SARANAC LAKE – It’s a hot weekday afternoon, and neighbors and dogs watch as the Blind Owl Band plays for a video shoot in front of Steve Schnibbe’s abandoned, bizarrely cluttered house on Park Avenue – the same place seen on the cover of the local favorites’ new album, “This Train We Ride Is Made of Wood and Steel.”
Afterward, the musicians sit down for an interview in front of the house’s sagging porch. Just one question in, however, a car pulls up and Schnibbe hops out of the passenger seat.
Schnibbe is something of a band mascot and No. 1 fan. He’s brilliant, friendly and deeply eccentric – a local character who sometimes seems omnipresent in this village the band calls home. He was pictured inside the first Blind Owl album, and on this one he’s graduated to the back cover, although he also lurks from the shadows of his porch on the front.
He interrupts the interview briefly to “pass the torch”: He presents mandolin player Eric Munley with the U.S. flag swim trunks he’s seen wearing on the CD sleeve. The others – bass player Christian Cardiello, banjo player James Ford and guitarist Arthur Buezo – erupt in laughter.
The album cover is something of a sloppy take-off of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” or “The Basement Tapes,” a tableau of the band and a bunch of their friends posing with costumes and props.
“I think we’re sort of a fringe music, so the fringe scene that this is, the wonderful house of Steve Schnibbe, sort of played to it,” says Munley, who came up with the cover idea. “And then we decided to get as many people as possible and to dress up into characters to make it this elaborate scene. As you look around on the porch and you look at the cover, you see all the different layers of things that are popping out at you. I find the best album covers are the ones that I look at and look at and look at, and there’s so many details to ’em that you’re really captivated to stay with it.”
The album’s name is conspicuous, too. It came partly from the lead line of “Mystery Train,” a Junior Parker song the Blind Owl Band sometimes plays: “This train I ride is 16 coaches long.” Wood and steel are the materials that make up their stringed instruments.
Writing the music is “very much a communal effort,” Cardiello says, with each member adding “our own little bits and changes.” Ford and Buezo write the lyrics, which are full of wild characters and vivid imagery: rust, rain, death, traveling, lost faith, hometowns, whiskey and tobacco. They tend to follow streams of consciousness more than plot lines. Ford says that’s because he makes up his lines on the fly.
“The songs never begin on a sheet of paper,” he says. “When I started writing music when I was younger, I tried writing – writing like a poem, writing something and then putting chords to it – and it always sounded cheesy, and it always sounded constructed. And so when we write, the lyrics always come last.
“I listened to this interview with Steve Malkmus, who started the band Pavement in the early ’90s. He says, ‘You know, the lyrics I’ve wrote, they came up right during the recording process,’ and me, too. The lyrics on this album I wrote literally 30 seconds before I sang them, because I realized I had to have them, and I still was uncertain with what words I wanted to use. Steve Malkmus said, ‘The words always came from the music; the words came from the song.’ So when we’re singing, the words that seem to come, the imageries that come, those are imagery that stems and roots from the chords we’re playing and from the energy that we have between us all. And then that produces a dark image because we’re in a minor (key), or maybe an image of freedom because we’re outside in the sun or something.”
Improvising lyrics is hard for most people. Very few performers do it regularly onstage, but Ford says it’s easy for him.
“All my songs were rotating lyrics that I made up every time I sang ’em – just because, once I had a song that I wrote lyrics for, a couple months later the song got boring for me and I didn’t really love playing it anymore,” he says.
The young band had been together less than a year when it made its first album, “Rabble Rousing,” which sounded as raucous as its title implied. It was recorded live, with everyone playing together, and it sounded like their shows: a throbbing mass, a huge “chunka-chunka-chunka” punctuated by Buezo’s deep growl and Ford’s high yowl. They trade leads to break it up a bit, but there’s little emphasis on solos. They play as one but not bluegrass-tight – rather like a racing stagecoach with slack in the reins. They’re all heart and gut and energy, playing the music of hobos, tramps, trail crews, river rafting guides and forestry students.
They decided not to leave that rawness behind.
“We had a decision when we decided to record this that we could go about it in a few ways,” Munley says. “We could take time off and really, really put every effort towards making an album, or we could just try to simply record an album again like we did the first one, capture the abilities that we have. So we decided to do that, and we did it in the same recording studio (Granary Studio in Morrisonville), same producer (Larry Dolan), same guy mastered it (Adrian Carr).”
One change is that they recorded everything in three layers instead of one: first all playing together and recording bass and mandolin, then overdubbing banjo and guitar, and then the singing.
Another difference is more obvious: While they still like to play fast, six of this album’s 12 songs are decidedly slower.
“We wanted some of the album to be ‘Rabble Rousing, Part 2,’ as well as, this is where we’re going,” Munley says. “I think on our next album we’re going to work more on perfecting certain things, but for now, our producer said to us, ‘The perfection is in the approach’ – in that we’re not trying to be your typical bluegrass band where everything is spot-on, everything’s lined up. We’re trying to be different.”
“We played with Pappy (Biondo) from (Pennsylvania string band) Cabinet last night, and he said something funny,” Cardiello says. “After a song, he is holding his bow to his fiddle, and all the hair is just shredded, and what’d he say?”
“He goes, ‘This is what happens when you play with the Blind Owl Band,'” Munley says, “but he goes, ‘I love playing with you guys because it’s not bluegrass, and I feel like I can do whatever I want on my fiddle and try all these things that I typically would never bring to a circle.”
Since releasing “Rabble Rousing” in January 2012, the Blind Owl Band has played about 200 shows. They have another 70 to 80 booked between now and October, according to Munley.
To survive that, they’ve learned “professionality,” their made-up word that Cardiello says means “how you deal with the generally unhealthy lifestyle” of touring.
“That entails just like, making sure we eat at least a good meal a day and drink plenty of water and try to go to sleep and not drink too much, and just taking care of yourself and each other,” Cardiello adds.
The four met as Paul Smith’s College students and formed the group in 2011.
“None of us have ever done this, and we never had intentions of doing this,” Cardiello says, “so it kind of just started, and then it exploded.”
“We’re all in this place, and we found each other with these instruments,” Ford said, “and before we knew it, Eric all of a sudden got behind the wheel.
“Kind of before we knew what was happening, our weekends were filling up, and we said, ‘Wait a second; people are coming back.’
“We’re still having a blast,” Ford continues. “We know we have to remain honest with one another, and we know that in the end, no matter what, it’s just four dudes, playing instruments. And that’s like a huge thing to remember because in the end, we’re all just guys that we can all talk to and be real with, and we have to be.”
Amid that, they’ve improved as musicians. Cardiello switched from electric to upright bass, and Munley, the group’s most novice musician, has gotten much better on the mandolin.
Nevertheless, they still break a lot of strings onstage.
Munley says he started to do well this past winter, breaking fewer than 10 strings in a 60-show stretch, but in the sweaty summer months they’re rusting faster and snapping more often.
“I’ve been getting better,” Buezo says in his first comment of the interview. “I’ve changed picks, the thickness of picks, changed the way I play.”
“You did better in winter than you did in summer,” Munley says.
“That’s true, but it’s still better than I was doing last summer,” Buezo answers.
“It’s down to four or five, yeah,” Munley says.
“It’s down to like three to two,” Buezo counters.
Three to two per …
“Per show,” Ford says.
There’s a pause, and everyone bursts out laughing except Buezo, who grins.
“I say I’m proud of it,” he says.
Contact Peter Crowley at 518-891-2600 ext. 22 or firstname.lastname@example.org.