Balthrop, Alabama – Barnyard Epic Indie Rock (from the Ben Arthur Seed)

It stays in the family for this bit of our musical tree , in part because Ben Arthur’s brother, Michael Arthur, is a member of the band.  But really, it’s all a family thing anyway, having been started up by Lauren and Pascal Balthrop, and grown into the bustling musical metropolis it is today. With 11 members, a bevy of different instruments, and a carefully crafted backstory, Balthrop, Alabama creates wonderful songs that bring you back to the warm green grasses of home.

Lauren Balthrop (aka Georgiana Starlington) took the time to respond, talk a bit about their music, and represent the fair town of their creation.

How did you get started playing music?

We come from a pretty musical family. As kids, there were always sing-alongs and we were singing along with when the family got together. It was just always a part of who we were. My mom and her sisters are like the Andrew Sisters. When they’re together, they are in three part harmony. I wrote my first song when I was 6 after having gotten back from a trip to the circus. It was called Tightrope and it ended up on the first Balthrop, Alabama album ‘Your Big Plans and Our Little Town’.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

I’m embarrassed to say that the first CD I ever bought was Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Come On Come On. I was 8 and heavily exposed to country music everywhere I went. She did a great cover of Lucinda William’s “Passionate Kisses”, and I was just obsessed with “I Feel Lucky”. Oh, to be 8 again.

How would you describe the music you play now?

Someone called it “Barnyard Epic Indie Rock” and I guess that sums it up pretty well. We always say that our songs tell stories about dead people and dead people in love, although sometimes they aren’t quite dead. The songs tend to be pretty narrative and when we play in concert, our town drawer, Toxey Goodwater (Michael Arthur) does these live drawings that are projected behind us, which makes the show kind of like a live cartoon.

Some reviewer in Alabama said we were like a touring version of Barack Obama’s Rent and that will also do as a description, even though I don’t really know what it means. I think he didn’t like us, but we like Barack Obama and Rent’s a pretty good show, although Hedwig [And The Angry Inch] is better. We’re like a touring version of Barack Obama’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Balthrop, AL has a population of about 11…how did this particular musical town come to incorporate?

It started with my brother Pascal and I, but the expansion was pretty organic. We all knew each other through this local coffee shop called the Fall Cafe in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn which is across the street from where Pascal lived. Most of us either worked there or spent some time each day there. But the Fall Cafe is sort of where the community of it all began. That’s where the city limits were laid out.

Is there good real estate value in Balthrop?

Well, Balthrop, Alabama is located primarily in Brooklyn and real estate’s mighty pricey in New York City. But, the town travels around a good bit, so we can find deals here and there. I gotta say we have some nice parts of town and some pretty shady areas, and sometimes it can change just like that. But, it’s strong property and we consider it a good investment. There was some fear that we might qualify for a super-fund clean up, but then Douglas Snead showered and everything worked itself out.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

Oh, I think we’re pretty much that good pair of overalls that everyone has but only wears on laundry days. It never gets washed, but it’s comfy and every stain tells a story.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

That changes all the time. I’m pretty restless and I get bored easy, so I listen to and borrow from a lot of stuff. Pascal got the notion of the band after seeing an Arcade Fire show. I think we’re all inspired by the Beatles story–the hard work and constant creative stuff that went on there, but we’re also pretty partial to Hank Williams too. On tour, we’re always swapping out iPods and listening to everyone else’s music–it’s a pretty eclectic group of tastes, so we listen to Hillbilly stuff and punk stuff and big bands and show tunes and a lot of Patton Oswalt. Man, Pascal and Jason really like that Patton Oswalt album.

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

Well, I think we’d be playing a bar show with the Hamburg-era Beatles. We’d probably have Rocketship Park and the Ne’er Do Evers play, because their members are in our band too and we have fun playing in all sorts of configurations. I wonder if we can get the Hamburg-era Beatles to tour again–it would be a sweet opening slot for them and we wouldn’t make them change out of their leather stuff jackets. Also, Coldplay should be in there, just so they can see how a real band does it. It would be good for their career and their musical growth.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

A good marketing strategy and product tie-ins. A little payola gets me every time.

Ok. For real. Uhm . . . I like a good melody and a nice bit of melancholy stirred up in some optimisim. I guess we don’t really like fake stuff and don’t much go for attitude unless it’s got something backing it up.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

Our label mates (and frequent collaborators)  Caithlin DeMarrais and Kyle Fischer each put out amazing solo albums last year. I guess I think you should listen to either one of them. They were both in the Indy band Rainer Maria and their solo albums feature a lot of members of Balthrop, Alabama as players. I know it seems like nepotism or something to choose albums that you’re on, but I swear Caithlin’s My Magic City and Kyle’s Black Milk are two albums that everyone should be listening to. We listen to them repeatedly when we’re out on the road. They’re SO GOOD.

