Kevin Costner may be best known for his dramatic and comedic roles on the big screen, but the award-winning actor and director has a genuinely twangy rock 'n' roll side, as well.
As the acoustic guitar-strumming frontman for Kevin Costner & Modern West, he's already nine years and four full-length studio albums into a diligent side career as a musician, songsmith and bandleader.
"I'm a little bit more than just an actor," Costner says, speaking with Charleston Scene on the eve of the official opening week of his latest film, "Draft Day."
"I'm a father, I'm a friend, I'm a businessman and I have a band," he says. "For me, it's important to step outside and let people see another side of me."
Modern West first sparked up as a country-rock project nearly 25 years ago, when Costner hooked up with actor, musician and songwriter John Coinman in Los Angeles during an acting workshop. Costner and Coinman shared similar tastes in music and clicked well as they explored their own ideas for melodic original songs.
"I grew up right in the middle of the '60s, and we loved harmonies and songs with great stories," Costner says. "I loved all of the different camps of music from that time, from Motown to Carole King and James Taylor. I kind of saw it all, but I don't define myself by anything other than asking, 'Does a song feel right, and can it speak to somebody?' "
Side project to full band
As colleagues and friends, Costner and Coinman casually jammed and recorded various material as an acoustic duo before taking a big leap into full-band territory.
With Costner based in southern California and Coinman based in Tucson, Ariz., the duo invited bassist Blair Forward, drummer Larry Cobb, guitarist Teddy Morgan, fiddler Bobby Yang and guitarist Park Chisolm into the project.
Cobb, Morgan, Yang and Chisolm played together previously in a Tucson band called the Roving Boys.
"John will forever be a better songwriter than me, tenfold," Costner says of his longtime musical partner. "But the songwriting is really shared within this group. There's a lot going on. The truth is that I break all the ties on it, whether it's my song or somebody else's. I ultimately decide whether we continue to work on certain songs or perform them live. We don't really have arguments about anything. My bandmates understand that I need to be comfortable about a song because on stage, I have the audience on my shoulders."
Modern West's early adventures were casual and fun. They assembled whenever it was most convenient, oftentimes when Costner was in the middle of a long shoot and wanted to blow off steam and switch gears.
"I like that we've developed a healthy relationship with our audiences," Costner says. "The reason we started playing out was to perform wherever I was making a movie at the time, to be a part of the community."
In the mid-2000s, they gigged around the U.S., Europe, Asia, Canada and South America.
In 2008, they booked their first-ever Charleston show at the Music Farm while Costner was in the area working on a thriller titled "The New Daughter."
Costner fell in love with the historic venue, and he led his band back to the club in 2011 and 2012 for sold-out shows.
"The Music Farm has been terrific for us to play, and we really enjoy it," he says. "Our music somehow translates well down there, and the people are fun, so this is a good place for us to land.
"If you look at the cover image of our debut, 'Untold Truths,' it's from that 2008 show at the Music Farm. My wife Christine took that photo from upstairs."
The band released "Untold Truths" in 2008 on the Universal South imprint. They based the guitar-driven collection on a solid roots-rock/Americana sound in the vein of classic hits by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen. The band followed up with two European releases, "Turn it On" and "From Where I Stand."
"I think the point of doing anything is to try to get better at it, and I think we have," he adds. "We still experiment with new songs. We're not strangled by any giant success or anything."
New musical moods
Kevin Costner & Modern West's most recent release, 2012's 19-song "Famous For Killing Each Other: Music From and Inspired by Hatfields & McCoys," veered away from convention.
The conceptual album drew from the stories of "Hatfields & McCoys," the History Channel miniseries in which Costner recently starred.
Whereas the band's previous studio albums followed a fairly straightforward pop-rock formula, there's a moody, airy sparseness to the delicate, more acoustic guitar-based tunes on "Famous For Killing Each Other." The 19-song collection also served as the series' soundtrack.
"I think our early material was kind of all over the place," Costner says. "There were songs we were doing for the first record, and there were four songs we were doing for 'Swing Vote' (the 2008 political comedy/drama in which Costner starred).
"The first time we did a full-on concept record was with 'Famous For Killing Each Other' because every song had to do with that Appalachian feud and the feeling that went with it. We really held the line, even up to a Baptist hymn we did for it. It's also kind of a mish-mash of a lot of stuff, but it was what we had to offer at that moment."
Taking it on the road
"I don't feel like I need to prove that I'm more than just an actor or anything, but I am a performer," Costner says. "And when you're a performer, you ask yourself, 'Are you willing to perform live?' That's why I love doing this with the band."
Costner rarely likes to rush new material into a recording studio; he'd rather season young songs with at least a few on-stage workouts with the band. Trying out new songs on stage in front of an audience can be painful for bands when things aren't quite as tight and dynamic as they could be, but it's a healthy and necessary process.
"I record new songs a lot better after we play them live," Costner says. "Some of our latest songs are more ballad-like and slower. We discussed how we might fit them into the set, and we wondered if they might slow everything down. But I think you have to play what you feel and what you're writing, and you explore it."
Coster and Modern West are in full swing this season. Their current spring tour kicked off last week in Maryland and winds around the Midwest before heading back toward the East Coast and the Carolinas.
"The band is very nimble, and we do stretch out," he says. "We're very proud of the songs we wrote and recorded for 'Famous For Killing Each Other,' and we'll probably play five or six brand-new songs at the Performing Arts Center in North Charleston.
"Ultimately, we have to stand on our own two feet, and we have to be proud enough to put our music in front of people. I think you have to be worthwhile to expect people to come and listen to you play for two hours. You want to have some fresh air and a few surprises, too. People still just show up a little bit curious, so we have to just hit those guitars really hard the first time and wake everybody up. Everything that comes after that can just be fun."
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