The Americans are rock & roll road warriors, having toured the country and back again numerous times, playing songs deeply infused with traditional American roots music. They’ve played with acts ranging from Oscar-winner Ryan Bingham to Nick Cave, and recently appeared throughout American Epic, a four hour primetime PBS/BBC Special produced by Jack White, Robert Redford and T Bone Burnett.
With the pending US release of their first full length album, I’ll Be Yours, I spoke with lead singer and guitarist Patrick Ferris about the band and their new music.
B: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me and give an interview for our new site.
P: Yeah man, you bet.
B: I want to start off learning how the three of you met and got started with your band.
P: We all met in high school. We weren’t at the same high school, but we met around that time, through a shared interest in rural American music. Country blues and string band music, and the rest.
B: I read that you started out as a jug band, so I’m wondering how you made the decision to play that type of music, and then as your band evolved more into a rock n’ roll group, did any part of you resist that change, or did it feel like a more natural growth?
P: It felt natural because I don’t think there ever was any long term plan on our part to recreate old music. It was a stepping stone and we maybe all felt that at the time. We weren’t so much a jug band, we were just playing anything that we liked, and back then that was mostly country blues and string band music, and later on, early proto-rockabilly, rock n’ roll. It was more for lack of anything else to play. We didn’t have any songs and we didn’t even have a message of writing songs because it wasn’t like we had a band we loved we were going to sound like. We loved all this pre-rock n’ roll stuff.
B: I’m sure that type of music was hard to find growing up. Did you have an old vinyl collection, or did your parents help you in finding that music?
P: My dad did use to play a few of those old guys when I was growing up, so reconnecting with that music as a teenager was really meaningful for that reason, but I definitely don’t think it sent me looking for it. It was more just the music. When I started learning to play guitar, the first music that really got to me was Dylan and the White Stripes, and I learned about them and that they all had…it’s kind of this magical thing when you find out that so many of the bands and songwriters you respect draw from a similar place. When you start hearing about that place over and over, you want to find out what it is too. I think that’s true for Jake (Faulkner) too. Zac’s (Sokolow) dad was playing bluegrass already when he was little, and he learned the banjo when he was just a kid, so I think he was a lot more in his environment.
B: When you decided on your name, The Americans, which is almost like a statement about your roots as a musician, what were you hoping that name would tell potential listeners about your band and about the music before they actually heard it?
P: I think it was that…(laughs)…especially these days kind of a provocative name, but “America” is one of those concepts people throw around and make mean whatever they want, and to us, it made us proud to be part of the birthplace of pop music. The birthplace of and origin story of music as we know it, coming from this country. And the more that I dug into that stuff, it just was exceptional to me that so much had happened here in this country, from so many different types of people, of different ethnicities and everything. It all at once gave birth to basically the roots of everything we know in modern music all around the world. If you go see a rock band in Italy or you go see a pop band in Taiwan, you can trace what they’re doing right back here to this soil. It had to do with how much the music in this country mattered to us.
B: I think that’s a good transition, talking about the roots of popular music in our country to American Epic, which I know you worked on for BBC/PBS. How did you guys get involved in working on that documentary?
P: It was really just luck. We were playing around town, and occasionally we would do completely acoustic shows playing old time music, string band blues and stuff. We happened to meet the guy who wound up directing the film (Bernard MacMahon) back when it was still in its infancy. He was looking for a band like us who could play old time music, but also had its own identity. A modern rock band. So we wound up being the house band for a lot of the sessions, where they had all these musicians come in. We would arrange stuff, even choose songs for them. Other times we would just fill in here or there on mandolin or fiddle.
B: How is the process when you are paired-up with a new artist you haven’t worked with before and are arranging a song for them? How long would that usually take you? Was it a difficult process for certain artists if they hadn’t done something like that before?
P: It all happened really fast. It would always be the day-of because it was on a film set, so we would have to work pretty quickly. The main challenge was the apparatus itself. They resurrected this old 1920’s era cutting lathe and microphone and amplifier. They had the real deal all set-up and running for the first time in, who knows, sixty years or something. And so that, that part of it, I noticed a lot of musicians who were included got suddenly nervous around this equipment, because it’s really unforgiving. Each take ruins a side of a disc, so you have to hope what you’re are doing is good in the moment and go with it, like a live performance. Even more exacting than that, because it’s all around a single microphone. Which is actually a recording technique we were familiar with but that was the most challenging. I think it humbled a lot of people.
