Jam bands Online was pleased to be offered time with Poor Man’s Whiskey co-founders Josh Brough and Jason Beard before they hit the stage at the Petaluma Music Festival on Saturday, August 4, 2012. However and very unfortunately, Josh did not make our 2:00 pm interview as he got into a little fender-bender. Good news, no injuries, well, except for the poor man’s van…..
JBO: Well, Jason, thanks for taking time to meet with me today. Sorry that Josh couldn’t make it. JBO is excited to interview you – we just put a review up on our site about the recent Horning’s Hideout show that included a bit of your set. That place looks beautiful! And you just got back from Yarmony Grass the other night – you guys are busy!
So, to the questions – of course, the “founding band” question. I heard that you and Josh met in Santa Barbara. Tell me a bit about how you formed Poor Man’s Whiskey and how you came up with the name?
Jason: Well, our former guitar player who is Eli Jebodiah, which isn’t his real name, his real name is Simon Kurth, which actually isn’t his real name either, his real name is William and Simon is his middle name, but we call him Simon……..
JBO: Yeah, I have like five friends who don’t go by their real name. Hard to keep track!
Jason: (Laughs) Well, Simon and I were roommates in college and literally just learning how to play guitar. We were excited to be able to play for people so we put out an ad for a keyboard player. Josh responded, and we started a band. I was about 20, Simon was about 19, and I think Josh was a freshman in college, maybe 18 at the time. It was called “Red House” and there was no bluegrass. At that time, we would never even dream of listening to bluegrass! I am heavily influenced by psychedelic-rock music like Pink Floyd and the Allman Brothers, and Simon, or he’s now out there as Huckle; so, Simon/Eli/Huckle, he was like a Hendrix guy, a real rocker. It was more of like a classic rock type band first, and we started doing bluegrass much, much later. So, around that time [we started listening to bluegrass], Josh and I would go up to this place called Cold Springs Tavern. And this was really the first seed that got planted in our heads for bluegrass. Josh and I worked on an organic farm together, and this guy who worked there played mandolin and told us to go check out this music. So we go up to the [Tavern] hills of Santa Barbara. We wandered in, and this place was very small, maybe 20 or 30 people could fit in – and, of course we noticed there was no room for drums. It was the “Cache Valley Drifters”, they were connected to Kate Wolf, played on some of her albums, so they played a lot of her music. And they would just shred! And we were blown away, cuz we were a rock band, with big drums. We were amazed that you could do acoustic music and get people dancing.
Well, but, we actually broke up soon after. Simon/Huckle went to become a competitive hang-gliding pilot, I moved back up to northern California where I’m from, and Josh joined the Peace Corps. I was playing in a funk-trio called “Shed” with the original bass player (Tony Robinson) and the original drummer (Noah Logan) of Poor Man’s Whiskey. I was also playing guitar in a country band called “The Jenkins” out of Sebastopol, and their neighbor was a bluegrass picker – a guitar picker. And, again, at this point, I still had nothing to do with bluegrass. When Josh got back [from the Peace Corps], I said – you’ve gotta join [our] band [the Shed]. And, then we decided to pick up bluegrass instruments; Josh would play the banjo and then I bought a mandolin, and asked this guy Gary Neargarder, the original guitar player for Poor Man’s Whiskey and a neighbor of members of “The Jenkins”, and we got together one evening and jammed and decided we should form a bluegrass band! Yeah, well we didn’t know what we were doing, all the songs were really slow and bluegrass is fast. Josh came up with the idea right there on the spot to call the band “Poor Man’s Whiskey”. The story [fable] is that Mississippi John Hurt was out on tour [maybe with the Grateful Dead] being introduced to a younger crowd and someone offered him marijuana [fable is, Jerry offered it], and he said, “Shit, that ain’t nuthin’ but poor man’s whiskey!” I guess, back in the prohibition days it was tougher to get whiskey than it was pot. So, that’s how Josh came up with our name. We roped our other funk-trio players [Noah and Tony] into doing this. We’d open our rock band shows with a 45 minute pure bluegrass set. We sort of learned as we went. We ended up getting more offers with the bluegrass music so we scratched the other band and just started to do the bluegrass shows. About five years later, we convinced Huckle to come join the band, although he started out carrying our gear for a few gigs! (laughs) then he played Dobro, duct tape (yes, people, I listened to the interview more than once to make sure he did say “duct tape”), other things like that in the back before he jumped in on the guitar position.
JBO: So, I want to skip ahead to your bluegrass version of Pink Floyd with “Dark Side of the Moonshine”. You are clearly the Pink Floyd influence, and I need to tell our readers more about when you dress like the characters in the Wizard of Oz. I know you did that at The Fillmore recently, and I’m so mad I missed it! Where did the idea come from for Dark Side?
