You Sing, I Write: Q&A with The Ramblers

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Q&A with The Ramblers

The Ramblers have been playing the New York music scene in various formation since 2007. While the members met performing at venues throughout New York including Rockwood Music Hall, singer Jeremiah Birnbaum said, "It’s always been a band of friends." I sat down with the quartet after their impressive set at Joe's Pub where they filled me in on how they first discovered the blues, the New York music scene and being invited to open for Levon Helm.

Made up of singer-songwriter-guitarist Jeremiah Birnbaum, singer-pianist Scott Stein, bassist Shawn Setaro and drummer Steve Purcell, The Ramblers are hard to place into one genre. Mixing roots, rock, jazz, blues and country, each song is new and unexpected. After witnessing them live, is evident that music is their passion.

"I don’t want to speak for all of us, but you make these little sacrifices for the music that you really love. Everybody in this room has struggled to make it work and made sacrifices to make it work. I think if you’re really true to yourself, that’s when the good things start to happen," Birnbaum said.

Currently in the studio working on their next album, The Ramblers have partnered with Pledge Music, where fans and music lovers help fund the album. For more information on how you can help click here. Read below for more on The Ramblers.

I really like how you alternate singing between Jeremiah and Scott on each track.

Jeremiah: Conceptually, a lot of what we’re trying to do right now comes out of my love of Sam and Dave. There’s a tradition in soul music of dual lead vocalists. It’s interesting because we try really hard to separate this from our solo stuff. I think we’ve managed to succeed in that and there’s a lot of good chemistry, a lot of give and take and the energy flows well. I think the dual lead vocal thing is a pretty neat trick that we have up our sleeves. We’re sort of setting the scene. I’ll generally start and finish the set and we’ll trade off on things in between. But, Scott is singing on everything if I’m singing the lead and I’m singing on everything if he’s singing the lead.

Scott: When I started in the band I brought in a song, “Hard To Love,” which I had written on my own. I wasn’t anticipating being the lead vocalist, I was just a harmony vocalist, but I really wanted to sing that one. There were always two vocalists in the band, so it just seemed to be a natural fit for me to be an alternate vocalist. The first song we wrote together was, “Leave A Letter Behind.” When we play it live or as a duo we would just alternate verses because it was fun to do. I think that it just naturally lent itself to me and Jeremiah splitting it or dividing vocals.

It’s hard to place your music in one genre. One song you wrote in New Orleans and I definitely got that vibe. Other songs have that 60s rock ‘n’ roll sound and the last number felt a little country and twangy.
Shawn: You should have been here right before the set. We were trying to figure out cues to give the lighting person. We were giving one or two word descriptions of the song and it was, rock, country, up-tempo hillbilly. So that’s right. There are different feels. Some are more upbeat country-ish things even bordering on blues or soul. All in the roots world, but from different corners of that.

Scott: I think it’s interesting, what we’re doing. A lot of this music is joined together. Some people might not think of country music and soul music as similar, but they really are on certain levels. A lot of it is from listening to Levon Helm, The Band and a lot of other artists.

Jeremiah: A lot of the Stax Memphis music.

Scott: There is cross over material too. There are recordings of Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers doing Stax songs in their repertoire but it sounds like a country song and it works perfectly.

Shawn: The famous Ray Charles Modern Sounds In Country and Western record.

Scott: I was also thinking of his performance of “Ring of Fire.” He makes it a Ray Charles song.

You were invited to perform at Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble. How did that happen?
Jeremiah: We got real lucky. I work at a venue called Banjo Jim's. It’s one of the greatest music venues I’ve ever known. We had booked a show there on a Monday night at 7 or 8pm. Scott wasn’t even in the band, but he wound up sitting in. In February of 2008 we had this gig and it was a great show and it just so happened that the guy that booked for Levon Helm was there and was knocked out by us and just asked us if we wanted to open up for Levon Helm. We were like, “Yes, please!” We built up to that show with a lot of other shows in New York, which really started cementing what we were doing at the time. We did that show and went on tour last summer, which was really fun.

How involved is everyone in the songwriting process?
Scott: All the new stuff has been in one instance or another, co-written by me and Jeremiah. Jeremiah and to a certain extent John, our former drummer, were writing together. What happened in terms of songwriting was that I wrote with Jeremiah and started contributing a couple songs of my own. What we realized when we needed to find new players was, here we have this band that has a name for itself and 90% of the material was either Jeremiah’s or mine. It was like, “We have enough material to keep this thing going.” And it made sense, so we did.

Shawn: That’s an interesting thing from an outsider’s perspective. How the songs are being written is in the process of changing. It used to be that there was a batch of tunes that were exclusively Jeremiah’s. And now there’s another batch of songs that are exclusively Scott’s or co-written. It’s bringing a different feel to the band. It’s interesting to be in the middle of a situation that’s changing from moment to moment.

