Josh Heffernan: The Dustbowl Revival’s Musical MixologistZack Albetta
By Zack Albetta
Josh Heffernan has been logging a lot of plane and van hours lately, crisscrossing North America with his band The Dustbowl Revival. After being crowned “Best Live Band” by L.A. Weekly in 2013, the Venice-based outfit has been steadily building a small army of fans. Their new album With a Lampshade On, and their current tour in support of it represent a new high in their popularity and visibility. For many drummers, Dustbowl’s unique (and large) instrumentation, and melting pot of influences, could present a musical conundrum. But for six years, Josh’s drumming has been the glue that holds their sound together.
If you’re at a Dustbowl Revival show and you’re not dancing, clapping, singing along, or otherwise in danger of spilling your drink, you’re doing it wrong. The grooves are many, varied and equally infectious. When Josh joined the band in 2009, the Seattle native and graduate of The Los Angeles College of Music (formerly the L.A. Music Academy) had been playing in a Brazilian band. Before that, he had done stints with two Army bands—an Afro-Cuban band based in Panama and a symphonic/big band based in Washington, DC. Joining Dustbowl presented the challenge of delving into new styles, but it was a challenge Josh welcomed, especially in the case of the New Orleans styles the band features prominently.
Our first job as drummers is time and feel. All that chop stuff, which is crazy fun, is down on the list of priorities.
“I think one of the great things about getting in a new band is you don’t know what to expect, you have a chance to learn.” Three New Orleans drummers—Herlin Riley, Johnny Vidacovich and Baby Dodds—were especially influential on Josh, and his previous experience helped him focus on what made each style tick. “All the groups I played with in the past helped. Dustbowl Revival has such a wide range of styles that the ability to play them all with the correct feel is key. Our first job as drummers is time and feel. All that chop stuff, which is crazy fun, is down on the list of priorities.”
Having a lot of different influences and favorite styles is partly what makes this band unique.
A Dustbowl Revival song could contain any or all of the following: The mandolin and fiddle-fueled licks of a bluegrass string band, the hollered harmony of gospel and folk, the funky street party sound of New Orleans brass bands, and the laid-back grooves of soul and R&B. “Josh is sort of the chef, stirring all these sounds together,” says Dustbowl’s front man Zach Lupetin. “Having a lot of different influences and favorite styles is partly what makes this band unique. When I initially put up the magical Craigslist ad that started this band, I wasn’t looking for drums. I wanted it to be an acoustic string band. But once we got the horns involved, we definitely wanted a bigger sound. In my mind, you can only rock out so much without drums. We had the sense that we could combine the New Orleans brass and swing thing with the bluegrass, blues and gospel that I love so much, and we knew drums would be the driving force behind that. Once we got Josh involved, the band took a big step forward.”
It’s trying to find something unique and different for each tune that’s fun.
The Dustbowl Revival is a hybrid of different types of bands, but also of the old and the new. Josh is intentional about walking the lines between all those in his playing. “I really wanted to play [each style] like it’s supposed to be played but with a modern pitch to it, because we’re not a museum piece band, we play original music. There are similarities between tunes, but that will happen in any band. It’s trying to find something unique and different for each tune that’s fun.” You can hear this effort borne out on the album. Multiple songs including “With A Lampshade On,” “Ballad Of The Bellhop,” “Never Had To Go,” and “Cherokee Shuffle” live in the same neighborhood of styles and tempos, but Josh and the band use different instrumentations and inflections to give each its own distinct flavor.
Josh also combines the old and new when it comes to his kit. He uses the wood blocks, cowbells, tambourines and dark cymbals (including some very vintage-sounding 12” hihats) that were typical across many styles of music for the first half of the 20th century. But the drums he used for the album are modern DWs, which he tunes to capture the best of both worlds. “I grew up loving really punchy toms, but I found a cross between that and the higher-pitched jazz tuning. I’ve been using the Remo Emperor Suede heads and they’re tuned up a little bit but you still get a nice punch.”
You have a heartbeat in the back with the bass and the drums and it shapes the character of the song.
Josh enjoys a good creative relationship with his bandleader Zach, who writes most of the band’s material. While other bandleaders may have extremely specific needs or picky demands, “In this band, I let the experts do their job,” Zach says. “You have a heartbeat in the back with the bass and the drums and it shapes the character of the song. I try to let Josh mold the sound and the beat over time for each song. Sometimes we’ll try a song a certain way and it won’t be working, and Josh will say ‘let’s slow this down by half,’ or suggest a style I wasn’t thinking of initially.” Josh also alluded to the band’s gradual, organic song-crafting process. “You come up with something over time because we don’t really rehearse. Our rehearsal happens at sound check. Songs come together over the course of many gigs.”
A great drummer can be intuitive to the life of a song.
This process requires some on-stage experimentation, which in some bands would result in a train wreck. But when it is built on the kind of trust that exists between Dustbowl’s front man and his drummer, it yields great results. “Josh and I have been working together for so long there’s a bit of a sixth sense,” says Zach. “With the smallest gestures and looks he knows exactly what I’m indicating. A great drummer can be intuitive to the life of a song.”
Mutual trust between band members was vital throughout the process of recording …
Mutual trust between band members was vital throughout the process of recording With A Lampshade On. It was created without two of the safety blankets that most albums are wrapped in—a producer and the controlled environment of a recording studio. Most of the songs were recorded live at two different concerts at The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco and The Troubadour in Los Angeles. The band enlisted live recording specialist Alex Chaloff to engineer the sessions. By the time they hit “record,” the band was such a well-oiled machine that the high stakes of not being able to go back and fix things like they would in the studio didn’t get to them.
We recorded everything with the old giant RCA microphones from the 1930s.
Three tracks, including the title track, were recorded at Exile Studios in New York. Rather than record each instrument separately, as is often done in modern studios, the band played together in one room. Only vocal tracks were recorded separately. The session was engineered by Matt Merinelli, a friend of Josh’s who he describes as a “guru” of vintage recording gear and techniques. “I think the excitement of what we do comes across when we’re playing all together. We recorded everything with the old giant RCA microphones from the 1930s.”
For the final product, decisions that are usually made by a single producer (mixing, mastering, song selection, etc.) were made as a group. “We produced it as a band,” says Josh. “It’s a democratic thing we have going on – where everyone is an equal partner, everyone wants to be heard and I think it was done extremely well. I’m proud to have played on it.”
The Dustbowl Revival will be on tour through September and October 2015. To view their full schedule, see more pictures and videos, and purchase their music, visit www.dustbowlrevival.com.