Tannersville, New York
Location / Nestledown Cabin
“There's a certain way you have to set your face, almost like a flint, when you live in New York. You have to be prepared for everything that's going to come your way and I feel like those sparks that come from that are the stories that come from living here...”
"This session is an exploration. It is part history, part experiment, for in a lot of ways, The Lone Bellow didn't even exist when we tracked this while up in the Catskills mountains during the Winter of 2012. Sure, a record had been recorded, but barely, and the full nature of what Zach and Brian and Kanene could be was not yet fully realized. This session is one that I'm most proud of, if only because in this video, you can see the shape of things to come. Even this interview is history now. When I sat down with Zach and Brian and Kanene, the record had yet to be released. Conan, Leno, Tiny Desk, yet to happen. In fact, Zach mentions being excited about playing a show to strangers for the the first time. They wonder out loud how difficult touring may be, emotionally. What an amazing run these guys have been on. Rarely does one get to see so clearly, the formation of a thing you just know is going to be special."
- Ryan Booth, Creator/Director
RB: The first thing I want to start with is the term “Brooklyn Country”. Where did that come from? I’d love to hear your definition of that phrase.
ZW: I think there are a lot of people from the south that have found their niche in Brooklyn. I mean, the majority of our band fits that bill as well as a lot of other people that live in our community here. Brooklyn has a surprisingly small town vibe. We all live within walking distance of each other. It’s interesting, we run into each other at the bodega, at the coffee shop. It definitely has that small town vibe that I always kind of wished I had growing up. That, and my neighbors have chickens, so…
BE: When we talk about country, we're talking about Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, or even rebel country. So, a lot of the guys here that are playing in all these overlapping bands just started calling it Brooklyn Country. It’s our own take on a classic vibe.
ZW: Agreed. I think a lot of it is really just the instruments that my friends have been independently picking up and playing, having fun with. We seem to be drawn to pedal steel guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and upright.
"I've led a very nomadic life and found a lot of solace in the kind of relationships I've been able to form with people I've met in Brooklyn, because it's a lot of other wanderers."
RB: Was that surprising to you? To all separately come to Brooklyn and find people that had that same sensibility, that same interest, in making this particular kind of music?
KP: Country music is such a strong storytelling form of music and I think it's natural for the themes of people who moved to the city to come out in the music. That’s what makes it Brooklyn Country to me.
ZW: Everybody's just trying to tell their story. If we're trying to tell a story musically, it comes out easier in a country setting, because that's what it is. It's storytelling music.
BE: And in Brooklyn there's so many southerners. Maybe that has something to do with it.
RB: Why do you think that is? Any particular reason?
KP: I've led a very nomadic life and found a lot of solace in the kind of relationships I've been able to form with people I've met in Brooklyn, because it's a lot of other wanderers. It's a lot of people who have some sort of drive in them and wanted to move into a city where they could explore their talents and express themselves. Brooklyn is just the kind of place to draws you in.
RB: Let's say you all had randomly ended up in the same town in Georgia. Do you think you would be making the same music?
KP: Probably not. The stories would be different if we hadn't left our towns and moved to New York. I think there's a certain way you have to set your face, almost like a flint, when you live in New York. You just have to be prepared for everything that's going to come your way and I feel like those sparks that come from that are the stories that come from living here.
RB: An interesting thing to me is that you've each been doing your own thing, musically, before coming together in this particular iteration. Let's first talk about how you ended up playing and writing together. Was that an intentional thing? An accidental thing? How did that come about?
BE: Zach and I were both doing our own thing here in New York. I had just released a record and he had just written some songs that he was trying to figure it out. He wasn’t sure how they fit in with his music, if it was a side project type thing or what, so he asked me to come and work on them with him. A couple of other folks joined in and we sang through 'You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional' for the first time and immediately looked at each other thinking, “what is this?” At his next show, we sang it together with Kanene, who was filling in for Zach's usual backup singer, who was out sick. The three of us sang it together and it almost blew the roof off the place. It was pretty evident that we were onto something special right from the get-go.
"Everybody's just trying to tell their story. If we're trying to tell a story musically, it comes out easier in a country setting, because that's what it is. It's storytelling music."
RB: What was that first practice like? Did you feel like it would be possible that when you sang everything live that things would click the way that they did or did that kind of even catch you off guard that first night when you guys all sang together?
KP: Well I wasn't at the practice because I had, like, five jobs and I was going to school.
RB: You weren't even at the rehearsal??
