New music made the old fashioned way

Murzik creates acoustic music with an Eastern European flavor. Murzik is one of a number of local bands who are drawing from other eras and cultures.
Image courtesy Murzik (Lilly Ball photographer)

You can hear it in the lonely dust bowl melodies of Roma Di Luna.

You can find it in the brooding, bluesy groove of the Pines.

Roma di Luna
Roma di Luna focus on making new music in the style of music from the Great Depression. Some have called it dustbowl folk.
Image courtesy Roma di Luna (Karen Moon photographer)

And you can't miss it in the cross-cultural mish mash of Murzik.

It's music with so many influences it's hard to label, even though some have tried. Chamber folk. Gothic folk.

"We originally started calling our music 'dark folk,'" said Bryan Steenerson, founder and frontman for Murzik.

Steenerson describes the band's music as East European-flavored Americana, although stylistically you'd expect it more on a Sarajevo street corner than in an Austin bar.

Like many artists who've embraced older, or in Murzik's case, international folk traditions, Steenerson is an indie rock ex-patriot who wanted something more musically fulfilling.

"What drew me in was the melodies that you get in that type of music that you don't necessarily get in rock music," he said. "There are just wide varying melodies that are just beautiful to listen to."

Borrowing traditions from earlier periods and other cultures obviously isn't unheard of in pop music. Artists such as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Nick Cave have made careers out of it. Groups such as Devotchka and the Handsome Family are more recent standard bearers.

Spaghetti Western String Co.
Spaghetti Western String Co. performing live. The group uses banjo, mandolin, clarinet and cello to create a haunting hybrid of folk, jazz and classical music.
Image courtesy Spaghetti Western String Co.

But in the Twin Cities, it appears to be gaining steam and when it's done creatively, no matter who the performer is, it can feel new and fresh. Or as Bryan Steenerson puts it.

"When we go to something new we often times look for things form the past, to sort of guide us to the next level," he said.

Many of these bands see themselves as creating new music about today, that sounds old. And that's largely because of the instruments.

For example, Murzik features acoustic guitar, accordion and a small string section. Other groups have adopted tubas, trombones, ukuleles, cellos, glockenspiels, washboards, even saws.

Spaghetti Western String Company uses banjo, mandolin, cello and clarinet to create this haunting hybrid of folk, jazz and classical instrumental music. Mike Rossetto is the Spaghetti Western's founder.

"Those type of instruments are coming across well with audiences here because, I guess the only way I can describe it is it's honest and it's real," Rossetto said.

But why does the music tend to be so downcast in melody and lyrics? Many of these songs are drenched in minor chords and almost find romance in the dark themes they address, from loss and isolation to addiction and violence.

"When we go to something new we oftentimes look for things form the past, to sort of guide us to the next level,"

Ben Durrant is a musician and engineer who's assisted several of these groups in the studio. For Durrant, it's music that reflects the times.

"When I think of this style of music, to me it generally goes back to the depression era and you know, there's some parallels right now obviously," Durrant said.

According to St. Paul Pioneer Press Music Critic Ross Raihala, it's a style that may appeal to the more serious musician because it brings the focus back on the songwriter and his or her words.

And it does so not in an earnest, solo singer/songwriter folk stereotype kind of way, but in a band setting.

"And because you play quietly, people kind of have to listen to you," Raihala said.

It's also easier, cheaper and more practical to play acoustic instruments says Raihala. There's much less equipment to haul around, you don't have to rent a rehearsel space because it's quiet enough to play in your living room, and it allows you to perform in a wider variety of venues.

Raihala said there's enough "throwback folk bands" in the scene right now for Darwinistic forces to start having some effect.

Ross Raihala
St Paul Pioneer popular music writer Ross Raihala. Raihala says this style of music has become popular among musicians because it puts the focus back on the songwriter.
MPR photo/Chris Roberts

"I do sort of feel we're getting to a point where the strong will survive, which is the case with any sort of trend," he said.

Bryan Steenerson doesn't care about trends. He said he and his band mates in Murzik are united by a higher purpose.

"Really we're trying to create good music that will stand the test of time," he said.

Or at least as long as they keep playing it, which could be a while. Steenerson predicts his band will be around for ages.

"We can do this music until we're 80," he said.

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