The Importance of Being Strangefolk: The Good Citizen Interview, Part One
Burlington's improvisational scene was given a major national boost recently when our homies Strangefolk signed on with a major international record label. What does it all mean? How will they handle it? And why is this just another step on the slow, inevitable path of Strangefolk? Andrew Smith sits the boys down at the Good Citizen office and they talk. You read.
The story of Strangefolk, so far, is so casual and natural, it's hard to imagine that it could have happened any other way. Three UVM students (and one childhood friend from home) form a college band. College band gets a groove going. Big crowds. Everyone graduates. Crowds disappear. Band hits the road. Road hits back. Friends of band work for band. Crowds build again, this time all over the country. Band builds big buzz, signs to major record label. Good story, so far. Now what? Andrew Smith asks that very question, among others, and Matthew Thorsen shoots the pictures.
Andrew Smith: How do you describe Strangefolk?
All: (Collective) Whew.
AS: Well, let me rephrase that. What descriptions of Strangefolk have you agreed with? Have people figured you out?
Reid Geneur: I like it best when people sort of, and this is kind of what we've done in our press kit too, when people pick up on the elements of the music that are...sort of like the features on a face. You know what I'm saying? I don't really want to do it, but like, describe the elements...you know "soaring guitar lines, melodic harmonies, songs that tell stories..."
AS: The improvisational aspects of your music are obviously very important, and the live performance aspect. How many shows do you guys play a year?
RG: I don't even really know...between 125 and 150 I think for the last three years.
AS: That's a lot of playing. When did Strangefolk first start?
Luke Smith: (Pointing to Reid and Jon) These two guys first started as a duo in 1991.
RG: There was kind of a sliding scale after that...we really started playing consistently as a band in the fall of '93 and the spring of '94. And then we started in the fall of 1994 as the quote-unquote professional rock and rollers.
AS: Is that pretty much when you guys finished school?
RG: Pretty much. Jon was still in school...
Jon Trafton: Yeah, I was still in school for the last half a year.
AS: Are you all University of Vermont grads?
Eric Glocker: Everyone but me.
AS: Is it fair to say that you formed on the UVM campus? Is that how the connections were made?
LS: Yeah, except for Jon and Erik, who grew up together.
AS: Where was that?
JT: Augusta, Maine. Erik and I grew up together...we've known each other since the third grade, so it was only natural...Erik used to come and hang out in Vermont all the time. He was working in Florida for a while and he came to Vermont as we were starting things up, kind of thinking more in terms of a band set-up for Strangefolk instead of the duo.
EG: I'd been playing in a band after I moved to Florida and it wasn't really going anywhere. I was playing guitar in that band and Jon asked me if I'd like to try playing bass in a band with he and Reid. They didn't have a drummer yet, but I was psyched to play with Jon. I knew it would be a good thing.
RG: And Luke and I had been friends from the dorm and we'd jammed, y'know with congas and me strumming. I don't remember exactly when it was, but Jon, Luke and I set up in the ballroom at UVM.
LS: That was the end of our sophomore year...'92.
RG: The great part of that was that in the process Luke caught some kids stealing the stereo out of there, and we had the keys so it was definitely our responsibility. So we tracked them down...chased them down the road as they're running with the stereo components. (Everyone laughs.)
AS: Strangefolk: crime fighters!
JT: Maybe UVM will send you a little certificate of thanks.
RG: That never came to light until now.
AS: I'm sure they're long-gone by now.
RG: It is safe to say that we spawned on the UVM, uh, lily pad.
EG: I feel like I went there anyway...I went to all the UVM parties.
LS: That's why I'm in Vermont, that's why Reid's in Vermont, that's why Jon's in Vermont. We all came to UVM together.
RG: People still see Erik out on the streets in places like San Francisco, anywhere, and they say "Yeah, I think I knew you from UVM."
AS: What other bands were you playing with back then, when you were first getting started?
RG: Uh, Chin Ho! (Everyone laughs because AS is in Chin Ho!).
AS: I'm trying to remember who the other bands were in the early 90's...
All: Wide Wail...
AS: Yeah, they were UVM students too.
Chorus of Indecipherable Voices: Chuck. Which grew into Belizbeha. Motel Brown, Uncle Juice, Rina Bijou.
AS: Strung Out.
