, and the day she cancelled the tour dates, she broke up with me. [laughs] There’s a couple of songs – the last song on the record is an old song, it’s from 12 years ago. I had recorded it in a much more stripped-down version, and I had always wanted to do a bigger, full-band recording of it. That song felt connected to some of the other family songs, because it’s about my mom – there are references in ‘Self-destructor’, and ‘Can You See Me Tonight’ is about my mom, and ‘Day of Judgment’, so it just felt very connected. But most of the songs are from that time during the pandemic – before that, I was kind of stuck. I wasn’t writing a lot before, and that relationship ending, for whatever reason, everything was just flowing, even the songs that aren’t about relationships.

And then with the stuff with the accident, I guess it does affect how they were recorded because it was so soon afterward. We started the recording like three months after the accident with Jake, I think. I don’t know – it feels like the accidents have affected every part of our lives, and yet I don’t feel them in the writing yet. Even the new songs, like, I haven’t written anything about those accidents. It’s weird. Especially the last one, where we all could have died. I don’t know what that is. I don’t know if it’s like my brain doesn’t want to deal with it, but I don’t feel it in the songs. It doesn’t feel connected, you know what I mean? It’s such a part of the press release, because a lot of times, people are looking for a story to tell along with the music, so it feels significant – and it is. But when I think about those songs and that record, I don’t think about the accident. They feel separate, or they feel like they’re from two different things, which doesn’t make sense.

I feel like there’s the expectation that the story of the songs and the story of the band have to be intertwined. And maybe maybe one day you will write a song about it, but that line just hasn’t been drawn yet. Even if it doesn’t feed into the music, can you describe to me, in any tangible way, what it meant for you to stand by each other after each accident?

With Jake’s accident, where he got the skull fracture and fractured tailbone and everything, that one was really wild because as it was happening, it was not clear what the outcome was going to be. Traumatic brain injury is very different for everyone, and he was very messed up for the first few weeks, so it wasn’t clear – I didn’t even know if I was going to be making music with him. I was at the hospital every day – me and his mom and his girlfriend at the time were more or less caretaking, advocating for him to the medical professionals. And afterward, the medical system is such a mess here, having to set up all the follow-up appointments is such a pain in the ass. I was over at his house a lot after, so it was just a lot of time with him and myself.

Once we got home from the hospital, it was clear that the music wasn’t affected. Even though he was so wonky and he was saying crazy stuff, just very different personality, he came home and started playing guitar immediately, and it felt normal, like the music part was just totally untouched in his brain. I thought that was really fascinating. I think that sort of changed my brain around what we’re doing. Everything can be taken away so quickly. I bought an acoustic guitar from a friend during that time period; I have a friend who hand-makes guitars, and they’re really expensive and I had put off buying one for a long time. But I realized that the only thing you have a little bit of control over is yourself and your writing. Everything else – people can die, bands break up, things happen and change. That accident, even though Jake experienced it, really shook me up a lot.

The second accident – I feel like that one affected the guys more. My brain, after we got in that van accident, immediately went into crisis mode, trying to figure out how to finish the tour and move through it. I don’t know that that brought us closer together; if anything, they were a little upset at me [laughs] for trying to push through too hard. I think it did bring us closer together eventually, but at first – I remember I was in the hospital, we went to the emergency room afterwards, and I was trying to figure out all this stuff to get back out there. I think that’s just the way my brain works. When things are traumatic, I want to get into the logical world and fix things. I think the guys were really beat up and struggling after that.

But I also think a huge part of our story is just perseverance. We’re all a little bit older – a lot of indie rock bands are probably 10 years younger than us that are in the position we’re in. A lot of that is we just never gave up, we kept writing, kept doing things. I was in Austin for 15 years before anything happened as far as a record label and putting the pieces together. A huge part of our story is: we’re dialed in, and this is what we want to do. Everybody has their life set up, their jobs are flexible so we can go on tour whenever we need to. It’s just how we move through the world at this point.

When you were driving to those solo shows, what was going through your mind? What did that time alone solidify in you about the band, music, or just yourself?

I really enjoyed playing those shows. When I left to play the shows, I didn’t know if the band was going to come back or not. The guys were a little more banged up than I was, even physically, especially Jake and Phil, who were in the back seats and got thrown over the seats in the wreck. Initially, I decided to play those shows solo because I felt some guilt around – the booking company put in all this work to book these shows, and they only make money if we play the shows. It just felt terrible to cancel everything. My thought process was: maybe the band sees me out there, they’ll want to come, maybe they’ll heal up a little bit and think, “We should get out there.” And that’s what happened.

