American Roots Music: Fluid, Derivative, Experimental and Original
The elemental and fluid nature of American roots music readily lends itself to both recombination and experimentation. Seminal rock icons of the 60s and 70s – Eric Clapton, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin come immediately to mind – all stood on the shoulders of their beloved musical giants. For Clapton, it was Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. The Beatles worshiped at the altar of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis. The nascent, purist Stones wanted to play the blues like Slim Harpo, Jimmy Reed, and Little Walter. Zeppelin had one foot deep in the blues and the other everywhere from English folk music to Theremin-driven sonic experimentation.
As evidenced by these Monsters of Rock, some artists succeed wildly, while others, to be kind, do not. Perhaps they don’t due to a lack of musical imagination or, sadly, a fickle, trend-oriented public. (Remember Jason and the Scorchers? The Southern Rock/Punk band? Man, they were great – they seamlessly combined two styles that were made for each other and could play like mother*&*ers. Yet they never crossed over into super-stardom. Go figure.) But if we look over the musical legacies of these artists, one thing is strikingly clear. That is that their devotion to American roots music provided them with a springboard to creating original, highly personal work that both honored and transcended their original influences.
The Dangers of Comparative Judgements
As popular music grows increasingly derivative and mindlessly recycled, comparisons to previous occupants of the public fancy are an unavoidable fact of life. Audiences – especially older ones – tend to contextualize new music in terms of their own musical vocabulary and attendant taste. And that’s regardless to however vast or limited that vocabulary might be. The impulse towards comparison is an understandable means by which a listener evaluates and relates to a piece of music. But, it can also lead to a kind of dismissive, Old Fartism. This means all new artists must pass an abstract muster vis a vis their predecessors. And, you know, we all do it; I’m guilty of it myself: when I first heard Interpol – an excellent band – I thought, “Oh, Joy Division.”
The Black Angels were an even darker version of The Doors. Every decent post-punk band from Green Day forward has The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and The Ramones embedded somewhere in their musical genetic code. From a broader perspective, without traditional blues and R&B, rock n’ roll, in all its various iterations, obviously does not exist.
Echo Sparks: Originality Deserving Attention
Indie band Echo Sparks is a current band that deserves great attention for two reasons. One is their dedication to musical Americana and the other is a fiercely original sound. Echo Sparks hails from Orange County, CA and the members include singer/lead guitarist D.A. Valdez, lead singer/rhythm guitarist Colleen Kinnick, and Cindy Ballreich, who plays a hard-slappin’, old school stand-up bass and serves as the band’s resident techie. Mr. Valdez also does the bulk of the songwriting. However, the final product is always subject to the free-flowing and intense collaboration between all three members of the band.
Echo Sparks combines elements of other styles. These include country, honky-tonk, classic rock n’ roll and early blues. There are also elements of Appalachian and Mexican folk music as well. You can even hear traces of X’s Exene Cervenka and John Doe in Kinnick and Valdez’s soaring, often spine-tingling vocal harmonies. The band jokingly refers to its music as “Mexifolkabilly.” But, there’s truth in jest. Their style and sound are at once familiar yet original. Furthermore, the band lays proud claim to the fact that their growing audience is cross-generational. Their latest album, “Ghost Town Girl” has garnered extensive airplay across North America and numerous rave reviews. No Depression, the highly respected quarterly journal of roots music even gave the band two write-ups.
1AM sat down for a conversation with Echo Sparks on a variety of topics, ranging from their own work to the current landscape of popular music.
1st Amendment Media: HOW DID THE BAND GET TOGETHER?
D.A. Valdez (DAV): I had been playing in various original bands over the years and had been writing my own songs. I wanted to start my own band so I had been working with different female singers, but it turns out, they did not want to perform original music full time. I wanted to work with a female vocalist because I like the sound of female and male harmonies. So I placed an ad in the “musicians wanted” classifieds: “looking for a female singer.” I posted a photo of a nun pointing a big gun and a photo of a vintage postcard, of a bathing beauty wearing a big sombrero, sitting on a Mexican blanket, just to weed out the applicants.
I figured if someone liked the images and were not offended by it, then we might have a common ground to start on. Colleen responded! We hit it off well enough to start a little trio performing my songs. Colleen and I were working with another bass player who quit suddenly, so I contacted Cindy. I had met Cindy before, when she showed up to audition for another band I was playing some drums with, I liked her style, so I emailed her and asked her to come down and sit in with us. She did show up and liked what she heard, so she sat in with us that night, and ever since then the three of us have been a solid trio!
1AM: WHAT/WHO ARE YOUR MAJOR MUSICAL INFLUENCES? WHY?
DAV: I love singer-songwriters. I am influenced by music that is authentic, primitive, melodic, and sometimes, unpredictable.[And] I love all styles of music from the 20’s to 50’s jazz, 50’s Rock, R&B, 60’s Soul, 70’s rock up to modern day music. I am also inspired by my surroundings and the landscape of California. It creeps its way into the music. There is also a ton of new music out there that I am plugged into. There are still bands and artists out there with something to say musically.
CINDY BALLREICH (CB): I love the upright sound of the old Jump/Jive bass players like Slam Stewart and Milt Hinton as well as the country/rockabilly players like Marshall Grant and Louise Rowe, but Mike Mills [R.E.M] and Bruce Foxton [The Jam] probably influenced me as much as anyone.
