Tampa Bay scene staple Have Gun, Will Travel finds a new sound and sentiment on ‘Strange Chemistry’

CL’s interview with frontman Matt Burke.

click to enlarge (L-R) JP Beaubien, Danny Burke, Matt Burke, Scott Anderson, Ed Stork of Have Gun, Will Travel, which plays Crowbar in Ybor City, Florida on July 13, 2019. - Mike Dunn
Mike Dunn
(L-R) JP Beaubien, Danny Burke, Matt Burke, Scott Anderson, Ed Stork of Have Gun, Will Travel, which plays Crowbar in Ybor City, Florida on July 13, 2019.

UPDATED:7/11 12:10 p.m.

Turns out that writing and releasing a concept album about Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton can be exhausting. So tiring, in fact, that it can hurt a songwriter’s heart. That’s what sort of happened to Have Gun, Will Travel’s Matt Burke, who found himself in the hospital emergency room no less than three times in 12 months during the time between the release of his band’s 2015 album (the Shackleton homage, Science From An Easy Chair) and its forthcoming follow-up (Have Gun, Will Travel’s sixth full-length Strange Chemistry) due on July 12.

Anxiety attacks — and the terror that comes along with them — have been a lifelong struggle for the 43-year-old. He gets them as a result of playing music in front of people, which is in direct conflict with the fact that singing in front of people is the one thing Burke wants to do with his life. With each episode, Burke became more and more obsessed with a fear that his heart was racing so fast that he might have a stroke or heart attack. Landing in the ER revealed what was really going on.

“It was a combination of anxiety attacks and a heart condition called AFib, or atrial fibrillation, which is like an irregular heart rhythm,” Burke, told CL.

At the hospital, doctors had to inject a chemical that would chemically stop Burke’s heart and then allow it to restart again. The diagnosis just made the anxiety worse, so Burke finally saw a cardiologist who got him on a combination of medicines that made him feel like he had better command of the situation.

Controlling his heart, it turns out, led him to open it up in Have Gun, Will Travel’s songwriting.

If Science From An Easy Chair was a history book, then Strange Chemistry is a veritable diary. The 10-track, 39-minute release opens with “Blood On The Stage,” which is a promise to his bandmates and a general ode to acts who live by chords on a fretboard and die under stage lights show after show. “Against the Grain” is a song for Burke’s longtime partner. On “Mystery Of Mine” — which is an old song Burke never thought about putting on a Have Gun, Will Travel record — the narrator asks a lot of questions, but never gets the answers. Another revealing offering, “Tidal Wave,” directly addresses the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Burke says he never really meant to avoid in his band’s songs.

RELATED: Tampa Bay Americana favorite Have Gun, Will Travel returns with new video for "Against the Grain"

“It just never dawned on me to open up and talk about it in any of our songs,” he said. “Maybe finally feeling like I got a little bit of a grasp on it is what allowed me to, to feel like I can open up about it.”

Have Gun, Will Travel also tries on another new look for Strange Chemistry: rock and roll. Tom Petty’s influence can be heard on the record, and so can the band’s appreciation for the Pretenders, mid-’80s Springsteen and more contemporary bands like Dinosaur Jr., Nada Surf and The War On Drugs. Nowhere is that more evident than on muscular album highlight, “Born In the 1970s.”

Guitarist Scott Anderson — who utilized ‘70s microphones in engineering most of the album at the band’s Mile Wide Sound studio and rehearsal space — used Logic Pro plus a high-end Antelope converter and interface to harness the analog sound of an era when album-oriented rock dominated culture and then influenced two generations of rockers that came behind it.

Piano and organ player Ed Stork added synth to his repertoire while Anderson and Burke experimented with endless pedal, amp and guitar combinations. There are even drum loop samples from JP Beaubien and found sound from Burke’s phone. Bassist Danny Burke didn’t use his trademark stand-up bass once on the album.

“[We were] Born in the ‘70s, but we grew up in the ‘80s and early ‘90s,” Anderson told CL. “The sound of this record pretty much represents our collective influences mashed together and brought forward to now, and captured to the best of my ability at the time.”

Enemies of progress will lament Have Gun, Will Travel’s pivot away from an Americana sound that’s defined the band since its 2008 debut Casting Shadows Tall as Giants, but “Any Place But Here” finds Burke continuing to poetically project his frustration onto the world around him the way he did on “Freightliner” from 2011’s Mergers & Acquisitions. Overall, much like a lot of the band’s catalog, Strange Chemistry still also deals a lot in doubt and the duality of internal contradictions one has to battle every day. Album closer “The Dark & the Light” even paints harrowing pictures (sinking boats, demons) while allowing a glimmer of hope to leak into the narrative, too.

“It feels like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders like a ton of lead,” Bruke sings on the Byrds-esque tune. “There’s a battle tonight between the dark and the light, and the one that I feed will prevail.”

Have Gun, Will Travel celebrates every one of those sentiments at an album release happening at one of the band’s favorite venues, Crowbar, this Saturday. It’s a stage the group will hit over and again throughout the course of its career. Like Burke sings, during “Blood On the Stage,” he knows that place like the back of his hand.

“It’s a very direct song. And it’s basically just saying, ‘This is where we’re from. This is where we’re doing our thing,’” Burke explained. “We’re not going anywhere.”

There’s no telling which sound will prevail as Have Gun, Will Travel heads into the next era of its evolution, but one thing remains true, and that’s the fact that the heart — no matter what condition it's in — wins every time.

Have Gun, Will Travel Album Release Party w/Lauren Morrow/FayRoy. Sat., July 13. 8 p.m. $10-$15. Crowbar, 1812 N. 17th St., Ybor City. brokenmoldentertainment.com. Read our full Q&A.

Follow @cl_music on Twitter to get the most up-to-date music news, concert announcements and local tunes. Subscribe to our newsletter, too.

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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