Heavy metal hillbillies
Local metal band unearths its country roots
Chico, CA 95928
“Here, take my card,” Chris Andersen said as he pulled one out of his pocket in the parking lot of the Tackle Box Bar & Grill. On one side of the card was a picture of seven men in cowboy hats holding their instruments in a field just as the sun falls below a distant orange-blue mountain range with the words “Northern Traditionz” resting in the fading sky. On the other side was the name “Esoteric” in hazy, smoke-swirled lettering—the “o” a globe and the “t” a mushroom.
That night, inside the Tackle Box, as the racing engines roared in the background across the street at the Silver Dollar Speedway, you could probably guess which side of that business card was tearing it up on the hay-bale-lined stage. It wasn’t Esoteric, the long-time Chico crew that plays a self-described version of metal called “ganja-core,” with bits of reggae mixed into a Rage Against the Machine-like heaviness.
On stage that night was Northern Traditionz—a band the members of Esoteric started as a side project—and they were providing the well-lubricated crowd with just as energetic, if not nearly as loud, a party as their heavy alter ego. And the appreciative Saturday-night crowd kicked up plenty of sawdust on the dance floor as the band churned out a smooth and spirited classic-country sound, with a bit of rock ’n’ roll mixed in. Northern Traditionz plays at the Tackle Box regularly; in fact, between Nor Cal bars and wedding receptions, they play more often than Esoteric these days.
For now, they do mostly covers of classic country artists like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Hank Jr., Gary Allen and Garth Brooks. When they play Merle Haggard, you’d swear The Hag was on stage himself. But they also play originals, featuring the band’s own heavy, Southern-country sound. “When I say original, it means we made this shit up!” lead vocalist and guitarist Kenny Williams said to the dancing crowd in the dimly lit, tin-roofed room.
“Most of us were raised on country,” Williams said, talking about how the members of Esoteric made the big switch in styles. He said many of the members of Northern Traditionz grew up playing country together before they ever started playing metal.
“I’ve known some of these guys for over 20 years, and we’ve played music together for almost 15 years, so it is like a family, it really is,” he added.
“[Playing country is] pretty different. I get to do a lot more singing and not such heavy singing or screaming and open the music up a bit,” Williams said. “Everybody is pretty comfortable doing it, so we’re going to try to keep pushing both bands.”
Sometimes Northern Traditionz will actually play warm-up at Esoteric concerts, opening up with an entire country set and then coming back out as Esoteric. Williams said that the crowd doesn’t always know what to make of it, but as they’ve broadened their genres, they’ve broadened their fan base as well.
The genesis for the band was when they agreed to play country tunes at the 50th-birthday party of their bassist Josh Mossi’s father. “It started out as just a fun thing,” Andersen said. “But we did so well that at least two or three people booked a show that night.”
Soon after, the Esoteric boys convinced their “Uncle” John Henry—Mossi’s uncle—to play guitar and sing for the new band as well.
“Personally, I’m amazed at how the boys made that transition from metal/reggae into country,” Henry said. “I’m strictly country, my daddy played with Marty Robbins and people like that, but when it comes to Esoteric I bow out. I don’t play that kind of music,” he laughed.
Northern Traditionz is currently working on their first CD, Hell of a Time, which they hope to release at the Tackle Box in October.
The members of Esoteric will continue mixing it up by keeping both bands active. They still enjoy each other, and are growing as musicians through both genres, Andersen said.
“There’s more space for each of us [in Northern Traditionz], more breaks to play, and we can sit back and appreciate what everybody else is doing,” he said, adding, “but we love Esoteric: Balls to the walls!”