Jason: Yeah, the Fillmore was a good show. The “Dark Side of the Moonshine” was a big labor of love. I was at home out in the garage practicing late, and had [Pink Floyd’s] their “Dark Side of the Moon” album on, and was just plucking the guitar, strumming along with it. I started adding the basic rhythmic structure of bluegrass to it. And then it hit me that it transferred over really well. So, I got the bug, got the recording gear out and I spent the whole night arranging the nuts and bolts of it, the bass, guitar, and mandolin and some drum tracks and got the framework of the album down. I sort of rearranged it to make it work with acoustic instruments. It was like 4 in the morning and I woke my wife up to tell her the great news (laughs), “Janae, wake up! We’re gonna do a bluegrass Dark Side of the Moon and it’s gonna be big!” She maybe didn’t think it would be (laughs), but, I did make a demo CD and introduce it to the band, and was sort of nervous about it. I come up with some harebrained schemes and you never know what they’re gonna take. My original demo was pretty rough around the edges, you know, I powered it out in one night. And I don’t sing. I’m a terrible singer. If you notice I’m the only one without a mike, so it’s patchy at best. So, not much came of it but we did have a show coming up at The Mystic Theater and I said why don’t we do this at The Mystic, it would be a good way to sell some tickets. So, the band reluctantly got behind it, but when we started working on it some things got rearranged a little bit better to what it is now, like “Whiskey” which is a show stopper that Josh rearranged from what I had originally done. So, Josh had the idea of doing the Wizard of Oz costumes – we had done some costumes on stage before, but try to get away from that, as it gets gimmicky. But, it seems to make sense with the Dark Side and Wizard connection so we just did it, and it seemed to go over really well. Eh, but I’m a purist and I don’t think we need the costumes, but Josh wants to keep doing it. But, now, the fans show up in costumes! It’s the whole show experience of it. I have to say, he’s right.
JBO: The second CD of your “Dark Side of the Moonshine”, it’s a two-CD set; it’s all your own original stuff.
Jason: Yeah, we didn’t want to put it out on its own and just be a cover band. We do a lot of interpretations of rock ‘n roll classics. We see ourselves as an original band, even though we do some covers. Josh and I write a lot of songs, and that’s something we’re probably more proud of than anything. We’ve got two tribute albums so we thought it was important, especially with the Dark Side, that if people were gonna buy that, that’s not how they remember us, just for that [covers].
JBO: Well, I tell ya, I tend to listen to that second one a bit more than the first. It’s really great; I definitely have my favorites on that CD.
Jason: Awe, well thanks.
JBO: I’ve enjoyed seeing you at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Don Quixotes in Felton. I wasn’t there early enough at HSB, but at Don Quixotes you started and maybe ended the show down in the audience acoustically and not on the stage. I thought that was so cool! I’ve seen a few videos on YouTube where you do impromptu shows, walking through the crowds – and with really interesting instruments, like suitcases and beer cans and whatever you can grab.
Jason: We actually try to do the acoustic thing as much as possible. It gets tricky at larger shows though. At the Fillmore, it was sold out and there was a huge line out the door. So, we thought it would be cool to do it out there instead of inside, for all the people who were still waiting in line. There’s a video out on YouTube somewhere. We find it is important to start and stop acoustically, as it gets us back to our roots. They are acoustic instruments but once we are on stage with the drums, and we have electric instruments in there, the tonality of it is quite a bit different – it’s louder and more rock ‘n roll. Starting acoustic also breaks the ice. When you are on bigger stages, there is an illusion; there is a separation between you and the crowd. You are up on higher stage, the lights are in your eyes and you can’t see them [audience], and then their perception of you is different because they are seeing you with all the lights and glitz. But, when you start on the ground, it’s…. we’re just normal folk playing. With this type of music that we play, it’s just porch music. It’s very intimate music that we play in larger scale places. So, we find that starting off acoustically breaks the ice, and especially for people who’ve never seen us, they might get pulled in because we don’t take ourselves too seriously. And the ending is the same thing, after a big show, we try to come down and bring it full circle. We try to do more of a group effort [song], especially if we are in our home market, we might do a “Sierra Girl” or if not, we might do a “Wagon Wheel”, you know, something that everybody knows and everyone can sing along to.
JBO: I respect the fact that, when you do that, the audience has to stop and pay attention. Because when you are up there, and it’s loud and the lights are going, it’s easy to sort of miss the intimacy of a moment that you guys are having. But, if you come off the stage and you are at our level, it brings us into that moment. You may have heard me shushing people!
Jason: Yeah, at some places they are very respectful and you can hear a pin drop. And, then at some places, you can hear “yap, yap, yap, yap”….. (laughter).
JBO: Yeah, don’t you just want to tell people to shut the f*&# up!
Jason: (Laughs) We hope other people do that! You know you are in a good crowd when they can hush and you can do this kind of performance. But, you know, the people talking might be having a good time too. That’s part of the problem; our electric stage show is sort of a ruckus, it’s loud and we are getting people dancing. And, then it’s hard to stop that and bring it down and do something different. We’re pumping people full of high-energy music all night and then we’re asking them to chill out a little. So, I understand, you know, they got their buzz going. But it can be frustrating if you are trying to do something a little more sincere and they’re yappin’ all over it.
