Conversation #1: Zach Lupetin (The Dustbowl Revival)


Dave Bell (SUPERGOODMUSIC/JITV): Alright, give me a little background…how and when did you start The Dustbowl Revival?

Zach Lupetin (The Dustbowl Revival): It came together, wow, almost 4.5-5 years ago now. I moved out here after graduating from the University of Michigan, by way of Chicago. Towards the end of college I put together a group of musicians called The Royal Family. It was a mash up of Jazz majors and some kids who liked playing blues and roots music. It was a cool synthesis of music and styles, but we all graduated a few months after starting the band. So when I moved out to LA, I wanted to do something similar but on a bigger scale. So I put up a Craigslist ad that said if you play any one of these 15 instruments and like Dylan or Springsteen or Dr John or Louis Armstrong, let’s jam. We still have people from that original ad.

DB: So what is the Dustbowl Revival exactly? What I mean is, I’ve heard you refer to it in other terms. So what is it?

ZL: (Sarcastic voice) It’s more of a lifestyle choice. (He laughs) Umm, I would say there is probably upwards of 20 people who come in and out of our collective experience that is the Dustbowl.  I don’t believe in the “you’re in the band or you’re not in the band” mentality.  If you’re really good and you play the accordion or the clarinet or the trombone, you can come in and sit in and play with us. Sometimes people just happen to stay around for years.

DB: Do you have a core?

ZL: We do, we have a core of about seven.

DB: It seems to me that LA has the smallest roots scene of any big city in America…

ZL: I beg to differ, but keep goin…

DB: You think the roots scene here is bigger than Chicago or New York or any of the other big cities?

ZL: I would say over the last two to three years, it’s gotten exponentially bigger.

DB: So that being said, four and half, five years ago, you did move out here. Why LA and why this band in LA if the scene was bigger in other places?

ZL: I didn’t move here for music. I’m a writer and I was in film school. Honestly there was a girl at the time who came out here to go to UCLA law. But I’d always been in bands and that was sort of, always, the static in the back of my head. I was always going to have a band and always going to be playing somewhere.

DB: Well now you play everywhere…

ZL: Yeah, this band has taken on a life of it’s own and become my life.  People are hungry for authentic American music played by skilled players and we try to put on a killer show every night. I think that’s an LA thing.

DB: How so?

ZL: Well, I went to New Orleans for the first time finally, I also lived in New York for a little bit. I think sometimes the music is more natural there, you can say, but the people playing there are, well sometimes get complacent. They’re not about the showmanship of the music, they’re just more about playing the songs. People in LA, you can bad mouth the town, but people are here to kick some ass.  People are here to make something of themselves. They’re here to go to the next level.

DB: Speaking of fans in LA, we all know LA crowds have a reputation for having a lack of enthusiasm.  I often say the Dustbowl Revival is the only band in LA that makes the audience dance at every show. What is it about you guys that allows you to connect with an audience that’s known for being hard to connect with?

ZL: I think that’s an unfortunate misconception.

DB: Have you been to other shows and experienced crowds as enthusiastic as your crowds on a consecutive basis?

ZL: Sometimes…

DB: Sometimes, but not consistently like your band…

ZL: Not consistently, but a great band like Vaud and the Villains, who have that New Orleans thing going, have a great following of loyal fans.  The guys in the Record Company get people going. There are a lot of different kinds of music that isn’t right for all out party dancing. LA is weird. You can play a day time show in Pasadena where everyone is going nuts and then a night time show in Hollywood where no one moves at all.  The Mint is our home base and people come out to that place to dance. It’s a room built for it. They move the tables and clear a dance floor every night…

DB: I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit to be honest. I’ve been to plenty of shows at The Mint where the band is rocking and everyone is doing the LA thing with their arms crossed just standing there. There is something special about you, and your outfit, that connects with fans. More so than any band your size and in the venues you play.

ZL: Yeah, I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. People have been really supportive. We have a loyal fan base that keeps on growing and they know our shows are going to be a good time. Every show I see people I know and people I don’t know. Every music fan wants to discover a band and tell all their friends about it. Luckily we’re a band where that keeps happening to us.  Look, I can’t explain why, I think it’s just, the overall experience, the whole package of the show we put on.

DB: Another thing I’ve noticed about your crowd, is that age-wise, it’s the most diverse of any band I’ve seen.  I know when you’ve performed at our events, especially the events at my house, there’s been everyone from college kids to senior citizens in attendance.  They come out just for you. That’s very rare for a band these days.

