Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Drowning Men

On their way to see "True Grit"

2/4/11 – Hensley's Tavern
Carlsbad, CA
Interview with Nate-O Bardeen

It's like a sinking ship . . . and the water's on fire.” - Tom Waits

          The show was slated to start at nine and I arrived early, to sit in on the sound-check and ask my friend Nate-O some questions about his new album and upcoming tour. The free show was a thank you to their hometown supporters and a bon voyage bash before they hit the road the next day. As the sound men adjusted their dials to hone the mics and amps, cocktail waitresses and bartenders would peak behind the curtain, trying to catch a preview of the show before they would be inundated later in the evening. There is something surreal about being the only person not intimately involved in the goings-on of the upcoming show to watch a band warm-up, and as I sat alone in an overstuffed half-moon booth nursing a PBR tall-boy, I kicked my feet up and entertained egocentric notions that this was all for me, a private performance. Such are the fleeting privileges of an early bird . . . for within an hour all the booths were filled with the band's close friends and family, while beyond the black curtains the bar filled to capacity and a line started to build outside.
          Formerly of the Plug Uglies, Nathaniel “Nate-O” Bardeen has been a mainstay of the local music scene in north county San Diego, and along with his local band mates, they were bringing together a crowd full of camaraderie and pride at the fact that The Drowning Men, born and bred in Oceanside, CA, would now be getting to share their music with a national audience on the road, opening for the Celtic-infused folk rock legends Flogging Molly. I first met Nate-O through surfing, and later got to know him better on the “pitch” (that's a soccer field for you footy-laymen), where we would play pick-up games with the local boys at Buccaneer Beach Park. Nate-O, who sports a pencil-thin black mustache and whose arms are covered in traditional sailor tattoos, has an unassuming air, and for someone of his talent and ambition, is humble and boyishly shy, never letting on that he is in a band, let alone a burgeoning rock star. In fact, of all the things he wears on his sleeves, his ego is not one of them. He lives a simple life. He has a day job, laying tile. He enjoys the ordinary pleasures of his backyard mini-ramp, an occasional surf, playing footy with his friends, and of course, making music.
          Between the sound check and show time, as the crowd's energy was becoming palpable in the air, I caught up with Nate-O behind the bar, asking him questions as he smoked cigarettes and his eyes sparkled with the nervous energy brought on by the endorphins of someone getting ready to take the stage, not only tonight, but for the next few weeks on the wide open road.
          The show that transpired that evening was a raucous experience, the band's energy matched by the crowd's enthusiasm, as drinks were raised and song lyrics echoed by fans and friends. The atmosphere was one of celebration and brotherhood, a re-imagining of an Old World Irish pub ringing with sea chanteys. The Drowning Men's sound defies easy description, but lies in the aural realm of the Arcade Fire and Interpol, their music often containing a haunting quality that serves to sober the heart. In an age of rampant commercial production, music produced for monetary ends rather than to serve and soothe the soul, to say the things that cannot be said, the original and highest aim of music, The Drowning Men are making music that is real, music you don't just listen to, music you feel. For a taste, check them out at www.myspace.com/drowningmen and catch them at the NorVA, Friday, February 18th.


Who have been the biggest influences on you creatively, both musically and otherwise?
  • Musically, The Pogues, Tom Waits, Morissey, The Smiths, Nick Cave, The Bad Seeds . . . me personally, that's what I love listening to.

How did you first get into making music?
  • I was in high school and a friend of mine asked if I wanted to sing in some punk band and I was like, “yeah, I love punk rock.” So, I started singing, and then I started playing guitar. Once I picked up guitar, I just fell in love with it, playing music, writing music.

Is that when you first started writing your own songs?
  • Yeah, in high school, seventeen maybe, when I started playing guitar.

What instruments do you play now? How many?
  • umm... legit instruments... guitar, banjo, piano, mandolin... I play like fourteen, ones that I can actually claim. I can kind of get by on anything, or any kind of string thing.

