Dirtwire can be considered the originator of the “Swamptronica” genre of music that draws from rock, blues and world instrumental music. Think desert Americana blues vocals with Asian inspirations sprinkled in with no holds barred on the range of instruments used (from African jaw harps to thrift store toy megaphones). Their music is a dance between the ancient wisdom of the mystical consciousness and the forward-thinking innovations of technological ingenuity. The band is comprised of Beats Antique drummer Dave Satori; Evan Fraser, of Bolo; and Mark Reveley of Jed and Lucia. Dirtwire officially formed in 2012. However, the friends met much earlier, while in music school at the California Institute of the Arts. They’ve played shows at Burning Man, on actual pirate ships, in Tokyo, at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado, and even at a world music festival in Kazakhstan (as the only American band on the bill). It is needless to say they have been on the road a decent amount these last few years. Based in Oakland, California, they’ve been through Utah several times this year. They played at The State Room last December, and once this July at the Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch in Boulder, Utah.
On Saturday, October 5, they return to Utah again, this time to the Commonwealth Room with the music off their newest album, the yet unreleased Electric River. I spoke with all three band members by phone this past week, just before they were loading in to play a show in Oregon, and we caught up about life on the road, their new album’s psychedelic inspirations, and some of the nitty gritty of musicianship in these interesting times.
How is your style evolving on this new album?
Evan: Electric River, which comes out on October 18, draws a lot of inspiration from multiple directions, similar to our other albums. On this one we’re really going ahead and acknowledging our psychedelic inspirations, and how we use the psychedelics as a tool to channel and bring in the different sounds that are coming through us. It gives us an extra heightened sensitivity that can get us in touch with the spirit world, and how these instruments can work together by following our ears all the way through the recording process, and following our inspiration as we go.
Collaboration with other artists on a few tracks helped shaped the album in a different way. Emma Lucia contributed to a track called “Seem to Freeze.” We all love the sound she brings to that. Her voice is beautiful, ethereal and emotional.
Another track is a collaboration with a man from Gabon, Central Africa. His name is Mbilou. That came about in a really organic way. We saw a video online of him playing the mouth bow, really like the sound of it, and were inspired to make a track. So David headed that up, reached out to his people, and got a collaboration going. That (already released) single is called “Talking Bird.” The sound of his instrument and voice is highlighted there.
Another single we already released is called “Strength in One,” and that was a collaboration of ideas that Trevor Hall had sent over lyrically and melodically, and we built the track supporting his vocals.
Three totally different collaborators contributed to this album in that way. And the rest of the album is different songs that we wrote and came up with in our electro blues-swamptronica-meets the Wild est kind of sound.
I want to talk about your time in Boulder Utah this past July where you played at Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch (BMGR). How was performing and teaching the workshop for the Utah audience in that setting?
Mark: We had an amazing time out there at BMGR. We met Ron and Brandie (proprietors Ron Johnson and Brandie Hardman), at Building Man. It was really really fantastic that a lot of the Salt Lake community came out. We had a real journey. It was the first time doing a workshop like that, so it was an experiment for everybody, including Ron and Brandie. (The workshop) was pretty magical. Having Porangui co-lead the workshops was amazing. He’s a real catalyst for creativity and expression. We had a show in BMGR’s Siloon performance space that felt like a culmination of everything that had been explored that weekend. We performed a track that had been written in David’s workshop using a lot of musical techniques that had been explored in Evan and Porangui’s body percussion workshop. Being able to see everybody witness that track be represented in the first set was really satisfying. It was an amazing vibe, everyone loved it.
There’s a strong psychedelic spirit in that place, on that ranch and in that land. Getting exposed to that land was really magical. We met a lot of the people in the Boulder Outdoor Survival School and learned about how that community is so in touch with the land there and is so self-sufficient. There is a thread of psychedelic awareness there‚ the land invites that. That definitely informed the album quite a bit. We mixed the album and did some production there. We came with a lot of unfinished material and were able to finish it in the studio at the Ranch, which definitely was a strong infusion of energy into the music.
This album was started from ideas that came out of a mushroom jam, or a mushroom journey. We’re intending this album to be a pretty explicit reference to mushrooms, which has played a big part in our creative process. It acknowledges Maria Sabina on the cover, and acknowledges the feminine influence in how psychedelics were brought to the West around the ’60s. It’s also us being more public and open about the influence that mushrooms have had on us creatively.
Is that Maria Sabina on the cover?
Mark: She’s the shaman on the cover. David, do you want to speak a little on her history?
David: Yeah. Maria Sabina, she’s from southern Mexico. She was the first woman to sort of start hosting Westerners in the sacred mushroom ceremony. There was a botanist who she worked with, R. Gordon Wasson, who first brought it back to Albert Hoffman, the originator of LSD. This was one of the first natural psychedelics that Westerners got their hands on. She was sort of the gateway to it. They call it velada, the ritual they would take the psilocybin mushrooms in.