ZL: I hope that continues. The music I really like is not in the pop spectrum. It’s more in like my grandparents record collection, you know? I also grew up listening to classic rock and indie rock though, I even played in an alternative rock band at one point. We try to bring that old school joy of Dixeland, swing and the bluegrass, but pump up the jams more. We bring that old school sound with a rock n roll mentality for it doesn’t get stale. I think that’s universally appealing.

DB: You mentioned your grandparents record collection so let’s talk about your background a little bit. I know you’re from Chicago, and I know your dad plays blues harp. I assume roots music was always apart of your home life since you were young?

ZL: Both my parents have pretty awesome tastes. My mom is much more limited due to her cassette collection in her car. James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens. She was more on the folk spectrum, and my dad was more into the blues rock…Allmans, The Dead, but he was also a big Benny Goodman fan.

DB: Did you grow up playing music with your dad?

ZL: Not really actually. My dad is kind of a shy harmonica player. He’s an accidental musician. The only time he plays is when he guests with my bands.

DB: So where did this love and appreciation of roots music come from. I would say you’re a purveyor of roots and Americana. How did that all start? That’s not a common thing for someone our age to be into. I’d say it’s probably more common now for someone coming out of college to be into. There’s so much more of it and you can see how it’s bled into pop music now, but my assumption is you’ve been into this music for a long time now, before it was “hip”, for lack of a better word. How did that start and where did that come from?

ZL: I’ve always been passionate about the music discovery process…I like sharing, ever forcing people to listen to music they might not be accustomed to.  I’m sure sometimes it comes off as condescending, but if you don’t sit down and listen to Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, you don’t fully know what American music is about. If you completely dismiss bluegrass, you’re missing out. That’s my opinion. If you bring this into people’s lives, it’s going to turn on a lightbulb in their head. Not everybody…like when I heard, which was probably in college is when it seeped in, I was like, ‘Holy shit, this what I’m about”.  I think because it doesn’t get as exposed as Rihanna or the other stuff that’s in your face all the time, there has to be people to champion it, which is something I definitely do.

DB: Sticking with the pop music scene, I’m glad you brought that up. You hear a lot of people refer to stuff on top 40 radio as roots music…The Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, all that stuff. To me, Mumford is a pop band with a banjo. The banjo makes the masses think that it’s bluegrass. As a purveyor of roots culture, does it drive you crazy that people think that’s roots music?

ZL: Look, roots music can mean anything. I’m ok with that, I’m less ok that they allow Mumford to represent the bluegrass community. That’s a little bit offensive.

DB: Why is that offensive?

ZL: Because…(big sigh)…there are so many bands that are playing more of the traditional authentic style true to itself, that will never even have a shred of their publicity.  Maybe one of the only bands to rise out of that world is Old Crow Medicine Show,  you know? They do some more of the more authentic stuff, but even so, they’re always going to be the opening band for Mumford. I guess that’s just the pop machine. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just one of those things where it comes down to hit songs. Old Crow is blessed to have the one bluegrass hit in really the last 30 years…”Wagon Wheel”.

DB: I just saw this week that that was originally a Dylan song. Pretty wild.

ZL: Right, and they made it into their sort of anthem, you know? And people like anthems. It’s almost like a weird religious kind of thing. They like to be able to go to a show, know all the words, and sing it like their life depends on it.

DB: You guys do “Sweet Chariot” at most of your shows and most people know the words to that song. To that, it’s still not the same when a crowd is singing “I Will Wait”.  There’s something about the way a pop song is written that resonates. They just added a banjo to that formula.

ZL: They tapped into something that people have been waiting for someone to tap into I think. It sounds silly, but a lot of people saw “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” and everyone thought the music was amazing. Oh this old folksy stuff is cool. Really it was just T-Bone Burnett bringing back stuff from the 30s and 40s that’s been around ages. For some reason, it flipped a switch on a lot of young musicians who were like “Oh Shit, I don’t have to have a Marshall stack blasting”.  Whenever there is a resurgence in popularity in a style of music, there’s also the emergence of a strong backlash. I come across people who say, “Oh, you have a fiddle and a mandolin,  never seen this before”.  It’s almost like it’s already become passé, but some people are still discovering it now. Which is cool.

DB: I noticed that your first album was titled “Zach Lupetin and the Dustbowl Revival”, but since then, they’ve been billed as “The Dustbowl Revival”.  Why’d you make that switch and in retrospect, was it the right thing to do?