JT: Invisible Jet.
LS: Motel Brown. They were obviously a lot bigger than we were.
AS: It seems like they were big when we started Chin Ho! too, which was maybe just a little before you guys started the duo. It seems like Motel Brown was always big in Burlington.
LS: I remember being a freshman in 1990, and seeing the guys from Motel Brown walking around campus and being like (fakes a whisper): "Those are the guys from Motel Brown!"
AS: I heard that they just played their last show. But, this is at least their second "last show."
JT: Do you remember the Mighty Loon? Were they playing around then?
AS: That was Bob Bushnell's band, right? Before he was in Motel Brown? They were covered on the first Burlington Does Burlington CD.
JT: I remember seeing them at parties all the time...they were very entertaining.
AS: I didn't really know those guys back then. At least, I don't think I knew them. Max Owre is in (sic) now but was in Rina Bijou and then Motel Brown for while, and when we first met he told me that he had actually had his picture in Good Citizen. I didn't recognize him, but sure enough, there he was in our very first issue.
RG: It's kind of bizarre, now, and I don't know how the other guys feel but I'm a lot less in tune with what's going on, but there's this whole new generation of bands now that I've yet to hear.
AS: Well, you guys are never here anymore.
JT: Yeah, we have to miss a lot of great music, being gone, and that's one of the downfalls...missing what's going on in our own backyard.
RG: But we see a lot of great stuff, too...on the other frontiers.
LS: I don't know if you guys will remember this, but I remember we did that gig in the fall of '93 at Toast, with Uncle Juice and Wide Wail. I remember thinking then that Strangefolk, Uncle Juice and Wide Wail were contemporaries in the same pocket of time.
AS: When, and I guess how, did you start the touring? Was it a gradual build?
JT: Yeah, basically it was.
AS: It seems to me that the bands from that era who have succeeded, not on an artistic level really, but on an economic level, are the bands that left town. The bands that traveled have really kept it together.
JT: We kind of had to leave town, really. We were playing every week and I think it got to a point where people were like "Why go see Strangefolk tonight when I can see them tomorrow night? Or the next night? Or next week?" I think, we got the sense, that the whole crew of people, the people who came to see us, that we played to through the academic year, when they graduated the next year it was a real wake-up call for us. That's when we realized that we should just head out of town and find other horizons and then we just did it slowly. Maine, Boston, New York City. Just gradually got it going.
LS: Schools like St. Lawrence...Reid was doing most of the booking.
RG: I wouldn't call it booking, I'd call it begging. (Everyone laughs.) But seriously, I had just graduated from college, and the pressure was on, just to feel like we were actually doing something. So we played whenever we could. For the first year, we never even took any of the money that we were making as a band. We all had other jobs and just worked when we could.
AS: What did you do for jobs here in Burlington?
EG: I worked at the Lighthouse Restaurant. The day that these guys said that I should quit so we could start touring was like "Yeah! Get me out of this kitchen!"
AS: And you guys all had a house together, right?
JT: Still do, actually, although I think it's finally over in the fall, we're going to scatter a little bit. We've been living together for over three years, right?
RG: And before that, it was half and half, Erik and John, me and Luke. So, in one way, shape or form, we've lived together for over five years.
AS: Does that put extra stress on the band?
JT: I never noticed it until people started saying it to me all the time; "You must get on each other all the time," and I'm like, "No, No, we don't really." You know, we do and we don't, it's kind of like a family, you know. You get irritated about things, but that's only normal, and I think we deal with those things really well.
EG: We've learned what buttons to push or not to push.
JT: We know each other too well...we have the secret weapon!
AS: How did you guys get your management team together?
JT: That fell together just like everything else. Brett Fairbrother was a friend of mine and Erik's. We grew up with him. I sent him our demo tape and he liked it. He was in Oregon, working, making calls selling grass fertilizer or something like that. He was good on the phone and thought he could contribute to our cause and make calls for us and see if he could book us into places. He really learned the ropes as he went, and he's still learning, as we all are.
RG: Shortly after that, but around the same time, Andre (Gardner) became our road manager. He was living with Luke and I at the time, and he was sort of in the twilight of his college days...he had something going on but none of us were really sure what. He always came around with us all the time. I remember him saying that he wanted to do something. And then Sam came and he was going to stay in our house for like two weeks and then get a place in Montpelier and he ended up staying for a year.
