Tuesday, January 29, 2008
PORTABLE FOLK BAND
Mark Chadwick is asleep in the back of an ambulance parked behind the Soapbox. The guitarist and singer for Portable Folk Band is suffering a late winter cold brought on by fatigue, touring and little sleep, all things pertinent to keeping a cold in good shape. The ambulance is not a vehicle in service with a hospital in New Hanover County. It was one purchased by the band two weeks ago off eBay for around six hundred dollars. Not a bad price given that its quite roomy, was well maintained by previous owners and if you’ve seen that old Burt Reynolds flick, The Cannonball Run, you know that it might save the driver a little grief when driving above the speed limit.
On the shelf just inside the passenger’s sliding door is drummer Ian Collin’s chemistry book where he studies while on the road. There’s vegetables and other groceries for band members to eat or snack on from town to town. The back is packed efficiently with musical equipment and other gear, a large bench seat has been installed for them to sleep while taking turns driving.
The old seat went the wrong way, designed for a stretcher to be slid in the back, something not ideal for long distance driving. It was a bear to get out and Shelley Salamon has become architect and mechanic very quickly. She tried sawing the seat out but ended up taking a big axe and chopping it out. Once removed a bench seat was installed in its place across the axle instead of lengthwise. It wasn’t very stable. So the day leaving for the tour Nat Lownes was under the ambulance with a drill.
“Four fucking holes in the bottom of the van to hold the seat in,” he says. “Won it on eBay.”
Named the van yet? No, Shelley says, not wanting to jinx anything. They changed the oil in Virginia and then the serpentine belt fell off. Shelley figured that one out.
“I’m a mechanic now,” she says. “It’s a diesel and has 76000 miles on it.”
“Its loud but its fun,” Nat says.
I won’t see Chadwick until he and the rest of Portable Folk Band perform onstage. It’s a relatively quick set, about fifty minutes worth, in which they work through a frenzied performance of songs from their current release Royal Postal Bazaar. Chadwick is red faced, from his cold and tension on his face from singing. He sings forcefully and passionately, moving about as if about to implode from the energy. Music has its way, even with the tired and sick, has its way to wake up the soul and body.
It’s mid March and students have only returned from spring break. The show is scheduled for a Tuesday night and downtown is sparse with visitors. It’s cold out still, enough to make you shiver and bristle when the wind blows downtown.
Its day five of the tour, they will travel to South Carolina in the morning and then on to Jacksonville, Florida the next. Shelley booked much of the tour and the stop in Wilmington came from hearing another band mentioning the area.
Yesterday was Raleigh. Before that DC in which Nat says he stuttered through a radio interview and passed the microphone to Ian.
“We did some radio interviews that were weird, ” Nat says.
Standing amongst washers and dryers in the laundry area of the Soapbox, Nat Lownes (guitar, vocals), Shelley Salamon (bass) and Ian discuss the formation of the band.
Shelley’s hair is short, unlike the length of black hair in the band’s promo photo. She quickly punctuates a sentence, unconsciously with a small doses of profanity. So quick in fact that you’re not sure if that’s what you really heard. She’s probably picked it up from living with Nat. Ian’s hair is shorter now as well. He is tall and relatively soft spoken, but can tell you a story at length and deadpan. Nat is stocky, small piercing eyes that talk to people directly without shuffling. They are tired from traveling but pleased to be out of ambulance and on solid ground.
Portable Folk Band had its origins as a recording project between Nat and Mark. In high school the pair would drive around in Mark’s car taking a 4 track recorder with batteries taped to it, using it so they could record out in public or whatever.
“We would improvise shit on acoustic guitars and harmonicas. Somehow that got named Portable Folk Band,” Nat says. “And we never came up with another name. It’s a little misleading. It might do more harm than good.”
Nat started playing saxophone in the 4th grade. He played drums in his first band then picked up guitar.
“I like the drums the best, drum are awesome,” he says.
Shelley started on guitar senior year. Her boyfriend played in a band and she attended shows.
“I said ‘I wanna do that,” she says of seeing him onstage.
The boyfriend played drums, and not wanting to copy him, she played guitar. She played a while and got frustrated. Five months later she could play power chords.
“My fingers didn’t feel stupid anymore,” she says.
Shelley played nine months and then went to college and started recording her own material. Then she borrowed her boyfriend’s uncle’s bass. Playing the bass became more common than guitar, discovering she could do different things. The boyfriend was in a band called Mini Band in which they played mini instruments.
“I went to all the shows, enjoyed it,” she says. “It was guitar and drums only. Someone offered Shelley a mini bass and she wound up playing in Mini Band. She was going to all the shows and knew the songs anyway having attended the shows over the course of a year.
“I fell in love with it and guitar looked boring after that.”
Shelley met Nat and Mark and the band started to come together.
“We had to make this happen live,” she says. “So I learned all the songs.”
Drummer Ian Collins is the only band member who is still in school. He brought his books on tour, to study on the road, something Nat refers to as a “recipe for motion sickness.”
Ian is a bio major, taking classes in chemistry, calculus and physics. He needed one class, any class, to fill his requirements so he took a golf course.
