THE LONE BELLOW
- February 2013 -
HAVE A BEER WITH THE LONE BELLOW
This past Saturday, A Beer with the Band was lucky enough to chat with Southern country-rock trio The Lone Bellow. Their debut self-titled album was showcased on NPR’s influential “First Listen” in early January; Entertainment Weekly named them a band to watch in 2013, the Grammy edition of People Magazine recently featured a four star review of the album, and in a few short weeks, they’ll play a total of twelve shows at SXSW.
We sat down with Brooklyn-based members Brian Elmquist, Kanene Pipkin and Zach Williams before their packed-house show at Evanston’s SPACE to talk brownstones in Brooklyn, the “Honky Tonk” project and the roots of their southern sound.
View photos on our Facebook page.
The Show: 93XRT and Heineken Present The Lone Bellow at SPACE // February 2013
Drink of Choice: Whiskey
Kristen: Where does The Lone Bellow story start?
Zach: Brian and I are old buddies. He was the first person that told me to try and sing in front of people, and Brian has been a singer/songwriter for as long as I’ve known him. And Kanene’s older brother, Mike, is one of my best friends. Mike and I went through some really hard times together. My wife had this accident where she was diagnosed a quadriplegic and we lived in this hospital. Mike basically lived in that hospital with me. He was one of the men in my life that encouraged me to try to play guitar and sing at the same time. I was journaling to try and process the numbness that I was experiencing with the shock of a loved one suddenly being in a kind of vegetable state. He was like, “Man, these are songs,” and he encouraged me to sing them at open mic nights. Our friendship has been very, very deep and we’ll be friends for the rest of our lives. No doubt about it. My wife was miraculously healed, and we all moved to New York City together because by the time she could walk, music had become very important to me. There were a bunch of other thespians that wanted to make the move up there. So, Brian moved up there a few years later and then I met Kanene at Mike’s wedding.
Kanene: Zach and I performed together at my brother’s wedding. It was the first time we ever sang together.
Zach: We sang “Oh Happy Day” and I was like, Man, we need to keep doing this.
Kanene: But I was living in Beijing at the time. I was first there as a student, and Jason [bandmate and husband] and I eventually met at an open mic night that we co-hosted at this ex-pat bar. We moved to New York almost three years ago.
Zach: The same month that Kanene moved back to New York, I said to Brian, “Let’s put a side project together and see what happens.” We did. It was the next morning that we put together the first rehearsal and we had a banjo, a mandolin, two guitars, a piano, an upright, a pedal steel and a fiddle. We sang that first part of “You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional,” and I knew at that moment. I was like, “I want to be a part of something special. I want to be a part of this.”
Brian: We had that first recording, and everyone thought, Wow.
Zach: We called it “Honky Tonk” because we didn’t know any better. Our first show ended up being with The Civil Wars. Nate [Yetton] and Joy [Williams], the husband and wife, needed a place to stay three years ago when they were in New York, and a friend of a friend of a friend had them contact me. I met them on 7th Avenue in Brooklyn and they stayed at my house for three days. We got to know each other really well. This was when the band was forming, so I called Nate a little later and said, “Hey, we’ve got this band. Can we open for you?” He said, “Sure.” So, we showed up with an eight-piece band to open up for The Civil Wars at The World Café in Philadelphia.
Kristen: Did you meet your producer Charlie Peacock through The Civil Wars?
Zach: Charlie Peacock actually reached out to me about another record I previously did. He had flown me and my wife down to visit. He explained to me what he did and that was it. Three years later, I reached back out to him and said, “I have some songs that are meaningful and I want to steward them as best I can.” He flew up to New York, saw one of our shows at The Bowery Ballroom, believed in it and made the record. We’re grateful for him.
Kristen: What was it like working with him?
Zach: He’s a wonderful listener. We basically recorded the twelve or thirteen songs in three days with an eight-piece band in our favorite music hall—Rockwood Music Hall—in New York. We made it into a studio, rented all the gear and Charlie basically just let us play the songs like we play them live. He was really kind to us. And Richie Biggs, the engineer, made this sound like something worthwhile. It was great.
Kristen: Let’s talk about the writing process. You said you had songs prior to forming this. How do you collaborate?
Brian: When we started the Honky Tonk project, Zach had a bunch of songs we sifted through and they were great songs. That started everything, and as we got further along, we came back together and helped finish the writing.
Zach: Some of the songs we wrote on our way to the first show.
Brian: It’s fun to write with these guys because we’re really honest with each other. The other night we were writing a song and it was like bam, bam, bam, and we were done. We wrote the melody in the car, went back to it and just hammered down the words. It’s a really fun process—getting yourself out of the way to let the song come naturally.
Kristen: Do you ever get writer’s block?
Zach: We’re lucky, because unlike other forms, songs are only three minutes long.
Kanene: And that’s the great thing about working with a couple of people. If you don’t have any ideas, they might have an idea that will spark an idea in you. And Brian always has an idea. He would write a song every day if he could. If someone has a lyric or one melody line that can be enough to help you finish the song or help write the song. It’s nice to not have to sit in your room alone.