Where did the band name come from?
  • I was reading a book by Nick Cave, and he mentioned “the drowning men” in it. At the time I was looking for a name for the band, and that's how I came up with. I love Leonard Cohen as well, and in one of his songs he mentions it too.

And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said "All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them"

Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne” '66

I've read in other interviews that your song writing process is relatively organic, beginning with a melody or riff that is brought to the collective table where it grows with the collaboration with all the band member's input, and that the lyrics are the last element that's added. Talk about the difficulties, or possibly the comfort, of finding words to fit a piece a music. Do you ever feel confined by the existing framework of the music, or do you feel that it supports the writing of the lyrics by supplying a construct to help flesh out whatever it is you're hoping to say?
  • I think, you know... I'm passionate about music and I've always been into instruments, the melodies of different instruments. So for me, it's always music first. And then, I let the music put me in a mood and then I'll fumble around with words and I'll base everything off of that, off the music, off the mood of the song. That's how I develop my lyrics. I know other people who do it totally different, they write their lyrics first and then add their music to their lyrics. I've never been able to do that yet. I'd like to explore that, but so far, it's just music first. I let the music tell me where I'm going to go with the vocals.

What was the difference, both in the creative process and in production, between your EP and this full length album?
  • I think that first EP we did, that was kind of like trying to find, kind of getting used to playing with each other, finding things and exploring. Then after time, we developed our style and just went off that. I think now, the album we've been working on now is totally different than our EP. In a way it's the same mood, but different. I don't know.

In '07 you had “Kill the Matador,” in '09 was “Beheading the Songbird.” Both have ironic and morbidly humorous titles, could you explain the significance behind these?
  • I just love it. I like the darker stuff; but I like it humorous too. You know, gently put. We're not an evil, morbid band. I just like it dark.

Could you tell me how you got booked on the tour, your relationship to Flogging Molly, and how you feel you relate to that traditional Celtic-infused music that they're known for?
  • I am a huge Irish folk fan, and that's what made me fall in love with Flogging Molly. I used to watch them their first year playing together and I fell in love with them then. I don't know what it is with Irish music, but there's a sincerity, a humor, and it's dark. There's passion, and the vocals, struggle, you know is what I love about Irish music. I used to play Irish, I used to be in Irish bands. I don't think The Drowning Men sound anything Irish really, but I'd be a fool to say that there can't be a hint of it in there. You know, I listen to it. Whatever I listen to, I'm going to put out. Whatever I take in, I'm going to put out. I love the band Flogging Molly, and our relationship, our personal relationship, we know Matt Hensley (accordion player for Flogging Molly and former pro skater), we've opened up for Flogging Molly in Vegas two or three years ago. So we've played with them once before and we have this relationship with Matt, and he's a big part of us getting on this tour.

Would you say your music is a product of your environment? And if so, expand on the role that the locale of Oceanside and the greater San Diego area has had on your music.
  • I definitely think it is . . . I don't know how, but it couldn't come from anywhere else. I can't really expand on it, it's just how it is. Us being here, and the environment that we grew up in, the music we grew up playing with, us knowing each other for a long bit. There's another band out there, The Burning of Rome, I don't want to say they're similar, but I see hints of us doing the same kind of thing in certain ways, and I'm stoked that they're from Oceanside as well.

What's the story behind the music video for “Disorder Here We Come?”

  • That came from our director dude, Ryan. That was all his idea. He brought it to us, was like this is what I want to do, we were like perfect. He's like this is what I hear, what I gather from you guys, and this is what I hear. We were just like, let's do it. We filmed the whole thing in Rory's garage. It was pretty insane.

If you could jam with any musician, living or dead, who would it be and why?
  • There's so many, I don't know. The first person to come to my mind right now is Leonard Cohen. I just think he writes some of the most beautiful music ever, that's why.

If you could punch any musician in the face, living or dead, who would it be and why?
  • I don't have an answer to that. Who would I want to punch? Umm . . . gosh, I don't know. I'm too gentle.

You've only got three musicians you can listen to for the rest of your life. They are:
  • Paul Simon, The Smiths, The Pogues.

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