RECENTLY, the music critics at Charlotte’s Creative Loafing newspaper named The New Familiars the Best Local Band of 2008.
“(Their) take on Americana and folk gets infused with a good bit of rock ethic and rhythms that can give you goose bumps,” opined that alt.weekly, which also noted that the group’s hometown gigs had become less frequent. That’s because the high-energy Appalachian quintet (a string band with drums, one might say) now spend a good bit of their time on the road in places like Savannah, where they’ll play a two-night stand this weekend at the hip subterranean eatery Jazz’d Tapas Bar.
I spoke at length with singing guitarist/banjoist/harmonicat Eric-Scott Guthrie in advance of their latest area appearance to get his take on the (mostly) acoustic group’s growing East Coast popularity.
Things seem to be moving rather quickly for your band. You’ve only been gigging out publicly for a couple of years, and you’re already touring regularly and earning strong press. From the band’s perspective, are things progressing at a good clip, or is this too fast or too slow for the members’ liking?
Eric-Scott Guthrie: Things are moving rather quickly for us, and to tell you the truth, I gotta say I think we all feel pretty blessed to be a part of something like this. But it hasn’t been without a lot of hard work on all of our parts along the way, both musically and otherwise. In all honesty though, we basically formed as a touring band, if that makes any sense at all. Before The New Familiars came together, Justin (vocals, mandolin, guitar, banjo) and I were cutting our teeth touring as a duo and trio — albeit at a much less hectic pace. We actually met Pat, the bass player, while on our first Northeast swing back around 2005 (it all starts to run together sometimes), and eventually lured him down here in part due to a shared desire to do this stuff full-time.
When we met Josh (vocals, resonator, guitar) in Charlotte, the sound and personalities really clicked. We had experience booking road shows and he was down (with all of it). I think we played some 15 to 20 shows out on the road in the first few months (enough to where our then-cellist quit within three months due to lack of free time) and it just grew from there. Our drummer Dan has a ton of road experience with his past projects and kind of knew (at least to a certain extent) what he was getting into when we were able to lock him down. With regards to the press, again, we feel terribly lucky. But we also feel we’ve been playing some great music and kicking our own butts to grow as musicians and spread the word about what we do. Thankfully, we have a lot of friends who’ve helped us along the way, and it’s in large part due to them that we’ve been able to come so far in just a few years.
As far as too fast or too slow, I suppose the answer to that can vary day to day. There are times when it feels like you’re banging your head against a wall, where you’ve burned through some 4,000 miles and 15 shows in a month and you’re trying to make sure life (and bills) are taken care of back home. At times like that it feels like things are taking forever, and that you might not be able to keep going much longer if something doesn’t change. But really, if you take a moment to reflect back on to last year —or even the year before that— and see how far you’ve really come, it kind of puts it all into perspective and then it seems okay. Wow, look at how far we’ve come, ya know? And as far as too fast, well, we haven’t experienced too much of that yet I don’t think. But a large part of that is all the work we’ve done and continue to do as a independent band with no label affiliation. We’ve had our moments surging forward, but internally our reaction has been to simply roll our sleeves up and work harder. That helps us stay grounded, I think, and we feel it bodes well for continued progress in the future.
Over the past decade or so, there has been a tremendous upsurge in the number of Americana and roots-rock groups that mix the energy and volume of rock and roll with the instrumentation of country and bluegrass groups. Plenty of theories have been floated for this trend, but what would you say was the impetus for The New Familiars offering their take on this hybrid genre?
Eric-Scott Guthrie: I think, for our time right now, it’s just more real man, more honest. It’s not just cranking a knob that gets the energy level up, it’s the music itself. And that’s not to say that electric instruments or gadgets don’t have a part in what we’re doing now (or will do in the future), but I think for us they become just another vehicle to help deliver “the song,” which we can always strip back down to a pure acoustic arrangement. Ultimately, that’s the foundation of everything for us. In a way, it isn’t much of anything that hasn’t been done before.
Philosophically speaking, we’re kind of railing against the established “sound,” like the great musical acts, rock and roll and otherwise, that paved the way to where we’re at now. This wasn’t a conscious choice for us. It wasn’t like we were sitting around saying “Hey, let’s start a folk/roots/bluegrass band, those seem popular right now.” It’s more that we were sitting around jamming with each other, and we said “Hey, this stuff sounds cool. Y’all want to get together again?”
I love the name of the band, as it conveys a lot in very few words and might mean many things to many people. How was the name arrived at? Was there a lot of deliberation on it, or was everyone in agreement that it fit the band nicely? Do you recall any other names that did not make the cut?