“Everyone thinks it’s a joke,” he says but seems to like it. “A lot of touring is entertaining yourself, it’s not too bad, doing some reading. That’s what I do, school, drums.”
Shelly was recording a friend of Mark and Nat’s and liked what the two were doing. She made some cd’s of all these songs the pair had recorded and together they put a live band together.
“It was pretty much unnamed. Coming up with a band name is hard. What are you going to call that?” she recalls asking them.
PFB has been together about a year and a half. The current ensemble lived in the same house outside Philadelphia. The location was great in that everyone was together but the lease was coming up.
“There were various reasons to leave that house,” Nat says.
“Yeah, the heating bill was too high. Five hundred dollars,” Shelly interjects.
Shelly’s parents recently bought a place in Boca Raton, Florida where the temperature was nearly a constant seventy degrees. No one was living there at the time, the parents not moving in until the following year, so it was an opportunity too good to pass up. So for a short time the band was split with Nat and Shelley in Florida and Ian and Mark residing in Florida.
“We go back to Philly in May,” Shelley says.
“Missing winter,” says Nat with a smile.
Recording the album Royal Postal Bazaar took place in a small room with no windows. The environment, in many ways, affected the results. The album is an acoustic fever dream mixed with psychedelic guitar and hip hop sensibilities. It is not an easy thing to categorize and probably shouldn’t be. It is not folk music, as Nat said, the band name can be misleading. But then again, what did the name Pink Floyd mean when they first arrived?
The album’s name came form a dream Mark had, that he was part of a group of people who transported very fancy silver plated handguns in suitcases on public transportation. It was very secretive but everyone knew who they were because they had black suits and suitcases. They were called the Royal Postal Bazaar. Although not direct, the title and back story lend a quality to the self released debut. The album is many things, especially mysterious, as the back story and the place recording area.
“Our friends had an extremely tiny room, maybe it was a cooling cellar for vegetables but it was very small,” Nat says. “We insulated the walls with carpet and recorded there.”
The band’s musical interests are there to some extent, The Beatles, RJD2, D-Plan, but listening one can hear early days Beck and The Flaming Lips as well. They are also fans of a now defunct Philadelphia band, Dispatch.
“Acoustic party music, what OAR used to be, but 5 times as good,” Ian says. “They sold out a 5000 seat capacity in Philadelphia but couldn’t get on the radio.”
On RPB there is the aural garage sounding guitar on ‘markruok’ and ‘100 Greatest Robberies n History’ that takes the ear back to the sixties. It’s frenetic and soothing all at once. It’s funky and at times heavy, layered and definitely unique.
“Reviewers have gotten it wrong, seemingly reviewing without listening, saying its folk and its portable and that’s that,” Shelley says.
Even open music web sites such as Garageband.com where random people can review music have made positive and vague comments such as the bouncing and childlike track ‘Baby Food’ as sounding like The White Stripes.
“That’s weird,” Shelley says appreciative but a little confused. “Baby Food is pretty catchy.”
The songs themselves came from disparate places, all written separately. Nat says they had no idea going in, that they recorded demos never to be recorded for the album.
“We had nothing in mind and just recorded stuff,” he says. “Going from instrument to instrument.”
Nat’s take on the genesis of the songs comes from the way he likes the way some words or phrases sound together. He says with a laugh that he was brought up in a household where cursing was part of the norm.
“An NC paper brought that up,” he says. “They said there seems to be an extraordinary amount of cursing on the album. I’m not trying to be badass by saying the F word.”
But it’s not cursing in the sense that it’s in the listener’s face either. It’s not overly noticeable and seems to fit the song without being a bump in the road.
“Any song without cursing is Mark’s song, he doesn’t curse,” Shelley says and they all laugh.
‘Hinge Door’ always gets a really good response from crowds. Mark was strumming on the B string and started out writing that because Nat was writing a song that had a similar pattern.
“Then he wrote this great song that I really like,” Nat says.
It’s an album of material that places effort on the soul. Lots of finger picking and non-finger picking, loud drums, a bunch of bass and vocal harmonies coalescing into something that only be described as an experience and not a direct category, mixing different styles of music. It’s hypnotic, in that good/bad dream kind of way, one that you’re fascinated by and moves along as one long song.
And there was a lot of music that was left off Royal Postal Bazaar. When you buy the CD another CD accompanies it because there were 15 songs that didn’t go on RPB.
“It split it up too much,” Nat says.
“There were ten other songs too that we didn’t use either,” Says Shelley.
Nat and Shelley want pizza. They just pulled into town from a gig the night before in Raleigh. Nat wears two t-shirts and shorts, walks with Shelley down front Street. They carry on as if a couple but are not. Ian is soft spoken and quiet. He recounts something he heard recently, a story that is surreal and strange but fits.
“In Sweden, or is Norway? Anyway, our music was put on a video blog. It’s this man ranting set to our songs, it was hysterical.
Shelley turns around and asks Ian what he’s talking about. “You don’t know? I’ll send you the link. It’s on archive.org”
Ian walks a few steps and then chuckles. “We’ve never been to Sweden. Internet. Amazing.”