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Friday, 22 February 2013 09:00

'We play what we make ourselves' An interview with Old Salt Union

'We play what we make ourselves' An interview with Old Salt Union
Written by Matt Champion

The members of the young, local band Old Salt Union were kind enough to sit down with me before their show with Acoustics Anonymous on February 14 at the Old Rock House to talk about their friendship, their new CD and their desire to open for the Deftones.

Matt Champion: OK, I guess we'll start with the easy questions: How did you form the band? How did you meet each other?

Ryan Murphey: We started off as an acoustic two piece, just Dustin and myself, called Autopilot. From there it molded into Justin Wallace coming with us. He was actually playing piano in the band, called Sunken Garden Jokers. I started playing the banjo a bit for a couple covers. We were basically just a cover band with two originals.

We did some recording in John's basement and then we asked him if he would like to play a couple songs with us at a show. That kind of lead into him going in. It's the same with Jesse too, he's Dustin's cousin, so that's the connection there. We knew that he was great on the bass and could really sing, so we pulled him in for a show. We all came together for half of one of the shows and from there, you know, there really hasn't been a separation. The feedback we got from that and the amount of material we've been able to create in the time we've been together, it really just kind of started.

You guys have been playing together for about seven months now?

RM: Yeah, it's been about seven months now. Our first show kind of together where Jesse played half of it was in August 2012, wasn't it?

Dustin Eiskant: No, I think it was May. Yeah, it was May.

RM: Yeah, it was May of 2012, but our first full show that we played together was the Del Yeah contest that was here (at the Old Rock House,) the competition to see who would get a spot at the show. Two members of Acoustics Anonymous were who we competed against in that one. In the matter of the seven months we've been together we've won that one, we just won the Waka Winter Classic which lets us go to Arkansas to play at Wakarusa, which is a really big deal for us. We recently got asked to go play in Los Angeles at the House of Blues for the Indie Music Awards Show. We get to play a few songs there and are up for a few awards as well.

Yeah, I saw that and was going to ask how you landed that gig.

RM: It's a deal that's set up on the Internet. Indie Music Channel, a sister website off of Reverbnation. Are you familiar with that one?


RM: It was off of that. I put some of our music on it right when we first got together and it ended up going on their top 10 list. It was "Walk Away" and it held the number four spot for I think six weeks. It was up there with music from all over the world and was voted on by people all over the world. You don't have to be a member; you can just go there and click on the songs you wanted to. The first week we got on there we ended up on the radio show. There's an Internet radio show that he does every week. Christopher Ewing is the guy who sets it all up. We were on that and people kept voting to keep us on so we ended up moving to the number two spot when we ended the run. Was it number two? Don't quote me on that.

DE: I remember it being number two.

RM: OK, so we made it to number two in that matter of time. That was pretty cool. He reached out to us to see how the album was coming and I told him that we were just about done with it. That's when he said that he really liked our music and asked if we wanted to come out and play the awards show. They're setting up a VIP party the night before at Ocean's Way Studios and he wants us to come play in front of some people for that.

Oh, nice.

RM: Yeah, it is. We have to pay our way to get down there and everything, but it's putting us in a position where a lot of people can see us. Other than in St. Louis and what's on YouTube nobody knows anything about us.

As far as your musical backgrounds go, how long have you been playing? Do any of you have any formal music education?

Justin Wallace: I've been playing guitar and drums since I was about ten. I picked up piano and mandolin in my early 20s. I'd say that I focus mostly on mandolin and guitar at this point. I've been playing instruments just about my whole life.

John Brighton: Justin and I were in a band together, that's how they had the connection to come to my house to record. We played together in Escape, a band from Belleville, Ill., for seven years. As far as my background, I've been playing the violin since I was three; I started with the Suzuki Method in Belleville. I'm currently at SIUE studying for my undergrad in violin performance. Playing the violin and viola is my occupation, it's what I do. I picked up mandolin about six or seven years ago, towards the end of Escape, and just recently started playing it with these guys.

DE: I picked up acoustic guitar at maybe around fourteen or 15 years old and have never really been in any official band before this band formed. I have had no formal training; the family is musically inclined so music has always been around.

Jesse Farrar: I started playing the bass around nine and was in a band around ten or eleven and was playing around the Belleville area. I never really stopped. I went to Eastern Illinois University for jazz performance.

RM: I've been playing guitar since right out of high school and strictly picked up the banjo for this band. I've been playing the banjo for a little over a year now. It's still a new instrument to me, so it's kind of double edged in a sense. It's great that I find new stuff to play but every day it changes as I get better so nothing ever stays the same. It's been a fun road. The banjo is a great instrument. I wish I'd have started playing it when I was two or three like these guys. I could have been ridiculous by now.

