bill bodkin interviews alt-blues artist Bow Thayer & Perfect Trainwreck …
On Tuesday, Nov. 16, Bow Thayer & Perfect Trainwreck released their latest album Bottom Of The Sky. The album — available on the band’s website — is a throwback to the days of yore: good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ blues fused with a spirit of Americana. It’s the type of sound mainstream audiences are becoming used to with the proliferation of bands like Mumford & Sons and The Monsters Of Folk.
Bottom Of The Sky is littered with terrifically tight guitar work, ranging from intimate and soul-crushing to foot-tapping and pulse-pounding. Killer blues on “Buffalo Joe” is perfectly complemented by the more emotionally charged “Slow Blossom.”
The album has an air, an atmosphere, an energy about it that’s completely infectious. Think of the rousing and rollicking bluegrass sounds from the O, Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, mixed with smokin’ electric blues and heartfelt and poetic lyrics. It’s an album that strikes you, even if the genre is not your usual brand of music.
The album is a “must” for those who have an affinity for rock, blues, folk or are just looking for something new, fresh and now for their iPods and album collections.
Recently, B&B’s Bill Bodkin spoke with the band’s lead singer, Bow Thayer about his music, the inspiration from the state of Vermont, meeting and working with The Band’s Levon Helm and much more.
B&B: What’s the story and meaning behind the band’s name?
Bow Thayer: The name actually came to me during a show at The Toad in Cambridge, Mass. The band rarely gets an opportunity to rehearse so we tend to work things out live. Fortunately, this happens more often than not because we communicate well on a musical level. It’s great because each show is a unique experience for us and the fans. But there are times when I feel we’re about to go off the tracks, and then it all comes together like a “perfect trainwreck.” We relish the spontaneity and welcome the unknown. It can be a beautiful thing.
B&B: How did you guys come together?
BT: Jeremy [Moses Curtis, the bassist] and I have been playing together for years. We met in Boston in the early ’90s and were drawn to each other through our mutual love of music. I write the songs, but he always has great ideas for the arrangements, and I think those really made a difference on this record. Our voices also work together real well. The other guys came into the picture all the same way. They sat in on a gig one night and kept coming back.
B&B: In your bio, it says “Bow Thayer & Perfect Trainwreck’s music come from a place that is rooted in the densely forested mountains of central Vermont.” Talk about how that state has inspired your music.
BT: Moving to rural Vermont from the city is not exactly the best career move if your main goal is commercial success in the music business. I can honestly say that I moved here to write and become more in tune with my own music. Whether that was the right decision remains to be seen. The place where I live has a definite magic about it. I sense the old stories that shape the folks and landscape around here, and I am surrounded by nature. From my house. I can see the mountains and hear the river below, and the weather is constantly changing. One has to be very independent and fairly tough to get through the long winters. Laziness is not an option here, but there is much time for contemplation and the environment is inspirational I believe if I write well, then the music will eventually push through and be heard.
B&B: Can you describe the musical scene in Vermont? Is your sound typical to the area?
BT: There is no music scene in my area of Vermont. There may be one in the bigger towns like Burlington or Montpelier, and I do play those towns, but I never felt like there was a scene that I was part of. I have met some amazing musicians, though. Some are farmers, some are loggers, or even local politicians and all are fiercely independent. We put on concerts and dances old-school-style in Grange halls and town halls, and people bring food, beer and sometimes homemade hard cider. You could say that is a scene, but it’s more about community than hipsters.
B&B: You have a wide variety of influences. Can you explain how bands like Fugazi and Yes — two bands who have very different sounds from your band — have influenced you.
BT: I am influenced by everything I hear and see. Those two bands are only two, and there are many, many more. If you listen to my catalogue, you will hear how a band like Fugazi found its way into my music. They have a very raw and powerful sound that comes straight from the heart. I was in a band years ago that did some touring with them, and their hypnotic and aggressive rhythms really struck a chord with me. Prog bands like Yes were influential, as well — especially their mastery of arrangement and superb technical skills. I will always try and be a better technical player and arranger because of those early ’70s progressive bands set the bar for me as a player and arranger. If you listen to the opening track of our new record, “Buffalo Joe,” I think you may be able to pick up on the influences of those two bands.
B&B: Your sound is highly unique. How would you describe it?
BT: We describe our sound as “Greasy, Soulful, Modern Mountain Music.” Those are just our words to describe the music I could go on and write volumes on the sound, but I would rather let the music do the talking.
B&B: How did you come to work with The Band’s Levon Helm? What influence has he had on your career?
BT: The record I did with Levon was pure fate … or maybe just me being in the right place at the right time. I have always had a deep connection to The Band’s music. Hell, one reason I moved up into the woods was because of their image: a bunch of guys making music in the country on their own terms. The whole Big Pink concept really appealed to me. I had opened up for Rick Danko several times, so maybe some cosmic seeds were planted then, but the connection happened through a good friend of mine who was playing in my band and also worked with Levon. I was looking for that Levon drum sound, so my buddy suggested we give him a call. And sure enough, he said he would do it. We did the whole record in one afternoon. And of course that got me a lot of attention. I will always be super grateful to him for that.
B&B: Talk about your time opening for Mike Gordon of Phish.
BT: Mike saw us playing at one of Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles in Woodstock, N.Y., and asked us to do a jaunt around New England with his new band. He is great guy and obviously has impeccable musical taste. [laughs] I think he was drawn to the unorthodox banjo playing that I wrestle with. He is an excellent banjo picker with an ear for unexplored territory, so us playing with him made sense. We had a wonderful time.
B&B: Your newest album Bottom of the Sky is being released this Tuesday. Talk about its evolution, and what you’d like people to take away from it.
BT: We made this record last year at Levon’s barn, as we did with our last album. We fund all of our own shit, so there was no fancy hotel. We stayed at the Rip Van Winkle campground, and it rained every night. We recorded for three days completely live and did full vocals and took solos with every take. There was very little separation between us, except for some baffles and blankets, but that’s the way we like it.
We are a band in the true sense of the word, so it is important to us that we play all our parts together. Even the recording console was in the same room with Justin Guip [producer/engineer] twisting the knobs. We had some guests play and we did some minimal overdubbing at Mad Oak Studios in Allston, Mass., the same studio where I made the Spend It All record with Levon. Pete Weiss did some sweet Moog work and I cleaned up some vocal parts, but not many. Personally, I feel that this is a good record because it represents who we were at that moment in time. Sure, I know all the little mistakes on there, but I am also glad that we didn’t fix them. It’s raw and tangible, and all I want is for the the listener to experience even a tinge of what I feel when I heard the songs on that first playback and knew that it was right. I hope people get sucked into the music and want more, because this is just the tip of the iceberg for this band.
B&B: What are your touring plans for the immediate future?
BT: We’ve got a few more New England shows to close out this year and then we are planning to get out on the road early next year. Touring is a must, and we are going to do that to the best of our ability. In the meantime, we’re starting to think about a new record. I finally have got my home studio to a place where we can lay down demos and experiment, and I am anxious to get going on that.