Ridin’ the Hound with the Wynntown Marshals
Hailing from Edinburgh, Scotland, the Wynntown Marshals mix country-twang and roots-rock on their debut full-length disc Westerner (Charger). They aren’t afraid to acknowledge their debt to Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks and Keith Benzie’s voice bears more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Tweedy. As much as I like Wynntown Marshal’s sound it is the songwriting that elevated this disc to a lock for my “debut disc” of 2010. The band stays away from the cowboy, guns and whiskey alt country staples and Keith describes his songwriting style as follows: “I like to take the Americana genre and song structures but try to write ‘contemporary’ songs that kind of flip the conventional ideas on their head. I like to write songs from personal experience when I can ( ’48 Hours’ for example)”. Two of the highlights from Westerner are an unexpected cover of L.A. Guns’ “The Ballad of Jayne” (adding pedal steel guitar transforms a minor glam metal rock hit into an alt country gem) and the closing track, “Two’s Company”, which owes more to post-Replacements Westerburg than Wilco, ending the disc with a nice slow rocker. I tracked down Keith Benzie, the singer/songwriter for the band, and he was kind of enough to answer a few questions about Westerner.
HB: “Snowflake” (currently featured on the NoDepression music player) might be my favorite song on Westerner. Could you give a little bit of background about “Snowflake”?
KB: “Snowflake” is a song about Copito de Nieve, the world’s only albino gorilla who lived at Barcelona Zoo until his death some years ago. My sister-in-law lives in Barcelona so every time we visit I see postcards with this beautiful creature on them and his really was a sad story. So I thought I’d write a song from his point of view.
HB-I admit to being surprised when I read that the Wynntown Marshals were formed in Edinburgh. It is not exactly a hotbed of Americana (or is it?). What were you doing before forming the band.
KB – I have lived in Edinburgh since I moved here to study when I was 17. Keith Jones (The Marshals’ drummer and erstwhile manager/ promoter) and I met back in 2001 and formed a band called The Sundowns. We had some great times but the band eventually came to an end and we decided to keep going, forming The Wynntown Marshals – so began the journey which brings us to this point. I’d agree that Edinburgh definitely isn’t what you would call a ‘hotbed of Americana’, but there are enough great musicians around who are into the same kind of music and Glasgow (which is just an hour away) holds an annual Americana festival.
HB-Could you mention some of your musical influences or artists you admire?
KB – I’ve always liked Neil Young and late 60s/ early 70s Stones, but my music taste (and indeed my whole life) was really changed by three records – ‘Hollywood Town Hall’ by The Jayhawks and a double LP I got back in 1992 of ‘March 16-20’ and ‘Still Feel Gone’ by Uncle Tupelo. I’ve been listening to Americana ever since! The guys in the band share a love of music like Wilco, Drive By Truckers, Fountains of Wayne and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. I also really love storytellers like Richmond Fontaine and Calexico and contemporary bands like Phoenix, Midlake and Band of Horses. Ryan Adams is really great too.
HB-I really love “48 Hours”. Chuck Berry, Jack Kerouac, Harvey Pekar and Jonathan Richman have all romanticized bus travel in their various art forms. If readers have ever actually taken a long cross-country bus ride, they’ll know that “48 Hours” is a gritty realistic description of that quirky form of long distance travel. You’ve got a great imagination or you’ve actually taken that long slow bus trip.
KB – That song is borne out of personal experience – every word of it! I was staying with some friends near San Francisco back in 1999 and I needed to get to Chicago to meet some friends. I had plenty of time (but a distinct lack of money) so the Greyhound seemed like a good idea – little did I know what was in store. Bus journeys in the UK are so short in comparison! I had this romantic vision of Greyhound travel from books and the movies but it just wasn’t like that! Two days on a cramped bus with some interesting characters, a couple of borrowed paperbacks and countless service station meals stretched my sanity to the limit, but it did get me to where I needed to be and I knew the experience had to become a song some day.
HB-Any plans to tour, hopefully the US, in support of “Westerner”?
KB-We’re playing shows in the UK during the summer and would like to head over to Europe in the near future. We’d love to come to play in the States some time but as the band is entirely self-financed and as the record is out on our own label at the moment we’ll just need to see what happens!
HB-You should check out ___________’s new album.
KB-The Hold Steady’s Heaven is Whenever is a current favourite and they are a great live band. Craig Finn is a tremendous lyricist and an inspiration and I just love their songs.
HB-What was your weirdest gig?
KB – We’ve played a few over the years, including more than a handful where we’ve played to the bar staff and not many others! Our drummer’s brother, a navy man, got married last year and we agreed (fully kilted up) to play at the reception. Other entertainment during the evening included a string quartet, an Elvis impersonator and a fire juggler, and the reception to our first set was lukewarm to say the least. The second set was a different matter though, as the copious amounts of alcohol had obviously kicked in by this stage! We ended the night in the company of some exceptionally inebriated sailors, one of whom proceeded, by turns, to praise us then put us down – all in a highly foul mouthed fashion. A most unusual evening…
HB: Great disc Keith! Thanks for taking the time to chat.
On their myspace page you can listen to several tunes from the Wynntown Marshals and you can purchase the disc from the iTUNES store.