Eric-Scott Guthrie: How we got the name of the band actually relates to the above question, in that it’s all about the songs. As I said before, way back before the band came together, Justin and I were playing out as a duo. We had just finished a show and someone came up to us and asked if a song we had played was a traditional, and we told them that it was one of our tunes. They kind of scratched their head and said “Hmm... That’s cool! It sure sounded familiar to me” (or something along those lines). We were sitting around on the porch later that night talking about the show, that comment came up, and we just kind of put two and two together. “Kind of cool, eh? We write new familiars! Hey, that would make a great band name...” At the time, however, we didn’t really have a band and just kind of sat on it.
Tell me a bit about how this lineup came together. Had any combination of the players worked together before, or was this the first time together for all of The New Familiars?
Eric-Scott Guthrie: Lots of luck and the stars aligning perfectly? Hah! Seriously though, this lineup came together really because of a shared love for music and a general “vibe” we all share with each other. The early core of the band, as I said, was put into place in 2006 when Josh encountered Justin and myself. Our first show was on Halloween, and at the time we were working with a different drummer and bassist, as well as the aforementioned cello player. Pat was then touring with a Northeast-based band called The Delaware Rag, and we shared the stage with them on a couple of occasions. In late 2007, we were making some changes to the lineup. Life and the music were happening pretty quickly for us and our bass slot opened up right as The Rag was talking about parting ways. Happily, we persuaded him on a wing and a prayer —around New Years of 2007/08— to make the move from Philadelphia to Charlotte, and it’s all working out great.
Dan caught a show in February of 2008 and approached us about playing some drums, but was already tied to another great project from here in Charlotte called Dead End Parking. We worked with him for a few months as one of a couple of rotating drummers, but from the first show it was undeniable the way his talent and energy complimented what we did. By mid-summer, our schedule was heating up even more, and Dan made the choice to join up with us full time. Since then the sound has grown amazingly, and everything feels just right. So yes, this is the first time we all played together as a band, though it took about 18 months for it all to come together.
Was being a full-time traveling band always a goal from the start, or did that only come later, once crowds reacted enthusiastically to the group?
Eric-Scott Guthrie: We just wanted to play music, plain and simple — on our couch, on a stage, wherever. As long as we could play music. But we soon realized that you can’t feed yourself by playing music on your couch, ya know? We’d seen from a lot of more established musician friends that if you stepped out of your box and got out on the road, as hard as it was, you could plant the seeds to maybe be lucky enough to do this music stuff for a living. Additionally, it helped us stay fresh by not playing weekly (or whenever) for our friends and neighbors in Charlotte, thereby helping us build a fanbase back home.
From early on, every time we played back in town we had grown musically, because it had been at least a month or so (and a lot of work) since they last had seen us. As we’ve gotten bigger, it’s been a little frustrating because our shows in town have only gotten more and more limited. That’s kind of the nature of the “business” end of this music stuff. But we do what we can to play “secret shows” and side projects at home here and there, both for our own sanity and to stay close to the folks who have always been there for us. As much as we’re a road band, it’s always good to be home.
You guys make an awful lot of ruckus for having mostly acoustic instruments. Is it difficult to maintain such a high energy level throughout your shows? What sort of things does the band do when touring to help keep their energy up after driving long distances and keeping late hours?
Eric-Scott Guthrie: (singing) “Ohhh Cafeeeeeeine... how Sweeeeeet you arrrrre!”... Seriously though, the music moves us more than anything. It’s easy for us to start grooving on the front end of a set because we know what’s coming. They’re our songs and we’re putting together the set list so that it moves us. But we’re constantly growing, constantly changing. The little things we do from night to night that stretch the music help keep us fresh and keep the spontaneity alive. Some nights are better than others, of course, but when things are really clicking it’s a thing of beauty both for us and (it seems) for the audience. Is it difficult? No, not really. Most especially when we start out hot and get the crowd into it. Then it’s difficult not to be rowdy!
Here's a pro-shot clip of The New Familiars playing on Charlotte TV recently:
How much has being based in Charlotte contributed to the overall sound and/or approach of the band? What’s the scene there like relative to the kind of music you all play? Were there a lot of venues for you to grow and evolve in, or did you have to travel outside of your hometown to find good places to play?
Eric-Scott Guthrie: Charlotte has been an amazing place to be based as a touring musician. As it was, when we started out, the scene was already doing some cool things. There were (and are) great places to play, a nice stepping stone for growth from small clubs to big, and a ton of talented musicians. Since then in only a few years, things have only blossomed amazingly; more venues, more musicians, more bands, and a scene that has grown by everyone working with each other to help music grow in general. And the diversity! Wow. There’s so much stuff coming out of the Charlotte scene now, from roots, to rock, to punk, to hip-hop, to Latin, to jazz. And lots of stuff you can’t even name that’s all influenced by all this other stuff going on (like our own music).
