There is something intrinsically exciting about welcoming a new year. It's a chance for resolutions, change, and renewed vitality. For conscientious indie music devotees, the perfect way to ring in 2013 is with the Tumbleweed Wanderers at Bottom of the Hill. They are teaming up with Big Tree and The She's to do what they do best, which is -- as Sam Cooke would put it -- "bring it on home."
In anticipation of their show on New Year's Eve, I sat down with the Tumbleweed Wanderers at the Blue Bottle in Jack London Square one appropriately foggy morning to chat about their sound, their recent tour with Angus Stone and their favorite pastime. The band is Jeremy Lyon, Zak Mandel-Romann, Patrick Glynn, Daniel Blum, and Rob Fidel. These guys sold out the Great American Music Hall for their CD release last summer, and the only thing they have more of than modesty and talent is hair. Don't worry; they are by no means a hair band. In fact they are quite the opposite. Their personal style references a hipper version of Bluegrass legends Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs.
We talked about the retro sound that has been making its way through the music scene from bands like The Black Keys to The Strokes and The Avett Brothers. Guitarist and singer Jeremy Lyon said that while the "throw-back" band is gaining more and more traction in Americana Indie music, what the Tumbleweeds are trying to do is "focus on a history tied to the Bay without being 'retro.'" He added, "Lately, a large portion of our influences come from American soul artists like Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and Sly and the Family Stone."
The Tumbleweed Wanderer's sound is rich and full of soul. Its energy comes from a mixture of alt-rock and folk rooted in sounds like those mentioned above, but with a little less funk bass. Zak Mandel-Romann is the tallest Tumbleweed; he plays several instruments and sings, but most often can be found behind an upright bass adding a traditional blues element to the mix.
Daniel Blum plays drums, or a plastic trashcan turned bass drum (when the band is acoustic). He spoke about the Tumbleweeds' live show, "We consider ourselves the 'first listeners' of the band and try to craft an experience in a song we would want to listen to over and over again." It's important to the Tumbleweeds that the audience is in on the sound and right there with them at a show.
Zak added that they "are very conscious of the flow and arc of their live set, with the hopes of taking the listeners on more of a journey." A Tumbleweed Wanderers' set usually takes on the feeling of an album, guiding the audience through emotional pleas, spirited dance rhythms, and sincere song-writing.
Rob Fidel is responsible for bringing the bluegrass; his banjo picking skills are pretty incredible and add to the Tumbleweeds' dynamic sound with a tip of the hat to John Hartford. Fidel also plays a mean harmonica. Patrick Glynn brings the heat on the keys. While his piano and keyboard contributions reside more on the folk end of the spectrum, it's easy to hear a Mose Allison influence bleeding through.
Tumbleweed Wanderers' first full-length album, So Long, was recorded in San Francisco at Tiny Telephone in just two weeks, and produced by well-known local John Vanderslice. John and the band felt it was important to buckle down the recording process to ensure the sound was captured and not over-produced. Not much time passed between the recording process and the final mix. Lyon said the goal for the sound of the album was to make sure "it flowed and felt natural. The album captures where we were at that moment, and we wanted to make an honest, raw album. We are not interested in re-writing the same song over and over again." With this album they, and John, were interested in cultivating the energy and diversity in their live set. James Brown-like utterances can be heard from Jeremy, followed by toe tapping, dance worthy chords that truly make you feel an intimate immediacy to the sound.
The album came out in July 2012. Before and since then, the guys have been touring consistently on their own, but this past fall they were invited to open for Australian indie superstar Angus Stone on his tour of North America, providing the band with its first international dates.
If you miss one of Tumbleweed Wanderers' live shows, you can always catch them busking outside their favorite music venues at the conclusion of other shows. According to Urban Dictionary busking is: "the act of playing music in the streets for money. You don't have to be homeless to participate." While this is a humorous take on the activity, it is a popular pastime for bands in the Bay Area. For the Tumbleweed Wanderers, it's a way to introduce new listeners to original music in an incredibly fun and energizing act of self-promotion. They have a great time finishing off the night for audiences outside of The Fox in Oakland, The Greek in Berkeley, the Great American Music Hall, and The Independent in San Francisco. They've even developed a following of folks who know to look for them after a show.
Tumbleweed Wanderers just completed a Daytrotter session and are releasing a new E.P. in January. Here's a brand new tune from the session and the upcoming E.P. called "Worn Down Welcome."
Tumbleweed Wanderers play Monday, December 31, 2012 at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit bottomofthehill.com.
My indie music heart's resolutions for this year are to buy more new vinyl, dance to every song, and pack in as many live shows I can in this wonderful city by the Bay, Tumbleweed Wanderers included.