Indie-rock quintet The Drowning Men may have had recent success as the opening act for headliners such as Flogging Molly and The Airborne Toxic Event, but they haven’t forgotten their roots as a local band of friends who got together back in 2005 just for the sake of the jam. The group, consisting of James Smith on guitar, Todd Eisenkerch on bass, Rory Dolan on percussion, and Gabe Messer on keys, is led by singer/songwriter/mandolinist/thereminist Nato Bardeen.
“We’re a working class band. I’m a tile setter. Rory’s in construction. James does auto body. We’re all labor workers,” Bardeen said.
“We were just a local band for a long time, and we were happy doing that. One night, we were playing at the pub of Matt Hensley, the accordion player from Flogging Molly. He said, ‘Let me give my band your CD and see what happens.’ Sure enough, after a few meetings they decided to take us on the road with them … and then everything started happening. All the doors started opening.”
Listeners familiar with Flogging Molly’s unique brand of Irish folk-rock will quickly realize why they chose The Drowning Men to join them on tour. Bardeen and company marry old-timey rough-and-tumble runaway train musicality with modern instrumentation and lyrics that always tell a story, whether happy or sad or both. It’s a rousing blend of sounds both old and new, and it defines the style of the band.
“We love music from all over the world…We love that piratey feel, like sea shanties and old timey songs ... we also love music that’s coming out today, like electronic folk,” Bardeen said.
Perhaps the quickest way to illustrate the band’s eclectic sound is to point out that Bardeen plays both the mandolin, an instrument popular with Irish folk bands, and the theremin, a notoriously difficult-to-play electronic instrument invented back in 1928 that allows the player to create sound by moving his hands between two radio frequency oscillators.
“I’ve been playing the theremin for six or seven years now, but in the last year I’ve gotten a lot better at it. I find a lot of joy in playing it.”
Since their first big tour with Flogging Molly, The Drowning Men have spent a lot of time on the road, opening for other acts and headlining their own shows.
When asked if the change in pace had put a halt to his songwriting, Bardeen replied, “I’m always writing. It’s not like I say, ‘Okay, it’s time to write songs.’ It’s just what I love to do. I love to write. I love to jam out … I’m probably working on another album right now without even knowing it.”
In step with the band’s folk influences, Bardeen described the process of his writing lyrics as telling a story, and usually not overly happy ones either. The Drowning Men’s website describes their sound as “spirited musicality that offers temporary respite from the loneliness.”
“My favorite lyricists are Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Nick Cave … and my lyrics tend to be on the darker side,” Bardeen said. “I have those moments of a certain mood that I think everybody has, and those lyrics are what come out. I write the lyrics pretty much after the music is done. I keep meaning to try it the other way around, but I haven’t yet. Whatever kind of mood the music puts me in, I just start telling a story.”
The band feels confident that the songs on their second full-length album, “All of the Unknown,” which was released this July, show that they are maturing as songwriters and storytellers. However, they cut their teeth playing live gigs, and that’s still were they feel most comfortable.
“I think we’re live performers,” Bardeen laughed. “We’re still learning the whole studio side … There’s a strong passion on stage, an intense feeling I guess, that the audience can see. That’s hard to capture on a track. “
Despite the fact that The Drowning Men have gone from a local band to a band that tours nationwide and is currently rising up the CMJ top 100, Bardeen says that the band is going to stay true to its roots and the common musical interests that brought them together in the first place.
“We just play what we want to play and hope there’s an audience for it.”
The Drowning Men will be playing with Bad Books at the Parish at the House of Blues in New Orleans on Oct. 16.
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