Rose’s Pawn Shop: A Musical Melting Pot
Trying to describe the sound of Rose’s Pawn Shop typically involves the use of several hyphens or unlikely comparisons. However, when you have a punk-bluegrass-Celtic-country-rock band that sounds like what would have happened if The Pogues had formed in Kentucky, an easy description doesn’t come easy.
While trying to classify the music may be frustrating, listening to it is a pleasure. The twenty-something musicians in Rose’s Pawn Shop skillfully blend a love of traditional bluegrass, country and folk music with a punk rock energy. The band’s self-released debut, The Arsonist, earned rave reviews and won the Independent Music World Series, co-sponsored by Billboard Magazine. The newly released second album, Dancing on the Gallows, further refines its sound. The Celtic-tinged title track mixes well with the rockabilly-styled “Ball of Flames” and the mournful country ballad “Strangers.” Singer Paul Givant’s plaintive lead vocals help to keep the collection of songs a cohesive whole.
Rose’s Pawn Shop currently consists of Givant (lead vocals, guitar & banjo), John Kraus (banjo, electric guitar & vocals), Tim Weed (fiddle, mandolin & vocals), Stephen Andrews (upright bass & electric bass) and Ulf Geist (drums & vocals). The band is currently touring all across the U.S., supporting Dancing on the Gallows. That tour has taken them from New Mexico to Oklahoma City to Lawrence, Kansas, to Arkansas… and that was just last week. The 9513 spoke with Paul Givant to talk about the band and its new album.
When someone asks you about what kind of music you play, is it hard to come up with a short, concise answer for that?
A little bit. It’s kind of a mix of things, and it’s hard to point to any one style that we would consider ourselves. But as concise as I can be, I usually say it’s a mixing pot of bluegrass, rock, country, punk and a little bit of Celtic. I guess that’s as close as we can get.
You were in rock bands before getting into this. What led you to go more to a rootsier, Americana mode?
I guess it was a gradual thing. When I was in my late teen years, I got into a Grateful Dead phase in my life, and my friends who were in that kind of world showed me different kinds of roots-oriented music, like Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs–old, traditional bluegrass. That opened the door, and then I started listening to stuff where they were doing a more modern take on it: Gillian Welch, Old Crow Medicine Show and people like that. It was a gradual development, but in my early 20s, I found myself listening to a lot of the old stuff–Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, that kind of thing. It just really started growing in me at that point.
Where did the Celtic aspect come from?
The Pogues, Flogging Molly, bands like that. When the original fiddle player, Sebastian (St. John) and I started the band, the idea was to do what Flogging Molly and The Pogues had done with traditional Irish music. They have that traditional sound, but it has that edgier rock thing going with it. We wanted to do that, but we wanted to do it with bluegrass.
What is it about that more traditional music that you gravitated to?
I think there’s something in that music that has a timeless quality. It sounds old and current at the same time. So much of the pop music that gets put out is expendable. It’s here today, gone tomorrow, and it’s not much remembered. There’s something in those old, traditional folk songs that has a timeless quality that speaks to people. It speaks to me, and that’s what appeals to me the most.
How were you able to find kindred spirits in the Los Angeles area?
Truth be told, most of us found each other by Craigslist, but there is a country revival thing going on in L.A. It’s kind of small, but there is a group of musicians who are doing the country/bluegrass kind of thing. There’s a show in L.A. every Sunday called the Grand Ole Echo at a club called The Echo, and it features local country acts. You’ve got to dig a little bit to find kindred spirits, but they’re there.
With this being your second album, how different was the recording experience this time around?
It was really different, because our first record, The Arsonist, was all self-produced. We did it all on our own with the help of our buddy Carlos, who engineered it for us. It was the kind of recording that we did in our rehearsal space and bedrooms, using our closets for a vocal booth, that kind of thing. It was real DYI, which was cool, but for the new record, we wanted to change it up a little. We wanted to pump up the sonic quality.
We hired Ethan Allen, who’s a producer and also a friend. He’s done a lot of really cool albums with Patty Griffin and The 88 and a Waylon Jennings tribute album where he worked with Willie Nelson and all the greats. Just to have the guidance of a producer, helping to shape the songs a bit more, refine things, and also going into some really high-quality studios with great mics and stuff, it felt like a step up and a step in a different direction for sure.
As a principal songwriter, was there any pressure on yourself on this album?
Definitely. In the writing, it feels like there’s some growth there. The topics of the songs, compared to the first record, there’s a little more depth and variety. I definitely wanted to make sure that the song quality was as good or better than what we put out on The Arsonist. There’s always that fear of the sophomore slump, where the second album doesn’t quite live up to the first record. I spent a lot of time making sure I had the right songs before we went into the studio.
The title track, “Dancing on the Gallows,” was actually the last song written. We got to the point where we were close to going in the studio, and I felt there was one kind of song missing, a certain type of feeling or energy, so I really worked myself to the bone to get that one out and get it right.
I feel really proud of this new record. I feel we achieved our goal of putting out a record that is as good or better than the first.
How has the tour been so far?
It’s been really good so far. Every show we’ve had has been a great turnout, even on the off nights of the week. People are coming out dancing and having a great time, and we’re playing really well and selling a lot of the new record, so I can’t complain.
Do you think you’re introducing more of a rock sound to a country audience, or a country sound to a rock audience?
That’s an interesting question, and I can’t ever seem to pinpoint this, because we get different groups of people at each show. For example, last night in Oklahoma City, we were playing to a punk/rockabilly crowd, and that seems to be our main fan base there. Then in Santa Fe, it’s a totally different type of crowd, it’s an older crowd. Then in another place, we’ll get a hippie jam-band kind of crowd. I guess we’re lucky that we cross over to a lot of musical tastes.
Do you have cover songs that you like to play, or do you stick to the originals?
We do a handful of covers, especially on the nights where we play two sets. But there are very few that we do that sound just like the original version. We like to mix them up and make them our own. We do some real weird and obscure ones. I don’t know if you’re familiar with a band called The Misfits. They’re a punk rock band from the ’80s, and we do a cover of one of their songs called “Skulls.” We make it sound like a pretty love song. We do serious covers, like Hank Williams or Johnny Cash, but then we do “Iesha” by a band called Another Bad Creation. We make it sound like a dark, punkabilly song.
So where do you want the band to be two or three years down the road?
We’re just working hard at it, getting the word out and turning more people on to our music. We hope to still be doing it, playing bigger venues. We’ve finally got it to a place now where it’s really starting to be a living for us, which is all we ever wanted, to be working musicians and really enjoy it.
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