Poets & Peasants are a nine-piece band, comprised of Knox College students. Based in Galesburg, Illinois, their sound incorporates a wide range of instruments including upright bass, banjo, and violin. Their EP, All Towards Which We Grow will soon be followed by their first full-length album, due out from International Sock Monkey in the summer of 2013. You can find them here and here.
Below, chief songwriter Sam Brownson and guitarist/trumpet player Jake Hawrylak discuss music theory, their genre of orchestral choral folk, and what instruments they’d like to have if they were stuck on a desert island.
UFR: On your Facebook page, you say your band’s genres are “Folk and Gypsy Jazz.” Can you talk about that a little more?
Sam Brownson: That was mainly derived from a few songs that we had actually completed at the time at which we wanted to name ourselves any genre. So, we have one song that sort of has a gypsy jazz influence, which is “Ghost,” and then we have a bunch of other ones that have folksy influences. But what we have kind of developed into a genre that we can’t really describe any other way besides “orchestral choral folk.” That’s what we’re calling ourselves. What should be kept in mind is that it’s simply in retrospect that we’re doing this, just to make it easier for people to know what to expect, It’s not in any way determining what we’re going to do next.
Jake Hawrylak: And then there’s the folk influence with acoustic guitars and whatnot.
Brownson: And story-telling and that kind of stuff.
Hawrylak: That’s our basis. Oliver (bass player) said the other day—because we were in an argument about our genre and things like that—that he liked the folk ‘cause it implies storytelling with acoustic guitars, and acoustic bass, and banjo, and things like that.
Brownson: In a word—in a term: orchestral choral folk, with a jazz edge and atmospheric storytelling in the lyrics. I think that would be a pretty apt description of what we do.
UFR: Having a nine-piece band allows for a full, layered sound. With so many band members, has there ever been some conflict over the creative direction of the band. Who is typically involved in writing the songs?
Brownson: There’s always conflict but it’s—
Hawrylak: Gotten better.
Brownson: I think we’ve all gotten used to each other pretty quickly. I mean, we’ve only been together for a year and I feel like we’re at a point where when we come to practice we know what’s expected and what our roles are when we’re in certain circumstances. Anybody can really bring a song. Right now, the people that have brought in songs are Jake, Oliver, and myself. What happens when they bring a song? We’ve stipulated that the last word falls to the writer of the song. We lay the foundation for the rest of the band to build upon. I think at the end of the rehearsal whenever we feel we’ve established something then it goes through the writer to see if it’s capturing what they feel is the song they want it to be. That’s kind of been our process.
We have disagreements. There’s an ongoing debate, mainly between me and the rest of the band a lot of the time, but between some others too. Just about what we’re making music for, is it for the audience, is it for art, is it for fun, or is it for personal fulfillment? Really it’s all those things. I don’t think we consciously think about what’s going to please our audience or anything like that. I just think what we set as our goal as a result of these conflicting opinions is to write things that are complex and can be engaged with as a listener and also something that people can really latch onto. A message. Something that’s accessible.
Hawrylak: As far as the writing goes, everyone has their flavors that they contribute to everything.
UFR: When listening to your songs, your complex rhythms help make Poets & Peasants unique. Some songs are generally consistent in rhythm such as “Ghosts” and others have meters that seem to have been experimented on by a mad musical scientist. Guess that’s you! How did you come up with and incorporate surprising time changes in your songs?
Hawrylak: As for “Divergence,” the tuning on the guitar was on open G so the emphasis was on the G chord. It has that tri-tone in a weird place… but it’s in a mode. It’s in G Lydian mode. It’s very close to the major scale but has the tri-tone in a weird place so which gives it that peculiar, other-worldly quality. So in writing the song, I knew I wanted to have the verses. I didn’t know this initially but I figured it out in the writing process. I wanted to write the song to have a single chord more or less in the verse and then let the addition of new chords in the pre-chorus and chorus be something that really grabs your attention because of how different it is from everything else that’s going on. So the way I justified it to myself, having the wrong chord constantly, was by doing weird rhythms and stretching it.
There’s also the story that that song’s aiming to tell. A lot of the strange rhythms are building to the climax or implying this climax.
Hawrylak: You can talk about “The Violet Hour,” too.
Brownson: “The Violet Hour” isn’t a time-signature strangeness, per se, or an irregularity. What’s called the hypermeter is irregular. It’s odd.
Hawrylak: There’s just a weird bar, it’s not quite hypermeter.
Brownson: Yeah. No, it’s a weird hypermeter. There’re some songs—
Hawrylak: I guess you could count it like that.
Brownson: Either way, to answer the question, for me, a lot of times I feel as a writer that there’re just some beats that are unnecessary when you’re waiting out for the next phrase.
Hawrylak: Yeah, yeah.
Brownson: It’s not only something that I really thought would make the song more akin to what we write, anyway, but it’s also sometimes a weird time signature that feels right in a way and it just falls into place. It’s also just really nice to leave your listener a little bit of something to get used to throughout the song. Because it’s those subtle changes that really make a song great, I think. This goes back to what we were saying about what we want to do with our songs and how we don’t want to repeat things twice or even three times. We want to vary it up every time because it gives the listener a little something different. So fooling around with those expectations is kind of at the foundation of these decisions to mess with the time signature and stuff like that.
UFR: You guys play multiple instruments. What are those exactly?
