Roosevelt Dime is a new New York City based band that combines a mix of jazz, old-time, country, swing, big band, and bluegrass. The group was one of the first artists to get funding via Kickstarter to help finance their work, and the band has just released their fantastic new album called Steamboat Soul.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing two members of Roosevelt Dime, Andrew Green (banjo and lead vocal) and Eben Pariser (bass and lead vocal). The boys generously took a significant amount of time to share their experience, both past and present. Andrew and Eben took me through the band's formation, the group's writing/ recording processes, their experiences with kickstarter, and the group's wide range of musical influences.
Lastly, before we get to our conversation, I would like to invite all of you to head on over to the band's website (www.rooseveltdimemusic.com) for a little taste of free music. Currently, Roosevelt Dime is offering free downloads of the tunes "Diggin Song" and "Temperance". Check it out!
Here's our chat:
When and how did Roosevelt Dime get together?
Andrew and Eben: The current lineup formed out of our desire to do some street performing in 2009. We were trying to create a sound that was full of energy and infectious. We’d done some playing as a trio (banjo, bass, drums) out there, but it wasn’t cutting through the commotion of the city and having the impact that we were hoping for. Having just worked with a horn section on our previous album (Crooked Roots) and record release show, we knew the trumpet and clarinet would cut through the car horns and screeching subway brakes.
We also started doing lots of four and five part group vocal harmonies so that our voices would really carry. Eben continued to tinker with his gut-bucket bass design, Tony designed an entire drum-set that he could fit in a backpack, and Andrew started playing more plectrum style banjo which had more punch than the 5 string, so we were as mobile and loud as any acoustic band could be. In this way the musical style, repertoire, and instrumentation emerged largely in response to the sounds of NYC.
What were the common bonds that drew you together and helped formulate the band's music?
Andrew and Eben: We all share an interest in the process of stripping a song down to its bare bones, then building it back up and tweaking it through the arrangement, instrumentation, and vocal harmonies. There’s no shortage of ways to interpret a good folk song.
We’ll take traditional folk and blues tunes like “Sittin On Top Of The World” and “Make Me A Pallet” and put our spin on them with horn shout choruses. And we’ll take standards from the trad jazz repertoire like “My Baby Just Cares For Me” and “Avalon” and bring in some of those more bluesy and jug band elements with the group vocals. Our approach to working up original material was much the same.
For newcomers to your work, can you briefly take us through the band's discography?
Andrew and Eben: Crooked Roots (2009) was our debut studio album. The lineup consisted of Eben, Tony, Andrew, and the great Brooklyn pedal steel player Jon Light. The sound at that time was a little more in the Alt-Country vein, but we decided early on to incorporate horn arrangements on the recording. We used a full horn section on three of the ten tracks on that album, which felt like the most natural and intriguing sound for the band and the kind of songs we were writing. That led to the reconfiguration of banjo, bass, drums, trumpet, and clarinet/sax.
We wrote and arranged songs with that ensemble in mind for Steamboat Soul (2011), and recorded it at Seaside Studios in Brooklyn. We recorded as many of the tracks as we could live, hoping to capture some of the excitement of our street performances. Most recently, we wanted to have a recording of the band in front of a live audience doing our thing, since so much of the energy in our music comes from that interaction with a crowd. We recorded Live @ The Filter Bubble during a Brooklyn house concert in April 2011, and we have released 5 of the tracks so far as an EP.
Can you take us through your experience using Kickstarter?
Andrew and Eben: We were hired by a fan to play for her boyfriend’s birthday party. The boyfriend turned out to be Perry Chen, co-creator of Kickstarter.com, and after the show he introduced us to the new site he was working on and gave Roosevelt Dime one of the first invitations to launch a campaign. Kickstarter is an all-or none financing system, (i.e. if you don’t hit your target fundraising number you get nothing, the idea being that without that amount you wouldn’t be able to finish the project anyway).
We really had to consider the critical budget we would need to record and release this record. The changes in the music industry have opened new doors for independent artists, but it takes a huge amount of planning and forethought to record on the shoestring budget that we were planning on. We made our promo video (which was a blast!) and drafted our backer rewards. It was wonderfully shocking to see the outpouring of support from our fans and we ended up exceeding our target by over $1000.
