The Federales: This group has basically been a crash-course in country history

Categories: Interview
Photo By Dan Zimmermann

Like any good alt-country rock band, the Federales came together over their shared love of Townes Van Zandt and Old Overholt. Six veterans of the Twin Cities music scene formed a new creative outlet in 2012, and their harmony drenched, pedal steel driven sound reflects not only a knowing nod to music's past, but the fresh vibrancy of a group who came together at the right time.

The Federales are set to celebrate the release their debut full-length, Blues, Bourbon, and Burritos, tonight at Icehouse along with Reina Del Cid & the Cidizens. And ahead of their big night, we were able to catch up with James Gould (electric guitar), Kark Wahoske (banjo, acoustic guitar, vocals), and Ben Miller (acoustic guitar, mandolin, vocals) to discuss the origins of the band, how their live show has helped shape and refine their songs and their sound, as well as their love of burritos of all kinds.

Gimme Noise: How did the band come together initially? Was it a six-piece straight from the start, or did more people gravitate towards the project as it gained steam?

Ben Miller: James and I met through some mutual friends, and at parties we always ended up off in a corner talking about Doc Watson and old country music. We got together a few times to try playing some of that stuff, and then decided to recruit a few people so we could try it out live. I called Andy [Schuster] and our former drummer Ben Cook-Feltz, since I'd played with them for years, and James called Karl for the same reason. About a year later, James mentioned that his friend Mick [White] was learning to play pedal steel, so he was in, and then when we needed a new drummer James suggested his buddy Joe [Evans].

You all have been in your share of bands, both currently and over the years. What were you looking for with the Federales, both sonically and creatively, that wasn't necessarily as prevalent in your other outlets?

BM: I had been in a few bands that played modern "country" music (some of which is good, don't get me wrong) but that was just as a sideman so I really wanted to start a band and sing and write, none of which I'd done before.

James Gould: I think it's great to make music that has so much nuance. No matter how many times you play the music, you can always find new depths as you explore the nuance and feel of the music. It's really fun to play with that.

Karl Wahoske: I was brought in to be another vocalist and to play banjo. I had expressed interest in learning to play banjo before, and this was the perfect excuse to go for it. Also, having come from a fairly progressive rock band previously, it has been really enjoyable to play pretty straightforward music. I still want to make it interesting to listen to sonically, but it doesn't need to be a PhD-level experience to be awesome.

You guys have been playing live quite a bit before heading into the studio to record Blues, Bourbon, and Burritos. How did those shows help these songs tighten up and take shape?

JG: It's funny and difficult to listen to those early shows because we were all still trying to figure out how to play this music. Since we're mainly an original band, it took us awhile to find our sound and apply it in a meaningful way. Live shows are the best way to do that. The audience is your judge. You can tell right away when you play a song if the audience is getting into it. If the audience isn't digging it, it's probably not a very good song, or you're not playing it very well.

KW: The more we play, the better I get at banjo, the more I can add to the songs instead of just keep up with them.

BM: We've definitely figured out a spirit to the songs that wouldn't have been there without playing them live in a variety of situations. If you write a song about drinking whiskey late at night in an empty bar it's not a bad idea to find out if it actually feels appropriate for that atmosphere.

Was the addition of burritos in the album title your way of bringing some levity to a collection that is drenched in some rather tenderhearted, alt country anthems? Or was it just a matter of telling the world how much you, in fact, love burritos?

KW: We love burritos of all kinds -- the food, the brothers, the small donkeys -- everything.

BM: I really do love burritos and in college I would sing "oh ohhhhhh, burrito / I'm gonna eat you" to my food whenever my roommate and I went to the burrito place across the street. The title track is actually about a sad guy sitting in a bar, having a few strong drinks and listening to "Hot Burrito #1" by The Flying Burrito Brothers, but he could probably be thinking about going to get some food later too.

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