I wrote the article below for the Shepherd Express in November 2019, but it never appeared online, only in their print edition. It seemed like a good idea for it to make its digital debut now with Certain Stars' upcoming show at Circle A with Thee Fine Lines on Saturday, March 7! I'm also planning a Thee Fine Lines Q&A, so look out for that as well!
Certain Stars’ Chris Hernandez says he once hated country music, but the twang supremacy of Doug Sahm, John Prine, Steve Earle and others proved too strong for him to deny. Not only has Hernandez become an unabashed country fan, but the influence has made its way into his band’s music – just witness the majesty of the pedal steel-powered title track on Certain Stars’ superb new album, The Devil Made Whiskey.
Hernandez realized that he found himself relating to country songs the most, so he wasn’t surprised when his pen pointed that way too. “It just feels right that it came out that way,” he says.
Now, before you think Certain Stars -- a band began in 2002 and named after a Superchunk song by Hernandez’s brother/bassist, Kyle Hernandez -- has gone completely honky tonk, consider the emphatic chorus of “The Devil Made Whiskey”: “Bless my soul/with rock-n-roll.”
Indeed, rock-n-roll is referenced in sound, lyric and spirit throughout the new album, Certain Stars’ third full-length and their first since 2012’s The Great Destroyer. “I used to dream about rock-n-roll,” sings Hernandez on “I Don’t Think Much (About That),” a song that also boasts a country influence, by the way. “I used to think that it would save my soul.”
And it’s the Pixies “Gigantic” that comes to mind on “Bass Guitar,” a co-write with fellow vocalist/ guitarist Chris Voss that reflects on the somewhat large number of bands with one female member who plays bass. Drummer Greg Hein has suggested that the band just mention Cheap Trick when people ask what they sound like. After all, everybody likes Cheap Trick, he reasons.
Voss mentions influences ranging from surf music to Guided by Voices to Paul Westerberg and various others. “There’s always that amped up rock-n-roll feeling on our songs,” he says.
Chris Hernandez and Voss split the songwriting on The Devil Made Whiskey, and each one points to the other as having written their favorite song on the album.
For Hernandez, it’s Voss’s “Even I Dream the Humiliation,” which ends the album officially. “I find myself listening to it on repeat,” he says. “I love the heavy part with the very loud guitar. I could listen to it all day.” Voss praised the “anthemic” nature of Hernandez’s “All the Beards” (“They don’t need you/wouldn’t be you/wind them up and they might want to kill you.”)
Interestingly, the Devil Made Whiskey has its roots in songs Voss was writing that were very brief and lo-fi in nature that intrigued other members. “It was kind of what lines do I like, and can I write a song about this in under two minutes.” The one minute, ten seconds “A Post Stroke Curly” that leads off the album comes from this period in Voss’s songwriting. The band also includes the demo version of Hernandez’s touching “BBQ King (For Cosme)” as a bonus track.
While Voss and Hernandez wrote all the songs for the new album, other members have contributed songs on past efforts. From his standpoint, it works better to have multiple songwriters in a band, Voss says.
“It stays more interesting that you don’t have that one voice,” he says. “With just one guy, it’s like, ‘Another song about love? Come on, man.’”