The Bitterroot Band: It's just plain fun to get people riled up with that noise
Delanes Brain Photography
Equally inspired by the lonesome sounds of folk, country, and the blues, and the frenetic sounds of rock and bluegrass (and psychobilly!), the Bitterroot Band will no doubt find a welcome home in today's current roots/Americana-friendly landscape. But their presentation is so genuine, it doesn't seem as though the Mankato/Minneapolis-based band is merely capitalizing on the trend.
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.
You released your first EP, Mason Jar , this spring. Why that name? Can you tell us a bit about the process of recording it?
LH: I wrote Mason Jar four years ago as a demo for a previous band. It was the result of not having a job, a lot of coffee at 6 a.m., and a lack of sleep. I first recorded it in a very old country style, in the same vein as Townes Van Zandt's recordings. It was rough sounding but the ideas were there. Ryan and I then took to crafting it into the modern version on the EP. We added harmonies and Vinnie added a nice touch with the fiddle solos. The song just really stuck out as the best musical description of what we do in the Bitterroot Band, so, we decided to name the EP after its single. As far as the name goes, I just saw a mason jar as a good fixture for the decrepit characters to have in the story. It just kind of fit!
We have recorded it many times but the version on the EP was live tracked at McNally Smith in St. Paul. We spent quite a bit of time getting the mix right and true to how we played it, but in my opinion, it is the best presentation of the song to date.
What can we expect from your release show at the Turf this week?
LH: We have been pushing the show pretty hard, and the Turf Club is one of our favorite venues to play in the cities. We expect a lot of familiar faces and hopefully a few new ones as well. We truly just want to have a fun night doing what we love and share our tunes with as many folks as possible. The two bands that are opening the night (Chants & Seas and Kind Country) are two of our personal favorites, so we are excited to see them play too!
You've been touring quite a bit, and it appears you've got a long stretch ahead of you as well. Any fun stories from the road? And where are you most looking forward to playing?
LH: This last weekend we went on a five-day stretch from Wednesday through Sunday from Madison, Wisconsin, to Chicago for three nights, then Milwaukee. By the time we made it to Milwaukee we were all pretty exhausted from sleeping on couches and trying to get the most out of the trip. We ended up finding an open spot in the park by the lake in Milwaukee and without saying anything we all just fell asleep in the grass for an hour or so. When we woke up we were all kind of surprised to see the lake and realize we all just slept in the park in Milwaukee. We walked back to the van and realized we didn't have any money for bread so we ate the last of our rations, some hard-boiled eggs with lunch meat and cheese. We felt like bums! But, it is a moment none of us will ever forget. Another common event for us is trying to find Vinnie after we have all had a few too many drinks. He has a tendency to wander off and pass out. Alleys, cars, strangers' houses, broken tents, you name it, Vinnie has probably fallen asleep there.
We always love playing in Duluth and northern Minnesota. I am personally looking forward to every gig we have on the calendar, but specific highlights for me are the St. Paul Craft Beer Fest, the Sioux Falls Jazz & Blues Festival, and some gigs in the UP of Michigan. I like the idea of being able to travel to places to play music that I would have most likely never gone otherwise.
And what can we expect next from your band?
RA: We're set to record our first full-length album in August. We're doing a majority of the recording ourselves at a home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We are all really excited about the songs we have been writing lately and we're eager to take our time on these recordings and really explore what we can do with each song.
Check out The Bitterroot Band's EP-release show tonight at the Turf Club, 9 p.m., $7.
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