How would you guys describe your sound? People can use the generic term "bluegrass" or whatever, but what would you use to describe your sound?

JF: Well, you could definitely call us grassroots, but as far as genre is concerned I think we're a little more poppy, you know?

JW: Yeah.

JF: We're like Pop... grass.

JW: I'd say that our structuring of songs is more pop/alternative with bluegrass instrumentation, more or less. None of us are bluegrass musicians or grew up bluegrass musicians.

RM: People name bands off that I think I should just know. [laughs] I'm finding them and learning who they are, but it's a whole other society that I've never been aware of, I think. It's really opened up my eyes.

JW: I feel like bluegrass is really contained, you know? It seems like people stick to the same patterns and things like that.

JB: One of our instrumentals is written in baroque style and others feel like they have more of the bluegrass roots. Some of them feel Middle Eastern.

JW: And R&B.

RM: Some of them even have a hip-hop groove. Jesse has released two solo albums. He does hip-hop. His roots from that and the energy that he throws off being in the middle there, it's like none other, you know?

Let's talk about influences. Do you have any musical influences that you think you incorporate into the band?

RM: Every day I'm seeing more banjo stuff. Andy Thorn of Leftover Salmon is someone I've been trying to look at. He doesn't play traditional, you know? He's more contemporary with it, and he has a bunch of different styles to convey. It's nice to be able to look at that and do our thing.

JW: Yeah, I don't... What was the question? [laughs] I don't think anyone has influenced my mandolin style, really. I think this band has influenced my style more than anything. I can pick up little tidbits here and there from other bluegrass musicians but we don't stick to the standards. We have kind of a loose style. DE: Like we said, none of us really came from a bluegrass background. I grew up listening to metal. You know, the Deftones, Tool. A big influence I guess you could say as far as the genre that we play in would be Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Son Volt, but they don't play the bluegrass instruments. So, you know, as far as me it would be the Deftones. As far as the band, I think these guys have influenced my playing more than anyone.

RM: Having all the knowledge in here, Dustin and I can sit back and watch the creation happen sometimes. When they're just doing the math, like "this should be here and this should be here," I've learned way more just watching them than I have from any other music just because they've spent their entire lives training with it. It's been a trip. Before we had our original stuff we would cover Yonder [Mountain String Band] or Trampled by Turtles or Old Crow Medicine Show, things of that nature. They had a bit of influence, yeah, but the feedback we got from people was that we should find our own stuff and our own sound.

JB: As far as my influences, I've been classically trained since I was three so I listened to everything from Chopin to Dream Theater, progressive rock. I think all the bands we listen to we collect it all and store it and it kind of comes out. I don't consider myself a fiddle player. I don't play bluegrass. I play our band. It's like they were saying, our band is our style and that's what we grow from. I don't think any of us play bluegrass; we play what we make ourselves.

RM: It's a hard question. Everyone asks us the same question and we have to answer. We have to say bluegrass or newgrass because with all of the categories of music we can't put "other." Everyone would be like "What is other?" It's hard, but when people hear it they kind of get it.

DE: The biggest compliment I've heard so far was "You don't sound like anybody." Now, you can take that one of two ways, but I always think if someone can say, "You sound like so-and-so," and to us they say, "You don't sound like anybody," I think "Perfect!" [laughs] We don't have any roles; we just come together, enjoy each other's company, and practice a lot.

RM: We spend a lot of time together, whether we're playing music or talking about music. Every third or fourth show it's somebody's turn. They get to pick anywhere in St. Louis, whether it's McDonald's or Ruth's Chris, you get to pick where to go eat. You can get appetizers, main course, you get whatever you want. We do little things to keep ourselves together. We're a unit, we're a family that's been born through Old Salt Union.

Speaking of, where did you come up with the name?

[Everyone laughs and points at Justin]

JW: I wish it meant something cooler, but I think I liked the idea of union, and from there it was just jotting down words until something seemed cool. I wish I had a better story for you, but we just picked out three words. Old. Salt. Union.

So it's like everything else that you've done. You make your own style of music and came up with a name that doesn't lend itself to anything -- other than itself.

All: Yeah.

As far as songwriting goes, do you all pitch in equally or is it tilted one way or another?

JW: It's a democracy, for sure.

JF: Somebody might show up with a whole song, or somebody might be having an issue with something and we just open it for the table and either work off it.

RM: Sometimes we'll just sit together. I remember the first few songs we wrote we would just sit down and it just comes together.

JF: It happens at practice. We've played a couple songs recently, I know we have the album, but we have like eight songs for the next one. Those songs came organically together. Somebody would just start playing, then the next person plays, then the next one, and that's how it starts. That organic feeling is the best part of this group. I mean, John walks in with this classical chord progression and we just made it all work.

