Kitchen Dwellers’ Shawn Swain On Wise River
Kitchen Dwellers are releasing their next studio album, Wise River, on April 29, 2022, and are heading into a pretty packed festival and tour schedule this Spring and Summer. Wise River represents an exciting development for the band as they lean further into a Rock-influenced sound while recording with producer Cory Wong (Vulfpeck) and that contrasts in an interesting way with several more locally-themed songs on the album that delve into the history and geography of Montana.
While Kitchen Dwellers have been pretty clear in stating that Wise River is not a bluegrass album, their reasons do not simply rest on this album’s rock influences, but rather on more intrinsic elements in the band’s wider output. We spoke with Shawn Swain (mandolin) about this distinction, and the sonic and thematic explorations that make Wise River such a dramatic new collection.
Americana Highways: I watched the trailer for the album, which was a great introduction, and I noticed how clearly you all stated that Wise River is not a bluegrass album. Of course, Kitchen Dwellers is very experimental, but would you like to comment further on that distinction?
Shawn Swain: Absolutely. Bluegrass today has become a really broad term and a lot of things can be considered bluegrass by some people as long as they include the right set of instruments. But really bluegrass is a stylistic type of music that comes from the Appalachian Mountains, basically from the 1940s. The style comes from a combination of music from banished-from-society Scottish and Irish immigrants and escaped slaves from Southern plantations. Their musical style brought aboard “mountain music,” which eventually became bluegrass. That’s why you’ll hear a lot of Irish and Scottish fiddle tunes, and the banjo is an African instrument. That’s where the percussive aspect of bluegrass music comes from, from African music. But there are also emphases which are put on different aspects of the songs which add to the twang of bluegrass.
But when we went into this album, a lot of the songs were written with more of a classic rock mentality on top of these traditional folk instruments, with the exception of the song “Smoke Stack.” That song is what I would consider a bluegrass song. It’s really just a stylistic question. If you want to listen to straight bluegrass, look up Blue Highway. Whereas a lot of the bands that we tend to call bluegrass now, like Leftover Salmon and Greensky Bluegrass, are playing more of a rock ‘n’ roll influence on that style.
AH: Do you feel that your previous albums and the influences on them were also not bluegrass?
SS: I would maintain that myself, yes. It’s such a specific little corner of music when something is truly bluegrass. We weren’t born into it, but we were lucky enough to develop our own style while not knowing how to play that.
AH: When you say that rock ‘n’ roll music influenced this album, do you mean on the level of things like song structure?
SS: In song structures, in the types of chords we were using, and it was even down to the instrumentation. We’ve got keys on some of it, electric guitars on some. We didn’t feel like sticking to any set formula. We went in to work on our songs with Cory Wong, who said, “This is how I hear them. Let’s see if we can meet in the middle somewhere.” And I think we did.
AH: I’m familiar with your previous album, Muir Maid. That album is really focused, but it had a softer sound, often with a ballad-feel. It’s interesting to see the way this album breaks out into a higher energy style.
SS: There’s also the different places that the band was at, and different producers. For Muir Maid, we worked with Chris Pandolfi from The Infamous Stringdusters, who is just awesome. His presence musically is like a wise wizard. He moves through sound in a kind of ethereal space that’s very calculated at the same time. That comes out on Muir Maid. Whereas Cory Wong is this funk, shredding, guitar powerhouse, so I think a lot of that will come through on the album in the way that he hears this batch of songs. Cory’s the most industrious guy who’s always working on twenty projects at the same time and interested in all things music. I think we lucked out in his interest in our music.
AH: He seems both very intense and very focused on whatever project is in front of him.
SS: Oh yes, we even recorded this entire album, front to back, in just four days. It wasn’t late nights or early mornings. It was ten to seven every day and we just got stuff done. That’s how he is. There’s certainly something to be said for scheduling things well in the studio.
AH: When you set out to write songs and put this album together, did you have a certain direction in mind, or was it more of a song-by-song process?
SS: It was a little bit of both of those things. Mostly, we wanted to get some stuff recorded. Some of these tracks are from a few years ago before everything got weird. Some of them came out during that time. We sat down with about twenty songs and recorded rough versions of all of them. We sent them off to Cory, and he got back to us with fourteen that he liked the best, then we went through and picked ten, and we narrowed it down.
One of the songs that I wrote on the album I wrote very quickly in a day last February. Other ones I had written over two years. It’s a mixed bag. I think that goes for the other guys. Some of their songs are very recent and some of them are older, but all the time at home allowed us to take a step back from touring and look at stuff we may have written some time ago. It was a time where we could put ourselves back in that mindset.
AH: The collection has a lot of breadth in terms of sound and in terms of lyrical ideas, but the idea of geography and locale comes out strongly, too, in a few of the songs. Do you think that being at home so much made you think more locally?
