A Conversation with Zach Lupetin (The Dustbowl Revival)
By Kevin Alan Lamb
Can you recall the first post you made on Craigslist? Perhaps you were looking for a roommate, selling a couch, television, car, or maybe you’re kind of creepy looking for a Missed Connection… Or maybe, you’re too young or too old to have experienced the strange digital space made famous before the book of face revolution; either way, it was a thing (and still is, sort of) and the eight-piece American roots orchestra, The Dustbowl Revival, wouldn’t be one without it.
I’ve often given L.A. a bad wrap as the land where folks dreamed to one day arrive, yet forgot to dream again in the wake of their arrival; but a recent conversation with Zach Lupetin reminded that like the city I love (Detroit), the City of Angels is a melting pot for creative souls with sights set on soaring, where a decade ago the climate was just right for a tongue-and-cheek Craigslist post written as a breath of fresh air from a sea of Burger King commercials and relinquished dreams.
“Hey, I just moved here, and I'm looking for someone who can play one of these nineteen instruments, and if you like Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen and the Staple Singers, let me know. We were able to create a little community. People came to our shows and encouraged us, and then we started playing up and down the coast. By 2012, we were touring nationally."
Like rocket fuel, dreams are a sensitive subject. We all possess them, seek them, trade them, and only some ever hold onto them long enough to learn they are rarely realized in the manner which they were originally conceived. The Dustbowl Revival sound is difficult to articulate, yet spectacularly heard. It is a collision of the folk, roots, and blues music Lupetin learned to love from his father, and the funky, soulful, and honest songwriting Tedd Hutt dared him to write. Its flame emits shadows of a sound you’ve grown familiar with, in a form you’ve just begun to know.
Here’s my conversation with lead singer and founder of The Dustbowl Revival, Zach Lupetin, ahead of their Valentine’s Day performance at The Parliament Room at Otus Supply with special guest, Jack & the Bear.
KAL: Can you tell us about your evolution into a more soulful, and funky sound, and your influences in the transition?
ZL: Yeah man, I put together the band about 10 years ago and it sort of has come together as a happy accident, where we’ve played all different times of music in a meetup group of like-minded musicians in L.A. You know, L.A. is kind of a crazy melting pot town, almost no one that is here is from this town. People played in jazz, and people played in folk and bluegrass groups and we kind of merged those together. Initially, I wanted to write more old time folk and kind of gospel-blues stuff, and have it be this Vaudevillian variety type show where we’d do all sorts of stuff and have it be this spectacle. We had a lot of fun doing our own modern, rock and roll version of old school swing and blues and gospel stuff, then I started to get a little more courage to write in my own style, and write my own tunes that had a little more of this folk-soul combination where we started collaborating a lot more the last few years, as a band, and this record has a much more focused, kind of honest and raw feel to it where we wrote about some darker subjects, love and loss, and you always party along the way to, but it’s sort of the full spectrum of growing up and starting to be a little more wise about relationships and the world. It’s been a cool evolution.
KAL: What helped you feel that Ted Hutt was the right man to help y'all produce “the tightest, funkiest thing (you’ve) ever attempted?”
ZL: Well, I found him through his work with Old Crow Medicine Show, and I found out that he started Flogging Molly and did a lot work with Dropkick Murphys, and Lucero. He has this sort of mellowed out punk rocker in him, so he was kind of able to see the energy and spirit we wanted to harness, but also this feeling that we wanted to honor roots history, but also create something of our own, and new. On some of the Old Crow Medicine show records that I listened to that he produced, he gets this really fast, full, warm sound out of bands and it’s a really difficult thing capturing an eight-piece band with horns, fiddle, mandolin, drums and harmony vocals; it’s not for the faint of heart I’d say. It takes a lot to do it in a way that doesn’t sound forced, like you’re pretending to play live. He was able to get us out of our heads and get to the bottom of what songs are really about. And certain times he challenged me as a songwriter and said, “Stop avoiding the real darkness in the song. Who’s getting killed in the car crash, how do you feel about that?”
As a songwriter that was difficult at first, I don’t just want to say it, I want to say it with poetry and mystery and he was like, “Stop jazzing it up. Get to the point. Tell me what you really feel,” and that was a springboard for a lot of the songs to go further than we’ve ever done.
KAL: What is one of your wildest and weirdest memories from playing in The Midnight Special while living in Ann Arbor attending U of M?
ZL: [Laughter] There were some nights at the Blind Pig that were pretty hilarious. I remember a horrible ex-girlfriend of mine getting thrown out of the club during our first song [laughter] and me pleading with the bouncers to not hurt her. She had a fake ID and was already wasted at 8:00 PM [laughter]. Then we’re like, "Well, I guess we gotta just keep playing the show." They threw her into the alley and that was it. I remember playing some frat parties that had the feeling the whole house was going to get torn down around us. Where people were dancing and raging around us that we were fearing for our own safety, then sort of pouring out into the snow and people’s bodies were steaming and no one was wearing any clothes. It was a wacky and fun experience. I don’t how good we really were, but they let us rock out in their living room so that was fun.
KAL: Who helped lead you to influences like Pokey Lafarge and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band?
