Monday, September 2, 2019

Them Coulee Boys - Turner Hall Ballroom, 8/30/19

At the end of their powerfully riveting set on Friday Night, Soren Staff, the singer-songwriter/guitarist of Them Coulee Boys, came to the front of the Turner Hall stage without a mic.  With misty eyes, sweaty brow, and a huge grin on his face, he thanked everyone for being in attendance stating, “You have no idea how much this means to us,” praising the large, fun-loving audience at Turner who hung on Staff’s every word.  Them Coulee Boys, the five-piece America outfit hailing from Eau Claire, Wisconsin are honest and sincere musicians, whose passion and emotion is evident through their music and performance.  

Them Coulee Boys are at an all-time high these days.  Their new album Die Happy is exceptional and bound to make many “Best of the Year” lists (including mine).  The eleven-song record masterfully covers a myriad of emotions through the soulful, relatable writing and subtle nuance in Staff’s lyrics, paired with the rich tapestry of the band’s sound. The songs from Die Happy, when performed live provided an even greater sense of joy for the listeners as the audience saw a band truly grateful to be sharing their art with others.  Staff commented at one point in the show that he was so proud to share the new songs with others, and this was evident throughout the band’s near ninety-minute set.  

Soren Staff’s brother, Jens Staff was a pleasure to watch as he alternated from a standard mandolin to a custom-made electric mandolin which looked like a miniature Statacaster as Jens jammed on it.  Bassist Neil Krause held down the rhythm section along with the band’s drummer and also added harmonies and back-up vocals. Beau Janke was on fire with electric and acoustic banjo and also traded off with Jens on keyboards, all while providing harmonies and back-up vocals as well. 

The band’s set, as expected, relied heavily on highlights from Die Happy.  Some stand-out tracks included “Midnight Manifestos,” a song that has a sultry swagger in its rhythm as Staff tells tales of after-hours adventures. “Evangelina,” was another set highlight. While the band has played this song regularly at live shows, the harmonies amongst the band members were notable and got the crowd bopping.  Speaking of crowd participation, the hand rubbing and clapping on “Find Your Muse,” was another great participatory moment and set highlight. However, the biggest takeaway moment from Die Happy was a song that Staff prefaced by saying how glad he and the band were able to share it live.  “Hand of God, Parts 2 and 3” is a masterpiece of a tune, that is musically and lyrically is equal parts contagious and reflective.  

Not to forget their earlier work, Them Coulee Boys mixed in a fair amount of crowd favorites into their set including, “16th Street,” “10 Feet Tall,” and an encore performance of “I Won’t Be Defined” all off their stellar 2016 Dancing in the Dim Light LP.

MKE Rocks had the opportunity to chat with Them Coulee Boys’ lead vocalist and guitarist, Soren Staff in preparation of the band’s album release show at Turner Hall.

MKE Rocks: What was it like creating Die Happy?
Staff: It was a longer process than usual.  We wanted to make this record towards the end of 2017.  In the past, we recorded everything ourselves… it was like record it and get it out.
This time, we knew we wanted to work with Dave Simonett (of Trampled by Turtles) so it kept getting pushed back.  We finally got into the studio in February 2018. Then we made the record and wanted to get some label support behind it to do it the right way.  Here we are, late in the summer of 2019, and are now just getting it out.

Making Die Happy was a meticulous process.  From the start, it was different than other records of ours, as in the past the writing was spread out.  For this one, I was writing the songs all at the same time. It’s a concept record of sorts. There are songs that reference each other both musically and lyrically.  When I figured this out, I wanted to make sure that we were very intentional about each line and the way we put the album together. The extra time really helped give this record some life and gave us time to rework and revise the songs to a new level.

I’m glad we waited this long as it seems like now is the right time to put out something like this.  Giving us the extra time gave us the space to make and release the record the way we wanted to do it.

MKE Rocks: How was it like working with David Simonett?

Staff: Simply put, Dave’s great.  He’s a guy who has been a hero of mine.  I loved them (Trampled by Turtles) for such a long time and waited in line to see their shows.  They are one of the bands that got me into this genre of music. Dave is very kind, thoughtful, and intentional and that really showed through with us in his role as producer.  Some people can be hands-on and others hands-off as a producer. Dave was a good mix of both in the producer role. He gave us the confidence to believe in ourselves at times. There were times he told me, “Soren, these songs are great.”  To hear that from someone I’ve looked up to for such a long time meant a lot. He encouraged us to be ourselves.