We were really proactive with the campaign, making sure to adjust our pricing to make sure we were earning rewards at all pricing levels, and that led to our success. It’s an excellent resource for artists to connect with their fans, and we were fortunate to get in on the ground floor; for most of our backers ours was the first Kickstarter campaign that they’d seen.
Please discuss the band's writing/ arranging process.
Andrew and Eben: One of us generally comes to the table with most of the writing done and an arrangement in mind. Some of the writing is a bit more collaborative; Andrew wrote the music for “Helpless” and Eben added the lyrics, while Andrew penned the lyrics for a song that Seth originally wrote and arranged for his brass band which became “Sway.” We’ll usually work out the vocals and then find the right sort of groove for the rhythm section. With all the options we have of electric and washtub bass, sax and clarinet, 4 and 5 string banjo, Tony’s standard and home-made percussion instruments, we can mix and match to accommodate a lot of influences.
We’ve found the best way to really workshop new material is through performing it live and bouncing it off an objective audience. This is where both street performing and our weekly residency have been invaluable, as we’re able to get instant feedback on new material we’re working on. If someone is hearing us for the first time and is digging our new stuff just as much as an old standard, we know we’re on to something.
Can you take us through the band's recording process?
Andrew and Eben: We really just shoot for energetic, buoyant performances that are as live as possible. We tracked Steamboat Soul entirely to 12-inch tape (incidentally Van-Halen’s old tape machine at Seaside Studios) with a great engineer, Mitch Rackin. So we had to get a full take of the band playing the tune from start to finish. Songs like "Whatta Shame" and "Spikedriver" were done completely live with everyone playing and singing in the same room. We will overdub the horns and vocals on some tracks, but even then we usually feature everybody singing or playing in the same room with lots of bleed, and a lot of the vocal and horn takes on Steamboat Soul, are also one-shot from start to finish.
The growing tendency to go track-by-track in the recording industry is counter to what we are trying to do, and our music loses so much the less “live” it gets. In this spirit, we have an album coming out that features a professionally recorded house-concert in front of a live audience. The energy of the live show, and ideally, the audience interaction is really what we want to capture on a recording.
Can you discuss some of the band's biggest influences?
Andrew and Eben: In a group of five music junkies, it’s hard to pin down just a few. I’d have to say that two of the biggest though would be Ray Charles and John Hartford. They were both able to cross between multiple genres while maintaining a totally unique sound all their own. Charles was way ahead of his time in blending rhythm and blues, jazz, and country music, which makes up a huge part of our sound. And Hartford, while also a genre blender in his own right and pioneer of Newgrass, was key in placing the banjo outside of traditional bluegrass and old time contexts. Aereo-Plain is certainly one of the seminal albums for us; the electric bass with the 5 string banjo is such a key element in our sound as well.
How do you see these influences inspiring the band's work?
Eben: I had the pleasure of recently chatting with Scott Alarik, folk columnist for the Boston Globe, and he got into discussing Roosevelt Dime’s music. I was explaining how glad, and somewhat surprised, we are to be embraced in the folk world. According to Scott, this makes perfect sense - for him the idea that it’s more important that everyone plays together rather than adheres to a specific style is what defines Folk Music. He went on to say that’s what makes American folk music in particular so rich - in a country of diverse immigrants, the music that developed when everyone bent and modified their individual traditions to accommodate playing together, was totally new and unique. Lately this idea has been inspiring us.
Roosevelt Dime seems influenced by many styles of music, but yet you all find an enjoyable balance between influences/ inspiration, with a wealth of your own original ideas, instrumentation, and arrangements. How intuitive is the process for the band, vs. how thought-out is it? Please discuss how you strike the balance during your writing and recording processes, as well as live performances?
Andrew and Eben: In order for all of us to be invested in, and fulfilled by this project, the music needs to reflect our varying inspirations. Our specific blend comes from these five specific people bringing our influences to the table.
Tony is one of the most "outside-the-box" players and thinkers around, and has performed Jazz, Soul, Rock and Country with equal dedication. He can find a happy medium between styles like no one else we’ve seen, and he’s constantly modifying his custom drum kit to do it.
