By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious
Zach Williams is back where he’s spent a great deal of the last year: sitting in a tour van, sprinting from one city to another, from one raucous show to the next.
Today, there’s a pinch of extra urgency. The guitarist and lead vocals of indie folk outfit the Lone Bellow is barreling down a road in Nantucket, trying to outrace a storm that threatens to blanket the island.
While the island off the coast of Cape Cod might strike you as an unusual tour stop for a band with such a growing reputation, the Lone Bellow seem to be fond of these smaller, unsung spaces. Its recent European tour included performances in the Shetland Islands, in Brighton, in Belgium – not the kinds of places you would expect to find fans of an Americana band from New York.
“They love the music, even if the banter falls flat on its face,” Williams says, with an easy, warm laugh. “Everything in between the bantering goes pretty well, I’d say.”
As Williams and his bandmates ramble across New England for a few shows before snaking back down the East Coast, the storm outside matches the intensity of the their music: rolling waves of sound and emotion, pierced by powerful moments of quiet intimacy and flashes of inspiration.
When we connect over the phone on this gloomy Wednesday in late February, Williams sounds focused and ready for the challenges that lie ahead, while keeping his head firmly on his shoulders.
“To this day, I do not know why I got the opportunity to do music as a career,” Williams says, with mild surprise in his voice. “It still baffles my mind, and I’m grateful for it.”
You made the move to New York after your wife’s recovery [from temporary paralysis]. What were your ambitions when you originally moved to the city? Did you ever imagine you would end up performing on Letterman or Jimmy Kimmel? Or were you just hoping to follow a dream?
I mean, isn’t that what everybody does when they move to the city? I think what I really wanted to do in New York was try my songs out to a crowd that maybe wouldn’t be terribly polite. [Laughs] Maybe that could help me define my art a little more – the give and take between an honest town and a musician, writer, whatever. Any kind of creative person that lives anywhere has some sort of reflection of their surroundings and their city, or their town.
So, I moved up there and just started. I remembered the first bar I played in was in Chinatown, and they didn’t turn the volume down for the basketball game that was playing in the background during our set. I was like “alright. Let’s do this!” [Laughs] I played around the bars in New York for six or seven years before we formed the Lone Bellow. And the Lone Bellow was really just a collection of neighbors that lived close together; it started out as a country project in the middle of Brooklyn.
We were all from the South, and it was kind of one of those “the grass is always greener” kind of situations. We all had a shared fondness for country music writing and the storytelling and the kind of tongue in cheek style of it.
Do you think that being a fish out of water of sorts – a band based in Brooklyn playing country-ish, Southern sounding music – helped you guys get attention more quickly?
I mean, we were a part of a whole scene. There was a whole scene of folk music. There was this placed called Jalopy that’s almost all bluegrass, down in Brooklyn. I think we just kind of locked arms and tried to do our best.
I can’t tell you. To this day, I do not know why I got the opportunity to do music as a career. It still baffles my mind, and I’m grateful for it. I don’t know.
From what I’ve read, you’re a Georgia native. Where did you grow up?
That’s right. Acworth. [Spells it out] A-C-W-O-R-T-H.
Acworth? Man, I lived in Atlanta for a couple of years, and I have no idea where that is.
[Laughs] That sounds about right. It’s on the way to Chattanooga.
Atlanta and Nashville are both hubs for music. Atlanta has a really strong singer-songwriter scene with Eddie’s Attic and a couple of other venues, and of course, Nashville is Nashville. Did you ever consider those places as a potential destination or was New York always the goal?
For sure, I considered those places. Really, one of the reasons I moved to New York is because I had a bunch of buddies, and we all wanted to move to New York. They were writing plays, or writing poetry. Basically, we were all just waiters. [Laughs] We wanted to steal the energy of the city.
I had visited up there a few times, and went to a place called Rockwood Music Hall, back in ’04 or ’05 when it just opened. I remember I saw this guy, Ian Thomas, and he was a strictly bluegrass guy. I was so inspired by Ian, but more so by the audience, and the vibe in the room: the candles that were burning all the way down from the top of the ceiling, the fogged up windows in that tiny room with sixty people stuck in it on that freezing cold night. It put a stamp on my mind, and I wanted to be a part of it.