KP: That show was the first time the three of us actually, physically sang together. It was before anything had solidified around that ‘side project” idea. I was there just to sing backup at Zach's regular gig with him, filling in for his other backup singer. Brian just jumped up just for 'You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional' because that was the song Zach was trying out. So that was actually the first time that the three of us sang together.
RB: What was the process after that? Was it like, ‘okay guys, here's a bunch of other songs and now let's make a record?’ Did it feel that self-evident? Or did it feel like things meandered along for a while?
ZW: Oh no, there was definitely no waiting. After the very first rehearsal I think Brian and I both knew that this wasn’t just a side project. But that moment at Rockwood when Brian and Kanene jumped up and we all three sang together? Man, nothing that I was doing on my own measured up to that feeling. So that's what I wanted. And I knew it by the end of that night.
RB: Zach, how many songs had you written up to that point? How many songs did you actually write together?
ZW: I came to the table with a bunch of songs. I had been through a hard thing in my life, and I went on this trip and wrote a bunch of songs on the airplane on the way there and the way back. So I probably had nine or so that I was bringing to the table.
KP: Those songs were kind of the drive to start some kind of country side project, right?
ZW: Yeah, they were really heavy lyrics so I wanted to try to hide them in country music, because it's been such a good place over the years for writers to hide sad stories. We had our first show with the Civil Wars, and we only had 30 minutes to play. So we played a number of those songs. I think we even wrote a couple of songs on the way in the van. “Button” and 'You Don't Love Me Like You Used To'. I just hadn't experienced that kind of vulnerability and trust in writing before. It was so fast and so fluid to the point that we could write a song that was something we were happy with within minutes.
KP: We had been jamming what would later become Button at our apartment and I just sang out the lyrics and the chorus. We recorded it on a phone and put it away for a bit. Then Zach texted a few weeks later, saying, "Hey, this is worth finishing." So he wrote to it and then we finished it in the van on the way to that show. It's a really amazing give-and-take. I feel really safe putting ideas out there.
"They were really heavy lyrics so I wanted to try to hide them in country music, because it's been such a good place over the years for writers to hide sad stories."
RB: As you've been thinking about the way the three of you mixed together - certainly in the live show - do you guys feel like that's something that's a mystery you should just be thankful for or have you thought about why is it that it just kind of clicked? Have you thought about it at all?
ZW: Actually, that's what brought us to changing the name of the band to 'The Lone Bellow.' Because The feeling that I get when I sing with these two is one sound, a lone sound, and it only happens when I sing with these two. I think that we've been made very aware of that fact and personally, I am incredibly thankful for it.
BE: I think you're right. The mystery of it is that it feels like we're along for a ride on something bigger than ourselves, you know?
RB: Talk to me about Rockwood. Obviously that is an important place in the life of your band. Why do the record there? And why the way that you chose to make the record - in just a few days, mostly tracking live?
ZW: When I first got my start in New York, that was the first place I played. Rockwood had just opened up and Ken, the owner, was running sound. Even at 2am on a Tuesday night, he was up in his little birdcage up top running sound. He was one of the first New Yorkers that pulled me aside and said, "You need to keep writing songs. This is a home for you." And I know that Brian has had that same experience with his music. There are so many of our friends that are in the scene that feel really safe at Rockwood Music Hall. Ken built the room with the intentional hope of making space for beautiful moments to happen, over and over again. When we were playing shows, we’d often say "This is what we want our record to sound like. How can we make our record sound like the moments that happen in this room?" That's where Charlie Peacock had the vision to say: "Let's make the record in that room. Let's live there for three days and three nights and just see what happens."
RB: A lot of bands have two identities - there's the live identity and then there's the record identity, and a lot of times the two don't necessarily line up. Like a record is better than a live show or vice versa. Do you guys feel like there's a dichotomy for you? Or do you feel like who you are on the record is who you are when you play live?
ZW: I think who we are on the record is definitely who we are when we play live. We've gone through different stages of growth, but at it’s heart we made the record like we play our shows. Everybody in one room, just capturing the moments as they happen. Then Charlie and Richie Biggs magically made it sound worth listening to. I'll never understand how they were able to do that.
BE: The record is fun to listen to now because we've been singing together now for a long time. When we did the record it was right after we started so when you listen back you can see how far a song has come since we tracked it. I'd say one difference is that we play off each other live much more now. Sometimes we throw each other off and sometimes we meet each other and there is a real beautiful, ad-libbing happening on stage.