Playing those solo shows – there’s nothing more therapeutic than playing music. That’s what it’s always been for me. Getting to play a show in a different city every night, seeing your friends, singing your songs is so therapeutic. It just felt incredible after going through such a traumatic event. There’s no place I would rather be than doing that. And then when the guys joined me – we met up about a week in – it felt like we were indestructible. And some of those were bad. There was a couple of shows that were not well attended, felt kind of bleak. [laughs] But it just felt like we could get through anything at that point. It was nice to do a few shows alone, but I was so glad to have the band back out; rolling into a town as a unit, as a team, you’ve got your buddies, you’ve got backup if anything goes wonky.

You used the word therapeutic, and you’ve talked about having gone to therapy for 10 years. That kind of seeps into the language of songs like ‘Self-destructor’ and even the way you’re talking about these experiences now. How do you see the relationship between music and therapy? Are they separated in your mind, or do they feed into each other?

They are so closely related to me. Music was therapy before I had therapy. They are the same thing; in my mind at least, you are analyzing your brain. When you go to therapy, you’re talking out with another person, and maybe they point out things you didn’t realize, or through that process you’re shining light on different parts of how your brain works. Everybody has things from their childhood, these little patterns or ways they move through the world that maybe don’t serve them anymore – maybe they did when they were a kid, and maybe when you’re an adult, it doesn’t work the same way, so you kind of need to change.

But writing songs is like that, too, because you learn things about yourself that you didn’t know. Things will come out in songs that you are not aware of, they were just in your subconscious. When I write new songs, sometimes I take my guitar to therapy. I talk about songs with my therapist directly, we talk about the lyrics. It’s very connected. I would not be able to do the things I do musically without therapy. That is the only reason we are in the position we are as a band. I failed for so many years because I wasn’t fully there; I felt like I wasn’t ready in many ways. There was a lot of self-sabotage, not trusting people, not letting people in. Those journeys are very connected to me.

Given everything we’ve talked about, why did the title Lived Here for a While feel fitting? The “for a while” of it, especially?

It’s interesting. When we were talking about the title, we were throwing around album photos as well, like the cover photo. I was looking at that house, and I was thinking about how I’ve always been a renter. I’ve never owned a house or anything. I lived in Austin for 17 years. Me and my partener moved to a small town outside of Austin, but in those 17 years, I probably lived in at least 12 places. That house on the cover really reminded me of a house I had lived in previously, kind of shabby and drab and sad. The fence is in disrepair because the owners don’t really care, that kind of thing. It feels connected to a lot of what the songs on this record are about. There’s a lot of goodbye in the lyrics, they’re a lot about making sense of the time before. The way I think about this record a lot is moving from my 20s and early 30s and saying goodbye to the things that didn’t serve me. Even in that context, it’s almost like I lived in that world for a while and then moved on to where I am now, which is a totally different space.

There’s just something so temporary about always renting a place. So often, you’re forced to move; they sell the house or the rent goes up. You don’t have much control over the situation, so you have to move through it with grace. You’re like, “This is just a place where I used to live, and now I’m moving forward.”

How does that compare to the idea of home for you? Does it feel more permanent in any way?

I’m not sure. I think I say it in the line in ‘If It’s Gone’: “I always feel so lonely when a lover leaves my life.” I haven’t talked to my parents in 12 years, and I don’t have a relationship with them. So it’s like, I don’t go home – I don’t go to my childhood home. I don’t go back to my hometown. In some ways, a lot of times, my relationships are the thing that I’m most tethered to. And I also think homeownership sometimes gives people a false sense of security or a false sense that things are unchanging, but things are always changing, and you’re just riding the wave of what’s happening. It’s a little bit present in ‘If It’s Gone’, but I’ve been getting really into meditation the last four years. So much of it is the breath, and the practice that I follow is connected to Thich Nhat Hanh and the idea is that home is the breath. A lot of the mantras, when you’re doing a walking meditation, one of the things they say is, “I have arrived. I’m home, in the here, in the now.” Returning to the breath – in some ways, that feels more like home than anything else, because it anchors you into what you always have, which is the present moment.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Good Looks’ Lived Here for a While is out now via Keeled Scales.

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