JT: In a closet off our bathroom!
RG: And the deal with him was that he was just kind of working for us in exchange for living in the house.
LS: That was around the time that Russ started, too.
JT: We were recording Lore, remember?
EG: When Russ started, he made us sit down and actually chat. He organized a meeting every week, and that really helped us out a lot. We used to do it at Nectars. And the Metronome. We used to sit there for hours, not eating.
RG: Then when Russ stopped working at the Metronome, we had to move the meetings. (Everyone laughs.) The funny thing, and it's been our blessing and our curse, with everyone, the four of us musically, and the components of our extended family, is that it just sort of evolved. There were good intentions and a really high energy. A lot of unfocused energy, but gradually over time it focused.
AS: It does seem like it's been a very natural progression for Strangefolk.
RG: Yeah, it has been.
AS: What about the audience? When did it really start building?
LS: Well, like Jon said, we had a great audience and then they all graduated. And when they left and we lost our concrete audience, we started over again. I mean, we had great crowds and it was like a roving party, but when they left, it was like ground zero.
AS: And that's the breaking point for most UVM bands. Most UVM bands don't seem to survive that period after graduation. Every year, there's a UVM band that gets all huge and then after May hits, they vanish.
JT: We went through that, definitely, and that's when we all sat down and said, "Are we gonna do this or are we not gonna do this?" And we decided to do it. Basically, I think we just started going to places where we knew people, or the colleges that Reid put together who would actually have us. But, basically...we'd go play for friends and they'd bring some of their friends and then later on they'd bring some of their friends and then eventually the original friends were too good of friends to care about the music anymore. But then their distant friends became actual fans of the band. And it went from there.
RG: It's still happening. There are a lot of places that we'll show up and there will be only forty people but half of them are friends of somebody's or sisters or brothers of friends...
LS: We can make some connection with them; "You went to school with my boyfriend's sister," or whatever.
EG: That's one thing that I've noticed a lot is the network that these three guys have...college friends and prep-school friends. We were able to use that, and we did and it's done wonders for us. If you're a band from East Bumfuck and you don't have any friends, it must be a lot harder to start out.
JT: That seems to be a key ingredient...getting to a place where people will actually come, even if it's a few, and just play your hardest. I think that's the premise behind all live, traveling music, is to try to get people to come back. It's kind of cool to watch as the waves spread out from the core friends to the peripheral friends to the people that there's no connection at all. I can see people that I don't even know who they are. For a while I felt like I knew everyone, and I still do, I still feel like I know a lot of the people who come and see us, but I don't recognize a lot of them and that's kind of neat. As we get older too, there's an age difference starting to happen, too.
RG: I remember the first time that someone said they had actually heard of us. He said, "Yeah, my friend saw you play," and I was like, "Yeah, it's working!" (Everyone laughs). It was exciting.
AS: So, it's been seven years. What do you consider to be the big marks, the big moments in your career? There was the first demo, from Channel Two...
JT: That was definitely huge for us, and that kind of solidified us as a band, I think.
RG: But, like, getting a gig at Metronome! "We've made it to the big leagues now, we're at the Metronome!" That was big. Or even before that, Jon and I just getting a paying gig!
JT: Oh, that was huge.
AS: Where was your first paying gig?
JT: Middle Earth.
AS: Oh cool, I played there a lot.
JT: We had Wednesday nights, all summer long, every Wednesday night, until they decided that they didn't want live music anymore. We just showed up one night and there was a sign on the door "No Live Music Tonight!" I guess they wanted to watch
TV. There was a game on, or something.
AS: That was a great place, while it lasted.
JT: Yeah, I have great memories of that place.
AS: That guy Marcus, the manager, he saved my life one night. I was drunk out of my mind at a Chin Ho! show there and I jumped up on the bar because there was no room left on the stage and Marcus reached out and grabbed me and pointed up to the ceiling. I looked up and I was inches away from a big rotating fan going full speed.
AS: They were good guys. They gave a lot of local bands their first gigs and let us hold some cool parties there.
EG: Was that our first gig as a band, too? As a full band?
JT: No, Reid's basement.
RG: Rasputin's. SAE. Blarney Stone.
EG: Rasputin's was tough.
JT: Rasputin's almost made us decide to stop! (Laughs.)
