Artist Spotlight: Copper Chief

With their self-titled debut album already released, we jumped on the chance to learn more about Copper Chief and how the band from Austin, Texas came to be. “A little rock’n’roll, a little country, a little swamp, a little psychedelic, a little roots, a little blues, and a whole lot of chutzpah…” is how the band describes the new album and we agree it is everything that makes up the guys of Copper Chief and their unapologetic sound. Check out this tell-all from the group consisting of Mike Valliere (vocals, guitar), Rio Tripiano (vocals, lead guitar), Justin Lusk (vocals, bass), and John Jammall II (drums)!

TMP: We’re sure you guys get asked this a lot, but how did y’all come up with the name Copper Chief?

CC: Mike had been toying with the idea of using it as a pseudonym for his music once he was out of college at The University of Texas and ended up sitting on it for a while.

Mike: I had the idea that I could use it and it could be any kind of arrangement.. like it could just be me, or it could be an 8 piece band. That, along with the fact that even most kids I went to high school with couldn’t figure out how to spell my last name, “Valliere.” Probably not as exciting a story as some group names, but it’s ours now and we think it sounds pretty kick ass.

TMP: Y’all have been in the scene for a while, can you provide us with a little background on y’all’s journey leading up to the formation of Copper Chief?

CC: This one’s a doozy. Mike played his way through college at UT around Austin predominantly as a solo/acoustic act. During this time, Rio was playing guitar with The Washers. The Washers got invited to play the MusicFest in Steamboat in 2013 and Mike went through a deal with Shiner Beer and Shiner’s Saloon, which he played a Wednesday residency at (and still does). They ended up meeting each other in someone or another’s 7th floor penthouse at the Grand, which is where a lot of the heavy hitters tend to be residing. They laughed about the fact that they were far and away probably the youngest people at the afterparty and exchanged info. Sometime that February after MusicFest, Rio posted a photo on Facebook that he was in Austin for the weekend hanging out, so Mike invited him to jam a happy hour and a show or two if he wanted to while he was there. He came to town with his guitars, $80, and a box of cereal and never left. Mike and Rio played together over the next two years, adding a drummer and playing under the name “Lonestar Rejects”, which none of us liked, haha.

Although playing together, both were considering starting their own projects and Rio was staying with Mike, members of Midnight River Choir, and members of Sons of Fathers for this time. At this point, Justin was playing with Bri Bagwell and was a mutual friend of both Rio and Mike, and John was playing with Steve Hamende doing some honky-tonkin’. Eventually Mike and Rio decided to join forces over 3 bottles of wine and a late night in Mike’s backyard. It was a no-brainer to ask our buddy Justin to join on bass.

Mike met John after getting his info from a mutual musician friend while looking for a drummer last minute to fill a duo gig in Austin while hauling ass back from playing in Louisiana the night before. John was on his way back from a Fort Worth gig the night before as well and took Mike up on the offer with only hours to spare. They jammed the show and the music felt really good to both and just clicked. Justin had been joining in on the gigs at this point and it was probably around August/September of 2015. We invited John to join us on one of our Sunday residency gigs at Handlebar Austin, and then again for a show at Blind Pig later that month. After the Blind Pig show, we went out for some drinks on 6th [Street] and asked John to be a part of what we now know as Copper Chief. Within the end of that month, we were in Boyd Street Studios in Stephenville (which has since become Melody Mountain Studios relocated onto LJT’s property) with Josh Serrato and Ben Hussey cutting the record. We were the last band to record in the double-wide trailer that was Boyd Street Studios.

TMP: You guys are obviously not your typical “Texas/Red Dirt Band”; how would you describe your style and sound?

Mike: I feel like we were all influenced by the first recognized wave of “Red Dirt”, at least I undoubtedly felt it, growing up in North Central Texas right on the Red River in Muenster. The Texas/Red Dirt movement was an eye opener for me because it allowed me to have my rock ’n’ roll right alongside the inescapable country tendencies from my surroundings and raising. We’re all country boys who love rock ’n’ roll. It’s hard to put a finger on it, and believe me we’ve tried, haha. We feel like we only sound like Copper Chief. Our sound is an amalgamation of everything around us, but not defined by those singular genre boundaries. Anytime I try to describe our sound, it just ends up as a run-on sentence. I’d say we’re Texas music with rock ’n’ roll swagger and a country-cool feel. Roots rock ’n’ roll country blues southern grit groove music. It covers a wide range of the musical landscape from hard-driving rock ‘n ‘roll and screaming guitars to slide and organ swamp sounds to Red Dirt raised Texas country with spacey pedal steel and tasty licks, all tied together with 3 part harmonies and a lot of energy. Call it roots rock ‘n’ roll, country rock, modern Southern rock ‘n’ roll country blues soul, or even crazy, but it’s Copper Chief without a doubt. We like to boogie.

TMP: We’re really digging the new, self-titled album!  With this being your debut record, what are you hoping to accomplish with it? How have things been different since releasing the album?