ZL: I think my dad growing up in Chicago was very influential in what I listened to. He had this sort of schizophrenic taste like I did, where he’d be playing Benny Goodman’s Swing Orchestra at Carnegie Hall one minute, then rocking out to The Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead the next moment, and putting on Miles Davis the next moment. He was always encouraging me to keep my mind open, and he brought me to some cool concerts, and as a teenager you rebel against your dad a little bit where I was like, “I want to listen to Green Day, I don’t want to listen to this old people music,” but then I went to college and figured out some of the earlier music who inspired this music, we all know The Beatles, and The Stones, and Allman Brothers, but the early blues and gospel stuff they were listening to as kids I liked even more, and I got into Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and that was the stuff that as a songwriter, I wanted to write that. I knew that I would never be a shredding guitar player, or something unattainable like The Beatles, but I felt like I could feel that energy of the early music and had this sort of accessibility that I could appreciate; early bluegrass stuff… The Stanley Brothers, it’s music for the people in a way. It’s stuff that you learn in church then sort of twist around. The modern interpreters of that, like Pokey Lafarge ,reminded me that there is an audience for that, and the scene in L.A. eight-nine years ago when we started was very receptive to this kind of music and it allowed us to kind of play three-four times a week all over town, and there were all sorts of weird speakeasies and bars that would give us a shot… and we were able to go from there and travel around the country. The Americana renaissance that’s happening right now is a sort of interesting continuation of that by people who appreciate the traditions of folk music and early blues and jazz, but also have a little more rock and roll and bearded sensibility, and I think the merging of all of that is pretty cool. Dustbowl doesn’t really sit in any genre, which has been kind of a blessing and a curse for us, but I think overall, it’s kind of fun to keep people on their toes and allow the listener to describe what type of music it is.
KAL: Do you remember where you were when you made the infamous Craigslist post that brought you all together?
ZL: I moved to L.A. in 2007, and I was working in advertising [laughing]. I came out to L.A. to be a writer in more film and theatre and stuff, and sort of sneak my music in on the side, and it kind of reversed itself where music was the thing that took over and I had to sneak work in on the side. I think I was sitting in an office; I would write Burger King commercials…[laughter] it was a cool first job, but I saw the dead-eyed stare of people who devoted their lives to the Burger King account, like that was their life, and there were really talented people who went to film school or were musicians or were actors and they kind of just… and that was it. They found a steady income and they never really break out of that, and it was hard to because that’s a steady thing.
KAL: They dreamed to get to L.A. and never dreamed again.
ZL: Well… [laughter] I think when you’re 23 and you’re young and stupid you think, “That’s never gonna happen to me,” you know? You’re like, “I’m gonna do it different,” and I think part of that Craigslist ad was not knowing anyone and feeling like I have to put something together here or I’m gonna go crazy, and we got super lucky in the amount of talented people that responded, some of which are still in the band today. It’s funny because I think Craigslist was a little more innocent back then you know? [laughter] You would actually find great musicians who would form an awesome band just on a Craigslist posting like, “Hey, you wanna help me out?” But I think you also have to get super lucky and people have to show up at the times and it took a long time, it’s not like… I remember when I would act as the band manager for years and I would send fake emails to The Troubadour [laughter]. “This is Frankie Johnson, we have a talented band here.” And the Troubadour would be like, “Guys, no.” It was like you had no chance, it was never gonna happen. But eventually, you get an agent and The Troubadour was like, “Okay, we’ll give you guys a shot.” Then you sell out The Troubadour and they’re like, "Alright, whenever you want.” You go from having no chance…
KAL: To no availability…
ZL: No, but there’s always one more step of no chance right? Dustbowl does well enough certain places, but we’ve only played Detroit a handful of times, and there’s towns where we’re like, “We gotta get back there” the energy is so right for us to kick some ass. You guys seem to have a lot of bands we play with festivals at and that’s great, because it can get pretty lonely out there. Trying to break into certain markets, and we have this sort of whiplash effect sometimes where we play to 800 people in San Francisco, and 500 people in Sacramento, then we go on a Tuesday to San Diego and there’s 70 people there and we’re like, “Fuuuuck.” How do we go to that place where your people find you everywhere? And that’s a really difficult next step to go. And sometimes you need a little umph from other bands… but I think we’ve sort of had to do things on our own for a really long time because people don’t really know what to make of us, and we’re not a band that’s an easy opening band for artists… but we were able to open for Josh Ritter at The Fillmore in San Fran a couple of weeks ago and that’s always a treat for us. We did a couple shows with Lake Street Dive, and that show with Preservation Hall Jazz was great, but that’s rare. You’re kind of forced to be an independent band that’s headlining which is awesome, because you can see who really cares about you, but it can also be daunting because there’s not a lot of support and you kind of hope the word gets out on a Wednesday in Detroit.
KAL: What's the last song you want to hear before you die?
ZL: Maybe like… Al Green’s “Love and Happiness.” I got married to that song a couple months ago, and it makes you feel good.
Just in case you were listening for one, This is a Good Sound. Catch The Dustbowl Revival Wednesday, February 14, at The Parliament Room at Otus Supply.