It’s also helped that we’ve got some bands starting to (pardon the pun) make noise on a national level. Benji Hughes is a longtime fixture in the Charlotte scene and has seen phenomenal success with his most recent release. The Avett Brothers from right up the road in Concord have given us great advice and guidance from time to time, both personally and professionally, and are in a fantastic spot what with working with Rick Rubin and all. Not to mention having buddies like this helps to prove that the sort of thing we’re doing isn’t impossible if you’re willing to work hard. We in turn do what we can to play our part in the cycle, helping to encourage developing bands and musicians, sharing our experiences, and just doing everything we can to continue helping the overall scene to grow.
Am I mistaken, or have you guys played Jazz’d in Savannah before? I realize it’s probably quite different form a lot of places you’re booked these days. If you have played there before, how do the shows you do in that type of an environment differ from the shows you do in places or festivals that are more geared toward attentive listening by the crowd?
Eric-Scott Guthrie: Nope, it’s the first time. We’ve played a couple of other joints in Savannah before, but these are our first shows at Jazz’d. And while we’re getting better and better plays at nicer venues around the country, the places we play still vary quite a bit, depending on how often we’ve been to a town before and whatnot. Really, to do what we do, you kind of have to walk into a place with the idea that it doesn’t matter what the crowd thinks, whether they respond or not, or how big it is; you have to go out and pour your heart into it. If you can do that, more often than not you can turn a lackadaisical audience around, catch their attention, and draw them into your set. Once you can get the energy transferring from stage to audience and back again, it becomes contagious and you’ve got a whole different animal on your hands.
The difference between a lesser attentive crowd and a crowd locked in on what you’re doing often manifests in the first couple songs. But really, with either type of show if you can hit those first couple of songs strongly, it sets the tone for the rest of the night and everything opens up from there. The performance ultimately starts from within, and then it becomes fed from without, either via the band members (for a flatter audience) or by the whole room — if you can bring them into it.
Your press bio mentions the fact that the music this band plays is “honest.” What does that mean to The New Familiars? How important is such “honesty” in your music to the band members, and how do you as musicians guard against that somehow becoming tainted?
Eric-Scott Guthrie: I think some of the above answers kind of touch on this question, but I’m happy to elaborate — most especially with regards to the songs themselves. Music is a means of expression for all of us, and in many ways is the music is our catharsis, and our confession to the world with regards to what we’re feeling. Tone, feel, vibe, emotion, all sorts of other things like that are often conveyed just in the sounds, and then you do something like add words that actually tell a story over the top. The combination of the two is what really starts to make the magic happen. Maybe it’s a song about heartbreak, and it really is about heartbreak, as we’ve lived these songs and that girl may really have wrecked whoever wrote it, ya know? But it might have a bit of a bouncier feel to the music, not because the song isn’t a sad one, but because sometimes we’ve got to celebrate in our sadness to grow and move forward.
We’ve got songs about hope that sound angry, and songs about love that sound sad. And of course we’ve also got songs that sound exactly as the lyrics are written. Ultimately, our gut tells us if things are really working like they should; if the song is really becoming something that reflects our reality in a true sense. From there —at least as it’s happened in the past— the tune is usually in a pretty good place for others to vibe into, and to see how their own reality is reflected in it via their own perspectives and personal history. That’s when it really start to take on a life of it’s own.
How do we guard against somehow being tainted? Shoot, man. I don’t know! Maybe trust in your own instincts, though always maintain an awareness of what’s going on around you? Never be afraid to grow and change, but also never lose sight of yourself and where you came from? While I’ve never thought specifically about how not to become tainted, these are things I roll around in my own head from time to time, and they seem appropriate.
Lightning Round: What’s one gig you wish this band had never, ever played, and why?
Eric-Scott Guthrie: A one-off in New York. More than ten hours up plus more than ten hours back to play one 45 minute set equals one bad idea.
Ryan Adams: immensely talented “real-deal” or pretentious, scene-hopping phony?
Eric-Scott Guthrie: Yes, god bless him (laughs).
Which of the following entertainers would The New Familiars rather share a bill with: Jesco White or Kelly Hogan?
Eric-Scott Guthrie: The Dancing Outlaw or who?
What’s the most extravagant thing this band requests on its hospitality rider?
Eric-Scott Guthrie: Honestly, just give us some good food and a couple of drinks each and we’re good to go.
Preferred accommodations on the road: hotels, motels or audience members’ floors?
Eric-Scott Guthrie: Beds, in general. Heating and/or air conditioning definitely helps, depending on the season.
Three descriptive terms The New Familiars are tired of hearing used by the press to describe the band?
Eric-Scott Guthrie: Bluegrass, Old-Time and, well, I’m blanking on a third.
Besides playing this two-nighter, is there anything else you’re looking forward to while you’re in Savannah this weekend?
Eric-Scott Guthrie: Vinnie Van Go-Go’s, The Crab Shack, River Street, Tybee Island, and seeing some old friends and family.
The New Familiars
When: Fri. - Sat., 9 pm
Where: Jazz’d Tapas Bar