Why Folk Pop Made Me Sad

I think the strange folk pop revival we recently experienced, with its attendant explosion of bowler hats and banjos, is finally a cloud of dust on the far horizon. Mumford and Sons has gone away, the Lumineers still just have the one record (which they apparently have re-released a couple times), Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros blew up out of the gate but haven’t made much popular noise in the five years since, I thought Of Monsters and Men was the same band as Edward Sharpe, but I guess they’re different, The Decemberists went on a years-long hiatus, Avicii (sp?) damaged acoustic music forever with the abominable “Wake Me Up,” and there don’t appear to be any more folkies breaking on the airwaves these days like there were a couple of years ago.

So that happened.

Imagine if you will: There I was, a folk musician, and as our second album was going out into the world, all this folk music started wafting out of the radio speakers. Yay! I thought. Maybe a rising tide would lift our boat as well. But alas, no. Now, I don’t dislike any of those bands I mentioned above (except Avicii, holy shit do I hate that song), but a lot of them have something really important in common: they don’t have much to say.

This is inherently problematic to me, because folk music is supposed to have something to say. If it’s people strumming the same dozen chords everybody has always strummed and not exactly blazing new musical trails, then if you ask me, it better damn well have a beating heart or a conscience or something behind it to make it worthwhile. Now look, I’ve written my fair share of boy-girl songs, and there will be more on the new Sci-Fi Romance record. I don’t begrudge that to anybody. But with the folk pop explosion, that’s all we got.  When you scratched the surface, there wasn’t anything beneath. I mean, The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” was just syllables.

Folk music has always been about struggle. It’s called folk music because it tells the stories of regular people, and regular people generally have to struggle. Sometimes that struggle is because of a relationship that’s gone south, sure, but often it’s about much more. I wrote our album The Ghost of John Henry about something that happened a long time ago, but the story spoke to me because it resonated with what was going on in 2012 America, too. The week before we went into the studio the Occupy Wall St. rallies began in downtown LA, and our drummer went straight from practice to join in. It felt like we’d tapped into something bigger than us, and that meant we were doing something right. And so as things that sounded like us started to drift out into the popular landscape, it was with great disappointment that I realized that what I was hearing were just pop songs played on acoustic instruments. There wasn’t actually a head of steam behind these bands, like the one that propelled Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. As a result, the bubble burst, and now it’s back underground.

And that’s a shame, because there’s stuff going on right now that cries out for folk music, and for that music to make any difference, it needs to be heard. Bob Dylan helped get Rubin “Hurricane” Carter out of jail, for God’s sake.

A college professor of mine once said “Friends, we may not have much power in this world, but we have our voices.” And about a dozen chords that most people can play. I think we should try to make them count.

House of the Rising Sun

We headed into the studio with ten songs to record for our next album, “The Ghost of John Henry,” but at the last minute, I decided to add an 11th to the schedule (we had to go up to 11, after all…).  In a lot of ways, recording that last song —  “House of the Rising Sun” — was the most terrifying part of this entire process for me.  Here are some people who have also recorded versions of this song: Nina Simone. The Animals. Bob Dylan. Woody Guthrie. Lead Belly. Pete Seeger. Joan Baez.

So you can see why I was a little nervous about tackling this monster.  What on earth could I add to what had already been done with it?  Well, now we know the answer, one way or the other:

You can download our version of “House of the Rising Sun” for free, here:

It’s an old, old song, and Wikipedia will be happy to tell you all about it.  But as much as I simply enjoy the song — musically, thematically, what-have-you — there is a lot of personal weight behind it.  My dad played in bands from the time he was a kid, and when I came along, the first song I remember him playing for me on guitar was the Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun.” Consequently, those arpeggios (or maybe “Louie, Louie”) were probably the first thing I ever tried to play on guitar, although my hands were too small and that effort went nowhere, landing me behind a drum kit, instead.  When my kids came along and I sang them to sleep every night, one of the songs I sang them was “House of the Rising Sun.” (I did sing them some less depressing ones, too, in case you’re worried.)  I began incorporating “House” into some of my solo acoustic shows, and then we began playing it together as a band.  It seemed like something we should try to get down since we were in the studio, anyway, and it had a little extra meaning because, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my dad came in from Texas to play bass on the sessions.

I had the conscious thought regarding this song more than any other in this process, “I must get this right.”  If it wasn’t right, if it didn’t bring another voice or perspective or sonic experience to the table, then it would just be some band doing a forgettable cover song.  I hope this isn’t that.  And I like to think that it isn’t simply arrogance to believe it isn’t.  I’m not aware of another version quite as dark, quite as …eerie?…haunting? as ours.  Jody’s cello part brings a texture and a sadness that really linger for me.  And I hope I always remember sitting in the control room listening back to the drum tracks for the first time, and everybody’s jaws just dropping when Kurt played that monster fill that powers the song into its finale.

The video I made to go along with the recording is much more evocative than literal, and for the photos that make it up I drew on the wonderful resource that is the American Memory Project.  The photo effort that produced the images I used in the video was the same effort that produced the iconic “Migrant Mother” photo Dorothea Lange took in a work camp full of families uprooted by the Dust Bowl.  Dorothea Lange shot several of the photos used in this video, most notably the photos of the two men walking down the road, past a billboard inviting them to take the train next time and “relax.”  The last photo of the video was actually taken in the Autumn of 1910, and is the oldest one I used.

The American Memory collection online is an utterly stunning collection of photos, documents, and recordings dating back to the 1400s. I cannot recommend enough spending some time with it.

Playing Live

The past six weeks have been full of live performances. I was tallying it up today, and I think I’ve played somewhere every week for the last six, from a pair of shows with the expanding band lineup, to a few solo acoustic sets, and the odd open mic here and there. It occurred to me in thinking about this today, that while I have a vision for this music, I still don’t have a plan.

I’m ok with that. This whole process has been a long and unfolding adventure, so I’ll keep that up. The closest thing I have to a plan is to say that from here on out, we’ll try to play a show a month and no more, because I’ve still got a few more songs to write on my new John Henry-inspired concept album. Maybe it’s more of a song cycle than a strict concept album, but whatever it is, it needs to get recorded later this year. Steps are being taken to make that happen, too. So we’ll see where this road takes us.

In any event, it’s time to introduce the rest of the band. Sci-Fi Romance is now myself (Vance Kotrla) on vocals and guitar, Kurt Bloom on drums, and Jody Stark on cello. These musicians are a blessing, and if you are local to LA and you haven’t had a chance to see us play together, I think I can say you’re missing out. I say that as a fan of them, myself.

Here are a couple of videos from our last show at the Pig N Whistle, which may become our local home.

As the descriptions say, the quality isn’t astonishing, but you get the idea.