Mike: Thanks so much! I think with this being our first album as Copper Chief, both Rio and I had songs that we had that weren’t ever fully realized until they became a part of this outfit. It allowed us to give these songs a home and sort of clear the board for the next chapter in our songwriting and evolution as a band. We wanted this album to say “Hello world, we’re Copper Chief. Now, watch this.” These songs are as much a part of what the Chief is as an entity as we are as members, because working through these songs helped define what we would be as a group.

We went in the studio within weeks of becoming an official band. We wanted to represent what we are currently and also what we are capable of upcoming as well. An in-depth introduction that lets the listener know we’re not afraid to make the kind of music that comes from us organically and that trying to fit something into a box that it doesn’t necessarily belong in is something that we refuse to do. We wanted to let them know we are bound only by the limits of our imagination and creativity. We hope to share our craft, our passion, and establish a place for ourselves in the musical landscape with this album.

TMP: Give us some insight as to what release day was like for you guys.

Mike: It was a little surreal. At least for me, this project has been long awaited. About 8 years or so to be a little more exact. Even when I didn’t know Copper Chief was the album I was holding out to make for those years, I knew I would feel it when it was time. And let me tell you, it feels good. To be able to share so much of what you are, what you are a part of, and what you have created with someone via just the click of a button or the handing of a disc is a crazy feeling, in a good way. We played a show on the rooftop deck of Shiner’s Saloon on 5th and Congress [in Austin] on release day and got to celebrate with some of our favorite people all night. They cleared their schedule for it and were one of the first public places to begin playing us on their house PA. I’ve actually maintained a Wednesday acoustic residency there for about 8 years and so right down to the staff, it was all Chief family that night. Looking back on it, it was a great show and pretty dang cool actually. It’s even more invigorating when you are surrounded by people who are excited about your music as much as you are, which is something we keep encountering and look forward to sharing that excitement with many more as the album spreads to more new ears.

TMP: Josh Serrato and Ben Hussey have been on a roll of putting out badass albums; what was it like working with them?

CC: We can’t say enough about those guys. They’re great. Great friends, people, musicians, creative minds, and great at what they do with the studio. In our liner notes for the album we thanked them first for “helping us get the most out of this collection of songs without ever encouraging us to be anything but ourselves and to ‘get crazy with it.’” It helps that they were already our friends before we hit the studio with them, but it felt like a good-time hang with your buddies. We worked at our own pace, and made sure to hit the local watering hole by the time we were at our wit’s end to decompress. Anyone who has recorded or been a part of the process can testify to the fact that it is draining and can kind of drive you crazy in a certain way. They made sure to get us out to decompress and prevent that.

We’d usually start the day with Ben, then Josh would take over during the afternoon ‘til we needed a break and then accompany us to the Bull Nettle to throw some dice and catch a drink around some faces that aren’t the same 5 or 6 ones you’ve seen all day, haha. We’d come back from the bar, and more often than not, someone would have a crazy idea, or we’d get to talking about a certain song to where we were really feeling it and enveloped by it and Josh would be the first one to start plugging in mics and pressing record. Some of those late night moments are some of the most defining moments and tones on the finished album. That was kind of the theme of our recording. Nothing was off limits. We didn’t follow a standard protocol or work schedule. They knew that was what we needed to be Copper Chief, and it’s good that they did, because we only know how to and only have interest in being us. You don’t have to do what someone else dictates is right to succeed, you just have to do what is right for you. They helped foster that and worked with us in a way that allowed us to succeed in creating a definitive Copper Chief album. And then there were also nights where the late night only lead to heated arguments about Led Zeppelin riffs and tones and empty beer cans. The next morning, Ben would come in and sort through the previous late night’s cuts, getting rid of the embarrassingly bad, and keeping and polishing the gems that did occur while tape was rolling. It was a tag team approach that they tailored to help us create in the way that we needed to. They care about the music they put out and suiting the process to the artist. I believe that is why so much great stuff comes out of there.

TMP: Two tracks that really stand out to us are “Body Aches” and “Jericho”.  Can you provide us with some background on them?

Mike: I wrote both of these tracks, which stand in pretty stark contrast to each other content-wise.

“Body Aches” is a song about being tired. Tired emotionally, physically, mentally. Tired to the point that you don’t want to force yourself out of bed to deal with that freight train worth of shit coming down your tracks. It’s a song about being in that fragile state that, while extremely personal for me, I feel like most everyone can relate to. When you reach that kind of mental exhaustion, no matter how hard you try to get up and conquer your day, it only takes one thing to completely derail it. It feels like you’ll never be happy again and all you want to do is be done with feeling like that. Sick and tired of being sick and tired, ya know? I wrote that song several years ago after an event that left me feeling pretty derailed myself. I was unhappy and I couldn’t seem to change that. It came fast from the pen on a late night that I was probably disturbing my roommates while writing it. I was upset and the muse just came all at once. I didn’t fight the urge and spilled my guts onto paper at my desk with my guitar. We kept it pretty driving on the album and I feel that really puts a sense of urgency and duress into the mood of the song. The vocal recording of it is pretty raw and, if I recall, may have been one of those late night calls by Josh. It’s definitely one I have to put myself in a certain place to do justice to it. As desperate as the song lyrics sound, I hope it can lend a bit of comfort to anyone else who may be in a similar position, if only in the knowing that someone else has felt it too, and made it through the other side to tell the tale.