B: Do you have any particular moment or memory from the recording of American Epic that really stands out for you?
P: There are so many. One thing that was cool was, I was hanging out in the green room, as another session was going on, and Taj Mahal was in there, and he and I were both reminiscing about all the things we learned about Charley Patton, sharing stories about the history of Patton’s life, and people who learned from him. He started singing this Patton song “High Water Everywhere”, and I had my resonator there, so I grabbed it and started playing along with him. I didn’t know at the time, but someone in the sound crew had rigged up the green room with microphones for exactly this reason, so that if they caught anything cool happening, they would have it for audio on the show. And so they heard it, and Bernard the director came in, saying “hey, we’re going to record that.” So that ended up making it into the movie.
B: Now I want to move on to your new album, I’ll Be Yours. This is your first full length album, and I know it’s coming out in the US this Fall. You guys first formed your band back in 2010, so I’m wondering, the time between now and then, was it a conscious decision to wait and record your first full length album?
P: Yeah, you and me both, man! (Laughs) It really feels like a long time when you word it that way. We’ve been changing so much as a band that whole time. Basically, we did do a lot of recording in the interim. We did two EPs (2010’s self-titled EP, and 2013’s Home Recordings), we’ve done a bunch of stuff for different soundtracks and compilations, so it felt like we were in the studio quite a bit, but mostly we were touring a lot. Early on, before we had anything on our own, we booked our own tours all over the country, playing anywhere. Just random honky tonks and strange bars, and odd places that we really wondered why we were there when we got there. For us, it felt right because we would actually make money touring that way. We could get decent pay at these places, and also it was an interesting way to kind of find ourselves as a band and learn to play together. So that took up a lot of our time, and I guess I never thought about it as much as you just put it, but a part of me always kind of thought we would keep releasing EPs ourselves, until it gets to a place where we wanted. And in another way we didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t like the record labels were knocking down our door trying to sign us, so we were just sort of doing what we could do. Going into a studio on a shoestring. Most recently, we signed up with this British label Loose, and we had these songs, and we went away on the road and got them exactly where we wanted them and went into the studio. It took us about ten days in the studio to do it. It sort of made me wonder why it had taken us so long, because it was so much better than the way we’d been doing it before, recording it ourselves. We recorded one in a barn, and another EP in a basement.
B: I’m sure all the experience you guys got, and the way you guys have grown, really changed what that album became, compared to what it would have sounded like had you recorded it 2-3 years after forming.
P: I’d say we do a lot of things in the band that are impractical and old fashioned, and definitely trying to play a lot of shows a year and trying to take some of that into the studio is part of that. We recorded most of the album live, with guitars in the same room. Definitely all the time performing together was important.
B: This is your first time in a real studio for a full album. Did you have a lot of temptation to use more of the digital techniques they had available for the recording, or did you try to stick to your more organic roots?
P: I think both of those things are interesting. In any type of creative work, warring interests are important. We recorded the whole thing to tape, without any real editing possibilities. We used pure analogue with no digital. When it came time to mix it, then we opened up to the full potential of the studio.
B: Let’s talk a little about your songwriting style. Something that’s always really stood out to me about your songs is just how vivid and emotional the storytelling is. Whether it’s “Gospel Roads”, which is one of my all-time favorites, or “The Right Stuff”, you’re really taking the listener on a journey with their narrators. I’m wondering with your writing style, when telling stories, do you really plot out the story first before translating it into lyrics, or do you begin writing in a more stream-of-conscious style and let the story evolve from there?