Brian: I think writer’s block means you’re pushing yourself too hard. A lot of times you just need to be in the moment, take in the scenery, and take in the inspiration instead of pushing yourself to be inspired.
Zach: Or it causes problems if you’re constantly taking your identity from what you do instead of who you are. And all of the sudden, the work that you’re doing has too much definition on your heart, so you can’t just sidestep and just be. And just make.
Kristen: You have this twang to your music. You currently live in Brooklyn, but you hail from the south. How does this combination play a part in your sound?
Kanene: When you’re in the south, you’re surrounded by country music in general. Half the radio stations are playing it all the time. My parents personally hated country music, but my mom loves Patsy Cline. That was as far as she was willing to go. She gave me a Patsy Cline album when I was twelve. She said, “Sing these songs please.” So, I had that background.
Zach: Brian grew up in Sandersville, Georgia, in a town that makes chalk. All of the people in his family are incredible storytellers. We all went to his wedding and had the great honor of eating his grandfather’s barbecue sauce, and he will not pass the recipe down to anybody. It’s in his will.
Brian: He hasn’t even told his son [my father] yet.
Zach: This is the type of man that, when he goes to a motel, he brings his La-Z-Boy with him so he can sleep.
Brian: He’s a big man. He’s got a big stomach.
Zach: Brian started playing music at a little church in his town that his family actually runs. I spent all my summers at my grandparent’s house in Cartersville, Georgia…When I see my grandfather it’s always the very first thing he brings up. When I used to stay with them in the summers, my grandmother would turn on “Islands in the Stream” and it would just roll on out. Country Gold Saturday Night, an old radio show, was also very prevalent. And then, all of the sudden, there we were, living in Brooklyn, and I needed to hide some sad lyrics and melodies worth listening to, and where we’re from, this kind of music has been a safe haven for sad stories. So, this sound was that place for me.
Brian: And who doesn’t want to tell a story? That’s the beauty of country music. Ray Charles even did a country record because he wanted to tell stories.
Kanene: Steinbeck said the whole goal of his work was to get people to understand each other. He might have been close to that.
Kristen: What’s your favorite thing about the south?
Brian: There’s a lot about my grandfather’s generation that probably needs to go, but there’s also a lot with human beings—about the way we treat people, about the way you can count on them—that we might lose when he goes. And I don’t think that’s a region specific thing. What I hope won’t go with his generation are the ideals of that strong man—someone who’s sensitive and firm, someone you can count on, who’s not going to move.
Kanene: I think the thing I miss most about Virginia is really the land and the history. I used to go running in the battlefields. We’re from Fredericksburg, so there were about five or so battles right in our town. The kinds of people that live there, the descendents of things that have happened, are really interesting. When I think bout Virginia, I think about the way it looks and feels when the seasons change. It has an old, haunted feeling. You can feel all this history around you.
Zach: Virginia is haunted. No doubt about it.
Brian: In a good way.
Zach: The root of it all, for me, is that there are wonderful people there. When my wife had that really bad accident, people would come and sit with me in the waiting room with nothing to say. There wasn’t anything to say. They would stay with me in awkward silence for hours. And that takes a certain kind of person to even want to go and do that. And I’m not talking about family. I’m talking about people that know your mom.
Kristen: What’s your favorite thing about Brooklyn?
Zach: Brooklyn is a wonderful safe haven for a lot of types of stories and cultures. There’s a care for starting something out of nothing. There’s a care for curating art; for being honest with each other. There’s a desire to raise children as best you can. People live very vulnerable lives, and I try to live my life like that, too, the best I can. That’s what I love about Brooklyn.
Brian: I’ve had many conversations with people who are transplants into Brooklyn and New York, and the neighborhood is true. It feels like you’re in this small town because you see the same people; you eat at the same restaurants; you go to the same coffee shop every day. It has that vibe. You thrive off the same people.
Kanene: There’s not really a chain store to be found near our area. Everywhere, you have your guy. I have this really cranky guy who fixes my shoes. And he’s so cranky, but he’s my guy. It’s like a small town with a big backdrop of Manhattan. You can have a really tight community, but you also have all the opportunities of New York. And you have these people who give you the bravery to go out and do things.
Kristen: What is the boldest thing you’ve done in the past year?
Brian: For me, I’d say playing Conan O’Brien was bold. That was scary. It’s just this waiting game. You’re sitting there, and all of the sudden it’s like, okay, you’re going to play in front of a million people: don’t mess up. And it was on our album release day, nonetheless. Luckily, someone brought some Bulleit [whiskey], and that was a good decision.
Kristen: Let’s talk about NPR. They streamed your album before the release date, and you recently played one of their segments called “Tiny Desk.”
Kanene: I’ve lost so many hours of my life to “Tiny Desk.” It started because Bob Boilen, the head of NPR music, went to SXSW and the crowd was really loud and he couldn’t hear anything. He really wanted to hear this woman play, so he started joking around saying, “We should really just have her come to play in our office, at my desk.” So, they started the series. It’s literally his work desk. He was an early believer in us, so we’re really grateful for him.