Legendary filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” And so it is with the music of Philadelphia gutter folk duo Driftwood Soldier.
Using a mandolin, bass guitar, suitcase, license plate, bottle caps and just about anything that’s not tied down, Driftwood Soldier distill genuine roots music. Put on the duo’s new EP Blessings and Blasphemy, close your eyes and you can almost smell the wood smoke, whiskey, blood, sweat and other earthly aromas of the deep Appalachians. Blessings and Blasphemy is a follow-up to their 2015 full-length – Scavenger’s Joy another stellar release that paints a picture of Howlin’ Wolf singing the songs of Lyle Lovett backed by the Blind Boys of Alabama.
The new EP combines reworked traditional songs with Driftwood Soldier originals and is an accomplished melding of growling gutter folk and the front porch folk gospel of the early 19th century. Vocalist/mandolinist Owen Lyman-Schmidt’s voice is stuck in purgatory somewhere between Nick Cave and Tom Waits; it can both soothe and burn like a fine bourbon or a cheap moonshine. Bobby Szafranski’s bass is always locked in, keeping the bottom end moving behind the melodic theatrics of Lyman-Schmidt’s mandolin.
Driftwood Soldier may invoke the past but they drag it into the future, holding true to Godard’s idea. Hell they make the often covered Wayfaring Stranger sound unique and they give the late, great Uncle Tupelo a run for their money with their rendition of Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down (a song that seems more than relevant at the moment).
If you have any leanings toward authentic Americana roots music, Driftwood Soldier’s combination of re-worked traditional folk songs and brimstone originals à la 16 Horsepower, should have them on your radar.
We caught up the boys to give us the goods.
Tell us about your hometown scene…Philly and how your roots/whiskey/trampin’ music fits in.
Philly’s a gritty, working class city often, blessedly, overlooked by the glitterati, and the result is a diverse and amazing music scene. You can’t throw a stone without hitting a great “undiscovered” band, and we’re always throwing stones around, so we know. Folks here are ambitious and creative, and they’re making it happen themselves in living room shows, DIY warehouse venues, and self-released records.
That kind of resourcefulness is bigger than one type of music, which is handy for us cause we’ve never really found a single genre to call home. We play gutter-folk music and that suits our city fine. This town’s got a reputation for being blunt and unapologetic, and if you’re just imitating something that already exists, you’re unlikely to impress people here.
Tell us about your gear.
Owen: I play a Michael Kelly mandolin somebody smarter than me added a sweet little pickup to. My left foot is the suitcase, which these days is living in a little 2x frame with a drum stool on the top and a cheap CAD bass drum mic inside. My right foot is a snareish kind of thing I made from a license plate and a coffee box. I smack it with an egg beater and some wire soldered into a copper pipe. For the voice I just use the one my parents gave me.
Bobby: I play a 1990’s Musicman Sterling bought on eBay almost a decade ago. Those basses have the growly low end I love so much. It comes out of a Pignose Hog30 battery-powered amp that works for anything from busking and acoustic practice, all the way up to the biggest venues. The thing’s a workhorse. I toured for 2 years with it before I had to tune it up. The jangler’s my left foot. Basically a tambourine pedal I built out of bottle caps and bike spokes.
Describe your sound as a cocktail – what would it be called and what would be in it?
It’s called Blood in the Harbor.
Take 2 oz of Old Overholt rye whiskey (transported over state lines from Delaware) and put it on ice with a couple shakes of Owen’s orange bitters. Stir it around a couple of times. Now rinse the glass you’re gonna drink out of with salt water. Gargle that water before you toss it out, cause that’ll clear out your viral load, and your health is all you have in the end. Throw the bittered rye into the brined glass and sink about an 1 oz of blood orange juice to the bottom.
“Blood in the Harbor”
If you could pick any time and place to travel back to for music, where would you go and what year would it be….?
We don’t go in much for nostalgia, maybe partly because we have such a casual affinity to genre. There’s not one golden era for the type of music we play that we’re longing to be part of.
The moments that do resonate tend to be more about communities than individual shows anyway. Growing up a teenager in DC in the early 00s I (Owen) was frustrated to have just missed the heyday of Riot Grrl, but going back to attend one Bikini Kill show wouldn’t be make up for that. Visiting the South Bronx in the early 80’s, Townes Van Zandt’s Austin in the 70s, or even catching Bessie Smith in the late 20’s wouldn’t make us part of any of those romanticized communities.
We’re busy enough as it is trying to support the Philly music scene, end racist policing and mass incarceration, mitigate climate change and build a cooperative economy that if we had a time machine we’d probably just use it to catch all the local shows we couldn’t get to last year. That’s a community we’re actually part of and we’re proud of it.
If you could tour with any band/artist right now who would that be and why?
Hurray for the Riff Raff. She’s a bad-ass making great music.
Or maybe Alabama Shakes cause every night would just be so much FUN.
Give us your 10 song playlist for the tour van/bus/plane?
The Growlers – “Graveyard’s Full”
Fiona Apple – “Slow Like Honey”
Mischief Brew – “Children Play with Matches”
Kate Tempest – “Europe is Lost”
Tom Waits – “Walking Spanish”
Nina Simone – “Sinnerman”
Regina Spektor – “That Time”
John Coltrane – “Alabama”
Wu Tang Clan – “Gravel Pit”
White Stripes “Ball and a Biscuit”
Give us two essential books to read.
Owen: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Bobby: Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
When you’re not playing and have some time off, where could we find you…
On a porch in West Philly.
What’s up for the rest of 2017?
2017 is going to be busy. We just released Blessings & Blasphemy, a split EP on which we play both sides: half reinterpreted gospel, half anti-religious originals. We’ll be bringing that to some of our favorite spots in the Northeast US in June, but first we’ve got a couple weeks of Irish shows planned for May. We also help organize West Philly Porchfest, which is a decentralized DIY festival in our neighborhood, now in its second year, and that’ll be June 3rd. When the worst of the summer heat is over, we’ll get to work on our next full length, which we’ve had waiting in the wings for a little while. Resisting the reactionary political momentum will occupy our non-musical moments, so we aren’t expecting a lot of rest this year.
Photos by KYLE CASSIDY