"You can get so self-involved when you're making a record. It’s easy to forget about the listener when you're just thinking about the feeling that you get as a band. But when you think of the listener as one of the instruments, then that helps create the song."
RB: Sometimes live bands begin to diverge. Like they record a song before they've ever played it live, so obviously the live iteration of that song is going to evolve over time being played in front of people.
ZW: I can't even comprehend that way of thinking. They are brave to want to do it that way, because the way that I have always tested out whether a song is worth recording is by playing it at a show. Across the street from where I live is a place called Bar4, and I would use open mics there to put audition songs and eventually put together the "set list" for the record. I think that's how we will always do it. You can get so self-involved when you're making a record. It’s easy to forget about the listener when you're just thinking about the feeling that you get as a band. But when you think of the listener as one of the instruments, then that helps create the song.
RB: The gap between making the record and letting people hear it has been pretty wide. Do you feel like there's been a pressure valve building over the last year or so since you guys made this thing? What does it feel like now to have the record starting to really get out there, to have people listening to these songs that you guys spent this time on so long ago? Is it a relief? Does it make you want to make another record immediately? Where are you guys in that process?
ZW: The reason it took so long to release it is because we wanted to steward the work we did as best we could, so we wanted to build the team around the music that would actually care as much about the songs as we do. It started with the producer, but then the manager, the label, the radio people, the publicist…we had to make sure that everyone had the same motivation for storytelling as we do. That's why we didn't just go with a major label and take their stack and hope for the best. We wanted to create our own team, so unfortunately everybody had to wait and wait and wait. But now, we're going to be out on the road, playing in front of crowds we've never played in front of before, we're going to be in the car with each other, and we're going to have more head space where we can really lean into what The Lone Bellow truly is. I think that this is just a foundation that we're building with this first record.
BE: I think that pressure valve you're talking about really hasn't released and I don't think it's going happen until we've played the album release show at the Bowery here in New York. Everybody that's supported us and just carried us along the way, they sold out the Bowery in only four days. It's going to be a fun time with our people.
KP: I mean, we already have a bunch of new songs, but I think for all of us we just really enjoy seeing people respond and enjoy the music. I think once we have a fair amount of touring under our belt, we might feel the impetus to start really working on a new record, but I think right now, I guess it's a testament to the songs, but I still really love singing them. They mean a lot to me, and I feel like I fall in love with them them every time we sing them. I'm looking forward to seeing what it means to other people now that it's out.
"I guess it's a testament to the songs, but I still really love singing them. They mean a lot to me, and I feel like I fall in love with them them every time we sing them."
RB: Have you guys been surprised at people's reaction so far? The reaction is stunning for me to see.
ZW: Tomorrow the New York Times is going to be putting a story out on us, and the guy had to come interview us at the diner that Brian works at because Brian couldn't get off work. So, here we are telling our story to this writer from the New York Times, who's really excited about the music, and Brian is waiting tables and coming by and answering questions. (laughter) I think that kind of sums up the reality that we've been in lately.
KP: Yeah, people keep asking, "Are you excited?" but I've been up to my elbows in cookie dough, just baking at work, and I've been doing my job and living life. It's cool to see the response online and things you hear from friends for sure.
ZW: I cannot wait to play the first show to a group of people who have heard the record. We've never done that. I can't wait to see what that's like.
RB: Talk to me about the cabin. When I came up to do the SerialBox with you guys, the only interaction I'd had was with Zach’s solo record. I literally walked out the door from a tiny town in Texas where I’d been the DP on an indie feature. I'd not been home, and Chris Pereira was insistent that I come up to New York. I told him multiple times "I cannot come out there. I've got a wife and an 8 month old baby that I have not seen, I’m exhausted having just put in 20+ consecutive 15 hour days. I just cannot make it." And he basically said "It will be the dumbest decision of your life not to come out here." So I bought a ticket and went out there, not really knowing anything. And SerialBox aside and your music aside, just being with all of you guys - it's a weekend I won't forget. I just feel like it was a special couple of days. Talk to me about that weekend – I mean, you guys weren't even The Lone Bellow at that time.
ZW: Honestly, Chris he had to talk me into coming. I think he had a vision that I don't even know if I had yet about where the music could go. He just knew exactly what he wanted to do and he was just so passionate about it and put his heart on the line, put his money on the line, put his reputation on the line, to have all these people up there to do this thing at the cabin. It wasn’t just us, it was chefs and photographers and designers and to be honest, I had never experienced that before, this cross-pollination of all those creative expressions. I feel like there wasn't one person in the cabin that was just focused on their one thing - everyone was helping everyone else out, and I think that bled through in those videos that you made.
