Wetzel bringing rowdy ways to Headwaters Country Jam
July 5, 2023
Nine songs into his current album, "Hell Paso," Koe Wetzel inserts a 56-second-interlude where he raises a toast to people who like the album, then drinks to those who have hated it so far, before concluding with a big, fat kiss-off to those who think Wetzel has no business being called a country artist and is a disgrace to the genre.
"Yeah, people get pissed off whenever you tell them that we're country and then they listen to our stuff," Wetzel acknowledged in a recent phone interview.
That commentary, which is best taken tongue in cheek, is perfectly in character for Wetzel, who makes no secret about his rowdy ways and no apologies if his hard-hitting music doesn't fit someone's idea of what qualifies as country.
And with "Hell Paso," he's made his hardest rocking and edgiest album yet – to the point where even Wetzel might well agree with those who consider it a rock album and not at all country.
That musical direction gets established at the outset of the album as Wetzel and his backing musicians launch into the song "Creeps," which sounds like it could have fallen off of an Everclear album during the '90s, with its big riffs and grungy 100-percent rock sound. The hard-hitting sound carries through to tracks like "April Showers," "Money Spent" and "Better Without You," which have an alt-rock bent. In fact, the album is almost half-way through before a bit of twang seeps into the hearty ballad "Oklahoma Sun" and a little high and lonesome guitar opens the emotional ballad "So Low." But even those songs pack enough grit and punch to be considered as much rock as they are country.
The thing is, Wetzel doesn't go into his albums pursuing a predetermined sound or style. That was the case with "Hell Paso."
"I didn't go into it thinking it was going to be a rock record. We just went into it knowing we wanted to do something different than what we had done before. I think that was kind of what pushed it to be as edgy as it was and more edgy than what we had done before," Wetzel said. "It just kind of came out that way."
On "Hell Paso," the music and lyrics flowed out quite effortlessly once Wetzel, some songwriting buddies and other musical partners in crime set up shop at Sonic Ranch Studios, a residential studio near El Paso, Texas that has drawn raves from numerous acts that have recorded there. Wetzel's experience was similar.
"It's just a magical place. You're about 25 minutes south of El Paso and you're 200 yards from the border of Mexico. You get out there and there are no distractions," he said. "It's a big pecan orchard, man, and once you get out there and you get into the studio, there are Picasso paintings on the wall and there's every kind of guitar you could ever think of. Just the vibe you get while being out there, man, it really helps bring out what you're trying to get out of it."
The recording process was also decidedly smooth, Wetzel said, noting the bulk of the music was recorded during the first two weeks in the studio.
"We would add, you know, little tiny things throughout once we had vocals on it, but for the most part, man, the music came really quick and really fast," he said.
A native of Pittsburgh in east Texas, Wetzel, 30, began his music career after an ankle injury sidelined him from playing football at Tarleton State University and he dropped out of college. He quickly gained traction as he started blending rock and country with touches of hip-hop, rap and punk to create a distinctive sound.
Within 18 months of playing concerts multiple nights each week around Texas and Oklahoma, Wetzel's shows were starting to sell out, while by 2020, his three albums – "Out On Parole" (2015) "Noise Complaint" (2016) and "Harold Saul High" (2019) had generated combines sales of 200,000 copies, a half dozen singles and 500 million total streams.
Still, Wetzel felt he needed the resources of a major record label in order to achieve true national and international popularity and signed with Columbia Records. He titled his 2020 debut album for the label "Sellout" as a cheeky response to fans who thought he would soften his sound and bad-boy image to fit into the mainstream country world.
That hasn't happened, obviously, and Wetzel's popularity has continued to grow, to the point that his tours now take him predominantly into arenas, amphitheaters and prime slots at festivals. His shows, which he said will feature upwards of seven songs from "Hell Paso" to go with a selection of material from his previous albums, have scaled up to suit these venues.
"The production, man, it's pretty insane," Wetzel said. "We've never done anything quite like this before. Last year, we brought in a lot of pyro and a bunch of stuff like that. Now it's kind of doubled on everything we did last year."