Brownson: I play guitar.
Hawrylak: And you sing.
Brownson: And I sing.… I play banjo occasionally or just other strange instruments.
Hawrylak: I think Matt’s plays banjo most at this point. Even more than me.
Brownson: I suppose I have the capability of playing drums, too.
Hawrylak: You’re a good drummer, from what I remember. You started on drums.
Brownson: Yeah. Any potential that any of us have to play any other instrument, we’ll probably exercise that. But this guy—
Hawrylak: Yeah, I started playing guitar in the 10th grade and then I picked up piano after that. And then ukulele. I bought a banjo last year because it was dirt cheap and I was like, “I need a banjo. Those are sweet.” And that’s been a good addition to the band. I started playing trumpet when I got here just ‘cause they were offering lessons. I developed a strong love for the band Beirut. What else has really nice horn parts? Another group: the Apple Miner Colony. Both of those groups are actually from back home. Maybe there was a weird hometown pride kind of thing and that’s why I picked up the trumpet.
UFR: Where’s home?
Hawrylak: Santa Fe, New Mexico. And then I picked up drums here because once again there was a drum room and I was like, “Okay, that looks fun.” I haven’t been playing that in the band because Sam Lewis, our drummer, is just too good. It’s his thing. That needs to be his thing.
Brownson: And we don’t need two drummers.
Hawrylak: And there’s that, too. Well, he doesn’t play anything else. That’s the other thing. So he couldn’t really switch. But, then I got an accordion for Christmas a year or two ago and I played. Brownson wrote the music for Twelfth Night last term and I played with him in that and that was a nice way to get that under my fingers and I learned upright bass this year kinda ‘cause of jazz guitar. I mean, I’d love to say that in Poets & Peasants—in an ideal world—that would be my main focus. But I try to maintain practicing at least three hours a day on jazz guitar. I don’t just spend three hours a day on Poets & Peasants…but it’s hard to be a jazz musician as a jazz guitarist so I started learning upright because there’re a lot less bass players than there are guitar players.
UFR: Knowing all the instruments you play, say you’re on a desert island, if you had to choose only one instrument to play, what would it be?
Hawrylak: Are we together, or separate?
UFR: Say your answers alone and then together.
Brownson: We’re alone and then together? We meet each other on the same island?
UFR: As in you have two answers, as in if you’re alone and if you’re together.
Brownson: Okay. If I were alone, I wouldn’t want to have an instrument that I knew how to play because I would want to learn how to play it while I’m there. Geez. I guess I think it would be nice to play a harp, actually.
Brownson: Because I already have knowledge of a string instrument. Not that that means anything. But there’s that. And it’s also an instrument that really creates a serene atmosphere, a peaceful atmosphere, so when I’m starving to death and there’re bears out to get me—
UFR: On an island?
Brownson: Strange bears—
Hawrylak: You’ve seen Lost.
Brownson: Really strange bears.
Hawrylak: There’re a lot of bears around.
Brownson: Bear fish.
Hawrylak: They’ll get ya’.
Brownson: Yeah. Amphibious. Amphibious bears. So, anyway, I would like to have that means to attaining peace but if I was with other people I’d probably, I don’t know, I’d probably want a drum.
Hawrylak: Oh, I thought you were going to say guitar. Wow. Woah.
Brownson: No, because a drum is just like, an instrument of community, man.
Brownson: Yeah, so that’s my answer.
Hawrylak: Well, I’d pick a guitar because, yeah, that’s a good instrument. You can just hang out with by yourself. I’m the most familiar with it. When you’re alone on a desert island and you don’t have to do anything else besides find food, it’s like if you practice eight hours a day, man, you’d be so good at guitar.
Brownson: You’re already so good. Why don’t you practice more?
Hawrylak: No, I can’t. Ever since, Rootabaga Jazz Festival last year, Julian Lage was the guest artist and he’s the best guitarist in the world, hands down. Anybody else who says differently is a liar.
Brownson: No, he is. I know.
Hawrylak: Absolutely hands down. But yeah, on a desert island I could maybe get closer to being that good. If I was with someone, I think I would pick a drum. My original answer was going to be a double bass but that intonation would just fall to shit. Drum’s reliable.
Brownson: Anything made of wood is going to suffer.
Hawrylak: Hang drum. That’s what I would bring.
Brownson: Hang drum, man!
Hawrylak: That’s what I would bring.
Brownson: Or a steel drum.
Hawrylak: You familiar with hang drums?
Brownson: It’s like an inside out steel drum.
Hawrylak: But our bass player got a cool hang drum on a choir tour in Spain. It’s like a little bowl. It’s like a little bowl and there’re pads on it that you hit with your hands. But the ones I’ve seen, it looks like a shield. It’s big, and there are these big pads and you can hit your hands on it and get all these cool sounds. Or I saw this dude, he spun it on the floor and then scraped his fingers on it and it was weird, ethereal. Hang drum. That’s what I would bring.
Brownson: Best of both worlds.
Sheena Leano (Music Editor) conducted this interview on behalf of UFR. She is from Palm Springs, California. She is a recent graduate of Knox College in the Midwest and majored in creative writing and economics. Stranger than her combination of majors is the fact that she collects weird headlines for fun. She is almost never without her headphones and sometimes plays music covers over the phone in place of proper voice messages.