It's hard to tell whether to take Brent Amaker seriously. For example, check out the video for his song "I'm the Man Who Writes the Country Hits," which was banned from YouTube.[ Video is no longer available. ]
It opens with grindhouse film grain and an adult content warning, then cuts to a scene of a couple getting it on. Clad in his trademark all-black cowboy gear and a red cape, Amaker appears behind the grunting duo and shoves a guitar through the back of the man's head like a spear, splattering blood all over the woman's naked body. "Who the fuck are you?" she says dryly. "I'm the man who writes the country hits," Amaker responds, before bludgeoning her to death with the guitar and starting his twangy song.
But if his band is a joke--which he insists it isn't--Amaker is going full Andy Kaufman with it. Brent Amaker and the Rodeo, which plays Boise Saturday, June 22, at The Shredder, don their all-black or all-white band uniforms--boots, pants, pearl snap shirts and Stetsons--constantly on tour, and much of the time at home, as well.
"It's kind of become our life," Amaker told Boise Weekly. "I'm wearing my cowboy hat right now."
Even in Amaker's online profile for his day job as a State Farm Insurance rep, he sports a broad-brimmed white Stetson and formidable mustache.
"One of the fortunate things about being an artist is that you get to be who you want to be and nobody questions it," Amaker said.
Staying in uniform was one of the rules the band set for itself when it formed eight years ago at a Seattle bar. Other rules included restrictions on the amount of effects pedals the guitar player was allowed to use and instructions on how the bass player's strings had to be muted.
"To this day when we tour, we only bring socks and underwear and T-shirts," Amaker said. "[But] the musical part has expanded a bit."
Amaker, who grew up in Oklahoma, played in a series of failed indie and punk bands in Seattle. He and several friends realized they shared a mutual love of country music and a mutual loathing of its contemporary practitioners.
"We wanted to do something that was a tip of the hat to music that we liked," Amaker said. "So we had this crazy idea that we'd have a motorcycle country band."
The logistics of a band that transports its equipment exclusively by motorcycle in Seattle lasted about as long as you'd think. But its country and western roots remained.
"Western is about attitude and style. We play both country and western music, but we lean toward western music, which is that thematic," Amaker said.
Those influences are present in far more than the band's clothing choices. Amaker's voice is a earth-rumbling baritone and his backbeat is a two-piece rolling shuffle. His songs are about whiskey, love and revenge, all depicted as narratives about the rawness of life. Amaker might actually give Johnny Cash a run for his money. It's a sound that seems plucked from a Sergio Leone or Quentin Tarantino soundtrack, and is--by-and-large--a little too country for country audiences.
"We've played some authentic honky-tonks in Texas and Bakersfield, Calif., and those kind of situations are almost like The Blues Brothers, where people are ready to throw bottles," Amaker said. "Then we roll into Boise and play The Shredder and people get it."
Amaker thinks modern country fans struggle with his band because they're more interested in the pop-centric stuff coming out of Nashville. Amaker performs country to shock people the way punk rockers did--and outlaw country singers before them.
"I'm really into Iggy Pop and David Bowie and all that," said Amaker. "But I don't think there's a lot of difference between what Iggy Pop did and what Hank Williams did. The attitude is there. If you put it in the context of the time period, he was challenging. He was a badass. You have to put it in the context of what it took to shock people."
Perhaps one of the most shocking songs Amaker has performed is his cover of "Pocket Calculator," by German synth-pioneers Kraftwerk.
"We were on one of the bigger stages [at Bumbershoot], and a couple of weeks ahead of time, the organizers came to us and said, 'We're doing this scavenger hunt, where we're asking bands to play a couple of different cover songs and the people could go and find all of them and then enter to win a prize,'" Amaker explained. "At the time, that was one of our rules--no cover songs--because when we'd walk into bars in uniform, people would say, 'Play some Johnny Cash,' and it was about our music and our vibe. So we decided that if we were going to break our rule, then the last thing we wanted to do was something people would expect from us."
Amaker says his publicist happened to be in town for that gig and found the band immediately after the performance to insist they record "Pocket Calculator" as soon as possible.
That decision gave the band a jumping-off point to ease some of its own rules. The results of internally shaking things up can be heard on the band's just-released album, Year of the Dragon.
"There's some things that you wouldn't expect in the Rodeo," Amaker said. "There's sandpaper on songs and we still use the two-piece drum kit. But there's also a Moog [synthesizer]."
But for all the analog synths and vibraphones and effects pedals the Rodeo now embraces, Year of the Dragon still manages to sound like Amaker is sinking deeper into country. Imagine "Ghost Riders in the Sky," except with the ghost riders straddling fusion-powered rocket bikes for their spectral dash across the heavens, and you might get an idea of what the world inside Amaker's head looks like.
And that world appears to be anything but a gag.
"It's more me than any part of me," Amaker said. "Some people have the courage to go out and create a life for themselves. And as I've developed this project over the years, I've been lucky enough to let the real me out."