Collin Herring is a little nervous. He fiddles with the butt of a cigarette, twisting and bending until it's just a pile of debris on the table next to his beer.
"A month ago, we had 900 hits on our Web site," he says, adjusting his glasses. "Now we've had 90,000." The Fort Worth native, who still works part-time at the Amon Carter Museum, is attempting to play it cool amid the excitement surrounding his sophomore release, The Other Side of Kindness, a literate and raucous mix of post-punk and alt-country.
The album debuted at No. 1 on a variety of online stores, including Miles of Music, the alt-country megacenter, outselling recent releases by the Old 97's, Drive-By Truckers and even Bright Eyes. The self-released effort may well prove one of those word-of-mouth wonders, the "you need to hear this" on the lips of every slacker who wants a discovery in his back pocket, a secret so cool that it doesn't even have a label. Pretty hip for a guy whose father plays in his band.
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"We let him get the money after the shows 'cause we figure no one will mess with the old guy," Herring says, laughing. His father, 55 and a semi-retired piano restorer, plays pedal steel on top of his son's crunching power chords. Ben Roi Herring introduced his son to music early on. "It was Neil Young at seven in the morning, every morning," Collin deadpans between beers.
Expressing little concern about living the club lifestyle in close range of his old man, Herring instead seems to relish the proximity. "There's something kind of mythical about getting really fucked up in front of your dad. But I've been down that road before, and I'm not going back," he quickly adds, referring to the recent end to his excessive partying days.
At 27, Herring is preparing for life as the next big thing. Shuffling between TV appearances in Dallas and Austin, as well as the CD release party in Fort Worth, he's tired but enthusiastic. "I'm excited over the attention," he says, "but nothing's really changed for me." Herring is genuine in his surprise at the recent success and certain his home base of Fort Worth is preferable to busting his ass in Deep Ellum.
Meanwhile, the online chatter for Herring has been overwhelmingly positive, and one listen to The Other Side of Kindness confirms why. It's produced by Dallas-area heavyweight Stuart Sikes, with a sound reminiscent of alt-rock icons the Replacements as well as such lesser critical darlings from the '80s as Dumptruck and Guadalcanal Diary. Herring's muse hovers somewhere between Hüsker Dü and Merle Haggard, a vast but engaging locale.
"I like Old 97's and Son Volt," he says, "but I don't like cliques and labels. I'm not alt-country. I just make rock music that has some pedal steel on it." Indeed, "Back of Your Mind," the first cut on the new release, is a pounding ode to rejection made even better by the lonely wails of Dad's broken-down instrument. "It's only got two pedals, and it's supposed to have four," Herring says. "Someone is supposed to send us a new one real soon."
He continues, "The songs on this CD were written during a very hard time in my life." That's evident in the lyrics of tracks like "Aphorism": "I need a new soul / Got a hole in my shoe / Reached in my pocket / Got a hole there, too." More direct and downtrodden is "Motorcade," which offers the lament "She says she's sick of me / I say I'm sick of me, too."
Adding to the intensity of the lyrics are the sometimes uneven performances. "I was hoarse and hungover every day we recorded," Herring says. Yet the rough edges bolster the songs' power, and Herring is satisfied with the finished product. "If we like the product, if my dad likes it, if it takes off -- it does. We don't really care."
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Two of the most surprising tracks are "Headliner" and "Flower Mound," both instrumentals featuring some sturdy rhythm work from bassist Jeremy Hull and drummer Billy Walters. But it's the violin of Eleanor Whitmore that gives both cuts their sense of yearning and hopeful remorse, providing a needed respite from the romantic gloom infusing nearly everything before and after. "I'm very proud of the instrumentals," Herring says. "They are the peaceful calm between the storms."
One of the best of the unhurried tracks is "Into the Morning," on which Herring sings, "All of her friends said she could do better than me," while the aforementioned "Aphorism" puts forward such depressed nuggets as "lonely is free" and "I'm a little offbeat / Maybe I should just hide." But in person, the good-natured but jittery Herring rarely gives a glimpse into his darker side.
"It wasn't really depression that fueled these songs," Herring says. "It was more like, 'What am I supposed to be doing right now? What kind of music should I be playing?' " He sits quietly for a few moments, mulling over his words. "Doing this album closed off a spiteful and angry period of my life." Lighting another cigarette, he adds, "This is the most in control I've been in a long time."
The Other Side of Kindness, however, is the sound of someone in need of control, someone used to the cruelties of life and love, someone well aware of the creative power of bitterness and longing. Collin Herring's nervous twitch might well be hiding something, his faint smile a cover for the emotions that heartfelt music necessarily demands.