JBO: I wanted to mention you have a new guitar player, Chris Haugen, he’s your newest member with the departure of Sean Lehe who joined when Simon/Eli left to begin Huckle in 2011. Where did you find Chris? How have so many [guitar player] changes affected or re-energized your sound at all?
Jason: It’s tricky to say. It changes but then again, it doesn’t change. Josh and I, sort of have been the common thread throughout, and Chris has been our fourth or fifth guitar player. For the most part, the creative vision is driven by the two of us. George and Aspen have both been a steady fixture on the rhythm section, on bass and drums. I think it’s a tricky scenario to bring in new players….. I’ve seen so many bands just crumble because everybody is pulling in different directions creatively. We made a decision a while back that the creative vision will keep rolling with Josh and myself. People probably have their favorites. We try to bring in really good guitar players because we want to go places……. But, it’s still a Poor Man’s Whiskey show.
But, so, Sean really elevated us, he was an incredible guitar player. But he has a degenerative inner-ear disorder so the doctors told him he couldn’t do these big shows. But, he’s out there playing so look for him. But, so he had to slow down, so, we got a reference through Matt Butler (Everyone’s Orchestra) because we needed someone good because Sean really stepped it up for us, and we needed someone right away because we had shows lined up. Matt, he recommended Chris. We got together with him once, it sounded really good and we said, “You’re in!” That’s a big move for us. We’re trying to fill the role long-term, hopefully it works out. Our schedule is we run hard, we commit to a year and at the end of the year we get together as a business and see what we think. But, definitely he’s fun to play with. The way we play, we follow the guitar player. It’s always a transition because everybody’s got their different styles and they go different places. You gotta figure out where they’re peaking. And, they have a lot of material to learn, so there is a big transition. For them to figure out where we’re gonna go and for us to figure out where he’s gonna go, so we can follow it and know when they [guitar] peak are or where we need to push it a little deeper to get the song higher. But that’s sort of fun, it keeps it fresh. It’s just.. it takes a while to get to it. Chris is an incredible slide guitar player so he brings a new sound to it.
JBO: Anything else you would like us to put in the story – upcoming shows or albums?
Jason: Well, our biggest thing is we just released our latest album. It’s a tribute to Kate Wolfe, “Like a River”. It’s a great album. I’ll make sure I get you a copy.
JBO: Sweet, sweet, sweet – thanks! I’ve downloaded it so I’ve heard quite a bit. I hear she’s been one of your big influences. How did you decide what songs to do – she must have well over 150 songs and you narrowed it down to eight?
Jason: A lot of what we chose is songs that we connected with, that made sense to do. Her music can be slower and played much more somber than we play. We chose songs that would translate over to where we go with our music. It was very well received at the [Kate Wolfe] Festival. Even Kate Wolfe’s daughter said, “We love what you do. You made people dance to Kate Wolfe music.” So, a lot of it was based on will it work with our line-up, with how we play, does it make sense to play, will it go over well live. That was a big deciding factor, but really, what songs touched us, connected us.
JBO: I have a few fun questions for you, like, got any weird stalker fans?
Jason: (Laughs) You know, we don’t really have any. But, you know… (laughs) you gotta appreciate that. I’d rather have weird stalker fans than none at all!
JBO: What was the most bizarre thing tossed on stage at you? Or, maybe what is the most bizarre thing YOU’VE tossed out?
Jason: We don’t toss out too much. I got in trouble for tossing out CDs, I guess they are dangerous!
JBO: Yeah, I guess you might be-head someone!
Jason: (Laughs) Yeah, I guess! At Hardly Strictly Bluegrass we tossed out those huge soft Bavarian pretzels. That’s probably the weirdest. We don’t get too much tossed at us.
JBO: That’s probably a good thing!
JBO: Favorite Venue?
Jason: Man, The Mystic Theater (in Napa) would have to be up there. We play a festival we put on in Bend, Oregon called, “4 Peaks Music Festival”. Not “we” [the PMW band] per say, but it’s myself and our manager, Eric Walton, put it on so it’s very Poor Man’s Whiskey-esque. But, man, ya gotta love the Great American Music Hall. The people who work there treat you like royalty, even though they deal with bands way bigger than us.
JBO: Favorite town to hang out in?
Jason: Man, that’s Santa Rosa, my home town. I like being home, I’m a home body. My wife and girls [Georgia and Caroline] are there. The moment I leave, I’m itchin’ to get back home.
JBO: Hey, thanks a lot – from both JBO and me, personally. You were my first interview (blush), so I hope it was OK for you!!!!
Jason: (Laughs) Yeah, thanks.
Check out their website, http://www.poormanswhiskey.com for more on the full band, and Jason’s website http://www.jasonbeardmusic.com for more on his projects. Josh Brough, PMW’s other founding member, has a gig with his brother called “Brough Brothers Music”, you can find on Soundcloud and Facebook. Info on their annual 4 Peaks Music Festival is at http://4peaksmusic.com