While beers, steers and tears may be staple ingredients in country music, there's always been another, more haunting side to it. And Broken Spoke tap into that perfectly on their new, self-titled album. Though founders Tom Skora and Josh DeSmidt began writing songs together just two years ago, the band's high lonesome Americana sound has already developed to the point of warranting national recognition.
On The Broken Spoke, Skora's quavering baritone and evocative lyrics — "Downtrodden, brokenhearted / Never seen a play that I didn't feel a part of" — are perfectly complemented by DeSmidt's understated approach to guitar, banjo, lap steel and harmonium. From the elegiac "Angel Song" to the string-driven "Burning Blue," which features DeVotchKa's Tom Hagerman on violin, it's an album that consistently rewards repeated listens.
This Saturday, the full Broken Spoke lineup — which includes pedal steel player Patrick "Poncho" Anderson, bassist Matt Hollensbe, and drummer Ryan Rumery — will be playing a dual album release show with the Flumps. So we sat down with Skora and DeSmidt to talk about Ryan Adams, levitating maharishis, and the 26-year-old Skora's unlikely transition from Air Force cadet to alt-country troubadour.
Indy: On this new album here, God, religion, and/or Catholic school girls appear on six out of 10 songs. Is there anything you want to tell us about that?
Tom: Yeah, sure. I think a lot of that is coming from — I write most of our lyrics, and growing up I was in this southern Baptist community for most of my life, you know, so I've kind of moved past that to a certain extent now. I spend a lot more time, you know, at the Ancient Mariner than I do in church. [Laughs.]
But I think that's a lot of what the album is about, really, just kind of fusing those two lifestyles. And that's kind of what this city is, you know, just like mixing those two things together. And it's kind of a weird balance, but it works.
Indy: What town did you originally grow up in?
Tom: I grew up in Portsmouth, Virginia.
Indy: And then you moved here to go to the Air Force Academy?
Tom: Yeah, so I was born and raised there in Virginia. And then I came out here when I was 17, right after I graduated from high school, and went to basic training here at the academy. So I did the schooling thing, and then I served for three years, active duty. Almost of that time was spent here as well. So I got out last year, and here I am.
Indy: I'm guessing there are some pretty significant differences between the Air Force Academy and the Ancient Mariner. Did you find anything they have in common?
Tom: Well, people like to drink in both locations, I guess. [Laughs.] I don't know, they're very different, which is probably why I'm so drawn to it.
I saw a lot in the Air Force. It's a great lifestyle for a lot of people, it just wasn't for me. So I kind of wanted to disassociate myself with that as much as possible.
Indy: It sounds like the group has gone through some changes since your first album. You've changed rhythm sections, and the new album sounds like it's more polished and has more presence.
Josh: Yeah, the first album was really just kind of plug-and-go. We had a reel-to-reel eight-track recorder, and we just pressed the "record" button, basically. We set up the microphones and everybody was in the same garage, and we just took the best out of three takes, you know? [Laughs.]
Whereas with this one, we went to 1620 Studios and spent a lot of time with J.D. Feighner, really polishing it and making something that we're proud of. Not that we're not proud of the first one. It's just totally different.
Indy: So who are some of the songwriters you mutually admire?
Josh: The ad that I found Tom through, he talked about Ryan Adams, he talked about Neko Case, and [to Tom] who else did you talk about?
Tom: I can't remember at all.
Indy: Well, I definitely like your record, but I never really liked either of those folks.
Tom: [Laughs.] You don't like Ryan Adams?
Indy: No. I saw Whiskeytown once live, but I think he was really drunk onstage.
Tom: I hear he's kind of an ass, but he was the guy I started with, just trying to learn how to play the guitar and write meaningful songs. You know, as opposed to just whatever generic stuff is pleasing to anyone. Stuff that's a little bit real, a little bit poignant. So he's still a pretty big guy for me, although I've moved on to Townes Van Zandt. I got a box set of his albums for Christmas, and I've been listening to it just over and over since then.
Indy: Yeah, I think your music and his both have a kind of haunting quality. Especially on a track like "Angel Song," with the pedal steel and those wordless backing vocals.
Tom: Well, that's probably the one song on the album that draws most heavily from the Townes Van Zandts out there, you know? There's that one song, "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold," that he does — I mean, I didn't use it as a template for the song or anything, but it just stated firing ideas in my head. And I think it's got that same kind of haunting kind of thing, like, there's more out there than we understand.