EG: No one was watching us...we were playing like "Hey Joe."
JT: That was so bad. That was the first time we'd ever played through a PA system. We were kind of freaked out by that.
LS: I was on brushes, too.
JT: Well, that was fun.
LS: At Rasputin's, with brushes. (Laughs.) I was trying to play quietly. I was still trying to figure out what the sound was gonna be. From a drummer's perspective, it was so important to me to make sure that the guitars were the focus because they always had been as a duo, and I totally appreciated that. I didn't want to overpower, I wanted to accompany and help color the whole thing. So that took me a long time, once I picked up the sticks, to learn how to kind of keep it down. I was always kind of a Bobby Brady meets Keith Moon kind of drummer. I'm still trying to learn how to keep it mellow!
AS: And it was your first time through a PA.
EG: Monitors! What a concept!
AS: You can hear yourself!
JT: Monitors, it never seems like you can hear yourself. You can hear something, but it's usually bad. Sometimes they make it worse. I think we've sung better harmonies sometimes when our monitors were broken down, for some odd reason.
AS: What's with the "Let Luke Sing" bumper stickers anyway?
LS: Oh, I sing regularly, I just don't have a microphone. (Everyone laughs.)
AS: Is there a strategic reason for that?
LS: I think you'd have to ask these guys.
JT: I think you have to ask Luke. We've given him a microphone a few times.
LS: Yeah, once in a while I'll get my chance. I think I shot myself in the head.
JT: No, we're not still holding that against you.
LS: Well, I held it against myself for a long time.
LS: Down in Middlebury.
JT: Oh, that was great, though. That was funny.
LS: In hind sight. But, I really aggravated some people in the band. (Everyone laughs.)
EG: I was sleeping and we had a gig in Middlebury, and Luke came over to wake me up to go to this outdoor gig, and he hadn't slept at all.
JT: He was still at UVM.
LS: Half in the Bag. It was spring semester, senior year.
EG: Somehow he finagled a microphone while we were playing.
LS: And Reid is up there, singing his heart out, and I'm in the mic going "Yeah!" "He was a man!"
EG: Reid's singing, "He was a man" and Luke's going, "Yeah! He was a man!"
JT: And didn't you do the "Rapper's Delight?" That was pretty classic. You had red and white checkered pants on, too.
AS: Who actually started the stickers?
RG: I I think, in the Grateful Dead days, there were stickers that said, "Let Mickey Sing."
JT: "Let Phil Sing."
RG: There was "Let Mickey" too, that had Mickey Mouse on drums.
JT: Once the stickers started up, it kind of spun into it's own thing. But basically, it's three part harmonies because that's really enough to handle for us. We have some three part harmonies that we can do in our living room but sometimes we get on stage and it's horrifying. And we're really slow to evolve. And in this organization, if you wanna do things, you just have to do them yourself. We're slow to change.
RG: Some of the big moments that I remember about the band so far...
JT: The CD release party at the Paradise, for Lore, that was huge.
RG: Moments of clarity, feeling like we were actually coming together. The first time we played the Paradise, with Percy Hill, and sold it out. That was a momentous occasion. Getting an office space, so that everyone was forced to converge and communicate.
JT: I remember those first meetings. Mike Luoma (from WIZN) would come and sit in with us and he was a really big help.
RG: Dennis Wygmans (from Toast) has always been a really big help, and a great sounding board.
LS: I was thinking about that gig, around the time that Lore came out and we played at Toast, and there was a line going down the block! I was looking out of the band room, and going "Holy shit!"
JT: That was huge.
RG: A lot of what we're talking about is like, looking back on our career, but we're really just starting now.
AS: You really are. There's a level, and a level, and a level.
RG: Yeah, we're picking up new information, but there are always new hurdles.
JT: One cool thing, as we collect all these milestones, all along, the most important ones for me are the moments, on stage, musically, when we really hit it and we've just known that we hit it. It feels good. Those are the moments for me when I know that we're really doing it. When we come together, even for a short moment. All these other things are sort of external rewards for, hopefully the music and what it's saying to people, and when it says it to us...that's a pretty powerful thing.
Part Two of the interview will appear in Good Citizen #11 out in December.
Andrew Smith interviewed Trey Anastasio of Phish in Good Citizen #7 and #8.