Walker Fields' Brad Senne and Chris Tierney on reinvigorating the blues
Listening to last year's Walker Fields disc, Gettin' By, you're bound to wonder why they were asked to play this weekend's Border Battle Beer Fest in Somerset on a bill that includes heavy favorite Bloodnstuff. If each have common roots in the blues, Gettin' By is worlds away from the electric English blues and '70s metal that inspire that other guitar/drums duo.
But the just-released EP Double Down captures the current Walker Fields -- a heavy blues collaboration between singer-songwriter Brad Senne and drummer Chris Tierney. Gimme Noise spoke to them both in depth.
Except for the enchanting "Back to the Beginning," Gettin' By was already a stark change of direction from the coffee shop pop of Senne's two solo discs released by Grain Belt Records. The arrangements sound like they came from Reverend Gary Davis' book, and Senne's sweet voice is anything but, suddenly sounding scratchy, sandy and soulful. As though his music were traveling backward through time and he's become an old-timer.
He recorded it without even telling the drummer he'd just enlisted, using only a stompbox for percussion. Tierney found himself in a blues band overnight. "I'd never played blues. I was never even a fan," he admits, "Except White Stripes or Zeppelin-y sorts of blues that's more rock 'n' roll. When I thought of blues I heard Famous Dave's and noodle-y guitar."
He ended up bringing something even more primitive into the mix: "When we started it was just tambourine and kick drum. That's all it needed. After I while I thought why not use the tambourine like a stick, I've never seen anybody try that."
Tierney started playing with the tambourine in one hand in place of a drumstick, and started playing louder and louder, until Senne had to bring an amp to practice with him. The result is the band's signature sound: Loud and lean, in between the Delta and Chicago. Nobody knew what to expect booking the two so they rushed to the studio where John Peters snared them like lightning in a bottle on the five tracks that make up Double Down.
"We really lucked out to record with John Peters," says Senne. "He really helped us out, and he really captured what we do.
On the disc he plays slide guitar like he's been doing it all his life, delivering spare lyrics in a guttural drawl miles from the lush pop he recorded with his other band Beight and on his solo discs. Tierney, who says he's going through "a tambourine every four or five months," has drawn comparisons to Zeppelin's John Bonham for his precise, rapid-fire performances and his clever use of pacing. "I'm getting better at recognizing where we need to have a breathing space," he says, even though most of their playing is still as dense and heavy as a blues duo can get.
Together they're "dialing it in," as Senne says, and even the re-recorded tracks from the subdued first disc are an entirely new animal, irresistibly groove-driven and possibly the best blues being performed in the Twin Cities today.
Senne can't even recall how many discs he's recorded, or how many have actually been released. We count six before he starts to interrupt and add ones we've missed. "That's the business side of it," explains Senne. "No fun. I take myself seriously as an artist, but I don't want the business to get into that."
"I'm a guy who shoots from the hip. I have probably fifty albums ready to record, that are already written." Double Down left five tracks on the cutting room floor, which is pretty typical for Senne, who can't guess when his next solo record for Grain Belt will be finished or what he'll want to record next.
Tierney interrupts and describes the way Senne likes to write: "[He] loves when we just start playing. I start with something and he joins in, writing lyrics on the fly. He writes to the mood we're in, the mood of the music."
"And what we're doing is fun. It's just a lot of fun."
Border Battle Beer Fest music lineup:
Friday, July 13, 8 p.m. to 11:30 pm: E.L.nO, Bloodnstuff, the Goondas
Saturday, July 14, 7 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.: Farewell Milwaukee, Better Bones, Walker Fields
Tickets cost $20-$100. More info here.
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