Today’s Rock & Roll from Yesterday’s Best
Ryan Bingham told me last year, “There’s a group of guys out here that call themselves The Americans. Some of the best song writing I’ve heard in years.”
It’s strong praise indeed, however Bingham (with whom they have toured at least twice), is not alone in endorsing The Americans. They’ve worked with Lucinda Williams, Nick Cave, and Courtney Love. And after taking part in the PBS documentary American Epic (produced by T Bone Burnett, Jack White, and Robert Redford), T Bone Burnett is quoted as saying “The Americans are part of this group, these genius twenty-first century musicians that are reinventing American heritage music for this century. And it sounds even better this century.”
Describing themselves as “original rock & roll with deep roots in traditional American music,” they started out as a jug band; all of them experienced players of the relevant instruments. Over the years however they have shape-shifted into roots based rock and roll, with a taste of rockabilly. Transforming back into devotees of deep American roots when so inclined.
“We always have a banjo, mandolin, and fiddles with us on tour” frontman Patrick Ferris told me. “Everyone in the band can play the banjo. And we still get a chance to do it every now and then, as we did in American Epic … Those influences are sometimes overt, like when we put a banjo or a pump organ in a song, or the way Zac, Jake, and I fingerpick on electric guitar and bass.”
For the band however, there’s more to it than the style of playing, or the choice of instrument. We’re more influenced by the emotional quality of old records, those moments in old songs that we all love deeply, than by the aesthetics or the instrumentation, Ferris continued.”
Indeed, you don’t need to listen too meticulously to hear how the essence of the traditional music from those old records holds sway on the contemporary sound that the band is creating. “Zac and I spend a lot of our free time learning old fiddle tunes, whose melodies can work their way into our own when we’re writing” Ferris explained. We drive everyone crazy with it, especially on tour. We have two songs – “Bronze Star” and “Foreign Land” – whose melodies Zac actually wrote on the violin, in the style of old fiddle tunes. Those took a lot of work to even figure out where I was supposed to sing. Writing our new song “The Right Stuff”, we wanted the choruses to chug along like an accordion on an old Cajun record.”
“The Right Stuff” is the first single from their forthcoming album I’ll Be Yours. It will be their second album after 2013’s Home Recordings, and their self-titled EP released in 2010. “It’s the first proper studio album we’ve released” Ferris told me of the up-coming record. “We recorded the EP and Home Recordings ourselves, the first in a barn to 1/4″ tape, and the second with three microphones in Tim’s basement in LA. This was the first chance we had to really get things sounding the way we wanted.”
However, don’t let that put you off any of their previous releases. “We’ve always been highly particular about the way we record music” he was keen to point out. “The sounds we like are elusive, and we’re always trying new things to get there, whether it’s rewiring guitar amps or recording in unusual rooms. We love the organic sound you hear on some records – not necessarily achieved organically, but that give the impression of a loud band all playing in a room together. The new album is a step closer to whatever it was we had in mind back when we first started the band.”
That love for those elusive, organic sounds all started with old records and their passion for music grew. “We’d been friends a long time, discovering old-time and early rock and roll records together” recalled Ferris. They went on tour with their friend Cody, “who didn’t have a drum kit, but beat a small suitcase with a soup spoon. I think it went pretty well.” They toured all over the country, playing small town bars and rural honky tonks. “We’d worked up hours of material from obscure rockabilly/early rock & roll records,” Ferris continued. “We mixed them in with the few original songs we had.”
Ferris plays guitar and is the main man behind the microphone. He, like each of the band, has a fascinating pedigree to bring to the music they craft. It was his father who showed him his first chords. “Once I got interested in the old records I learned the harmonica, banjo, autoharp, and later the fiddle. I never had any lessons.” Believe it or not his first album was West Coast hip hop artist Warren G’s Regulate, and his interest in more traditional music developed later on. “I didn’t start listening to folk or blues until I picked up the guitar … I started playing guitar when I was fifteen or sixteen.”
Zac Sokolow plays guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin. His father is a musician and Sokolow has been playing music with him as long as he can remember. Indeed, nestling in YouTube is a video of Mr Sokolow senior, and a young Zac, performing together (“Let Me Fall”) from around 2000. “When I was about 11 years old I started getting more serious about playing the banjo and guitar,” Zac told me, “and pretty much stopped caring about doing anything else.” From playing bluegrass gigs as a youngster, to the Cajun and Zydeco dances he went to with his mother, then the high school rock bands, Sokolow’s musical path has led him directly to where he is today.