P: That’s a great question man. I don’t get asked a lot of questions about that sort of thing. I’ve never had a song where I knew the story before I started it, so very much the latter method. Usually it’s a piece of music that I find I can fall into, like I can play over and over, and there’s still something there that I’m looking for. I’ll try to sing certain things over it; certain words and syllables until there’s usually some important kind of anchor, like some phrase or something. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be the chorus or some piece to the song, but whatever it is it has this importance to it that informs a little bit more. And then it’s just down into the maze. Figuring out what goes with what and what kind of a song it’s going to become. I find that it’s really surprising to emerge from that experiment with anything. If I can come out of it, and have a song, it always seems like “where the hell did that come from?”, because most of it is just feeling around in the dark. But that’s the only way I’ve ever done it.
B: For your new song “Bronze Star”, you took a lot of inspiration for that from an article that was a true story about a female marine who was killed in action. How often do you use real life stories in your writing, whether they’re your own or ones you’ve read about, or if you use more fictionalized narrators?
P: I would say the same. I’ve never read something and thought to myself, the way a lot of great songwriters do, “ah, there’s a song in that”. They sit down, and make a song for that. I’ve never had that ability. What happens to me is, I’ll be involved in that same familiar process where I’m poking around in the dark. I’ve got the music I’m using and I’m trying to put words to it, and as words come out and as the verses start to take shape, it will occur to me what the song is about. It’s a sort of subconscious thing, and it works it’s way out that way. So in the case of “Bronze Star” or something similar, the story I read fascinated me, and it was battling around in my head for a while, and when I started writing verses, and a lot of those verses could be about something else, but as it started to take form, it sort of occurred to me what I was writing about. And then you pretty it up the best you can.
B: Going from the lyrics to your musicianship, I know all the band members are multi-instrumentalists. Are there any new instruments you are trying to learn right now to use on future albums?
P: That’s a great question. I know Zac has been playing some Cajun squeezebox stuff like you hear on all those beautiful twenties Cajun recordings. No plans to record it currently (laughs). I’m always trying to get better at fiddling. We have some violins on the new record, on “Bronze Star”, but when it came time to do them, we called in the pros. We got our friends who actually play the violin.
B: Still a good thing to have in your arsenal for the future!
P: That’s right, yeah.
B: So I know you guys are going to Europe this Fall, and releasing the album in the states. What are your plans for after that?
P: Hope to do a big ol’ US tour. We haven’t done one in a little while. That’s unusual for us. Honestly, what I’d want is, since this band has been around, is to have the opportunity to play more shows for people who have heard the songs before. Because you’re already kind of handicapped when you’re playing for an audience that has never heard you, and the only way people really hear you is to hear your record. You see a band you like, and you go back and see them again and that’s great, but if you listen to the album in between and hopefully you really connect to some of the songs, and then you bring that with you to the show. Of course that happens to us here and there, but because we’ve never really had a proper studio album. I’m really looking forward to playing for people who have had an opportunity to hear the songs, so they can experience the live show the way we do, and get engrossed in them. I would love that.
B: I definitely felt that when I saw you guys at the Hotel Cafe late last year. I know we are running out of time, so I want to ask one final question to you; if you could make one lasting impact or change to popular music as it is now, what would that be?
P: Oh God. All I can think of when you ask that question is all of the songwriters out there that are much, much greater than I am. I think a lot of the great songwriters out there, people like Joanna Newsom for instance, have their words overlooked because the music is easier to take in than the lyrics, and the lyrics can sometimes even be a little bit like eating broccoli, having to listen to all of them or trying to comprehend them. A lot of the songs that are dearest to me, are songs that are really lyrically heavy, and that might not necessarily be that palatable as songs. There are certain epics that people like Bob Dylan or even Woodie Guthrie have written, like six or seven minute long lyrical songs. All I hope for is that people will listen to the lyrics in my songs, and my band’s songs, and maybe it will help them appreciate some other artists who are doing the same thing and doing much better.
B: That’s a great answer, and I think all the amazing songwriters out there would appreciate that. Thank you so much for your time, and good luck with the upcoming release of your album and the tour, and I hope to see you guys live again sometime in the future as well.
P: All right, thanks Bo!
The Americans – The Right Stuff (Official Music Video)
I’ll Be Yours will be released in the United States October 2017, and touring Europe this fall. For more information, visit http://www.theamericansmusic.com.
Follow them on Twitter @americansmusic