Brooklyn’s folksy five-piece play the show before the show
Don’t be that guy. You know, the one who shows up just late enough to the show to catch the last song of the opening act, get a drink, and rush the stage for the headliner. That guy sucks.
On Sunday, he’ll miss out on Spirit Family Reunion, the opener for Trampled by Turtles at the Belly Up, which means he also misses out on the most hell-raising, passionately stomp-worthy symphonic uproar of folksy strings and hootenanny metal-on-metal. Ever.
Or at least lately. The five-piece from Brooklyn has been humping across the country the last few years, playing side-stages at music festivals and opening for friends, but they’re show-stealers every time. Incorporating hints of bluegrass, folk, gospel, and old-timey tradition, banjoist Maggie Carson and guitarist Nick Panken stand huddled around a vintage mic, their complementary pitches crooning over crowds of soon-to-be devotees. Along with drummer Peter Pezzimenti, washboarder Stephen Weinheimer, and stand-up bassist Ken Woodward, they dictate the energy of the room, cajoling toothy smiles and backyard dancing out of strangers.
Weinheimer took out a few minutes from a pre-tour drink with a friend in Brooklyn to talk about the challenges of recording, choosing forks over spoons, dreams of eating burritos in San Diego on the regs and more.
Hannah Lott-Schwartz: What’s the Spirit Family origin story?
Stephen Weinheimer: Me, Nick and Maggie, we all went to high school together, and we would play music together, A couple years later, me and Nick started playing in a Creedence cover band, and then we started playing older music. I tried out for Maggie’s band on drums, and I didn’t get into her band because I’m not a great drummer. But then every time we had a show, we’d show up with a different band, you know, me and Nick and a couple of other people, and then Maggie started playing regularly, and then Mat [Davidson], who was our fiddle player, started playing regularly, and he was in a hot-jazz band with Pete and Ken, who played drums and bass. But now Mat’s not in the band, so now it’s a five piece.
HLS: How did the washboard become an instrument for you?
SW: Well, I used to play a single snare drum when we first started the band. But like I said, I’m not a very good drummer, so we had Pete come join us on the drums, and there was a washboard sitting above my refrigerator at my house—I think it belonged to my dad or sister or something — so I just kind of picked that up and just started playing that. I’m way better at that than I ever was at drums.
HLS: Did you just know how to play it?
SW: It took a little figuring out, but I’ve never been one to, like — I didn’t listen to washboard players. I just kind of took it my way. I think it probably shows, and I don’t mean that as a compliment or anything. I play very differently than most other people who play washboard.
HLS: You play with forks, right?
SW: Yeah, people use thimbles and spoons, but I use forks. They work a lot better for what I want to do. It has to do with the weight. I don’t use the spiky parts of the fork; I use the fat parts. And usually if it’s heavy enough, I can get a good sound out of it. But not too heavy — it can’t fall out of my hand.
HLS: Can you tell me about “Songbook,” which just came out?
SW: Oh yeah, so we had a songbook a long time ago that was just a couple songs, just the lyrics, nothing else. We’ve always taken a lot from — not a lot, but some stuff — from older music culture. Long before there was recorded music, there were songbooks. The majority of the way that musicians used to make money was through sheet music. And we kind of always played very simple songs, you know, no more than three chords in any of the songs — maybe there’s four chords in one song. So we decided to put some stripped-down versions as a download, and chords and lyrics for 10 of our songs, and just kind of have people play them as they want. People have heard our version of the songs, but we decided to make it so people could do their own version.
HLS: Are you guys working on another album right now?
SW: Yeah, we were just in the studio yesterday. We’re mixing a couple songs — we still have a couple more. I assume we’ll have a record out by the end of the year. But, who knows? Maybe not. But yeah, we have a bunch of new songs that we’ll most certainly be playing at the show in Solana Beach.
HLS: What did you guys learn from making your debut album, “No Separation,” that you’re bringing to the second one?
SW: I think that we learned how to communicate what kind of sound we want to get across as far as the finished product of the record. Last time I think we just kind of nodded our heads. I don’t think “compromising” is the right word, but we just kind of did whatever — whatever kind of happened, happened. This time we came to it with a little more of an idea of what sound we wanted and how we wanted to record it, and the performance and just overall dynamic.
HLS: Can we expect a different sound at all? What I mean is that your debut album doesn’t necessarily reflect much of what your life performance delivers.
SW: I would most certainly agree.
HLS: If anything, I think that’s the only drawback of the record, because you guys are just incredible live. I saw you at Way Over Yonder in Santa Monica last year. It was the smallest stage, especially with all of you up there, and there’s a carousel in the background — it’s killer hot. I wrote that you guys stole the entire festival with that one performance. But it’s just such a different sound from what’s on the record.
SW: Well, thank you very much. We had an EP before this last record, and I thought that was the closest to our actual live performance — it was all live. But the way Nick sings, recording, you can’t push it — like, he couldn’t do 22 takes of a song and give all the energy he wants toward his vocal performance. So what we did this record, we recorded as much of it live as we could with him in the other room so he could redo the vocal thing and not strain his voice too much. And I think we’re getting closer on this record to a live performance. I wouldn’t say we’re there yet, because — it feels really tough. I don’t know. There’s bands I love that pretty much are just two different bands, you know, recorded and live. I still don’t think we’ve captured the energy we have live. I think we’ve gotten closer in a lot of ways, though, and I hope we get closer and closer every time. ’cause — I don’t know — recording’s all right, but I love playing shows.
HLS: What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
SW: My parents never listened to even the smallest amount of music when I was growing up, so I didn’t really get anything from them. I wasn’t raised with, like, the Beatles and all that stuff, which I’m kind of happy about, because then I can make up my own mind. But I have older brothers, so I was getting, like, Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana and Boyz II Men. But that wasn’t really what I — it wasn’t until I was a little older that I decided what I like. And then I liked really crappy pop-punk when I was in junior high school, and then I guess by high school it was mostly punk-rock stuff, and then I started listening to Creedence and Hank Williams, and kind of worked my way backward into the country thing. And now I’ve come back, and my favorite thing right now is just garage, mostly from the West Coast, where you are. I don’t know if you or anyone there knows who Ty Segall is — it’s just like me and a bunch of 13-year-old girls who have crushes on him, because he is amazing. I think he’s, like, the best thing out there right now. Mostly I’ve been listening to early grunge and contemporary garage music.
HLS: I looked at your guys’ Twitter feed, and it’s, uh …
SW: Oh, s— [laughs].
HLS: But there’s a lot of rad sketches on there. Who does all the drawing?
SW: Oh, that’s Pete, our drummer. I’ve looked at our Twitter once. It’s pretty f—ing weird, I bet. I don’t know much about it. I imagine it might spook people a bit. Me and Maggie just took over. We just started an Instagram, so that’s going to start getting stocked up on some weird stuff.
HLS: I’ll look for it. Finally, I always like to ask if you have any kind of connection to San Diego, either by distant relation or fond memory. Does anything come to mind for you?
SW: Oh, yeah! Actually, the first time I ever wanted to move — I was born and raised in New York — the first time I ever wanted to live anywhere else in the entire world, it was San Diego. I was 11 years old, and I was on a trip to San Diego, and it was like October, I think? And it was 75 degrees. And I was like, “Mom, what is this? It’s not getting cold like New York.” She goes, “No, it’s like this all year around.” And I said, “This is where I want to move.” I still haven’t moved there, but it was the first place I wanted to live ever, San Diego. You guys just kick the s— out of everywhere else as far as chile relleno. I love your burritos.