Andrew’s been studying a lot of traditional Bluegrass lately but he’s always had a super funky edge to his style. By playing both 4-string plectrum-style and 5-string bluegrass style banjo he fills the roll that a guitar usually occupies, and he adds a whole other rhythmic level that a guitar strummer could not.
Seth’s primary focus outside of Roosevelt Dime is Ghanaian brass band music, which is a folk music of Africa that is communicated orally, not by written page. The fact that he is immersed in a folk-precursor of American Music is crucial to his contribution to Roosevelt Dime.
Bruce is a walking encyclopedia of jazz trumpet, having studied Louis Armstrong and more modern players as well. He’s able to get deep inside these simple song forms using that wide vocabulary, while playing something soulful and new that’s all his.
Eben has been smitten with soul and jazz singers since childhood- as well as by great songwriters who sang well together, like Bob Marley and the Wailers, The Beatles, and The Band. He’ll play the Gut-Bucket-Bass and the P-Bass nearly interchangeably now that the band’s sound is so coherent.
Can you describe your most memorable experiences being based out of Brooklyn?
Andrew and Eben: We occasionally play a Sunday brunch gig at I-Shebeen Madiba, the South African restaurant that’s across the street from our practice space in Ft. Greene. It’s one of our favorite gigs. We’re usually perched on the sidewalk under a big orange parasol on a beautiful sunny afternoon, surrounded by a really appreciative and diverse crowd.
One day the trumpet player for the Daptones (whose studio is just a few neighborhoods away) was walking by and stopped to check out a few songs and share some praise. Shortly after, the Blind Boys of Alabama, who had been playing a church gig just three blocks away came for their post gig meal. That’s the type of thing that reminds you what a destination Brooklyn is for world class music.
What has been most rewarding from being out of Brooklyn? Most challenging?
Andrew and Eben: The scene in Brooklyn is just so vibrant these days. You can hear any type of music any night of the week played by world class musicians. That holds true in the folk scene as well, where you’ve got some top notch traditional players, as well as plenty of bands doing all sorts roots rock, neo-folk, bluegrass, etc... In the midst off all this, it’s tough for a band to be noticed and build up a following. Living in such an active and diverse music community has definitely helped to shape our sound and has given us opportunities to share stages with some of our good friends, from the Americana/Roots trio Red Molly to the nine piece soul band Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds.
Can you discuss your impressions of the music community in Brooklyn?
Andrew and Eben: The level of musicianship in Brooklyn is at once inspiring and humbling. From the great traditional jazz ensembles to brass bands to old-time string bands, there are top players from all the genres that inform and contribute to our own sound. This provides opportunities for some really exciting and interesting co-bills. The folk music community in particular has the strongest scene in many ways because it is much more based around establishing a relationship and a dialogue between the artist, the fans, and the venue. Whereas the rock clubs around the city are much more about getting a band in to play their set, selling as many drinks as they can, then clearing the room and doing it four more times every night, a venue like Jalopy or the Living Room is much more dedicated to building a scene around the music.
Roosevelt Dime has been playing a weekly residency at Brooklyn Winery, as well as maintaining a busy performance schedule outside of those shows. How have the residency shows been going?
Andrew and Eben: The residency has been going really great. We’ve been working with the Winery since they opened last year, doing some events and parties there. We started doing a monthly residency in the spring, and then started the weekly this autumn. It’s really important to have a home base where your fans know they can always catch you and spread the word to their friends. It’s a great neighborhood spot with their own loyal customers, so it’s really expanded our local fanbase as well. And as the band and venue continue to grow, it’s really turning into a destination; we’ve had fans who were in town from Brazil and Germany come to check it out. We’re also able to promote it in a much longer and more sustainable way than we could a one-off show, so that constant exposure brings a lot of new eyes and ears our way. Plus, their rioja tempranillo is damn tasty.
What can folks expect from the Roosevelt Dime shows?
Andrew and Eben: We’ve spent some time intellectualising our process and approach here, but really, when it comes down to it this music feels really good to play. We feel like that translates to the audience, and people can expect to get some deep-down nourishment from this music if they come to a show.
What's next for the band?
Andrew and Eben: We plan to focus heavily on touring and festivals in the 2012 season, and then hopefully head back into the studio next winter.