Interview: Zach Lupetin of Dustbowl Revival on Transcendent Revivals and Crossing Journeys

Interviews

Dustbowl Revival is an eight-member, extremely eclectic, genre-defying Americana jam band currently on tour. Their line-up includes a violin player, trombonist, trumpeter, and mandolin player in addition to the usual cast of characters. Americana Highways had a chance to talk to band leader, guitarist Zach Lupetin. We started out contemplating the significance of Zach’s initial move from Chicago to California over a decade ago, where he founded the band. We talked about this in combination with the band’s name, and concepts of “revival” in light of Zach’s reference, from stage, to the John Steinbeck novel The Grapes of Wrath last month at the Hamilton in Washington D.C. [For our review of that show, click one of these bolded word right here.]

I asked Lupetin about the history that led to his founding of the band. He recounted the story of his evolutions and crossings, both literally across the American landscape, and figuratively as an artist finding his niche across media and genres: “My original intent was to be a writer in movies and theatre, although I had also been playing in bands since I was about fourteen. Towards the end of college at the University of Michigan, I had discovered earlier blues, gospel music, and bluegrass, folk tradition stuff, so I became a self-taught rhythm electric guitar player. I had played the bass and violin growing up, which wasn’t necessarily conducive to songwriting but I found roots music to be much more accessible initially as an amateur electric player, playing 3 chords and the truth.”

“I really liked all that music and initially I had an impulse to write new standards. The traditional songs that the Carter family would sing, going back generations, were constantly on my mind. I was thinking about who’s writing the new versions of that. And I guess you could say Bob Dylan, but even some of Bob Dylan’s stuff is now fifty years in the past. John Prine also spun my head around as an example of a way of telling stories about your own time, and making a statement about your time and the people around you in a poetic way that could also allow individual interpretation, so that people could find their own stories in the music.“

We were discussing songwriting impulses, and I wondered more specifically about The Grapes of Wrath reference, as that book was a story about a journey. “I always wrote plays with weird twist endings, and the John Steinbeck reference was about that time I moved out to California to seek my fortune. I found the roots scene in Los Angeles to be very welcoming. People had said LA was a cold industry town but ironically I found it to be very inclusive.   If you were halfway decent, you could get shows. So we’d play all around the area, we found LA was a melting pot town with a lot of people who’ve come together because they’ve felt displaced. Something about the folk community there was very comforting based on that common connection.”

How does the idea of that journey relate to the idea of revivalism, I pressed. Lupetin said, “My Dad got me into Creedence Clearwater Revival growing up, and I was also just generally drawn to the idea of a tent revival where you could show up anywhere and create this transcendent, joyful event.“ If you’ve seen a Dustbowl Revival show, you’ve seen the crowd pushing forward toward the stage when the band plays, as if they can’t resist the impulse to participate. At times Lupetin will organize the crowd into sections and assign them vocal parts so the entire venue is really participating. “I’m not particularly religious but I did grow up going to the Unity Church in Chicago, where there was a lot of call and response singing, which was my favorite part of going there, you know that group of people coming together and lifting their voices was pretty transcendent, even if you don’t really buy into the Jesus part.”

“It’s funny because my mom is Jewish, and my dad is Roman Catholic, and my mom is always asking me ‘Why do you like all this old Black Gospel music?’’’

Drawing it all together, I noted that a revival brings various differences into common celebration. He responded: “Yes, and it’s happening musically as well as literally. Lately we’ve been transforming to show our more funk inspirations. I think we’ve always been musical chameleons. My songwriting is very schizophrenic. I like all of it, I never wanted to be limited to one type of band. I wanted to write songs that I like. I like Louis Armstrong just as much as I like Nirvana. This idea of bringing this rock ‘n roll energy to traditional roots music is interesting, but ultimately the real goal is that it’s about writing good songs. I don’t care what genre it’s in. This can confuse people, and this is what makes us unique, although sometimes this uniqueness leaves us outside of scenes, too.”

And now Dustbowl Revival is celebrating their ten year anniversary. On this, Lupetin said: “We’ve matured from our early 20’s when we were playing an “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” Revival, and it was very acoustic and very harmony-driven, stuff you could play on a front porch.   And I’ll always love that. But you see things changing around you and we started going electric. That offers more dynamics so we can still play these hushed songs but now we can also get loud and express our anger and frustration a little bit too. Because there’s definitely a lot of anger and frustration now.”

I asked him about the extent to which the current political climate inspires his songwriting, and that of the rest of the band. “It’s hard to ignore right now. I’m a fan of political protest through allegory and poetry, rather than of directly antagonizing your foes. There is definitely this deep divide right now, although things are not that simple, at the same time. I think sometimes it’s more powerful when you can bring people around to your side through the back door.”

In response to the idea that music might be specially qualified to bring people around to a more inclusive way of thinking, he said, “I think music’s power comes from its positivity and it’s most effective, in terms of bringing people around, to be unified behind something that’s not a negative force. Music is really the one “religion” that everyone can agree on. This is why I ended up in this music world, because the problem with screenplays is that in the world of filmmaking and theatre, the judgment is so immediate and harsh, and it’s so subjective, and it’s hard to overcome the divisive aspects. Whereas with a song, when it’s really hitting in a room, everyone unconsciously knows it’s moving them. It’s a bit of a mysterious thing, but you can feel the alchemy working in the room. An example of that is this new song we started doing: “Sonic Boom,” which is a little more on the indie rock side of things.   Even though a lot of people most likely expected more of a bluegrass night, they were moved by this song in spite of their expectations. So that’s what it’s about for me. In the music medium, you tell stories, and move people, in ways that are universal in some form, no matter what the genre.”

Dustbowl Revival is an eight-person band, you would have to wonder how they all met. On this topic, Lupetin said: “We are the product of a lucky craigslist ad.   There are folks in the band who were respondents to that original ad. And we grew up together in this band, it was trial by fire. The fiddle player, Connor Vance, was sixteen when we started playing with him. It’s definitely one of those lucky things where we caught people at the right time.   We started touring full time about six years ago and it’s been the same band since then.”

Having heard Dustbowl Revival play recently, I had to ask him about some of their unique sounds. In addition to the skilled interplay between the eight somewhat unlikely musicians, there were also sounds I couldn’t identify. I asked whether there was a hidden organ. Lupetin laughed. “It’s our sound, it’s our unique sound.   It’s a mini orchestra sound.” Where was the “organ” sound coming from? “The fiddle player, Connor [Vance] has been doing some real wizardry since the last record, he’s got multiple pedals — a wah-wah, and the organ-like sound comes from a Leslie simulator. We had kind of joked that it would be great to have someone on guest organ, and Connor said, in all seriousness, that he could do it. He’s a real Hendrix fan and he creates his own sound. He’s a really talented guy. A lot of people in our group without even knowing it have sort of been forced to create sounds that have rarely, if ever, been done before. We joke that we have the only bluegrass trombone player and the only funk mandolin player. You might not think these things can intermingle, but they can, very well actually.”

In response to my asking how they arrange the parts in each song, Lupetin had this to say, “A lot of the songs are arranged part by part interlocking pieces, and then from there they can open up to solos and jams. But with a lot of the songs, when people are going back and forth, we improvise in the moment. That is the tradition that’s different each night, depending on the energy in the room. For example our version of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is a canvas we can paint very broadly on.”

Lupetin says the band is starting to work toward a new album.   They are playing at a number of summer festivals and then back to Europe in the fall.  Check out what’s on the horizon for Dustbowl Revival, here.    http://www.dustbowlrevival.com/

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