This Los Angeles trio (usually accompanied by drummer) play rock ’n’ roll that has its roots in the past and is sighted firmly on the future. They come with some heavy duty endorsements. T Bone Burnett is quoted as saying “Genius twenty-first century musicians that are reinventing American heritage music for this century. And it sounds even better this century." While noted critic Greil Marcus stated on his encounter with the band’s music that "From the first rolling guitar notes, carrying sadness and defiance like dust, this sweeps me up: I want to know everything about where that feeling came from, and where it's going." To date they have released two EP’s First Recordings and The Right Stuff and a single I’ll Be Yours. The latter two by London-based label Loose Music. They made their Irish debut at the Kilkenny Roots Festival which is where Lonesome Highway caught up with lead singer Patrick Ferris.
The first question was about the origin of their name as it could be construed in many different ways as, indeed, it would if a local band from these shores decided to use the moniker “The Irish.” The explanation made more sense in context as Ferris explained that the name was taken from the book of photographs by Robert Frank that was first published in 1958 and showed everyday Americans going about their lives and looking both ordinary and extra ordinary at the same time. The band’s music explores a similar path and observation of life, love and its strange logic. Ferris felt that what had set the book apart at the time was that it wasn’t political but rather captured moments in people’s lives and that the band’s material was also biographical with snapshots of people going about their lives.
Ferris also elaborated on the connection with Burnett explaining that that they had crossed paths with the producer on a number of occasions as they were both LA based. “ We worked on a soundtrack first and he also sometimes curates a stage at a festival and he got is involved and then we worked on the American Epic TV show. We didn’t know he was involved when we started but we ran into him onset.” Burnett also joined the band onstage at The Station Inn when they played there during the AMAs. “He showed up about 5 minutes before we went on and played us a new song of his and said he wanted us to back him up, so we learnt it really quick (laughs).”
The band are hoping to release their debut album in the next month or two. The recoding experience was not necessarily an easy one it would seems as Ferris explained “There was way too much at stake, especially these days when there’s not as much money in the music industry as there once was. Gone are the days, at least for bands like us were you can spend months on end working on arrangements and things in the studio.” They were working in Northern California for a two week period before going in to the studio and so they already had the songs for a long time and they were worked out prior to recording. They had thought about such details as finalising the arrangements and working out how certain guitars should sound at a particular point in a song. They approached it in a very logistical way reasoning that the more time they could save on such factors meant they could us the studio time more productively. They ended up recording the album in 8 days. “We really had to focus and get two songs done a day.” However in the process they also added some new songs that they hadn’t finished yet and so ended up working on them the night before they were recorded. The studio, Prairie Sun in Cotati, was an old chicken ranch that still had resident chickens was one that was conducive to work and full of equipment that suited the band.
The band recorded the material in a live setting. “It’s important to us as we have never done it in a different way.” Although Ferris noted that he had heard good records done in a single track layered way it was not the way that The Americans record. “There’s two things you get, doing it together, the feel of the band playing together, which is very hard to imitate, as well as the mix between the drums and the amps.That live in the room feel.” That ambience, he felt, were the microphones pick up other sounds in the room was something that adds an excitement to the overall sound.
In terms of the songwriting the breakdown is that the band work together on the music while Ferris writes all the words, though on occasion he writes both. “I tend to write certain kinds of songs on my own. Sometimes I’ll bring those in finished. If they’re more unfinished I’ll bring them in and we work on them together.” Ferris is not an on-the-road writer he explained other than writing little snippets and that he only really writes when is at home and disciplines himself to sit down and focus. “The only way for me to do it is to kick my own ass for weeks on end and force myself to do something that I don’t really feel like doing.” He finds that often a song comes from finding the right syllable rather than the right word. Finding a sound that works and then working out how that will affect the actual songwriting, that the right syllable has to work even if the line is good. “The open endless of a line can mean something important to someone and that’s a powerful tool.”
The influences that Ferris mentions were important to him growing up was pre-war country-blues, something that they all got excited about when they were in high school. In terms of songwriting he names Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joanna Newsome as primary sources. He explained that the members had some common family links even though he was living in San Francisco and the other were in LA. “We had family friends in common and used to go and visit and I got to know Zac and Jake that way.” When he was in San Francisco Ferris was pretty much on his own in terms of the music he liked to listen to. He also meet players who stuck rigidly to their notion of how the much should be played and he wondered if there was a similar trend in Ireland. “In LA a lot of old-time fiddlers and guitarists who had a level of commitment to the old records that I hadn’t heard before while people today have this laser focus on these old records that means they want nothing to do with reinterpreting it they just want to honour it.” Which is that vexed oft-raised question of authenticity again. He found those players illuminating but also made him realise that that was not what he wanted to do himself. Those bands that strived to recreate the look and feel of an earlier era needed to be as good as those they emulated in order to validate what they were doing he felt. “That’s a tall order.”
Along with these initial Irish dated The Americans are playing their first European dates though they had played a one-off date in Berlin previously. “I’m wondering if people happen to like us or if they like everybody - but either way people have been very enthusiastic, I hope that’s because they thought that we were special (laughs).” Ferris thought that their dates in Europe has audiences that were free of a kind of cynicism that often accompanies a band playing rock ’n’ roll in the States. “After a time rock ’n’ roll became less of a cool concept and more like a franchise idea, or like your Dad’s music or something.”
The Americans are beginning to define their own take on rock ’n’ roll and what it might mean to them and to their audience. Looking for, as their current EP title suggests, “the right stuff.” With a growing number of those who want to fly their flag it shouldn’t be that long before these Americans are having something of the impact that Franks photographs had in defining a point in time.
Interview By Stephen Rapid and Declan Culliton Photography by Kaethe Burt-O'Dea