Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires

2 Loud 4 Texas (But Not the Rest of Us!):
Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires Stoke the Embers

On a Thursday evening in mid-September, I was unreservedly party/show-hopping during a visit to Athens. You can regularly do that sort of thing on a Thursday in Athens, because usually there’s little else to do there. The warm, late summer night climaxed with inebriated revelry sometime past midnight at the Green Room on Lumpkin Street, where Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires erupted with a raw, reckless fury that’s rarely encountered anymore. I’d heard and seen them before, so I already knew of what they were capable. But this time I just stood, or wobbled, front-and-center and let it plow me over at full-volume, invigorated by the passion that was near-anthemic at times, feeling like I was being lifted off the floor while blurting out witless testimonials to nearby friends and strangers along the lines of, “Isn’t this fucking band INCREDIBLE??!!!”

You can bet I woke up the next morning with a wrathful hangover. Didn’t matter, though, ‘cause I was still feeling high from that performance. This really is a damned powerful group. I would recommend them to anyone of any age, assuming they love rock ‘n’ roll. They exude a poetic, blue-collar grittiness that just really fits perfectly with their combustible blend of punk energy with rootsy Southern rock, country, soul and gospel influences. In fact, it’s gospel music that probably made the earliest impact on Bains, now 28. As a kid, he’d attend church with his parents, where he’d sing along to the hymns; additionally, two of his grandparents had been heavily involved with their church choir in Alabama, and his granddad gave young Lee valuable singing advice.

In 2010, after spending a couple years playing with Birmingham band the Dexateens, Lee found inspiration in the power of church music once again, forming a scrappy “gospel” group with some friends to play for the homeless at a local mission. He dubbed them the Glory Fires, after mishearing the term “glorifier” in a gospel song. A short time later, with a different batch of friends, he kept that name for the new rock ‘n’ roll outfit he was slapping together. Alive Naturalsound Records released their debut album in May 2012. Its title, There is a Bomb in Gilead, was yet another mishearing of a hymn lyric (“there is a balm in Gilead”), although given the turmoil in that region, the mistake makes more sense!

Though his hard-touring band – which has seen a few membership changes since the release of Gilead – is still based in Birmingham, Bains himself moved to Atlanta almost three years ago with his girlfriend, who’s getting her master’s degree in architecture and city planning at Georgia Tech; together they live in a house just off Euclid Ave. in the Little Five Points area. But when I spoke with Lee for this piece, he and the Glory Fires were, naturally, on the road. It was the afternoon before the final show of their longest tour yet, just shy of a month, taking them for the first time to the west coast and back. It was also a few days after they’d received the most media attention of their young existence – not for a new album (though one has been recorded and will surely see release early next year) or song, but because the clearly constipated owner of a Ft. Worth, Texas venue they were playing the night of Oct. 23rd deemed them too loud, and ordered the soundman to pull the plug on the band mid-set. By the next day, the incident had sparked plenty of online debate, blog/newspaper posts and conflicting accounts from both camps…

So, you’re the new bad boy of rock ‘n’ roll?

Lee Bains III:(Laughs) Yeah, I guess! Which is comical to me. It was one of those things where we were too loud for that venue. But it just kind of reached an impasse. We turned our amps down as low as we could without, you know, just taking the power out of our sound. And, uh, it still wasn’t good enough for them. At that point…that sucks. I mean, I don’t know what to say. You have the internet, you can read about our band, you can watch videos of our band and all that. And you can then decide to have us at your place. I can’t go and visit every venue that we play beforehand and explain to everybody how (we play.) The burden’s on them. And they wound up just kind of acting like babies. Like I said, I understand that we were too loud. But you’ve just kind of gotta chalk that up to a loss, when we’re there onstage. Hopefully you’ll do a more thorough job of looking into the bands you’re booking next time.”

From some of the accounts I’ve read, I got visions of people dining in the next room and running from the building with their hands over their ears.