ZL: I guess it was one of those immature, selfish kind of decisions at a young age. It is still my project, I put my time and my resources into it more than anyone. That was more the initial reasoning behind it. I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized it’s a collective effort…plus my name sounds kind of stupid.

DB: Bruce Springsteen doesn’t have the coolest name. Everyone must have thought he was a doofy Jewish guy at first, but he put his name first. I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but I read Keith Richard’s book and I pay a lot of attention to the Stones. Mick seems to think if the band’s name was Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones, a lot of conflict could have been avoided. I guess my question is, business-wise, in retrospect do you think that was the best decision?

ZL:  Oh yeah. Honestly if you’re in a band, I guess it’s different for everyone, but in my opinion, it’s best if you try to be as together on everything as possible. We definitely have disagreements in our group about selections or choices that I make, but it’s one of those things where, it’s pretty hard to keep a band together, so having one vision definitely helps, but I like input too. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had a lot of loyalty and not a lot of drama with this band.

Caitlin Doyle, who played washboard and sang for the Dustbowl Revival, recently moved to Nashville to pursue a career with her other project SMOOTH HOUND SMITH.

DB: Even though you’ve created a collective with a lot of moving parts, Caitlin just left the band to move to Nashville. I think we can both agree that she was a prominent part of the band. More so than a lot of the rotating parts. Have you found it hard to deal with losing such a prominent part of the band, especially at a time when you have so much heat and attention on you?

ZL: It’s one of those things where in a perfect world, it wouldn’t have happened, but I’m not mad or bummed just because it offers an opportunity to bring in new blood and reinvigorate the group. One thing that I think is a problem with the same people over and over, people can get bored doing the same songs over and over again. Just start going through the motions. We now have a couple female singers, one in particular, Liz, who has started to take Caitlin’s reigns a little more. It excites me, to see how that’s going to play out. The songs are new again. It’s just one of those things, especially in a big band, where keeping the most talented people is hard. Usually if you’re really talented, you want your own band. You want a bigger piece of the pie. In her case she was torn back and forth between two different projects, and one project started taking more of her time, and she didn’t feel it was fair to try and bullshit both. So she chose one. But in my mind, and I told Caitlin this, she will always be a part of the Dustbowl Revival and our family. She’s always welcome. There is no bitterness.

DB: I first met you two years ago when you brought the band over from the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market to do a Jam Van session. Since then, you’ve played with Rebirth Brass Band at the Echoplex, a number of KCRW curated events, Outside Lands, countless festivals all over the country. Do you attribute that all to Jam in the Van?

ZL: I mean…

DB: I’m just kidding…

ZL: No but honestly, you guys were one of the first professional video outlets that we’ve had.

DB: We were far from professional at that time. I think you were the fourth band we ever filmed.

ZL: For whatever reason, the two or three tracks we played that day are still to this day, the best we ever played those songs.  We caught lightning in a bottle that day. Maybe it was the fact that we were all in that tight closed space, but that’s the magic of Jam in the Van.

DB: So here’s my real question for that preamble, aside from tooting Jam Van’s horn…saying all that, The Echoplex with Rebirth, KCRW, Outside Lands, all of that, has there been a gig or moment, where you’ve stopped and said to yourself, “Holy shit, this thing I created is something special people like and it’s something I can do for the rest of my life.” Has that hit you yet? Cause it’s gotta be a fucking awesome feeling.

ZL: Oh yeah, look, that’s why anyone is in a band.

DB: But I don’t think every band gets that moment.

ZL: No, but you’re always striving for that moment. Sometimes that moment could happen in the smallest crappiest dive where it’s just 10 people freaking out and having an amazing time. To be honest, the last few months have just been a lot of that, just amazing shows. I say to myself, “Who are all these people coming to see us?” We played an amazing show at UCLA called Ecochella. It was an impromptu bike powered music festival and we were the headliner, and it was a full moon, all these college kids. Everyone just poured out of the stands and ran onto the field where we were playing and just freaked out. It was one of those things where you want it to happen all the time. It does take those 20 people in the crowd though to have that energy that makes everyone have a good time. Our shows at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco were magical too. We’re going back there in July and I can’t wait.

DB: How’d I do in my first interview as a music journalist?

ZL: You acted like it was your fifth interview.

DB: Thanks buddy.

ZL: Anytime.