I know bands hate the question “describe your music” but you’re so versatile. How would you describe it to someone who has never heard you before?
Scott: I think the roots rock thing is all encompassing. I know people don’t like categories, but you do have to describe your music. Everybody has influences. When people have trouble naming influences, that to me is a red flag that they don’t know what they’re doing.

Jeremiah: I think we’re like Jim Croce backed with Booker T. & the M.G.'s

Shawn: To speak to Scott’s point, there are a lot of commonalities between different music that are broadly categorized as American root music. Soul, R&B, country, singer-songwriter. When you actually sit down and play them and listen to them and spend time with them you’ll discover commonalities. And I think that’s the ground from which these songs operate.

How do The Ramblers stand out from every band in New York?
Steve: We’re down home roots rock music. We are the real deal.

Scott: I don’t think about it too much. There are other bands that are doing the roots thing. I think it’s cool that we have a broad palate to work from. I think there’s a unique combination of influences. Everybody sounds like somebody. As long as you’re not completely aping one act or another, you’re doing fine.

Shawn: I can’t say I know every act in New York, but I think you can tell from the reactions tonight, there aren’t that many groups that really engage people in having a good, solid time. Through rocking out and mellower things, it’s a show you’ll feel like you had a really good time when you watch the people rock out. It’s not absolutely unique, but I think it’s pretty rare. It’s not the yearnings of a tortured soul or overly theatrical to the point of being ridiculous, it’s something you feel good about.

How did you all get into blues?
Jeremiah: For me, it was me and Ben in the Maplewood Library listening to Eric Clapton. We would hang out at the record section at the library, talking about guitars and what guitars were cool. When I was a kid my mom always let me listen to her records. There was Albert King. I got into blues because that’s what my mom loved to listen to, that’s what I started listening to. A lot of it was listening to the old K-Rock back in the 80s and 90s. The late night, Allison Steele, The Nightbird. She was a really great D.J. here in New York. I really got deeply into blues a number of years back, and started playing guitar a lot. That’s how I got into it, because of records and friends of mine who saw my interest and turned me onto all this.

Scott: I didn’t grow up listening to any rock and roll. I discovered it on my own. I was blessed to have a piano teacher, a guy named Pat Pace, who was a local legend in Akron. Once I started listening to the radio I found that I was able to pick off blues licks from whatever I heard. So, I went to my teacher and said I’d like to try some jazz and I continued to work with him.

Once I got into high school I really came into jazz. I was listening to Bill Evans, who was my favorite pianist. I was also picking up Muddy Waters and B.B. King records, even though they weren’t piano players per say, they had piano players and I was learning a lot of the language there. It was a couple of albums. In my grandfather’s house it was a copy of The Allman Brothers’ Brothers and Sisters. Just listening to the solo on “Jelly Jelly,” the piano solo and organ solo killed. I wanted to get deeper and deeper into music.

I played some songs for a family friend of ours who is a composer. He said the best thing you can do is, the bands that you like, find out who their influences are and listen to them. What you do is you realize that the blues, in its most basic form, is at the root of so much of our popular music. Certainly jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, but to an extent, country music and blues have very similar origins musically. By becoming more aware of the sources of music that I like I became much more heavily indebted to the blues in terms of my piano style. It kind of ballooned from there. I was hooked.

Shawn: Similar deal to the last third of Scott’s answer. You like some music and you figure out where that came from, through interviews, when people would do cover songs. Eric Clapton makes a lot more sense once I heard Albert King. It was like a light bulb went off and I was like, “Oh! That’s where that comes from.” Initially from other rock bands of the day and classic rock bands and tracing the lineage back from that

Steve: I probably got into the blues through jazz. When I started playing drums that was the genre of music I was listening to the most. And, a lot of jazz stems from the blues.

What’s the biggest struggle for an up-and-coming band?
Scott: Rent.

Jeremiah: I was gonna go for paying our bar tabs.

Scott: TouchĂ©. Certainly in New York there are many more opportunities. There are many more people covering the music scene and who are into it. It is a lot of competition too. There are so many bands in New York. Regardless of how many are good and know what they’re doing, you’re still competing for attention and space. We’re all holding down day jobs of one sort of another. How much time do you devote to it? I think there’s definitely a struggle with anyone in New York City unless they’re really successful financially. You have to find a balance between the time that you spend with what’s going to make you your money and what’s artistically fulfilling. If you’re lucky, that gets to be the same thing but it takes an awful lot of work to get there.

Jeremiah: Its little steps. The last year I’ve felt, on my own personal level, I’m doing more. I played music four nights this week. Scott did too. Shawn has another band that he works for and Steve teaches music to kids. I don’t want to speak for all of us, but you make these little sacrifices for the music that you really love because you’re working on getting it going. Thank God, we’ve been lucky enough to have some really awesome successes and people digging our music and we’ve worked incredibly hard for that. I wake up every day and I’m really grateful. Everybody in this room has struggled to make it work and made sacrifices to make it work. I think if you’re really true to yourself, that’s when the good things start to happen. If you’re always compromising then you get into that habit. I want it to be right, whatever we’re doing.

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