Dirtfoot is not your grandfather’s bluegrass band. In fact, they are not your father’s bluegrass band either. However, no matter how hopelessly lost both of them might be on a dance floor, all it takes is some good ole’ Louisiana grumble boogie to right that awkward ship. The ensemble out of Shreveport is notorious for inspiring even the most ardently uninspired out of their self-loathing malaise. Their sound is a brooding, ball of raw, entangled energy ready to unwind any which way any given night. The once self-described “noise band” has been refining their unrefined ways dating back over a dozen years now. Each incarnation of the band has steadily contributed to their nasty edge and soulful swagger. While on a previous tour with Primus, Les Claypool deemed them the “Southern rock Gogo Bordello.” That alone could be some kind of weird merit badge of honor in itself. However, these anti-boy scouts of Cajun-dom are not ones to rest on their laurels. Their eyes are as big as their hearts. They are still unproven, still hungry. Within the last year they have changed personnel, streamlined their touring regimen and are currently in the studio working on an EP due out for release before Wakarusa, where they will be performing once again. Dirtfoot has indeed slowly, but ever so surely started to make a strange name for themselves in this neck of the woods. This Saturday they will be performing at the Shrine at 18th and Boston in Tulsa. I recently spoke with J Bratlie, the banjo player for Dirtfoot, about the band’s work ethic, a cow costume, Patrick Swayze and hot, sweaty Arkansas nights.
MC: To someone who has never seen you before, how would you describe your approach? What is it like to experience a Dirtfoot show?
J Bratlie: We always like to say that we are purely primal. We are a "gypsy-punk-country-grumble-boogie band." We bring high energy and a very eclectic mix of punk rock, bluegrass, folk music, jazz, Louisiana, New Orleans and all that stuff that is mixed together. So basically when you come to a Dirtfoot show it's a party.
MC: How many gigs a year do you think you play on average?
J Bratlie: In the last few years we have been averaging about 75 to 100. We want to do more than that though. Last year was a little bit shorter because we were trying to tour smarter rather than just taking every single gig that we were offered.
MC: As far as having that lifestyle of being out on the road, what are some of the pro’s and cons?
J Bratlie: The obvious advantage is that people want to see you play and they want that live experience. A recorded album or track just doesn't provide that, so you have to get out and make it happen. I like the travel part of it, so that's fun in itself. Seeing the country and all those great things. Of course some of the down sides are sleeping in uncomfortable places – “soft floors and hard beds” is what we always joke about. Not seeing family and missing important events is another aspect. I have a daughter and because of Wakarusa I have missed her birthday the last 6 years up until this last year. But of course, those are the sacrifices that you make. We always say that we are working for the future. We're working for what's coming. You just keep playing and keep doing it.
MC: Speaking of the future, what are you ultimately working toward?
J Bratlie: We want to be full-time working musicians. In the sense that when we are not touring we are using our down time to record and work on new projects. We currently are working on new material right now. We are trying to get a recording started here locally so we can have something new for Wakarusa. At the same time, we are still coming up the ladder as far as bands. We have a good time on the road and love playing shows, but for the lean times we all have our jobs that we fall back on.
MC: Are you ever like, "To hell with this getting paid to play the music I love for a living" lifestyle and pine for a quiet day job in a cubicle while wearing a clip-on tie?
J Bratlie: (Laughs) Well, I've done that. And yes, although sometimes the money is better, it definitely can suck the soul out of you if you are not ready for it. I used to have a job where I was completely dependent upon a desk. And playing is definitely a much healthier life for me than the one I used to have.
MC: You acknowledged that Dirtfoot is still a relatively up-and-coming band. With that being said, do you feel like you have to play with a chip on your shoulder?
J Bratlie: It's one of those things where the longer you do it, the more you realize that every show is an audition. Every show you want to get up there and play like the industry is looking at you. Because you never know what's out there lookin' at you. We had one of our best gigs ever playing in Nashville once in front of 20 people in a bar. We drove 9 hours to get there and when it was all said and done, this guy walks up and says "hey, I'm a booking agent for APA Nashville and we really liked your set and want to help you guys out sometime." That was kind of an early experience for us. We learned very quickly that you treat every show like you are out there working for a deal.
MC: Right. And especially when it comes to your fans, you have to respect those people that come to see you play - even if it is just one person. It’s as if you are entering into a social contract in a way with your audience.
J Bratlie: Yes. If you are in a capacity room and everyone is just staring at you like you are a bunch of dumb-asses - that show is going to suck. If you are in a room that can hold 200, but there are 20 kids that are right there in front of the stage, then that is all you need. So there have been plenty of shows that may be smaller gigs, but there is still an enthusiastic crowd. They are the ones who came to see us play and we don't want them walking out going "What the hell happened to those guys?" We want to put on that show that people will go around and rave about. Very quickly we learned that when you get on stage, you put all the B.S. away and you let yourself get lost in that moment and enjoy it. That's how you have your best gigs.