COLLEEN KINNICK (CK): Very early on: Linda Ronstadt, The Beatles, Annie Lennox, Cowboy Junkies. Then came Bauhaus, Siouxsie & the Banshees, The Pixies, Neutral Milk Hotel, Gillian Welch, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Ry Cooder, Lucinda Williams, contemporary artists like Edith Crash and The Vipers… all over the musical map, really.
Source of Echo Sparks’ Unique Sound
1AM: ALTHOUGH THE BAND IS CLEARLY BASED IN AMERICAN ROOTS MUSIC, YOUR SOUND IS COMPLETELY UNIQUE. TO WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE THIS?
CB: I think our sound is the sum of all our influences combined with the fact that we don’t feel the need to follow musical fashion or stick to the format of a particular genre. If the muse pulls us in a new direction, we’re inclined to follow.
CK: The incredibly wide range of influences we all bring to the table, and our refusal to be locked in as a “genre” band. We know that we’re swimming upstream. It would be a lot easier to just be a rockabilly band, an outlaw country band, a folk band, a blues band. But to limit ourselves to any one of those things would feel like being caged.
DAV: I think the real reason we are an “Americana” style band is because of the instrumentation we use. We love the more traditional style harmonies, guitars, banjos, drums, mandolins, and stand up bass. But we do put a modern spin on it, so it colors the music and the sound. If we were using synthesizers these songs would still work and we would be a synthpop band! I love the mix of all three of our styles that combine to make what the final result is. I could not have planned that in a million years.
1AM: DESCRIBE YOUR PROCESS OF CREATING A SONG.
DAV: When I write a song for the band, I pull from my past loves or current musical influences. Whatever is inspiring me at the time, or if Colleen or Cindy give me an idea, a line, or a subject, then I will write a song. The key for me is to have no limit and no boundaries when writing; for me, anything goes.
CB: One of us – usually Dave – will write a song and bring it to the band. Other times we’ll use a round-robin approach. Then we go through the process of arranging the song, which changes it somewhat, and it will also evolve over time on stage. Then we record it. Even after songs are recorded they still change on stage. Nothing is ever carved in stone.
CK: My songwriting process usually involves me staring forlornly at my notebook and attempting to build a song around a few fragmented stanzas. I’m a poet, which does not necessarily involve any of the same skills as songwriting. I have a lot to learn.
Fans Across the Spectrum
1AM: HOW HAS THE PUBLIC RESPONDED TO YOUR MUSIC? WHO IS YOUR AUDIENCE? HOW HAVE YOUNGER AUDIENCES RESPONDED?
CK: Our audience is unlimited, really. We’ve won over fans who don’t know anything about roots music – they recognize that there’s a tradition there, but I think we have an approach that’s fresh and inviting. Our music is open, welcoming.
DAV: Reviewers claim that our music conjures up visions of landscapes and scenes that go with our music. I am proud that we have been able to reach people who like all different kinds of music, and they still can’t put a finger on exactly what we sound like! I am OK with not being lumped in with any specific kind of music.
CB: We have a lot of amazing fans of all ages. Younger audiences sometimes don’t know how to respond to us since we aren’t like what they hear on the radio and their musical vocabulary is limited. I once talked to a young lady who felt the vocals sounded wrong. I finally realized she was saying that they didn’t sound auto-tuned. That made me very sad.
1AM: HOW DOES YOUR MUSIC FIT INTO THE CONTEMPORARY COMMERCIAL LANDSCAPE?
DAV: I think we are viable in the “Roots Alternative” or “Indie Music” categories. Reviewers are saying that our music is what modern Country, and Alternative Americana music should sound like. These people are seriously reviewing new music all the time and they are comparing us to the likes of the Grateful Dead, Gram Parsons, and a mix of many legendary performers that I never even thought of! It made me believe that there is a place for our music and an audience for it, we just need to get it out there to more people looking for new music.
CK: It doesn’t. The commercial landscape is a bunch of well-groomed, tightly fenced wastelands – pop, rock, rap, R&B, country, etc. – and we’d be very out of place in such a sterilized place. We’re that unincorporated neighborhood outside the neat commercial suburbs, with overgrown gardens full of chickens & goats.
CB: Contemporary commercial music has not yet caught up with Echo Sparks. They don’t know quite what to do with us. We’re sneaking in through the back window. Shhhhhh! Don’t tell!
Keeping Control to Protect Unique Sound
1AM: WHY HAVE YOU CHOSEN TO SELF-PRODUCE RATHER THAN WORK WITH AN OUTSIDE PRODUCER?
DAV: We know what we want to sound like and we have a vision that is strong enough to sustain us. We would gladly work with someone if they are on the same page as us. We have our own unique sound and we want to fully cultivate it and see where it goes.
CK: We’re control freaks, at least when it comes to our music. We’ve heard too many horror stories about bands who’ve been signed, given a producer by their label, and then hated the end product. Self-producing also pushes us to keep learning what we’re capable of, especially now that we have our own studio. If we were ever to work with an outside producer, it would have to be someone we really trusted.
1AM: WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY WORKING ON?
CK: New album! We’ve actually been so busy gigging since we released “Ghost Town Girl” last year that we’re behind schedule and have decided to declare a hiatus from playing live so we can really knuckle down on the new stuff. We have a backlog of new songs that only exist on paper right now, and those need to be cultivated.
CB: [The new album] means lots of arranging new songs and working them out live. For me it means testing hardware and software, building and modding mics and other gear, making sure everything is meeting our needs.
Upcoming Southern California dates include:
4/30 94th Aero Squadron in Van Nuys
8/1 Red Leprechaun in Long Beach