The fact that the Howlin' Brothers chose to release their latest album on Brendan Benson's Readymade Records label might seem to some rather ironic. Their sound is pretty much the polar opposite of the punchy pop motif that Benson himself is known for, both on his own and as Jack White's band-mate in the Raconteurs.
Indeed, by even the broadest definition, the album Howl is an unequivocal roots recording, an evocative combination of bluegrass celebration and deep-bottom blues with total allegiance to authentic Americana. The opening track, "Big Time," sets the tone; a rousing combination of banjos, fiddles, mandolin, and ragtime revelry. Still, despite the spirited introduction, it quickly morphs into other arenas beyond a basic string band template. The decidedly Band-like designs implied by "Delta Queen," the boogie and bluster of "Tennessee Blues," and the jaunty, devil-may-care, or happy-go-lucky strut of "Just Like You" all affirm their multi-hued sensibilities.
In a day and age where pretence is everywhere and ostentatious attitudes dominate the charts, this three piece string band manages to do the improbable: tow tradition while also offering a reassuring change of pace. New Times recently spoke with the group's newest member, Ben Plasse, about the band's rootsy inclinations.
New Times: What inspires your fascination with traditional music?
Ben Plasse: Well, there are lots of things that make the old music more fascinating than most new music for me. For starters, that those old tunes have always been linked closely with dancing. I think in a lot of modern music there's too much emphasis on originality. You end up with too many chords, too many words, too many people trying to have their part stand out. Older music was all about people grooving on something together, so their friends could twirl their troubles away.
Plus, traditional music has proven to be sustainable, and not a fad. It goes a long way for your mindset. When you're broke, and on the road, and your transmission dies, it's good to know that there are festivals out there that have been running successfully for over 40 years. I just don't see there being emo pop festivals 40 years from now, but then, who knows? (laughs).
Can you give us an idea of your collective musical influences?
I love bent notes. I like things a little gritty, a little out of tune, never quite perfect. I try to draw inspiration from anyone I can, especially when I hear that old soul in it... People who can incorporate lots of styles, yet give it a cohesive personal vibe, like a good gumbo where all the ingredients make sense together. Doc Watson was probably the best at that. I never get bored listening to one of his albums, because he could take so many styles, and weave them together so well. Doc is the best.
What allows you to tow the line between traditional trappings and a modern sensibility?
(Laughs) Hopefully we do tow the line! That's our goal, anyway. Brendan was kinda the perfect producer for us in that way, because he's not trapped by any of that. To him, it was all just Howlin' Brothers music, and he just wanted to get the best recordings, and best performances of all our new songs.
Does it bother you when people refer to you as a bluegrass band?
No, not at all. I grew up in Massachusetts, and until I was about 20-years-old, I just called anything with a banjo or fiddle "bluegrass" out of ignorance. I can't fault anyone for not being exposed to something, because that's how I arrived when I first moved to Nashville. There's much worse things people can call you. (laughs)
Why do you think that traditional music and Americana music have enjoyed such a surge in popularity of late?
I think that technology has empowered listeners to seek their own music more now, instead of having to digest what's fed to them. Access to all this music that may not have had a mass commercial appeal a couple of decades ago has given it a lift. The fact that you can be out there, and so visible, and accessible, without the major label money really helps.
What were your earlier albums like? Is there a distinctive musical trajectory from then til now?
The early albums are really great! I didn't play on them, so that's not me being arrogant. (laughs) I definitely hear a trajectory towards the current sound over those albums. It's unique for me, because I was Ian and Jared's roommate over that time period, and a huge fan of the band. I got to acquire them all in chronological order, so yeah, I hear all the influences and development, and it's amazing to be a part of it now. They had some amazing bass players on those albums. It's tough to keep up. I love all those bass players.
How do you pick your cover songs?
The same way we pick our noses! Whatever has the most boogie!
What generally inspires your original compositions?
Fatigue. I think when you're really tired, your body and brain are more open to the truth. I think the more truth a song has, the more it stands up. Whether you're just mentally exhausted from a personal situation, or physically exhausted from touring, it always seems like that's when the iron is hot.
How do connect with live audiences? What do you think it is that they react to?
I think Jared's percussive dancing is really the ice breaker. One of the most awkward parts of concerts is when nobody dances, until they see someone else dance and realize it's OK. You know, the too cool for school vibe. When Jared jumps down off the stage and dances in the crowd, it takes the show to a whole new level. People connect with that a lot.
What are your short term goals? And long term goals?
Short term, I want to finish this summer of touring, and cut another album with Brendan this fall. Long term, I think we just want a sustainable career in music. If we can keep making albums, and performing, without going broke, then all the rest is just gravy. We really just love music and want to keep improving ourselves musically.
When did you know you could quit your day jobs?
Personally, I was between jobs when I joined the band, and they had long moved on from day jobs. I had a job offer, but my favorite band in the world wanted me to play bass for them! I really thought Ian and Jared were doing something unique, the way they blended old and new music. I was so excited to be a part of it! In my mind it was the equivalent of the Grateful Dead asking me to join them or something. Like holy cow, suddenly I'm playing in a band I've always loved!
How did you connect with Brendan?
Brendan met us at a pickin' party at our friend Buddy Jackson's house (Buddy did the art work for our album, he's a really good friend of ours in Nashville). Brendan produced Cory Chisel's last record, and hired Ian and Jared to play on it. Everyone really hit it off, and Brendan said he wanted to produce the next Howlin' Brothers record. We all thought he was kidding. Turns out he was dead serious! We are really lucky how that worked out.
Were you intimidated at all to be working with him?
Yeah, I was pretty nervous that whole time we were in the studio. Not because of Brendan, but because I had only been in the band for about a year, and I had only been playing upright bass for a year, and I was freaked out that I'd be the one to screw it up or something. I'm looking forward to the next album, because we are all so close now after touring together, and I feel comfortable on the bass. It should be totally different this time around.
What's been the coolest thing to happen to you guys so far?
To me, it's that people have found us, whether thru the Internet, or radio, or a friend, and come to see us all over the country. That's just amazing to me. When someone says "I heard you, I loved you, I drove two hours here, I gotta drive two hours home, I brought my whole family, will you sign my CD?" That's such an honor!
The Howlin' Brothers perform at 10 p.m., Tuesday, August, at The Funky Buddha, 2621 North Federal Hwy., Boca Raton. Tickets cost $5. Call 561-368-4643.
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