SS: Possibly, yes, at least for me. I tend to write about things that I experience in my life here in Montana more than other things, so having a lot of that time at home may have developed those thoughts. I truly like everything about my life in Montana, even aside from playing music here, so it’s probably my largest source of inspiration. Geography comes out quite a bit in our songs, and both Wise River and Muir Maid have a largely Western focus.
AH: The songs “Wise River” and “Paradise Valley” refer to specific locations in Montana, right?
SS: Yes, the town of Wise River is along the Big Hole River in Montana, and Paradise Valley is a region where the Yellowstone River runs out of the national park.
AH: Was the video for “Wise River” shot on location?
SS: That was actually shot in Wise River. The bar scene is at the Wise River Club and the elk antlers on the wall are actually all from one bull elk who has lived on the hillside behind the bar for twelve years. The old mine there is called Coolidge. Wise River was one of the most prosperous areas in Montana, and now it’s completely abandoned. That area is now home to a lot of rivers that don’t have enough water anymore.
AH: How did you all shoot the part of the video where the band is very high up on a rock platform near the mine?
SS: Getting up to that little spot was a one-at-a-time thing, but it looks more precarious than it actually was.
AH: I can see the importance of showing audiences the place you are actually talking about through the video.
SS: We wanted to convey that because we didn’t want it to abstract. It’s also the real place that I was writing the words about. That’s not as common these days unless you’re writing about a major city.
AH: How did the song come about, from a visit or from a memory?
SS: I was there one summer cruising around in the mountains with a backpack, a fly rod, and a buddy. He moved away and I actually wrote that song for he and his wife because they loved that area.
AH: In a few of the songs, I get the feeling that there’s a question at work, “How did people come here, and why? What happened?”
SS: There’s a lot of talk of that in Wise River. Gold was what brought a lot of people to these mountains in the West, originally. Really what kept them here was quite the opposite. These towns and cities were founded upon bustling industry and now people come to these areas to be away from that. I’ve always found that to be an interesting paradox that exists in these mountain towns across the Rockies.
AH: I can relate a little bit to that idea because my family is from Western North Carolina and a couple of towns were evacuated when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established. You can still visit them, and they’ve been preserved as ghost towns.
SS: Absolutely, I know exactly what you’re talking about. There are a lot of ghost towns around here. Pretty much anywhere in the mountains you’ll find places where people once lived and they don’t anymore. As much as Montana is booming right now, which I would say is driven by the wrong reasons, there’s still that side of things.
AH: I noticed that the vocal style on the album also leans further towards a rock sound, though maybe that was necessary to go with the instrumental changes.
SS: We did some things differently instead of the standard harmonies we would usually use in bluegrass. Some vocal tracks are also doubled so they sound larger. It’s all done to serve the songs, but we did it all without doctoring stuff up. Even if you’re going for more of a Pop mentality, you still have to stick to your guns a little bit.
AH: I noticed that it increases a sense of drama, like in “Sundown.” The animated video for that song is also pretty wild, with the sci-fi or science elements. What’s the relationship in your mind between the song and the video?
SS: Well, “Sundown” is basically a song that comes from a place of uncertainty in your own skin. A lot of those videos come from old classroom B-roll footage from the 1950s and 1960s that would be used to teach kids. A lot of that stuff, we know now, was pretty backwards and wrong, so that suits this sense of uneasiness. The animator did a great job lining all that up.
AH: The video subtly suggests things like natural disasters and tumult.
SS: Yes, and I know the biggest thing on a lot of our minds out here is fire. We dread the arrival of summer at this point because all it brings for us is smoke. It’s hard to believe that the West will escape that at this point since we live in a severe state of drought. Some of that comes through in the song, “Their Names Are The Trees.” It’s all about that.
AH: Has the fire risk always been like that in your lifetime, or has it increased in recent years for you?
SS: Fire has always been a big thing living out West, but it seems much worse in the past three to five years. I grew up in southwestern Colorado and I moved to Montana fourteen years ago, so I’ve lived in rural, dry, mountain communities my whole life. But last year is the first time I ever saw the temperature hit one hundred degrees in June. They had to shut our rivers down because the water was too hot and the fish were dying. The valleys were full of smoke from June to September. Now we’re sitting here with sixty-five percent of our normal snowpack going into another summer very soon. Climate change is hard to dispute when you live in it out here.
AH: I see that you all have a very busy festival schedule coming up. Will you be breaking out this album to play live?
SS: The album is coming up April 29th, and we’ll be in North Carolina then for release night. Once that happens, we’ll be playing this material, but there are a number of songs on here that no one has heard. That’s exciting. We’ve actually never done that before! We usually play them on tour, but this time we’ll be using a more traditional format of recording the album first, then touring.
Thank you for talking with us Shawn. Find Kitchen Dwellers tour dates and music here: https://www.kitchendwellers.com