MC: When you reach those points in the show that are intense or bring you that rush, what does it feel like?
J Bratlie: I have to say that it is probably the closest thing to religion that I can possibly imagine. There are songs you will be playing live and the next thing you know, the song ends. And you don't even realize that you have played anything. You're just completely caught up in the notes and at the same time you aren't thinking about any of it - it's just happening. You just hope you didn't screw anything up. You are just so caught up in this moment. There are times when you literally feel like your feet aren't touching the floor. When the crowd is hollering back at you so loudly that you hear them over the PA and everything else. And especially when you look into the crowd and you see people, even little kids, singing all the words to your songs. Those are the moments. It’s the closest thing to that religious experience - it's in that realm.
MC: Have you guys ever played anywhere where there is chicken-wire covering the stage like in that movie “Roadhouse” with Patrick Swayze?
J Bratlie: We have done a show like that. There was a gig in a little old bar in Texarkansas and there was actual chicken-wire up in front of the stage. It was good to have because we were an odd band in the wrong venue. About halfway through our set there were a bunch of folks staring at us like they didn't know what we were doing. Like we walked in painted green or something. Fortunately, nothing got thrown at us and we were very happy to get out in one piece. (Laughs)
MC: You guys were getting a lot of stink-eyes I take it.
J Bratlie: Yes, very much. A lot of people were sitting there looking at us like "What in the hell?" (Southern accent) They looked at us like "Should I go kick their ass?" We could tell that we were in a dangerous place. (Laughs)
MC: Have you actually seen “Roadhouse” before?
J Bratlie: Oh yeah. In fact “Roadhouse 2” was filmed here in Shreveport.
MC: I didn't know there was a “Roadhouse 2.”
J Bratlie: Exactly. (Laughs) Yeah, so…anyway.
MC: I love that scene when the monster truck drives through the car dealership. Awesome!
J Bratlie: Right
J Bratlie: Oh...man...That's funny you mention that. At Harvest fest a few years ago I ran into the Avett boys and Seth was asking almost a similar question. They were talking about how awesome Swayze was in “Point Break.” Anyways, I guess I do kind of like the “Point Break” Swayze. Even though the “Ghost” Swayze is where he is the lover man or whatever you want to call him. So, you know, I guess it kind of depends on the mood. If I wanted to take care of my lady, I would probably have to go with “Ghost.”
MC: Wise choice. So do you guys ever make an effort as far as fashion is concerned?
J Bratlie: We want to be clean. And we want to look like we try. But there have been plenty of shows where we pull up at the last second, run up on stage and are lucky we got pants on. For those bigger events we always try to look spiffy. You know, we don't have any kind of matching suits or purple socks. But we want to make an effort, you know.
MC: So, just for the record, no one in the band tries to make any fashion statements of any kind?
J Bratlie: Well, Daniel is probably our most flamboyant. He's our percussionist. He will come out sometimes in a big gold church robe and a yellow smiley-face hat. He's also got this flying pig hat where you pull the string and the wings flap. He'll wear that along with a purple and gold Mardi Gras sequined suit. He used to wear a cow outfit with big plastic udders on the front. But that just got to be a little too obscene. Plus, a lot of people liked to come up and yank on it. So I think that made him a little nervous.
MC: Scotty seems like he would be the flamboyant one. He strikes me as a commando kind of guy.
J Bratlie: Well we did have a show once, perhaps Wakarusa, where he did end up in his whitey-tighteys. It was an interesting spectacle. (Laughs)
MC: Is he like the wild card in the band or would that be someone else?
J Bratlie: He's definitely one of our more wilder “elements.” That being said, it kind of depends on the day. When you get to the right town and the right crowd and the right night, then we are all a little crazy.
MC: If you were to describe each band member in one word, what would that be?
J Bratlie: Hmm. I would say Nathan is demented. Derek is a rocker. Matt is the mastermind and I am probably his flunkie. At least that is how the band would look at it. We are basically the President and the Vice President. Scotty is talented. He is one of the most talented people I've ever met. He could pick up an instrument and in about 30 minutes you would think he knew how to play it. You never really know where Daniel is at. Daniel's the kind of guy that has been dating a chick for 3 months and we don't even know it. He is the kind of guy that keeps to himself, but you know that something is going on. He's an enigma.
MC: So why did the band decide to change drummers?
J Bratlie: Our old drummer Lane is in his mid-50's. He basically expressed interest in retiring because he had grown a little tired of the road – again, “hard beds and soft floors.” (Laughs) So he was just ready to hang it up. And we knew there was a task ahead of us as far as trying to find someone to take his place. Our new guy, Derek, had actually jumped on stage with us on percussion a couple years ago at Waka. He's always been living in the background. A “if you ever need anyone, just let me know" kind of thing. So when Lane said he was ready to go, we did a little bit of looking around and Derek ended up being our guy.