Indy: Were you ever into the gothic American sound, that goes back to bands like Thin White Rope, and the "Denver sound" scene that 16 Horsepower and DeVotchKa came out of?
Josh: Yeah, I also like Calexico a lot, the Tucson, Arizona band — I absolutely love those guys. They have an analog studio down there I'd love to use someday when it's within our budget.
Tom: We're not quite there yet.
Josh: But yeah, I definitely appreciate that Denver sound. We got Tom Hagerman from DeVotchKa to play on this album, which is pretty cool.
Indy: How'd you do that?
Josh: My wife went to high school with him. He went to Coronado, and so she was a friend of his from high school.
Tom: So we tracked him down when they played a free show in Breckenridge last year. And he was such a cool guy, he was turned on to it from the beginning.
Indy: Did you have to pay him money and stuff?
Josh: We paid for his gas, basically, to get here, because he lives up in Denver.
Indy: OK, well, I'll let people know that. That way they can contact him and he can get more work.
Josh: Yeah, I'm sure he's hurting for work, when they're not flying all over the world. [Laughs.] Actually, the Ancient Mariner was the first place I ever saw that band, and my wife and I were the only ones there. They were amazing.
Indy: And then you also got a couple of the Grass It Up guys.
Josh: Yeah, we got Ben Lewis to play violin and Danny Karpel on keyboards. We've got them both slated to sit in with us on the record release show, so we're really looking forward to having a big sound that night.
Indy: I wanted to ask about the tour you went out on this summer. Did you go though any unusual places?
Tom: Well, there was the meditation school.
Josh: Yeah, the Maharishi University in Fairfield, Iowa. We were playing Columbia, Missouri, and Iowa City, and it happened to be halfway between them. I have a couple friends that lived in the area, and we ended up playing two shows there. So we got to go to the maharishi school, which is pretty interesting. These guys claim to levitate.
Indy: In Iowa?
Josh: They've got these giant domes and, yeah, it's happening in Iowa, which is bizarre. All the cuisine in town there is like Turkish food, and there's like, vegan Indian food, which doesn't happen in Iowa, you know? [Laughs.] And then you've got all these maharishis, which don't happen in Iowa, either. But they supposedly levitate. We didn't get to go in the dome, but we did get to eat in their cafeteria. I mean the food is fantastic, they grow all their own food right there.
Indy: Did anyone levitate while you were playing?
Josh: No, we saw no levitation. It was really freaking hot, though, like 108 degrees.
Tom: Yeah, it was pretty crazy. I talked to Rence [Liam of Dear Rabbit], and he played the Beauty Shop, which is where we played that night in town. So that was pretty cool, to share that experience. Strange place.
Indy: So it's like the old chitlin' circuit, except that it's indie bands from Colorado Springs.
Tom: I hope that there is a real kind of circuit that comes about. Because I know so many people who are really pumped about touring this year. And if we can kind of join forces, that's sort of where my dream is right now, touring-wise. Just get a standard kind of two-week-long thing going, where we could share our contacts and kind of promote each other as we go out and just do it.
Indy: It seems like some bands are actually starting to see us as a destination, as well. Like the Hooten Hallers have started coming through here ...
Josh: Yeah, frequently.
Indy: And William Elliott Whitmore. Which is weird, because this is the point where you would think that, between gas prices and the weather, there'd be a lot less touring, especially among bands who aren't exactly rolling in money.
Tom: You do have to drive a couple hours to really get anywhere, I guess.
Josh: I don't know — traveling is great, playing music is great. And being able to do both of them, you know, it's like, I don't care if I don't eat very well or I have to sleep in the car. It's like, screw it, let's go play a show out of town!
Indy: A lot of the lyrics on this album have a wry humor, but they're also kind of dark. Is that something that's also reflected in your personalities?
Tom: Yeah, I take myself pretty seriously. [Laughs.] We've kind of been a bar band in a lot of ways, up until this point, but we've always kind of taken ourselves more seriously than that.
I would like to be playing more theater-type shows. We really wanted to get this release show done at [Colorado College] in one of their nice theaters, but it just wasn't in the cards for us this time. But in the future, that's the direction we'd definitely like to go.