Interview: Sugarland's Kristian Bush on No. 1s, country evolution and the chorus of 'yes'
'The Incredible Machine' marks a new era for the country duo, in more than one way
Katie Hasty | Wednesday, Oct 27, 2010 4:04 PM
Kristian Bush was in a very good mood. Yesterday, one-half of the country duo Sugarland was preparing for the band’s appearance on “Ellen,” where he and Jennifer Nettles would be sharing airtime with the First Lady. It was assumed, too, that Sugarland’s new album “The Incredible Machine” was about to bow at No. 1 on The Billboard 200, which it did this morning. The single “Stuck Like Glue” this week is still rising at country radio after more than a dozen on the charts.
But Bush, on a larger scale, is also happy because “they keep telling us yes.’”
“Jennifer and I… we don’t dream small. We always set out with big dreams. And we keep throwing those ideas out there,” Bush says of Sugarland’s handlers and label, Mercury Nashville. “They haven’t said no.”
There’ve been requests like, Can we tour overseas? Should we tour before the albums out? Can we make the album sound like this? Could we co-produce? Can we play stadiums? “Yes, yes, yes.”
Of course, the chorus of yeses is helped by the fact that this Grammy Award-winning outfit sells literally millions, starting with 2004’s “Twice the Speed of Life,” in an album era where positive expectations are curbed by double-digit drops in sales percentages year to year. The band gambled by making “Incredible Machine” its least capital-C Country-sounding album yet, but admits that the genre is one that thrives on change.
“Pop country, alt-country, folk, Americana, bluegrass… There are more versions of country than anything else I’ve seen,” says the former rock band guitarist. “It’s not about the instrumentation or a country lifestyle, it’s more about, ‘Do you like it? Do country lovers love it?”
[More after the jump...]
Below is an abridged chat and Q&A with Bush, on his biggest dreams and embarrassments, the future of fan access and that damn hat of his.
… on “The Incredible Machine’s” multi-genre approach within country
This album is provoking dialogue. I think that matters that it is, that it’s like, Hey, everybody can come to the table and talk. Depending on how old you are, depending on your iPod, depending on who said “Hey man, listen to this song,” I’m not sure that you can tell who’s who in any genre, even in country. What’s really fascinating to me is how much country has this tradition of stretching the [definition].
Each kind of generation of bands forgets how they got here. Waylon Jennings came out and they’re like, that’s not Patsy Cline. And everyone panicked, like, “I don’t know what happened to country music but this isn’t it.” Or it was Johnny cash. Every five, ten years, you get to someone like Garth Brooks or Shania Twain. At the time, we all forget that, and there was a moment where everyone lost their minds and went, “Oh my God.” But then you claim it as your own, the soundtrack to your life. I love that country music survived every time and became something else. It’s a healthy part of it, one of the most traditional parts of it.
… on their cover art and imaging
We don’t put ourselves on the cover of our records. I’m not sure that what we look like has anything to do with what you’re listening to. I think that putting our photo on there would involve the awkward vanity of looking back at weird old photos. Like, let’s avoid the mullet problem immediately.
From an image standpoint, we want you to be able to identify that you’re looking at as the new record and not the old record. Basically, you can tell your friends pretty easily what this one looks like. In a lot of ways, that’s the messaging -- that it’s not who we are, but what we believe. I’m really proud of this album’s logo. It says a lot of things at one time.
… on hijinxs with the human-sized hamster balls at Sugarland’s concerts
Sometimes I fear that the crowd could carry us all the way out into the parking lot. And they could. But the craziest time I was in there, I split my pants. I swear, I was swinging above all the people… you’re supposed to get out of the ball, put your hands in the air, let the crowd go crazy and have the relief of you getting out of that thing. But I’d known what’d happened so I just do all I can to not turn around and somehow get a guitar up and on me and somehow get it to cover me up.
… on his history of hats
I remember seeing that eBay tab for “Buy Now” and then all of a sudden I got myself a cowboy hat. A couple months later, we got signed. I was worried that I’d suddenly get quizzed on George Jones album histories or something.
When one of my kids was five or six, we found this fedora left over at the shop. I put it on ‘cause he liked it, wore it somewhere and our stylist was like, You gotta wearing those kinds of hats everywhere. It just keeps going. It’s another example of evolving in country music, how the imagery shifts.
It didn’t always used to be like this, but today now men are more the peacockery type in country music. And for women, there’s no difference between them and movie star.
… on Keith, Reba, Shania, Kenny, Johnny and the fan meet-and-greet
I love how at some point country music, you lose your last name. We used to be first-name-last-name, but now it’s “Kristian and Jennifer.” There’s a familiarity about country music. A little like NASCAR, a very interactive sport, and as a fan you want the chance of meeting [the driver] to be real.
I spent 25 years clearly understanding that I’m not gonna meet Bono or the Edge. But then it happened at the Grammys when we were all backstage and I just about fell out of my shoes.
Today, though, you can join our or somebody’s fanclub and be like, “I really wanna meet-and-greet in St. Louis.” And it can happen. Just with Internet access, you can open the door 16 times more than you could’ve before.
But you’ve also got a problem of too much information. Now there’s things you don’t wanna know, like about Blake [Shelton’s?] bathroom. Maybe that should just be for superfans.
… on current accomplishments and Sugarland’s next biggest goals
First, I would say it’s no small feat having a No. 1 today. Kudos to everyone, everywhere who did this. It is truly an “incredible machine.” Whether it was the record company or our own crew, it’s the people that really are the backbone in all this. It’s the fans who wanna buy it this week, because it matters to them that much. That’s a big deal. The zeroes have changed in the last 20 years, but fans’ dedication didn’t. It’s got me walking around reassured, y’know? It’s a kind of an album that has generated a lot of conversation and no matter which part of the side of conversation you land on, fans have arrived and like it.
For big career goals? I’ve always wanted to do a “James Bond” theme song. There’s “Saturday Nigh Live” -- always wanted to play that show and I’ve never done it. I’m open to collaborations, I like the trend of continuous “yes.” We’ve done a Bon Jovi and got a Pearl jam song on a country record, so I’m really looking forward to find out what kind of friends I could make based on things like that.
… on the expansion of their sound and next projects
There’s no tellin’ what we’ll make next. We love all the different spices you use to make your own gumbo.