The Bitterroot Band: It's just plain fun to get people riled up with that noise
|Delanes Brain Photography|
Gimme Noise caught up with band members Lee Henke, Ryan Acker, and Vinnie Donatelle in advance of their Thursday Turf Club appearance, which will celebrate the release of their debut EP, Mason Jar, to discuss what's inspired their sound, what it's like bumming around on tour, and how they keep their audiences engaged.
Gimme Noise: Your band was founded in Mankato -- tell us how you got your start, how that community fostered your development, and how your sound has since evolved.
Ryan Acker: Lee and I had been writing and playing music together for a few years before meeting up with Vinnie. The blues/rock band Lee and I were in had recently fallen apart when we started playing and writing new songs with Vinnie. We were all going to school at the time and were initially playing just for fun at open mics in Mankato. We were shocked at the amount of positive response we got from playing simple folk tunes. We eventually made a habit out of playing every Thursday at this open mic. The crowds kept growing and getting more rowdy every week. We really fed off of that energy. Our sound was pretty rough and aggressive at that time. We were pretty much trying to play as hard and as fast as possible. Since then, I think we have a little better control over our playing. We are much more focused on vocal harmonies and strong songwriting.
Your sound definitely resides in the meeting place between traditional folk and raucous rock. Can you tell us about your preference for a more aggressive style of playing, and also about what inspires you to play more gently, more softly, when that time comes?
Vinnie Donatelle: I grew up listening to mostly folk, punk, and psychobilly, and my reasoning for picking up the upright was entirely motivated by that. I love the fast, aggressive playing that makes your arms feel numb by the time you're done. I feel like we all love the energy that comes with that, too; it's just plain fun to get people riled up with that noise. That being said, I drink probably an unhealthy amount of coffee, so that probably has something to do with it. As far as the more gentle and soft side goes, I like it because it gives us a chance to explore the nuance within the style we play: subtle word choices, dynamics, harmonies, and the little things which make a well rounded song.
What bands or songs have served as inspiration for you?
Lee Henke: I really find a lot of inspiration from older musicians under the blanket of blues and Appalachian folk genres. I feel like those musicians really had a lot of real-world feeling in their songs. Players like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and more recently Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash, and Tom Waits are some of my favorite storytellers. There is something about being able to write a song with two or three chords and ultimately meaning so much more than if you used 30 chords and some key changes. Simplicity, to me, means more, and is almost always more challenging than over-complicating.
VD: Well, all the bands whose shows my brother would sneak me into when I was younger: the Devil Makes Three, the Horrorpops, the Necromantix, Flogging Molly, Gogol Bordello, and the Andrew Jackson Jihad all got me interested in writing and performing music that has energy, grit, and something that needs to be heard in it. But especially Gogol Bordello -- I heard the sound of that fiddle when I was 14 as I was kind of losing interest in playing, and instantly fell back in love with the instrument.
There's been a notable insurgence of folk/roots-rock in popular music of late -- did the rise of this form on the radio inform your participation in it, or on the other hand, would you say you feel a need to react against it? How does its recent popularity sit with you?
RA: When we started this band, I don't think anyone was thinking about jumping on any popularity surge of folk music. We just wanted to play the songs we were writing in the form that felt the most natural to us. Writing songs with an acoustic guitar and a fiddle, makes sense to play them live with an acoustic guitar and fiddle. The willingness of a crowd to accept this genre is definitely helpful and impossible to ignore. I think it's great that a kid can turn on the radio or TV and hear the Black Keys or the Avett Brothers. When I was a kid, all I heard on the radio was teen pop and boy bands. Fortunately, my older sister had a great CD collection that I stole from regularly. I think that the public being exposed to a wider variety of music genres is a great thing these days. Folk and Americana music has been around for a long time and I think it will be around a while longer. The fact that it is in the public eye right now doesn't dilute it at all for me.
Audience participation -- dancing, stomping, hollering -- seems an important part of the experience of your kind of performing. Do you ever play for audiences that just won't move? How do you handle it?
VD: Yeah we play a lot of shows, and sometimes we just choose absolutely the wrong venue to play -- it happens. Everybody reacts differently, but when I see that, I find myself focusing a lot more on hitting every single note and pitch right. We seem to just hone in and play a tighter set, though it might not be as aggressive or intense.