Making darkness fun in Memphis
By Jim Walker
As a writer, I’m going to do something a little different here, and start things off with a Facebook post I put up on June 10. It pretty much says what I would intro with anyway, and these days, well, there are no rules:
“If I take nothing else away from Memphis, I will take the Dead Soldiers band. They found us at the 901 Fest on May 28, on stage down by the river at sunset. Any band that employs guitars, banjos, fiddles and a brass section would win me, of course, but these people are magnificently lively and dark. As the name indicates, they often have a Rebel Civil War bent, with songs such as ‘Tennessee Quickstep’ and ‘Ironclad.’ And they are proof that Steve Martin was wrong when he said: ‘The banjo is such a happy instrument - you can’t play a sad song on the banjo – it always comes out so cheerful.’ Not so. But it does make death and darkness fun, haha. Spread the word. These people are fantastic!”
That being said, I will add that the Soldiers have a very diverse musical repertoire, including classics, such as “Sixteen Tons,” that can get the audience singing loudly along with them. It’s all done in a very unique style that no one else comes close to. They perform at various venues in Memphis and nearby states, but it’s all Memphis-made.
I’ll let their band bio explain: “Dead Soldiers is an American Roots Rock Band from Memphis, Tennessee. Much like The Band and Tom Waits, they draw deeply from influences ranging from Rock, Soul, Outlaw Country, and Bluegrass to Blues to carve out their own dark perspective on what it means to live and die in the American South. Songs about anxiety, poverty, politics, history and death, are lifted by three and four part vocal harmonies, and paired with detailed instrumentation to create a dynamic musical identity with an energy and irreverence that sets them apart.
“The band began writing and performing in 2011 and consists of core members Michael Jasud (lead vocals/guitar), Benjamin Aviotti (vocals/banjo/guitar), Clay Qualls (vocals/bass/mandolin), Krista Wroten-Combest (vocals/violin/keys), Nathan Raab (guitar/mandolin/bass/keys), and Paul Gilliam (drums). But the band also employs an array of personnel from the Memphis music scene whenever there is space on the stage – most notably in the form of the modern-day Memphis Horns style attack of Nahshon Benford (trumpet) and Victor Sawyer (trombone).”
To give you a bit more of a look inside the band, and to emphasize its Downtown Memphis connections, I asked four of the band members a few questions. Here are their responses:
(1) How long with the band?
Benjamin Aviotti and Michael Jasud are co-founders and members since the band’s inception in 2011.
Krista: “Four years.”
Paul: “I've been with the band since September of 2012.”
(2) Instruments you play for the band? Sing? Write songs?
Ben: “I play guitar and provide some lead vocals and some backing vocals. I initially write some of our songs but writing, for us, is a highly collaborative process.”
Krista: “Violin/keys/yes/assist with arrangements.”
Paul: “I play drums. I do not sing. I help write the songs along with everyone else.”
Michael: “Guitar, sing, write. Yes. I’m the one who digs us into a hole that everyone else inevitably has to dig us out of; personally, musically, professionally, you name it. I play the guitar, but I like to think of myself as playing the ‘difficult personality.’ I believe that’s an absolute necessity in every band.”
(3) What are your connections to Downtown Memphis or greater Memphis?
Ben: “I grew up cutting my teeth playing in bands at the New Daisy and sitting in with bands on Beale St. I’ve worked a few restaurant jobs Downtown over the years as well.”
Krista: “Born in Texas, moved during elementary school, graduated from Cordova High, went to Boston University, moved back 2008. Worked at A Schwab and now Loflin Yard.”
Paul: “I currently live Downtown with my girlfriend on Front St. I also work at Loflin Yard. I thoroughly enjoy taking my son, John, down to Tom Lee Park to ride bikes, or to hang at the Splash Park. I’ve been going to BBQ Fest for years, and have played the Beale Street Music Festival for the past two years (once with Dead Soldiers and once with The Memphis Dawls).”
Michael: “I’ve spent years wandering around Downtown Memphis befriending the drunk and mentally ill. It turns out we have a lot in common. My spiritual home is under the old bridge. I like listening to the trains overhead and watching the pollution from President’s Island float by. Once I saw a guy float by on a homemade raft and nearly panicked, convinced for a moment that he was a pirate. It turns out he was a piece of driftwood.”
(4) What is your favorite type of venue and why?
Ben: “I prefer mid-size 300 to 500 capacity venues for performing and attending. Plenty of people to have good energy but still maintain some intimacy with your audience.”
Krista: “Variety is the spice of life.”
Paul: “My favorite type of venue is one that has great on-stage sound and enough room for everyone to move around and be comfortable. Minglewood has the space, of course, but Lafayette’s has great sound. There are so many variables that go into it, it’s hard for any venue to get all of them right.”
Michael: “Anywhere with a hostile audience and cheap beer.”
(5) What’s the best part about being a “Memphis” band? And, related, what is the best part about playing in Memphis?
Ben: “Being a ‘Memphis’ band is a privilege. Wonderful cultural diversity, a seemingly endless talent pool, and a sense of community that you don’t often find in other music towns. I like playing in Memphis because it’s a challenge. Folks here know their music and are quick to recognize a lack of sincerity. It makes you want to stand up straight and do things right.”
Paul: “Being a ‘Memphis’ band definitely has its pros and cons. On one hand, this city’s storied musical past makes it hard for people to pay attention to new bands with newer ideas. But, on the other hand, that sets the standard really high for everyone involved. This city is full of so many incredible musicians. Many will never get a fraction of the recognition they deserve. I’m just lucky to be playing with/around the caliber of musical talent that constantly surrounds me.”
Michael: “Low expectations and cheap rent. Exploiting our rich and diverse past. Enjoying all the benefits of cultural appropriation somebody already did all of the hard work appropriating.”
(6) Where do you hope it's all going?
Ben: “I just want to keep our nose to the grindstone, trying to be better than we were yesterday.”
Krista: “To be able to travel and play music. Pretty much what we’re doing now.”
Paul: “All of us have been playing music for longer than we’d like to admit. Most of it has gone nowhere. There are a lot of embarrassing bands that litter my past. But, I’ve never been more proud of the work that I’ve put out than in this group. These guys push me creatively (and sometimes emotionally) more than any group of fellow musicians, or friends, that I’ve ever had. I hope that one day I’ll be able to take this silly pipe dream of mine and make it into a career that will not only support me (and my family) financially, but also keep me feeling fulfilled creatively.”
Michael: “I’m trying to blow up and act like I don’t know nobody.”
The Dead Soldiers October tour dates include: (10/1) Rum Boogie Cafe, Memphis; (10/23) River Arts Fest, Memphis; and (10/29) Sinners for Saints Halloween Ball at Stop 345, Memphis. The band is working on its second full-length album, which is scheduled for release in March of 2017 on American Grapefruit. For more visit www.www.deadsoldierstn.com, and there you can sample their music, such as Wicked River.