Blacktop Mojo: gators, whiskey, guns... and a little band from Texas

Blacktop Mojo

“We’re a bunch of small town guys who decided to start a rock band,” says Blacktop Mojo singer Matt James. “And we’re too far down the rabbit hole to quit now.”

Hailing from Palestine, Texas — a small town 110 miles southeast of Dallas most famous for its dogwood blooming season — Blacktop Mojo formed in 2012, brought together by a love of good-time rock’n’roll and the lifestyle that accompanies it.

“Matt and I actually met through some mutual friends at a bar,” says drummer Nathan Gillis. “We were fairly inebriated at the time, and Matt told me he was playing at the coffee shop in town that he worked at. I showed up at the coffee shop the next day, heard him sing, and thought he was pretty good, so I invited him back to my house to jam. When he showed up with his guitar and a giant bottle of whiskey in hand, I knew I had found the right guy.”

Since their self-released debut album I Am hit the stores in 2014, the band — who also feature Ryan Kiefer on lead guitar and vocals, Kenneth Irwin on rhythm guitar and vocals, and bassist Matt Curtis — have gone from strength to strength. With a sound built on the kind of giant, thudding riffs that have given Black Stone Cherry and Soundgarden a career, the band were recently asked to support Bon Jovi at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, while their thundering cover of Aerosmith’s classic Dream On has racked up over a million views on YouTube.

Influences? The names that come up in conversation run the gamut from Alice in Chains to Boston, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Led Zeppelin, Waylon Jennings and Lynyrd Skynyrd. “We all really listen to everything from old country music to metal to folk and everything in between,” says Matt.

Now it’s album number two. Burn The Ships is released this week on Cuhmon Records, and features 13 tracks of hard-hitting, air-punching, arena-ready anthems and bruising ballads. You can hear it below.

How is Burn The Ships different from I Am?

Matt James: When we did I Am it was our first time in a studio setting and we only had about two weeks of pre-production before we went in to record, whereas on Burn The Ships we knew how to get in the studio and get work done and also had a lot more time beforehand to construct the songs.

Matt Curtis: We’ve also been together as a band a lot longer for this one and Kiefer and I had a lot more contribution in the writing since I hadn’t joined the band yet for the first record and Kiefer was just getting started with them at the time.

Nathan: There’s definitely a natural progression between the two records that comes from us each individually playing more often and getting more practiced at our individual instruments, and also a progression in our collaborations as we’ve all gotten to know each other and learned how to work together.

What did you learn supporting Bon Jovi?

Ryan: We learned that no matter how big somebody gets in their career it’s always important to treat everyone with respect and be kind to everyone. Jon was very nice to us and his crew was amazing. They made us feel very welcome.

Matt James: We also got to see how a big arena production like that works too. It’s a massive task to put on a show like that and it was very cool to see it from the other side.

Matt Curtis: I learned that it’s all the same, only the names will change.

What makes you different?

Nathan: We all feel that individually there’s nothing really that different about us. We’re all pretty average musicians, but when we step into a room together to record or to play live, something happens, and people seem to connect with it.

Matt Curtis: There’s some crazy energy we all feel when we get together and play.

Matt James: We have a decently eclectic group of influences, and we all grew up in different ways, so to take five people’s unique styles and ways of doing things and mold that into a singular thing is a pretty cool thing to be apart of.

You describe your interests as wrestling gators, whiskey, fire, and shooting guns. Please explain yourselves.

Nate: Well, what would you do if you were face to face with a gator?

Matt James: We like to have a good time. We grew up in a rural area of Texas, so we like to shoot guns. There’s nothing quite like squeezing the trigger on a sweet piece.

What do you hope to achieve as a band?

Nate: We hope to make a positive contribution to the world of music that reaches people and brings joy to them like all of our favourite bands do for us.

What other bands from Palestine should we look out for?

Nate: One awesome local band that we really enjoy listening to is The Bigsbys. They’re more blues/roots rock, but they’re really talented.

Burn The Ships can be pre-ordered now.

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Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.