“Oh my God, dude. The sound guy has done interviews (about it), and it’s pretty damned far-fetched. What they’re calling their ‘restaurant’ is a separate room. It’s sort of like a yuppie version of the EARL. You have a music room, and then it’s separated from this bar area by the kitchen… And when I was in there, the same sound guy who walks onstage during our set to put a damn potato sack over my amp is out front (before the show) literally pointing at his watch, saying ‘It’s eight o’clock – time to play!’ at the stroke of eight o’clock. And I was in the middle of a conversation with some people who’d come to see us. And he comes back up at 8:04 and was like, ‘You’re eatin’ into the set time here!’ (laughs) I’m standing in this area they call the restaurant, and there are literally three people in there – two dudes around my age sitting at the bar drinking, and then there’s one white-headed guy in there drinking. And he’s been there since we got there, so he’s probably pretty hammered, probably ready to go home. So we were obviously onstage while all this was going on, but from what I heard from people who went into that other room to get drinks, the two dudes were still there but the one old guy had left. And then Eric (Wallace), our guitar player, talked to a couple who said they had come to the place just to eat, heard us playing, and were like, ‘Fuck it, they sound pretty good – let’s go check them out!’ So they paid the cover and came into the music room. So, I don’t know, man. The sound guy, after the show, came up to me and was acting like my best friend, saying, ‘Man, I’m so sorry I had to do that, I just didn’t want to lose my job. The owner was telling me to do it. I think y’all were awesome. That was so rock ‘n’ roll, what you did.’ So I thought we were cool, and then the next day he’s putting stuff on Twitter about how I cussed him out. So I was like, alright buddy, hope you enjoy your fuckin’ flute-rock or whatever you enjoy at your place. What’s funny is there’s all these other (Ft. Worth) venues that are calling us (now) saying, ‘Hey, y’all come play here! We won’t turn ya down!’”

Can you tell me a little about the origins of the band? What became Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires aren’t the guys you were playing gospel songs with at the homeless shelter?

“No, they were pretty completely unrelated, but that’s kind of where the name came from. I was living in Birmingham, in a huge old house with six other dudes, and I’d been touring a lot with the Dexateens, for like two years. And the Dexateens were coming to a close, at least as far as touring. And I was pretty much just having an existential crisis about the whole thing. I’d invested so much emotionally into that, without realizing it, and as soon as it was done, I was like, ‘Holy shit – what am I doing?’ I just kind of realized how much stock I’d put in playing with that band – or in a band, period – and how much I sort of derived my identity from (that). So I felt like I was left there by myself, in a sense. I just started writing a bunch of songs about it. I guess part of the reason that I wanted to play in that gospel group with my friends to play at a homeless shelter at like a weekly service or whatever, was just that I wanted to reacquaint myself with the reason I really care about music. I love playing music, and I love the idea that music can strengthen people, and galvanize people, and inspire them. You know, we obviously weren’t getting paid, and nobody clapped for us, any of that. But I wanted to consciously start this next band with that in mind. I wanted to make it as little about the trappings as I could, and just about the art itself, about hopefully inspiring people or helping somebody in some kind of way, in that (way) that music has helped me.”

It’s interesting how much gospel music and churchgoing impacted your approach to music, by being surrounded by that at an early age. Seems like that’s more common in the South.

“And I think when I sort of stumbled into the all-ages punk scene in Birmingham when I was in high school, it felt like what I saw church music feeling like to my grandparents. In that I felt part of a community, and I believed what those people were singing on stage. The bands that I really cared about were singing and playing for some reason other than just to get laid or make a million dollars or do whatever. There seemed to be some sense of greater purpose to what they were doing. That really resonated with me, a lot. My grandparents, they were church musicians – that’s what my granddaddy was always all about. He was like, ‘If you’re singing right, you’re really just a channel.’ Most of the bands I saw in high school had no explicit connection to spirituality or religion or any of that stuff, but I felt that the sentiment was similar. And I really respected that a lot.”

Are you getting primed for these Swamp Dogg shows coming up?

“Hell yeah! He finally sent me the setlist. It’s lookin’ good. He’s definitely sticking to the Total Destruction/Rat On! era. I’m pretty stoked. Adam (Williamson, Glory Fires bassist and brother of their drummer Blake Williamson) is gonna play on the songs that we do, but the guy who’s playing bass on the Swamp Dogg stuff played on some of the songs on this record that we’re hopefully fixing to put out, and he also played in the Dexateens and is playing now with Drive-By Truckers. His name’s Matt Patton. He’s from Alabama too, but lives in Mississippi now. But he’s the guy that got me into Swamp Dogg, and when I sent him the email yesterday for the songs we’re doing, he said, ‘Man, I think I’m gonna start crying! This is a dream set!’”

Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires will back up Swamp Dogg, and knock out a few songs of their own, at night two of Stomp and Stammer’s 17th Birthday Weekend at the EARL, Saturday, Nov. 23rd. They’ll also be with Swamp the previous night at Athens’ 40 Watt Club.