Interview: The Ballroom Thieves Talk ‘Dirty’, ‘Dark’, ‘Lonesome’ New Album
Boston-bred Americana / folk trio the Ballroom Thieves dropped their sophomore album, Deadeye, on Friday (Oct. 21). As they were preparing for the release of the new project, at the 2016 Americana Music Festival, The Boot caught up with the band to talk about the new record, life on the road and getting their start in the Boston music scene.
The Ballroom Thieves first got together when bandmates Devin Mauch and Martin Earley met and started playing together at Stonehill College, just south of Boston; after a couple of years together, they met cellist Calin (aka, Callie) Peters, who attended Berklee College of Music, at an open mic in town. Starting out in a city the size of Boston may seem intimidating, but the trio says that the music scene there is extremely close-knit.
“The best thing about the Boston music scene as we were starting was just that it’s very supportive and very loyal," Earley tells The Boot. "There's a lot of connections there, so it was easy -- at least relatively easy -- to get started and to get a little community going of people who are technically in competition with each other, but are doing so in a pretty positive way, where you're inspiring each other instead of s--tting on each other."
Adds Mauch, "There's really a sense of community there, especially when we were starting out, that focused on collaboration over competition and working together to grow everyone. I think that paired with, there's a loyalty in Boston -- they're committed to their sports, their music; if you are from there, they'll love you and support you to the end. I think it had a great impact on us in the early days because, you know, you're an artist, you're creating, you're dealing all these things, and you have such a supportive community around you that it allowed us to have the confidence to keep going."
All three bandmates learned plenty about music while in college, though Peters specifically mentions that she appreciated Berklee's hands-off method of instruction -- "They don't really guide," she says, "and I mean that in a good way" -- which forces students to forge their own paths. Stonehill had less of a focus on music, but Mauch and Earley were able to band together with other musically minded students and start their own scene.
"There were things that you could do and certain clubs and organizations you could join, but the community was really kind of a self-made one of people who were like-minded, who loved music, who liked to play or experience music," Earley recalls. "Those people came together kind of on their own and were almost, by virtue of the lack of a huge music program, were forced to make one on their own ... You ended up playing in front of a bunch of people all the time just because people loved music and there wasn't really something that the schools as offering, to a certain degree, that would fulfill that need."
Mauch first saw Earley play when Mauch was a sophomore and Earley was a junior (Earley was mainly performing as a singer-songwriter, which he half-jokingly says meant he was playing "a lot of terrible, terrible stuff"), and after Earley graduated, the pair set out on the road for the first time.
"That's sort of what kicked all of this off. I think we found a great amount of inspiration traveling, seeing new places, and doing that through music," Mauch says of their first gigs together. "It was just like, 'Wow. This is something we connect with that we've never done before. Let's explore this.'"
After a year or two together, Earley and Mauch decided to find a cellist to help record an EP. They hired a session musician, who performed on a handful of the tracks that made it onto the project, but they realized that the cello added a versatility to their sound that they weren't expecting. The instrument became a permanent fixture in their lineup, and when their original cellist called it quits, they "stumbled upon" Peters.
"'Filling the shoes' quickly became something we didn't think about anymore," Earley says of bring Peters onboard. "She really re-invented those parts and did her own things with them rather than learning the old cellist's parts and singing the same harmonies and stuff. She made it her own."
For Peters, joining the Ballroom Thieves was a chance for a change of pace.
"I had been going along in other bands; sometimes I would find a project I was passionate about, sometimes I would kind of go in as a 'fixer,' and I knew I was temporary: I would come in and offer my knowledge and then play a little and then move on," she explains. "But this time, I thought that maybe I could do that, and also, they could fix me as well; I needed to come out of my shell a little bit, and they nurtured me out. It felt great immediately, so I jumped in, and they also jumped in, and we all just kind of did it together."
The band spends the majority of the year on the road, which made writing and recording Deadeye a bit of a challenge. Earley is the main songwriter in the group, but he was new to writing while on the road ("I found it almost impossible at first," he admits); Peters also tried her hand at songwriting for the first time and ended up contributing a few tracks to the album. Life on the road was the main contributor to an album that the group describes as "dirty," "dark" and "lonesome," but Peters is quick to point out that the tracks are "only melancholy in the lyrics -- they run the gamut of soft and sweet to angry and passionate."
"I think the songwriting and the recording process captured the emotions that were coming out at that time, the wonderful things and the frustrations of being an artist who lives on the road, who's homeless, who doesn't have a lot of money, but who's living this dream at the same time," Mauch confesses. "I think we sort of, not to be cliche, but poured our hearts out onto this record in a way that we had to do, and it was really reflective of the experiences that we were having for the last year or so."
Adding Peters' lyrical voice to the group has made a big impact on their sound as well: Mauch notes that Peters "has a very different delivery in the way she sings her words and her lyrics -- just the cadence of things" compared to Earley, and because she doesn't play guitar, Peters mainly worked on lyrics, using Earley to help complete her tracks.
"I came up with just poems, basically, first, and then I had to figure out a way to make them into songs," she says. "I would kind of pick up on something Martin had been playing around with on guitar, and I would ask him if I could write a song to that, and we would just work together, back and forth. So my words were finished, and he was an enormous part of finishing those songs, because I don't play the instrument that accompanies them, so I can't sit in my room and play my new song; I need someone else to help me do that."
I needed to come out of my shell a little bit, and they nurtured me out. It felt great immediately, so I jumped in, and they also jumped in, and we all just kind of did it together.
The Ballroom Thieves recently released a music video for the Deadeye track "Peregrine," which gives a glimpse into what their process is like behind the scenes: "I think it helps contextualize the record. If you listen and watch that video first, and then you listen to the record, you have a better understanding of what's going on after seeing that," Earley says. "You know, we don't look great in it. It's us recording; it's supposed to be a real depiction of what we are like in that moment."
A list of TBT's upcoming tour dates can be found at BallroomThieves.com; they currently have shows scheduled until Christmas, and they're already working on their next project while on the road.
"Now that this record is coming out, we're working on the next songs, [and] figuring out where we're going to take the sound from here -- from this dark, dirty, lonesome place," Earley says. "Where we're going to go from there is also an interesting challenge and an interesting situation because, who knows?"
Deadeye is available via the Ballroom Thieves' official website.
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