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Listen to some Balthrop, Alabama

Balthrop, Alabama – Your Big Plans & Our Little Town – “Explode”

Balthrop, Alabama – Subway Songs – “Subway Horns”


And pick up an album or two while you’re at it…

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Ben Arthur (seed) → Balthrop, Alabama

Brian Rosenworcel of Guster – The Thunder God Seed

Guster was a milestone for me, musically.  I grew up in a kind of sheltered musical environment, sticking to my classical discs and showtunes.  So I get to college, and suddenly everyone around me is listening to music.  All the time.  Really really loudly.  And most of it, I couldn’t care less.  But a friend of mine, he handed me a CD during a study session for music theory in my dorm room, and told me to put it on.

It was Guster’s Lost and Gone Forever, and it became an obsession.

We listened to it over and over again, singing along, and then adding our own layers of harmony until we’d practically crafted cantatas around the thing.  I still can’t listen without adding extra lines.

But one of the things nearest and dearest to our hearts was something we couldn’t reproduce vocally.  The drumming.  These deep heavy sounds, but so rounded and whole, coming from a hand drum kit wielded by one Brian “Thundergod” Rosenworcel.

About two years ago I got to meet Brian – he is a friend of a friend of mine, who also happens to be the lead singer in my band.   And though I was concerned about my control of my girlish glee, I found him to be a wholly wonderful, self deprecating, and hilarious guy.  So though I was still there screaming and shouting with the best of them as Guster took the stage to play all of Lost and Gone Forever on their recent tour, I am even more pleased to have this small, personal introduction to the man himself, Brian.

Tell us a little about yourself…

My name is Brian Rosenworcel.  In my 20s I called myself a “legendary conguero” in the liner notes for one of Guster’s albums.  I would never do that now.  I’m 36.

How did you get started playing music?

At some point in high school my friends got into acoustic guitar and mandolin and we began “jamming” after school.  With nothing to do but lots of desire to fit in, I tapped on a pair of bongos quietly in the background.  Thus began our band, Toejamb, and a fascination with hand drumming that I explored mostly on the steering wheel of my Chevy Nova.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

I bought Toad the Wet Sprocket’s 2nd album, Fear, when I was in high school.  I had never heard of them, but my friend Jamie saw their video and convinced me to check it out.  I didn’t like every song, but I loved certain ones.  I flipped that cassette over hundreds of times, because I’d spent the money on it.  Shame that the I’m-gonna-listen-to-this-a-lot-because-I-invested-currency-in-it thing is behind us now — it really created more dedicated listeners.

Your drums are absolutely amazing.  What inspired you to put them together the way you did – was it a sound you were looking for, or a concept?

The hand percussion kit that I play live is a very organic creation, built up one drum at a time, with each drum being worked into the system individually, and simply because I wanted more and more sounds.  I never envisioned it becoming so elaborate, and I never envisioned myself hitting snares and cymbals with my bare hands.  It just made sense to move in that direction to expand our sound.  Eventually, after ten years of hand drumming, I got really excited about the idea of playing a traditional kit with sticks.

Of all the instruments you play, which is your favorite?

Djembe is a great instrument because it gets a variety of sounds — big low bass sounds and crisp ringing high notes all from the same drum.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

I’m inspired mostly by songwriters.  I can’t think of too many hand drummers that I’ve gotten into — I pretty much just tried to support Guster’s music with hand drums as best as I could because it was what I knew how to do.  The drummers I like tend to be simple players like Levon Helm and Ringo Starr.  If I spend too much time worshiping at the altar of the virtuosos like Stewart Copeland I’ll just end up feeling bad about my lack of chops.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

I keep wracking my brain for a way to do this that doesn’t sound pretentious as hell.  I keep failing.

Guster is spending part of the fall doing a “Party like it’s 1999” tour.  How did you party in 1999?

Well, we’re playing an album we made in 1999 in its entirety (it’s the album that was all hand drums, “Lost & Gone Forever”).  As far as the “Party Like It’s 1999” thing, that’s the subject of the band email announcement I sent out about the tour.  Unfortunately the days where I was artful and creative in my subjects are about ten years old too.  Now if I can find something serviceable it goes in and gets sent without thinking twice.

In any event there are only two shows left on said tour, both in New York.  It was fun to revisit that album though — it was a very simple and creatively arranged record.  The melodies stand up.

If you could pick a perfect lineup of bands (dead or alive) for a show where Guster was the headliner, who would it be?

Well, Os Mutantes would be on first, but they’d only play for like 20 minutes.  Then The Stone Roses would play their self-titled record front to back (everyone’s doing that these days), followed by a George Harrison solo acoustic set, before Guster takes the stage, as the audience hits the exits.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

It’s melody that grabs me.  Sometimes it’s feel and rarely it’s lyrics, but a great melody always appeals to me.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

Cass McCombs.  His first album and EP were raw, beautiful, and totally unique.  His voice just has the perfect affect.  I’m shocked he’s not more well known.  Check out the album “A” it’s a masterpiece.

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You can hear a few songs at Guster’s MySpace, and hear bootleg tapes from 2000 on their website (awesome)

If you don’t already own at least one of these discs, shame on you.