I tout “Jericho” as the only love song I have ever finished. As much as I revere the concept of love, I’ve never felt my strength lay in love songs, so I suppose this one is my exception to the general precedent. It took me about 4 years before the song reached the arrangement it has now (like I said, hasn’t ever been something I excelled at, haha). I moved to Panama City Beach, Florida for a summer season years ago, which is where I think I started the song. It wasn’t so much about a real person for me as it was about the concept that there may be someone out there who could finally reach me. I moved there alone, not even personally knowing the people that I would live with and it was somewhat of a coming of age experience, being completely on your own 1000 miles from anyone or anything you knew. I definitely felt the loneliness at the time, but I could see real love around me so it must be attainable even though I “didn’t think it could be found.” I especially looked at my parents. That’s a love I yearned to know. That’s where the song started with the first two verses, and the chorus, which I wrote separately and to different melodies. One day it just made sense to me to put the two together because it was the complete message I was trying to reach the whole time. Those two parts belonged together, much like the song is about two hearts that belong together. It was a struggle finishing the song much like love can sometimes be, but you have to let the walls down even if it’s hard. Man… that sounds corny. I wanted to paint a picture and tell a story with the verses to create the example and let the chorus be the overarching bridge that connects the story with the message. This song makes my mom cry. Love is a powerful thing. Don’t be afraid to let someone tear down those walls and share it with you and don’t be afraid to be the one knocking at the gate on those walls for someone else to let you in.

TMP: If you had to pick just one song from the album, which song are you the most proud of?

Mike: I don’t think I could do that. I’m proud of all of them for different reasons. I’m proud to feel like this album is the best representation of each one of these songs that we were capable of.

TMP: Do you guys have plans for releasing a lead single?

CC: We just signed on with Clay Neuman and Vision Entertainment and we’re so excited to be working with them. It’s been a great experience so far. Our first single from this album will be “Jericho.” I believe it shipped to radio Friday February 9th. We’re thrilled to have the chance to share our music on such a potentially larger scale. We felt “Jericho” was a good choice because love is something that is accessible to everyone and we believe in the song. Who doesn’t love a good Texas power ballad? Haha. It has what we feel is a good story and it’s still got a bitchin guitar solo and harmonies so it represents enough of what Copper Chief is as a band.

TMP: As of right now, what’s been y’all’s coolest/best/favorite live show so far?

Mike: There have been a couple in the running for me, namely sold out Gruene Hall with William Clark Green and the Luling Watermelon Thump with Ronnie Milsap and Diamond Rio. November’s Gruene Hall is hard to beat though. Getting to play on that hallowed stage with so much history is a real experience. It was the first time we had all four played it together as “Copper Chief”. I think everyone who has played there had that first “moment” when you kind of get a chill down your spine and really feel the energy in that place. We all felt it. The perfect combination of the people, the old wood, the sweat, the smells, and the music – and it just hits you. It’s ethereal. The cherry on top was when we finished our set, the crowd tried to give us an encore. As the opener. The whole room was screaming “HAIL TO THE CHIEF” over and over. It’s an indescribable electricity when the crowd is just as into as you are. We couldn’t give the encore, but we walked off that special stage feeling great that night.

TMP: What’s y’all’s favorite thing to eat on the road?

CC: There’s not much this band won’t eat… haha. We eat a lot of Buc-ee’s. A decent intake of Chic-Fil-A and Whataburger. We also see our fair share of local diners. Peacock’s in Stephenville is a favorite. They have fried everything there. We’re basically healthy as an ox.

TMP:  What’s on the horizon for Copper Chief?

CC: We’re looking to take 2018 by storm. Between the buzz carrying over for us, the debut album, the radio single with Vision this month, some really great upcoming dates (some of which are still unannounced), a few other deals, all the energy we have, and most importantly the people rooting for us… the pieces are in place for a really kick ass year. April will be a big month for us. We’ve also had an opportunity come up just recently with John Schneider, who you may know as Bo Duke from TV’s Dukes of Hazzard. We will be playing his birthday celebration festival called “Bo’s Extravaganza” the first weekend of April and also got the invitation extended to play with him as his band for that fest and some upcoming dates. It’s Rio’s birthday weekend as well and we’re all pretty excited for the General Lee car chase at the event, haha. We want to share our energy live with as many people as we can this year, so keep an ear to the ground!

Check out one of our favorites and the first album single by Copper Chief, “Jericho”. And keep an eye out for the official video release…we heard the guys just filmed it live in Austin and it was a hell of a good time…







Author: Christina Ramirez

Editorial contributor for Texas Music Pickers and a whole-hearted collector of Texas/Red Dirt tunes and the stories behind them. You can also find me on the dance floor.

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