The band’s sound is steeped in the traditions of Americana, gospel music, and folk. What were your major influences as a musician coming into this project?
[Serious] Boyz II Men. Whitney Houston. André 3000. The whole Dungeon Family down in Atlanta. Erykah Badu. All that.
More currently, I love the whole Monsters of Folk crew – they’re really inspiring to me. The Highwaymen, Otis Redding. We all grew up on that stuff, and I think one of the really fun things about making music these days is that nobody really knows what the genres are anymore. You can really let it go wherever it might go, sonically.
Did you have an idea of what you wanted to sound like when you started this band, or did this progress as you went along?
I think this was a progression. When the band first started there was a whole bunch of us, and we’d play little shows in New York and Philly. We had pedal steels and banjos and double basses and everything. Then we started touring and listening to a lot of old Elvis stuff – especially his Vegas years. I feel like he was wrestling with his identity a lot during that period, and you can see it in the way that he sings in those videos, compared to his early days. I mean, golly, he had so much pressure: He was the first rock and roll star ever. He had those big bands and those big choirs and this and that. And that’s what led us to the sounds of Then Came The Morning.
But then you also look at Brian Elmquist singing on “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home” which is kind of a barn burner, and a lot of fun – just electric guitars, and stompin’ and clappin’. From that to the really soft stuff that we got to do with Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Marietta, Telluride – stuff like that.
What was working with Aaron Dessner like for you? How did you decide to bring him on as a producer for Then Came the Morning?
Well, we’re huge fans of The National – obviously, who isn’t? They’re amazing, and I can’t believe we’re opening for them in a couple of months.
I think what happened was that a good friend of ours, Chris Pereira, was reading an article that Matt and Aaron were answering questions in. The way they talk about how they work, and how they care for each other – he suggested we reach out to this guy [Aaron], and check to see if he’d work with us. Turns out we live right down the street from him, so we went and met with him. He was working on the Le Loup record that he did, and he played us some of the stuff before it was released. It was just so beautiful. Working with him was a real natural fit.
Aaron had the idea of making the record in upstate, in Woodstock, New York, at this old church that was turned into a studio back in the ’60s called Dreamland. We did the rest of it in his garage in his backyard in Brooklyn, in Ditmas. It was actually the same room that Mumford and Sons wrote about in their song, “Ditmas”. It’s a pretty cool place.
Seems like a lot of musicians and artists have been moving to Woodstock, or at least getting involved with the music and art scene there. Did you guys get to experience any of the revival that’s happening out there?
Well, we’re playing the Midnight Ramble in a couple of days, which is at Levon Helm’s old barn. I so wish that I could have gone to see the shows while Levon was still around. My buddies went out there when Jim James came out and played, and it was amazing. Levon’s spirit of hospitality and joy was such an inviting personality – that, mixed with the history of Woodstock and all that it entails. The Hudson Valley in general has been a pretty wonderful hub for music for a really long time. I always think of that movie that Woody Guthrie’s son [Arlo Guthrie] did, back in the ’70s. What was that again? Arlene’s Grocery?
Yes! “Alice’s Restaurant”. Arlene’s Grocery is the venue. Yeah, that’s always what Woodstock is supposed to feel like, in my brain. All of these artists living in a house.
From your lyrics and reading in between the lines of some public comments, it seems like religious faith has played a prominent part in your life and your songwriting. Do you consider yourself a religious person?
[Crisply] That’s definitely something I wrestle with on the daily. A very important wrestle for me to have.
Where do you see the Lone Bellow going next? It’s been about a year since the release of the last album, and you guys are still on the road. What’s on the cooker for you guys?
We’re writing a lot. It’s about making the new record soon, and I’m really looking forward to some of the live shows – we’re actually playing with a live symphony for the Baltimore show, and that is really exciting.
There’s some really fun stuff happening. We’ll be playing some shows with the National at the Greek, and doing some other collaborations with some other friends of ours, but writing is the most important thing.