Sometimes in the wild and hairy world of rock 'n' roll, following rules pays off. Case in point: Ann Arbor-based quintet Drunken Barn Dance. The group was conceived initially as a solo vehicle by songwriter-by-night/attorney-by-day Scott Sellwood (who many will remember as the former keyboardist for the great Saturday Looks Good to Me).
Drunken Barn Dance musically lives in a patch of land between the dark, brooding and majestic insomniac laments of Songs: Ohia and the wide-open, clear-eyed American poetics and bombast of recent outings from Conor Oberst.
From the opening romp of "The Last Desperate Stand of the Last Fair Man" to the twangy strum and swoony fuzz of "The Ghost List," Grey Buried is an almanac of mood-altering quiet revelations and bittersweet departures of lovers, friends and relations.
And there are moments of disarming lyrical invention and delivery that, as when paired with the romping country-folk-rock of jams such as "Leaving Las Vegas, Reno, Laughlin" (i.e. "You're hungry, you're tired, you're desperate, you're sick and you're poor/ You can't sit still because the chemicals wiggle your bones") bring even the most casual listener face-to-face with a clear, desperate reality.
Drunken Barn Dance started simply enough. Around 2006, Sellwood gathered songs that he'd been cooking up together with pal Steve Middlekauf. They'd sit in his living room with some recording gear while Middlekauf engineered and "we'd both drink and I'd try a couple takes of songs. And we'd piece together a really dark folk record," Sellwood says.
The point of the endeavor was to capture the spontaneity of performance — the rules that have governed Drunken Barn Dance from day one, as Sellwood and Middlekauf outlined them: a) adult beverages must be consumed, b) Each song gets a couple takes live in the studio to prove itself. If it can't hang, it's cut.
"I've spent a lot of time writing the songs," Sellwood says. "And I absolutely love the songs. When it comes to recording, it's two maybe three tries. If you don't get it, it's not worth recording."
So there's absolutely no stress of hitting perfection? "For some reason it doesn't add stress, it removes stress," Sellwood claims. "It's not, 'Oh, fuck I only have one more take.' It's like, 'Oh, I have another shot at it.'"
Those early recordings found their way into the hands of a few people (one of which was MT editor Brian Smith), and the ensuing positive reviews got people talking.
"That seriously started people asking me, 'What are you up to?'" Sellwood says, noting that not a few people were more-than-pleasantly surprised that he was making music. "There were a few musicians around town saying 'what the fuck?' So I got encouraged to play a little more."
One who caught the Drunken Barn Dance bug early was Greg McIntosh, guitarist and songwriter best known as one-fifth of the Great Lakes Myth Society. McIntosh was so enthused after an early show that he insisted Sellwood put a full band together. The latter agreed with the caveat that McIntosh "had to play guitar."
The wheels began turning. Sellwood assembled a band of Ann Arbor indie all-stars including Saturday Looks Good to Me's Fred Thomas, folks from the band Canada and others. After a Drunken Barn Dance show in 2008, revered Ann Arbor producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jim Roll flipped the script on McIntosh's recruitment into the band and simply told Sellwood, "I'm your bass player."
The lineup evolved and solidified into the current quintet which includes McIntosh and Roll, plus drummer Ryan Howard (also of City Center and late of Saturday Looks Good To Me) and guitarist Scott DeRoche.
One possible drawback to what some call a "dream band": Geographic dislocation is at the musical and practical core of Drunken Barn Dance. A Californian by birth, Sellwood lives and works in New York City, but stays connected to the community of musicians who nurtured him while he attended the University of Michigan. And the songs on Grey Buried are a travelogue, glimpses through a moving window of lives in Virginia, Nevada, Michigan and places just passing through.
"I love shit like that," Sellwood says. "Geography just plays such a part in my creative process, in my day-to-day thinking. I'm constantly wondering how it affects my mood. I keep maps everywhere.
"But the people I met will always make me consider Ann Arbor some kind of creative home," he continues. "Everyone tells me to say the band's from New York because it's hipper — but fuck that.
"Plus, my wife still works for the University [of Michigan]. It makes it easy for me to go back and forth. I like to see her!" he laughs.
Sellwood's 1200-mile-away home base presents logistical challenges, to be sure, and he does the best he can with them. For example: Drunken Barn Dance gelled as a unit playing strategically booked shows from Michigan out to New York City — or vice versa. And they've developed and nurtured a relationship and crowd with Philadelphia, too, thanks to a community of musicians connected by DBD's label Quite Scientific and fellow musical travelers such as Philly's Hezekiah Jones. They've earned sweet reviews and notices wherever they've traveled. And Sellwood's proud. "We're ready now to just take the gospel to the people," he says.
The distance also means that when the band does get together, they've got to hit it and hit it quick. Again, no time for multiple takes — literally or figuratively.
"We'll get together for a day in the studio to try to learn some new songs," Sellwood says. "I do have in mind, ultimately, what I think the vibe should be for a particular song, most of the time. The earlier songs — the guys have heard me play them; they're such good musicians and the last thing I'm going to do is get in the way of their ideas."
For the week of the band's record release, for instance, Sellwood says "I get into town on Thursday. We'll probably get together, rehearse and then Friday we'll get together, have a few drinks and record and then just keep rolling right into the show."
Sellwood continues: "When I do have a new song I'll tell them the story about where it came from, lay the characters out and we wrap our heads around it. We'll play it a couple times, but we know we're not gonna hammer that nail in perfectly flat."
And in the grand spirit of spontaneity, Sellwood had a rule saying that while performing solo he must play a song he'd never played before. And that song must be played first. "That's just to be as nerve-racking and knock-kneed as possible," Sellwood says. "I could see us pulling that rule out. Enforced spontaneity! Anything could happen at this show, let's just get it out there."
For Grey Buried, Sellwood reckons they've got 17 songs in the aforementioned two-take method, from which were selected the ten that made the album, and all of them recorded in eight hours. There are still another dozen or so songs lingering around the edges that the group may whip out at any given moment on stage, just to see if they can pull it off live.
Really? Isn't that a bit self-indulgent?
It's not. It's a spirit that actually helps draw folks into their music, because the songs — no matter how hastily tossed together they might be on stage — still sing. This spirit of "why the hell not" works just fine for Sellwood.
Sellwood calls upon an anomalous football metaphor to sum the idea up. "We just sort of work with the defensive back mentality. No memory. Just, 'Well, I got beat on that play. I gotta go again. Let's do it.'"
Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
The Grey Buried record release show happens Friday, Aug. 27, at the Savoy, 23 N. Washington St., Ypsilanti; 734-485-4444. Chris Bathgate supports.