Drummer Tim Carr is another multi-instrumentalist, playing “piano and pump organ in the band (guitar and banjo when we perform traditional country blues and folk music).” The musically curious Carr “began studying jazz and performing in various ensembles at school. This led to my interest in older jazz and traditional folk music” he explained. “I continued my music education at California Institute of the Arts studying jazz and West African drumming. This is where I met Jake and he introduced me to the rest of the band.”
Jake Faulkner is the band’s upright bass player, as well as guitarist, mandolinist, jug player, “and can fake it on a banjo.” He studied at California Institute of the Arts, and his first band was called the Black Jack Gypsies. “I ran around with long hair, no shirt, a sarong, and Doc Martins yelling about restraining orders, the pullout method not working, and other unfunny notions that delighted me when I was 15.” Nowadays he tends to spend more time writing poetry and publishing it on his own publishing company, Saint Parade Publishing.
Song writing is a group effort. “We write a lot of music together, and I tend to write the words” Patrick Ferris explained. “Jake and I each wrote lyrics to one for the new album. I’d say we tend to focus on getting the most we can out of something we really like, letting that dictate the song, rather than settling on a form. Sometimes I’ll bring in something I’ve worked out on my own. Other times we arrange everything together and build songs around abstract pieces of music we’ve been working on.”
Nowadays, when they’re not performing in their own right, touring involves supporting artists like Ryan Bingham, who initially asked the band to join him on tour after hearing them perform at a party. Seems it was a tour with a steep learning curve for the young band. “The first time we stayed out all night with Ryan’s band, we watched in dismay as his tour bus pulled away in the morning, realizing they could sleep the whole way to Alabama, and we still had to make the drive.” Their own form of transport being “a hillbillied out ’99 Suburban with the upright bass on the roof and steer horns mounted to the front.”
To be fair though, the lessons from that tour weren’t all so hard. “We played for big crowds for the first time, and that changed our perspective across the board. We were impressed with the way his band’s rhythm section filled up a room. You learn a lot watching the same band play night after night.”
However, Ryan Bingham isn’t the band’s only fan, and their involvement in the documentary American Epic added a bevy of names to their list of admirers. American Epic quite literally reconstructs the story of the first music recordings in 1920s USA: a groundswell in which record companies travelled throughout the country, capturing the evolving musical cultures that founded so much of what we listen to today.
To make this possible, the documentary re-assembled the recording apparatus that was used at the time, and with microphones, amplifiers, and other equipment from the era, they recorded current artists straight onto wax, including Willie Nelson, Los Lobos, Blind Boy Paxton, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, and many more. “Jack White and T Bone (Burnett) produced the sessions. We were there every day, backing up musicians and contributing to arrangements” Ferris told me. And in being so instrumental to the making of the documentary, he was in prime position to explain how it all functioned.
“The filmmakers reconstructed from original parts the 1920s Western Electric amplifier and Scully lathe, which revolutionized the recording industry at that time. No one had used the equipment since the 1930s, and our job was to make the first recording on it since then, preparing ourselves for the film. Later Elton John, Jack White, Nas, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Beck, and Alabama Shakes would try their hands at it, but we got to go first.”
“Once the sessions were underway, we functioned as the house band, backing up various artists and suggesting songs for them to the filmmakers” he continued. “We did a song with the country singer Ashley Monroe (a descendent of the Carter Family and Bill Monroe), and the Detroit soul singer Bettye LaVette. Zac (Sokolow) played with Ana Gabriel, and Jake(Faulkner) must be the only human to ever play the jug behind Nas, for his version of a Memphis Jug Band song that we recommended.”
The Americans new album, I’ll Be Yours, is due for release later this year. The album returns them to 2016. They’ve shape-shifted back into the modern-day rock and roll band, writing contemporary music of their time, incorporating the kernel of their traditional roots, enhancing their rock and roll credentials with the “emotional quality” of music made generations earlier.
Their tour continues through August and September. Keep an eye on http://www.theamericansmusic.com for info.