RB: For me, it was the first time to do any SerialBox stuff without my regular guys, and I was really terrified that I couldn't do it without them. It was really stressful, but I'm really proud of how everything came out. I feel like everyone was actively exploring stuff, whatever it was that they did. That says a lot to me about you guys as people and musicians, for sure. I'm really glad that everybody showed up.
ZW: It was amazing that SerialBox and those videos, those really told our story. Those held everything together for us for the past year, while people were waiting. I think they even helped bring clarity to how we wanted to tell the story of this music and of these songs.
KP: I went back time and time again and watched the video for 'Two Sides of Lonely'. I was just feeling really exhausted from living such a duplicitous life, trying to make everything work even though it felt like nothing was happening. But then I’d look at that moment when we're all singing that bridge together and I’d remember how cold it was, how physically miserable it was, but how insane beauty came from that. Whenever I would get discouraged I could watch that video and think to myself, "Alright, you can do this."
RB: Talk to me about community. That seems to be something that's inseparable from the way that these songs are presented, the way people listen to them. They're songs that feel like they should be sung out loud with a bunch of people.
BE: I think when you have three people standing on stage it automatically makes everybody want to sing. And these stories are true stories and some are even about the community that we live in. It's honest.
KP: I feel like without this community, I wouldn't even have been able to be in this band. We all have families, we all have jobs, and without people constantly affirming you and encouraging you and covering your shifts so you can make shows and volunteering to babysit kids so you can go practice, you couldn’t do it. Especially in New York, because you have to work so hard just to make ends meet. We couldn't have done any of this without this vibrant group of people being so generous with their time and their encouragement, telling us to do this. This record belongs as much to them as it belongs to us. We went up to this cabin for New Year's and were with our community and we had them listen to the test pressing of the record, and everyone already knew all of the harmonies and all of the lyrics to all of the songs. Not because they heard the record before, but because they've been to all of the shows. It's incredible, the support.
"We don't want to sing sad songs to make people sad, we want to sing sad songs that people can identify with and then show them that there's a light at the end."
RB: What do you hope people take away from bumping into your music, whether it be live or listening to the record?
ZW: We have hopes of just being a part of these transcendent moments. I would be grateful to think that the listeners in the room would graciously attempt to share that experience with us. It takes a lot of ownership in a room for a show to feel the way it should feel. There's so much give and take between the singer and the listener and it can be hard to get to a place of trust, but I think that it's worth it.
BE: Yeah, really, that’s how I feel about the record, too. It's a starting place to really connect with listeners.
KP: This record can be really dark at times. My personal hope is that people find the freedom to explore their grief and, by doing that, be able to come out on the other side and be more joyful than they were going in. That in doing so, it gives people license to really go there and know that they're not alone in their pain. It demands a lot of you as a singer to sing songs like this, because if there's one thing we can't do, it's fake it. If we're ever phoned in, those really sad songs aren't going to hold any water. They're not going to have any impact. We don't want to sing sad songs to make people sad, we want to sing sad songs that people can identify with and then show them that there's a light at the end.
RB: Does it make you nervous to think about having to do that night after night?
ZW: Yeah. I'm really wondering what it's going to be like, because there are songs in the set list that we have intentionally put there because they remind us of pain in our heart. Singing about it night after night after night, I wonder how that's going to go. But, I think that's kind of the beauty of it, anyway. If it was just easy, the three of us would get really bored.
KP: If it wasn't hard, everybody would do it. The hard is what makes it great. Doesn't Tom Hanks say that in 'A League of Their Own'? About baseball?
BE: Listening to the record is a journey, and life is the same thing, you know? We're trying to lead these people through this journey, and at the end of every show, regardless of what happens, everybody is just radiating. Everybody's always just going there with us.
ZW: I feel like I'm on a journey with the listener. We're both carrying it together. There are so many things in life that is just white noise, and I feel like when you go to see something intentionally, to sit in something, when you’ve paused your life and you're in the moment, that’s what I'm looking forward to…to journey together with the listeners and with the band.
Zach Williams · Vocals, Guitar
Brian Elmquist · Vocals, Guitar
Kanene Pipkin · Vocals, Mandolin
Jason Pipkin · Banjo
Brian Murphy · Accordian
Matt Knapp · Pedal Steel
Be notified of future session
and project releases
Producer / Camera Operator
SerialBox is a one-take, live music video production. No overdubs or cut-ins.