JW: I think we all share the mentality that we want our music to sound as good as possible, however that might be. If I write a song and it sound better with Jesse singing it or D singing it then that's how it's going to be. If John writes a mandolin lick that he pulls off better than I can, John is going to play that lick. We're all open to criticism. If there is an issue we address it immediately. We don't get bored. You show up to practice and you don't know what's going to happen. We could be writing a song and say, "Jesse has the mandola in his hand when we started, so I guess he's playing it on this song."

JF: [laughs] We had that mandola around; it hung in the practice spot for like four or five days before someone picked it up, three people started playing with it and BOOM, now we're playing a song.

DE: I think we all pretty much have the Alpha Male ego and say what we mean.

JF: There's like a catch-all washboard that catches everything we do and we just pull off pieces and make it happen.

RM: We only recently just discovered how many new songs we had because we'd just write down a chord progression and eventually pull things from here and here and then we have a song.

JF: I think there's some kind of geometry involved.

So we need to get John Madden to come in and translate it for you?

DE: Yeah, with little animated squiggly lines coming down.

I know you just finished recording your first album "Western Skies." What was the process like recording in the studio as opposed to sitting around practicing?

JW: It was pretty similar, in all honesty.

JF: We did the bulk of the songs playing live. Not the solos or vocals, but all the other stuff we did live. That helped put a bit of energy into it rather than going track by track sitting by ourselves doing it. It kept us all together so we could feel it in the music a little more. We recorded at Smith Lee Studios for the bulk of it. We had Jon Jon as our engineer. We also went to Gary Gordon and Inside Out Studios in Sparta, Ill. We did banjo and a little vocal work there. We had Carter McKee at Suburban Pro Studios master it for us. The recording process allowed us to do a lot of things we couldn't do with just the five of us, you know? Vocal things, John did some viola, there's piano and viola, egg shaker, clapping hands. When you're in the studio you want it to be the best, you know? It's going to be around a while. You want the best sound and I think we really captured it with this album.

When is the album coming out?

RM: We are doing a CD release at the Gramophone on March 29th. That will be the official "hard copy" release date. We have it mastered now and we're going through a bit of leg work as far as getting our LLC paperwork back and getting the money trail lined up so that we can sell it legally and all that. If it was my mind we'd have it up tomorrow. I'd throw it up online. I'm really hoping that in reality "tomorrow" really means next weekend. We plan to put it up for sale at iTunes and you'll be able to buy our album from our website; it'll be all over the place.

All right. You've been given the spot to open for anyone, any other band on the planet. Who are you opening for?

JW: Hmm. Is this individually, or...



RM: As a group, I would say Punch Brothers. We just saw them at the Sheldon and it was a trip.

DE: We went down to Ozark, Arkansas down at Mulberry Mountain for Wakarusa last year and that was the first time I saw Leftover Salmon and WOW! [Ryan Murphy's] banjo influence Andy Thorn, it was just wild. They're not traditional bluegrass, in a sense, either. I mean, they play bluegrass instruments but they'll do anything.

JF: So I guess a Punch Brothers, Leftover Salmon threesome with us would be good time.

JW: Yeah, so if you could make that happen….


I'll get right on that.

DE: If you could talk Chino from the Deftones into showing up, that would be great.

Now we'll flip it: You guys have been playing out for a while, are there any local acts that you'd like to have open for you?

DE: Hmmm...I don't want to say that we've played with everybody, obviously there are a ton of good bands out there.

RM: We've been trying to get together with ClusterPluck. We have something set up with them in August; it's been hard to get our schedules together. Acoustics Anonymous is another one to watch out for.

DE: There's a ton of bands. I'd love to play with Whistle Pigs. Oh, Colonel Ford too. They're more traditional '20s and '30s [sic] kind of music. We should get a Colonel Ford, ClusterPluck, Cumberland Gap thing and bridge all the generations. Have a group of people from literally different demographics in the room all having fun. Those are just bands in our genre. I really don't know too many bands around town to say that I'd want to play with them.

RM: We only know like, 10 bands tops, and we have only been able to get in touch with a few of them. I think that will change as we are accepted and get to know more of them. ClusterPluck definitely though; they're a fun band and a good one to work with. We both won these competitions recently so I think St. Louis is asking for it to happen, so it will.

Old Salt Union is: Justin Wallace (mandolin, guitar and vocals), Ryan Murphey (banjo and vocals), Jesse Farrar (bass and vocals), Dustin Eiskant (acoustic guitar, ukulele and vocals) and John Brighton (violin and mandolin). Hear some of the band's music on its Reverbnation page.

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