Old-time music

Getting to Know Grain Thief

Grain Thief has become a Boston area favorite band with its unique and innovative string music.  The Hartford Courant astutely describes their sound like an “amalgamation of influences, including pulling freely from various corners of country music…Certainly not afraid to throw off any genre shackles.” The freedom to throw off those shackles is what makes Grain Thief’s music so exciting and fun.  The group members are Patrick Mulroy (guitar, vocals), Zach Meyer (mandolin, vocals), Michael Harmon (bass, vocals), Tom Farrell (lead guitar) and Alex Barstow (fiddle). Take a listen to them and enjoy!

Grain Thief will be playing some music at the Folk Alliance International Conference in New Orleans in January 2020.

To learn more about Grain Thief, visit their website.

Check out this video of “Lonesome Highway.”

 

I’ve got to start with probably the most obvious question: why the name Grain Thief?  

Grain Thief began back in 2011, when I was living in DC. I was playing in a number of bands at the time, and this was my personal release. I got away from all of the noise and electric guitars, and recorded psychedelic-inspired folk and country music with only acoustic instruments. I was doing a lot of layering of voices, guitars, mandolin, and strange sounds and creating sound collages. I released a series of EPs the first of which was entitled Grain Thief.  The first song on that record, “Stole from Your Brother,” laid out the concept and the term Grain Thief: someone who steals just a small amount from everyone around them; the victims don’t notice the crime, but it’s a crime nonetheless when you look at the accumulation. I guess that was a bit of a self-reflection at the time.

Your own musical journey went from being in a heavy metal band which is essentially a string band.  Pretty remarkable!  What convinced you to make the change?

There really was no convincing, and for me it was just a returning. The acoustic project that had begun in DC migrated north to Boston where it eventually grew into a heavier sound. It was a natural evolution brought on by the drummer I was playing with at the time. The music still had a twang, but was influenced by a lot of the metal and heavy rock I had always listened to.

This version of the band released one EP, but experienced a lot of turnover in the lineup, and to be frank, we were not putting in a lot of effort. Eventually, I decided I was tired of playing this kind of music, and wanted to take the project in a different direction. Two weeks later, Tom, Zach, and I were rehearsing with acoustic guitars at Zach’s house. Alex was his roommate. Mike joined us a few months later. He had recorded a few sessions of the old heavy country version of Grain Thief. It is at this point in our history that Grain Thief ceased to be Patrick Mulroy’s project, and became a band.

Who would you cite as musical influences for the band?  Do other band members come from such a diverse musical background as you did?

My journey into country and traditional music began when I was around 17 and learning to fingerpick the guitar. YouTube was just becoming a thing and it was full of these videos from players like Doc Watson, Leo Kottke, Norman Blake, Tony Rice, Elizabeth Cotton, Mississippi John Hurt, etc. Through these modes, I started to drift into other areas of traditional music, always drawn in more by the songwriting than the virtuosity of the musicians. I became interested in the Child Ballads, and musical transmission. Outside of the traditional, my biggest influences musically come from people like Bob Dylan, Garcia/Hunter, Mark Knopfler, Neil Fallon, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keene, Charlie Robison, Guy Clarke, Paul Brady, Townes van Zandt, Christy Moore, and hundreds of others I will kick myself for not citing afterwards.

The rest of the band’s influences are as diverse as mine. One of the reasons we connect is our overlapping musical taste. Some of us point more in one direction, but in general, we like the same things; we trust each other’s taste. Zach for example, grew up playing in the old-time tradition, but by his own admission rarely ever experienced it from a listener’s point of view. His listening habits were occupied with Jazz, New Orleans piano tunes, early LA rap, and funk. Alex studied viola at a conservatory, which leads to many a car trip full of lush symphonic music gently forced upon the other members. Tom and I share a deep love for the classics of the rock pantheon; Led Zeppelin, the Who, and he introduced me to North Mississippi Allstars. Mike’s own tastes might be the most diverse, partly because of his sound engineering career. He has recorded hundreds of bands, and because of his personal connection to the players, he ends up a fan of the music.

Tell us about your first EP, Animal. How would you describe the sound on that album?   

Animal was our first attempt at documenting our sound. We tracked the record mostly live, with limited overdubs and punch-ins. At the time it was very representative of what we were after. It’s simple and authentic. To me, it’s a traditional acoustic country record, with some Northern influences. We have grown a lot musically since, but I still think it sounds the way we sound, and the songs off this record still get played nearly every show.

And what would you say about Stardust Lodge?   Has the band’s sound evolved in any particular way?  

Stardust Lodge was a dramatic departure from Animal. We stopped worrying about how it was going to sound at the end and just made it the way we wanted to make it. We brought in steel guitar, electric instruments, and drums. We did not live track the record; it was mostly recorded to clicks and mixed. We were thrilled with the results, but we knew that we were getting away from our live sound. We’re ok with that; in fact we love it.

Does Grain Thief experiment with technology at all or do you mostly concentrate on the purity of the instruments and vocals?

With Stardust Lodge, we definitely did some experimenting in the studio. Songs like “Irish Rose” and “Let it Roll” took us in new directions. That being said, the record we’re working on now is going to be looking backwards towards Animal for some of its inspiration. In January we will be releasing the first single “Pedal Down,” which is very representative of what the whole record is going to sound like. “Pedal Down” was tracked live, with only the vocals overdubbed. The song itself has a progressive arrangement and from my perspective the musicianship is high. Our strategy for this next release is to hyper-focus on the instruments we already have and develop them within that context.

What’s on your bucket list of things to accomplish as a band?

Our bucket list is massive. We have accomplished a lot together, but there is so much left to do. Rockygrass, Telluride, European tour, releasing our tenth record, playing at the White House, our 3rd and 4th indefinite hiatuses, followed by the 2nd farewell tour. I have been playing in bands for the last 15 years of my life, and if it has taught me anything, it has taught me patience. I think we’re all eager for the next thing, but to us, everything that comes is a joy, and we’re not going anywhere.