Coolin’ with the Coulees

Them Coulee Boys are determined to Die Happy while creating a celebratory sound that’s still full of life

Them Coulee Boys

Those that sense a certain similarity in sound between Them Coulee Boys and the Avett Brothers need not blame their imagination.

By their own admission, the Avetts had a decided influence on the Coulee’s sound since early on. Indeed, the Avetts’  emotional, often off-kilter approach is evident throughout Die Happy, the Wisconsin-based band’s most fully realized effort to date. Produced by Dave Simonett of Trampled By Turtles, the music finds a certain similarity in style to the Avett Brothers’ unhinged affability. 

We wouldn’t exist without the Avett Brothers,” singer and guitarist Soren Staff concedes. “I first heard them in 2010, doing engineering homework in a library basement.That next summer I met our banjo player Beau Janke while working at a bible camp in northern Wisconsin. He had a banjo, and I told him we should jam on a song called ‘Laundry Room,’ which I loved. Later that summer we went to an Avett Brothers concert with my little brother, and we waited in line for nine hours to get front row seats. I was blown away. But In the middle of the show, I turned to Beau, and said, ‘We can do this.’ Two years later we actually did. I would say their music was the spark, and I love them for it.” 

 

VIDEO: “Midnight Manifesto”

Now, with three albums under their belt, they’ve carved out a career that’s garnered a burgeoning fan base of their own throughout the Midwest. That honesty and integrity is evident on Die Happy, and while songs such as “Hand of God Pt. 1,” “Find You Muse” and the title track could be mistaken at times for Avetts’ outtakes, there’s a sense of spontaneity that ensures instant attraction.  

We use the word ‘Americana’ to describe our sound, but that’s boringly broad,” Staff says. “Maybe it’s alt-folk with a flair for the dramatic? We generally try to do a million different things sonically, so it’s hard to label.”

That may be the case, but whatever one wants to call it, their approach clearly incorporates some decidedly down home sounds.

Growing up, it was all classic country in the farm truck, and classic rock courtesy of my parents,” Staff recalls. “I grew in — and out — of punk and emo, and now I would say my biggest writing influences are the heavyweights — Joni, Dylan, Springsteen — and new ones like Jason Isbell, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Connor Oberst. Sonically, we want to present a tapestry of sorts, to show the range of what we can do — whether it’s stripped down to nothing, or over the top with instrumentation.”

That said, Staff maintains he doesn’t look too far to find inspiration. “What matters to me is my relationship with the people I love, as well as myself, and the world around me,” he notes. “I write about seeking to understand what happens to us on a daily basis.” 

Indeed, on the album’s opening track, “Pray You Don’t Get Lonely,” the band provide the premise:

“Step inside my head for a minute
Tell me if you ever find the space
I can’t tell if it’s just me while I’m in it.” 

Staff and his colleagues — Janke (banjo), Jen Staff (mandolin), and Neil Krause (upright bass) — can trace a clear trajectory from past to present. 

Them Coulee Boys Die Happy, Domino 2019

“Our first album (I Never Lied About Being In Love) was essentially a collection of songs written during my senior year of engineering college, detailing a breakup, a time of change, and the political unrest in my world,” Staff explains. “We recorded it in a farm house at the summer camp we worked at, getting sick on the black mold we found in the basement. It was 95% acoustic, with bluegrass being a big influence. The second record (Dancing in the Dim Light) was a more focused effort, where I used songs we couldn’t pull off on the first record. I wrote more material, detailing thoughts on the duality of life, darkness and light. Electric elements were introduced and became a big part of our sound. Die Happy is all one cohesive writing session, where I processed what it’s like coming to grips with mental illness in the form of a narrative. The album is set up to tell a story about a journey to a lost love that eventually turns into a journey of self acceptance.”

If that seems like a heady concept, suffice it to say that Staff was determined not to take any of the elements for granted. The sound is both anthemic and emotional, calculated to make use of both tone and texture. 

“We committed to keeping an electric and acoustic balance,” he reflects. “We crafted the album a particular way, starting with an intro track, then two songs that flow into one another, and two songs that introduce a musical theme and reference it later. The final track, ‘My Anxiety & Me,’ references other metaphors in the album during the last verse of the entire record. It’s the most meticulous I’ve ever been in terms of planning and crafting an album.” 

Indeed, the effort shows.

 

VIDEO: Them Coulee Boys at The Purple Fiddle 5/31/19

 

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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