Til Willis & Erratic Cowboy toys with roots rock

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Posted: Thursday, May 8, 2014 11:55 pm | Updated: 9:48 pm, Wed Jan 21, 2015.

Til Willis & Erratic Cowboy have made some strides in the Kansas City and Lawrence music scenes. Now, they just wish everyone would get their darn name right.

The trio has heard just about every incorrect variation: Electric Cowboy, Eclectic Cowboy, Elastic Cowboy.

“Erotic Cowboy — that’s my favorite,” laughs Willis, the Lawrence band’s lead singer, songwriter and guitarist. “Some day, we’ll probably have to record an album called ‘Erotic Cowboy’ that’s all ‘70s porn music with wah-wahs.”

Surprisingly enough, all of those descriptors fit — well, all of them except for ‘erotic.’ (Although Willis did tell St. Joe Live about a gig he played in Mississippi in which two older gentlemen dropped their pants and started dancing.)

Willis, drummer Matt Otting and bassist Eric Binkley always put on an ‘electric’ rock show full of energy and dramatic moments. The three-piece is certainly ‘eclectic,’ weaving together Americana, blues, roots, punk, soul, funk and jazz through its classic rock core. Heck, even ‘elastic’ seems accurate considering how much the group stretches itself every time it creates a new song or records a new album.

But, yes, ‘Erratic’ is most apt. The direction of the band’s tunes often veers unpredictably. For a group that frequently hearkens back to such classic roots rock greats as Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, Til Willis & Erratic Cowboy sure do play with some weird noises. In “My Own Time” (from the 2013 album “Crow, Soldier”), for example, the use of “pocket synths” gives the building powerhouse song a haunting, theremin-esque quality.

It’s difficult to pin such an adventurous act into any one genre. That’s why Willis, Otting and Binkley created their own.

“As a band, we’re constantly asked, ‘What style of music do you play?’ We lovingly refer to what we do as ‘future-rustic indie roots rock,’” Willis explains with a chuckle. “I think that confuses people enough that they stop asking, but gives them kind of an idea of what we’re doing.”

Throughout his long music career, Willis never has abided by limitations. Honestly, he didn’t know any other way.

“My favorite bands kind of did a little bit of everything — be it The Clash or Neil Young. Everything was always up for grabs,” he says. “I just thought that that’s what being in the rock genre meant.”

Willis says he’s often drawn to songwriters who pen vague, broken-but-meaningful narratives. He loves listening to attention-grabbing storytellers like Waits, Billy Joe Shaver and Kris Kristofferson. Willis has followed their paths. He says he never writes tunes with a complete story concocted in his head because the end result often feels too contrived. Instead, he starts with one intriguing line and builds from there. He takes a similar approach to writing the music. He starts with an interesting riff and builds from there.

“I don’t tend to think of a style to write in. I don’t sit down and think, ‘I’m gonna write a song that’s gonna have a bluesy tinge.’ I follow what fascinates me,” Willis says.

He often chases his fascination to groovy, catchy, diverse rock songs that deftly explore themes of love, lust and modern struggles. Many of his hometown fans have referred to Willis as “Lawrence’s Bruce Springsteen” and it’s not just because he’s a prolific local veteran. He’s earned it through his deep, raspy vocals and a comparable songwriting style.

Take the song “Working Down” as a prime example. Although it’s rich with hooks and boasts a Western lounge flair, Willis says the song was written in the spirit of someone absolutely beaten down. Inspired by news stories of hurricanes, Willis starts with the line “house under water” and stitches together a tale about the rising desire to give up on life. By the end, he gives his protagonist a chance to skip town with “five gallons of freedom” and “matches to spare,” but what happens is anyone’s guess.

“It’s about that feeling that no matter what you do, it’s not enough. And I think there’s a lot of people out there right now that feel that way. I know I feel that way,” Willis says. “... It’s a great, very American way to end this story.”

While “Working Down” remains one of his favorites, Willis has about 100 more songs to choose from at each gig, from the Latin-flavored “Blue Impala” and the British punk-inspired “Infected Moon” to the new alternative jam “January 8th” and the hard rock groove “I Can’t Dance.” Believe it or not, Willis has three albums in the works that should be released this year. One with Erratic Cowboy already has been recorded, but he says two more albums are on the way — in total, about 40 new songs will be added to his catalog.

Needless to say, Willis writes songs like a madman.

“I’ve always written like that. I always have tons of songs laying around,” Willis says. “I feel like if you’re going to be a songwriter, that’s what you do. You don’t just write enough songs for a new album and that’s it. I’m constantly writing new material, and at any time, I have at least an album and a half in some stage of completion.”

The band recently released a live album called “Live at Davey’s Uptown Ramblers Club” that was randomly recorded in one take, and Til Willis & Erratic Cowboy frequently has been blessed with radio play on 90.1 KKFI in Kansas City and 90.7 KJHK in Lawrence. When he’s not playing shows or writing songs, Willis is hosting his own weekly radio show called “Oscillator Radio” in which musicians improvise an entire 20-minute set on the fly.

The likable but creatively off-kilter Willis should fit right in with the rest of the lineup in St. Joseph. Til Willis & Erratic Cowboy will perform with Nebraska’s Universe Contest and local alt-rock bands Dsoedean and Cupcake at 10 p.m. May 9 at Legends Sports Cafe.

After that night, music fans in St. Joseph should remember the band’s name.

© 2015 St. Joseph News-Press and FOX 26 KNPN. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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