In rock journalism, the term supergroup is often doled out a little too easy. But Diamond Rugs fit the bill in the most valiant ways. They may not be household names like Harrison, Dylan, Petty, Orbison or Lynne, but just about every last one of them is a consummate pro who’s made a living touring and recording for 10 years or more—we’re talking about Deer Tick’s John McCauley & Robbie Crowell, former Black Lips guitarist Ian St. Pé, Dead Confederate’s T. Hardy Morris, Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin and Six Finger Satellite’s Bryan Dufresne.
Like the Traveling Wilburys before them, Diamond Rugs is pure diversion, casting off the chains of expectations that come with rock & roll success and getting back to the all-important basics—to that addictive siren song that set each of them on this path in the first place. For starters, the undeniable feeling of euphoria that comes from letting a wide-open E-chord ring into the ether for no other reason than to feel the reverberations. I’m talking about rock & roll in its most pure and uncorrupted form—a bunch of good-time buddies getting together to do what they love most, crank the amps and let it rip. Fun, damn it. Good-old fashioned kicks. Were they—like T. Hardy Morris says—just “dicking off” in the studio? Maybe, but when Diamond Rugs dick off they tap into that primal spirit that makes rock & roll endure.
The band’s new sophomore LP, Cosmetics, is a swinging, swaying set of impromptu party rockers that betray a hint of tomorrow morning’s hangover and the introspective clarity one can find in the come down. Let’s be real for a minute, though—collaborative albums like this tend to suck, sacrificing the cohesiveness and musical spark of a true band for the gimmicky allure of what might be when you toss a bunch of disparate hotshots together. This is not one of those albums. On Cosmetics, each musician maintains the distinct personality you loved about ‘em in the first place, while at the same time locking in like puzzle pieces, feeding off each other in a way that’d make most full-time bands jealous as hell, and leaving in their wake a breezy, wide-open, unpretentious set of rock & roll songs that beg you to dance your ass off. “Cosmetics are products you put on your body to make you feel good,” St. Pé says. “Our music is the same. If you wanna be smart, read a book. If you wanna have a good time, come see the Diamond Rugs.”
The band formed by chance back in 2011, when St. Pé, McCauley and Dufresne found themselves pounding beers in a Rhode Island hotel room after a Black Lips show. “We decided we were gonna start a punk project where all our songs were about weed,” McCauley says.
It’s the kind of late-night drunk talk that happens all the time amongst touring musicians, and usually it fades with the dawn. But in the wake of this conversation, what does McCauley do? He goes out and recruits his old tour buddy T. Hardy Morris, his Deer Tick bandmate Crowell and veteran Berlin. “Los Lobos are one of my favorite bands,” McCauley says. “They’re actually the first concert I ever went to, so having Steve involved is pretty surreal. I met him backstage after a show, and found out he was a big fan of the Middle Brother album I made with Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit. He was way into Deer Tick and the Black Lips, too—when I told him I was doing a record with Ian, he pretty much invited himself to join the band.”
So McCauley booked 10 days at Playground Sound Studio in Nashville, and—despite busy schedules—everyone made it out. By now, they’d dropped the weed schtick and had no major goals in mind except to hang out and make some music. Halfway into the sessions, though, they knew they’d stumbled onto something special—they decided to put the record out and dubbed themselves Diamond Rugs (D.Rugs for short). Their self-titled debut dropped in 2012 to critical acclaim, a buzzed-about performance on Letterman and a three-week U.S. tour.
While McCauley was the driving force behind the first record, St. Pé and Dufresne rallied the gang for Cosmetics. Once again, it took a little angling to make schedules work, but in the end everybody was stoked for Diamond Rugs round two. “You form these friendships with people on the road,” McCauley explains, “and you might not see ‘em again for a year or two, or longer, so it’s a nice way for us musician pals to keep in touch.”
Last summer, the band headed back to Playground Sound in Nashville, picking up where they left off. “From the first record to the second, we didn’t really change anything,” St. Pé says. “I’m a firm believer in, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ That said, there’s a little more introspection this time around, a little more depth, lyrically.”
On Cosmetics, Berlin once again played a significant role during the sessions, not only anchoring the sound with his gritty baritone sax, but offering key ideas on arrangements and production, and being a general instigator while still managing to keep everyone focused. “Steve brings a lifetime of knowledge—he’s a pro in every regard,” Morris says. “He’s good at holding the reins when we’re being too ridiculous, but at the same time he encourages so much fun cool shit. Really, he’s our secret weapon.”
Like Diamond Rugs’ debut—and some of the most classic records of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s—Cosmetics was cut to 1-inch 8-track tape. “When you have a three-piece horn section, guitars, bass, synthesizers, organs, multiple vocals, and you gotta fit it all on 8 tracks, it makes you think,” St, Pé says. “I call it the art of deconstruction. Nowadays, there are so many possibilities to punch everything in. But when you take all that away and force yourself to make it work on 8 tracks—if you give yourself those limitations, you kind of have to live with things as they are. But those imperfections are perfection—and they’re a big part of Diamond Rugs’ sound.”
There’s a tasteful self-imposed restraint at play on Cosmetics, even as the band beckons you into the wild, off-the-cuff abandon of its epic bar-band anthems. This is the work of a gang of one-time upstarts who are now seasoned pros in full command of their musical powers. They’ve been through a whole lot, and because of it they know what’s important, how to have a good time, when to push the limits, and when less is more.
“It’s not the notes you hit,” St Pé says. “It’s the notes you don’t hit, and D.Rugs do this extremely well. That’s one of the things I love about these guys.”