MC: So how is that working out for you?
J Bratlie: Oh, it's great. We are actually enjoying it a lot. Derek comes from a more rock and roll background. So it's definitely changed our sound in the sense that we are more “rock in your face” and play with that drive. It is all the stuff we have had before, just more amplified and more focused. When that driving beat starts going down, you are just in it.
MC: Is there anything new you have been wanting to experiment with when it comes to your sound?
J Bratlie: Actually, we have been doing some different stuff lately. Our guitar player Matt recently won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest - they called it the Jazz New Orleans Competition. Somehow they considered us a jazz band and they gave Matt a John Lennon Epiphone guitar. We also got a bunch of cool new recording equipment. We were able to go down to New Orleans and actually record one of our tunes on the John Lennon tour bus, which is a half million dollar recording studio. Ever since then, Matt has been playing that guitar. So we went ahead and got him a big, old school reverb amp that has a lot of pound to it. It has given us a little more of a rock edge. I've actually been putting the banjo down on a couple of songs and playing guitar, doing some lead work. Our bass player has been mixing it up with an electric and acoustic bass. So we are all trying to do things to vary it up.
MC: It goes without saying that being a professional musician is so tough on everyone involved. Between putting yourself out there creatively, the grind of tour life and trying to build an audience - it can wear down a band in more ways than one. What do you do when that self-doubt and extreme frustration starts to creep into your psyche?
J Bratlie: One of the things that we learned early on with 6 guys in the band is that when you are all packed into a van for days at a time, there is no chance to get away from people if you don't want to be around them. But what we've learned is that if there is a real beef of some kind, like if someone thinks they've been done wrong or whatever the issue is, we have to talk and get it out there. And it has to be known that it's known. It's like a relationship or a marriage. Except we are all married together like some weird Utah thing. (Laughs) So there's days where I don’t want to deal with this guy or they don’t want to deal with me or Matt made some inappropriate joke. But what we've discovered is that you may have a beef with someone, but then you get on stage and the crowd is behind you. And the music starts to play and all of a sudden you are reminded that you are part of something that is bigger than yourself. I'm not 1/6th of the band - I am part of this bigger thing. You see what you are working for every time we do a show. We're one of those bands that tends to work in spurts. So we'll go out and have a bunch of stuff happening for a few months and then we will be off for a month. And sure enough, by the end of that off-month, everybody is like "What the hell is going on? What are we doin'?" And it's like "Oh, we've got all these shows coming up and festival season is right around the corner." And next thing you know, we get some really cool offer and everyone is tee'd up again and excited. It's just like any relationship. You keep it fresh and you be honest with each other. In the end we are all working for that bigger thing. We're all part of this bigger movement.
MC: When you guys are dealing with some issues and you get on stage, is it cleansing or therapeutic in a way?
J Bratlie: Absolutely. We've actually had shows where we were physically cleansed as well. We had one gig a couple years ago where we played in Tulsa and then in Fayetteville the next night. And Tulsa was one of those nights where half the band was completely hammered and falling down drunk at the end of the show. It was at the Mercury Lounge now that I think about it. Scotty and Daniel ended up wrestling in the street and getting all beat up. It wasn't an angry thing. It was just a bunch of guys letting off steam after a long drunken night. At the next show in Fayetteville, we played the backstage at George's. It was in the summer and man, was it hot. About halfway through the set we had literally sweated out everything that we had taken into ourselves from the previous couple of days. I remember Daniel saying that "I've never felt so sober" at the end of the set. We got out there and we worked and we sweated and we literally cleansed ourselves of that previous night. And at the end of the show, it was like the night before had never happened. Just like so many things in life, everything one day seems like a big deal and then the next day comes around and you realize that it’s just a bunch of people trying to be people. As long as you keep that mindset and you keep realizing that what we are working for is bigger than ourselves, then we always seem to work it out.
MC: What's the craziest thing that has ever happened at one of your shows?
J Bratlie: I would have to say a couple years ago at Harvest. Believe it or not, during our set a mosh pit broke out right there on Mulberry Mountain. It was a glorious moment for the band seeing those kids moshing at a bluegrass festival in the mountains. That was pretty awesome.
MC: Wow, no shit. Well how about that. So what is one of the most normal things to occur?
J Bratlie: Normal? Oh wow. Hmmm. I don't know, I'm not sure what normal is. (Laughs) Normal for us is a bunch of crazy people acting crazy. Normal for us is getting those people up that don’t normally get up and making them do things they don’t normally do.
Dirtfoot will be performing three shows this weekend, including Friday night in Lawrence, Kansas. You can purchase tickets for the Tulsa show online at StubWire.com. Be sure to visit the band’s website for additional information and announcements.
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- Matthew Cremer