MKE Rocks: What are you most proud about the album?

Staff: I think what I’m most proud of is that this is the hardest I’ve worked to put myself out there lyrically.  I don’t necessarily have the strongest music composing skills, but I am very proud of where I went lyrically.  I went to spaces and thought processes that I have never gone to before. I am really proud of the band for making my songs sound way better than they should. These guys help transform the songs into what they become and have made us a band that I’m incredibly proud of.  

MKE Rocks: Spirituality seems to be a recurring theme in many of your songs, especially those on Die Happy.  Could you please share a bit about the role spirituality has played in your music?

Staff: I grew up in the church, and part of this band is me and my brother (Jens) and Beau meeting up at a bible camp.  Religion and spirituality to me is always this relationship that sometimes goes really well and other times really bad.  I think that’s normal and healthy. It’s part of my life, so I write about it. When I write I focus on things that are important to me or things I think a lot about, and spirituality is one of them.  

It also is such a crutch sometimes lyrically.  A lot of those religious metaphors, people get ‘em.  It can be an easy metaphor and I don’t mind using them because they mean something to me.  

MKE Rocks: What are inspirations for writing songs?

Staff: A lot of this record came from personal experience for me.  This record is a journey. I was going through a lot of things when I was writing this record.  I went through a break-up and my mom got sick. It brought up a lot of depression and anxiety for me.  This writing session was in parts me coming to grips with all of this. I went through the low points and had gotten to a place of acceptance.  These songs are super personal as they reference certain moments for me.  

There were moments in songs, like “Hand of God” for instance, where I wanted to look outward.  There were all these characters that represented a part of me, but for me, the song came together by getting all of these characters out. I think a lot about empathy and the people around me.  I’ve written too many songs about myself and wanted to go for a different perspective. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is good and healthy in normal life as well as songwriting.

MKE Rocks: The Midwest Americana scene seems like it’s at an all-time high in terms of talent with bands like yours, Joseph Huber, Buffalo Gospel, Dead Horses, Trampled by Turtles and Chicken Wire Empire, just to name a few.  Can you please share your thoughts on the scene?

Staff: We have a unique perspective because when we came in, we co-opted this genre.  I heard the Avett Brothers and thought, “this is amazing,” so I wanted to do something like this.  When we hopped into things, we didn’t know the history of the scene. We hadn’t heard some of the bands that paved the way in this genre.  With that, everyone is this scene is so very supportive. We are the guys who didn’t know who some of these artists were, and we were openly welcomed in.  This Midwest Americana scene is very focused on very intentional, genuine people who want to make music together and support one another. It’s hard to meet people in this genre and not like them.  I gravitate towards hardworking genuine people and we’ve found so much of them in this genre. There is a boom right now, and that means there will be younger bands jumping in. And that’s what keeps the scene fresh and awesome.  As a young band, having more established bands invite you to do shows is such a great thing, and these guys have no hesitation helping each other out.  

MKE Rocks: Any plans future for touring with this record?
Staff: We have an album release tour in September.  We had a release show in Eau Claire on Friday, then Turner Hall this week, and starting next week we’re going on a big run.  We’re doing twenty-five days on the road… doing a few shows in Wisconsin, going to the UP (Upper Peninsula of Michigan), then going to Nashville for AmericanaFest, then through the Carolinas and East Coast.  We’re bouncing all over the place… it’s something like twenty-two or twenty-three shows in twenty-five days. It’s gonna be fun for sure! We’ll see how the voice stands up. We’re at a moment right now where we want to chase it and we want to see where it goes.  Suffice to say, we’re excited and want to play these songs for people.

MKE Rocks:  In closing today, I just have to ask, where does the name, “Them Coulee Boys” come from?
Staff: The name comes from the driftless region of Wisconsin and Minnesota.  Coulee is a French word that the fur traders made after hearing the native word for “valley.”  Coulee technically now is a valley with a stream or river in it. I grew up in that kind of region near LaCrosse.  When we were working at bible camp, me, Beau and Jens were working together, and our friend would make a joke when we were horsing around, “Them Coulee Boys are at it again.”  That’s where our name comes from. It’s not the most ideal name as folks will ask, “what’s a Coulee?” but we’ve grown to love it because it is just us.

Thanks to Gigshotz by Stephen Bloch for all of the photos in this post.


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