This sort of brings it back to BMGR. We were looking for art for the album, and on the wall we saw this painting of this beautiful electric river, this painting of water, it looked like a wave. We had already sort of come up with the idea of electric river, and wanting it to be associated with psilocybin. We had literally looked at this painting, thought it was a cool piece of art and then found out it was by our friend, my old roommate, Carey Thompson, a pretty prolific visionary artist, who lived for a lot of time in Costa Rica. The woman in the painting is Maria Sabina. It was an alignment of coincidence that that art spoke to us at BMGR, while we were finishing the album.
So BMGR has had a big impact on this album?
David: Yeah, definitely.
I read that your caballero outfits you perform in are to honor California and the history of the caballeros who came up from Mexico during the gold rush around the 1850s. I was looking into caballeros, the fictional character of Zorro, who was inspired by the real life story of Joaquin Murrieta, and his redemption story: After white people raped and killed his wife, he became a bandit and avenged her death. He became a symbol of the defender of the defenseless. What part of that story and that imagery resonates with your vision for the band, and where you want to go with it?
Mark: That’s interesting to hear that, and an interesting question. We don’t wear the mariachi pants anymore. Originally for us, it was a reference to express solidarity with our brothers and sisters south of the border, and identifying with the American idea of a troubadour, trying to acknowledge that before North America was considered more Anglo, it was Hispanic. Coming from California, we all felt we were at the crossroads of that. Spiritually and philosophically, we were very much in line with that story, but we had some expression by some people that it was appropriation, and we wanted to honor that, too, so we decided to just go with black pants.
Where did the name Dirtwire come from?
David: We wanted to describe the music with the name. We went with the mix of organic and the use of technology. So it’s a combination of the earth and the wire, made with man-made technology. It’s a symbiosis, that coming together of technology and organic.
Question for Dave: I know back in the day you were burning the midnight oil for Dirtwire while you were focusing mostly on Beats Antique. My question to you is what’s your take on the need as a musician to often bounce from project to project, and how do you stay healthy and sane? Any personal routines or rituals that you maintain?
David: Haha. Yeah, no, I’ve definitely pushed it to its limits at points and seen where the breaking point is. I love making music and traveling, so it’s not super difficult for me to do this. It is just a matter of balance and needing time off and recharging. I’m figuring that out. At the same time, this past year, Beats Antique has slowed down a lot. Dirtwire still isn’t touring as much as Beats Antique has in the past. Meaning that I’ve done crazier tours, so it hasn’t hit the point of something I’m not used to. I just love doing it. We’ve been doing push-ups, and we got pull-up bars, and we do exercises when we can on the road. We eat vegetarian, and take tinctures and try to meditate… Don’t do the heroin or the cocaine!
Got it! Sage words of advice.
David: Yeah don’t do that. Do mushrooms and herbs, and natural things.
Question for Evan: So I know you have a collection of some odd 200 instruments, and a lot of the band’s founding came from the years spent together at Cal Arts and afterward studying different world instruments. For those who don’t already know that about your band, can you talk about that immersive process over the years with all these instruments?
I started in musical theater when I was 11, and I started piano when I was in third grade. Because piano is such a large instrument, and you can’t go outside very often with it, I gravitated toward smaller instruments. A great teacher of mine, Mark Growden, showed me the jaw harp. Friends showed me the kalimba (the African thumb piano) and different percussion instruments. Mark Growden had a group in my high school called the Junk Ensemble. We went to the dump and got a bunch of junk and made a cool percussion set-up out of it.
When he showed me that, I realized that, once you have it in your body, you can apply music to anything you can find in the world. There are instruments everywhere including natural ones on trees, that you can just pick and start shaking. I started collecting and following my ears as far as tonality, and I gravitated toward organic sounds, especially ones that are made of plant matter and animal skin. My thumb dexterity I developed from playing the kalimba for years, that led me to the kamale ngoni, which is an African harp, coming from Mali and West Africa. It’s built from a gourd and cow skin or goat skin, and has fishing line strings, and it’s commonly confused with kora, the West African harp.
What about the mouth megaphone thing? How did you come up with that?
Evan: Oh yeah, that was a thrift store score at Salvation Army for two bucks. It’s a gem! It’s become a part of the Dirtwire sound, of me singing through that toy megaphone.
I love that one, I just gotta say that. Mark, since you have young kids and a family, and you’ve often collaborated with your partner, Emma, I wanted you to talk a little bit about the two dreams a musician might have of having a successful career, and a family. Does your family ever travel on the road with you? And what do you have to say to any musician who dreams of having both—a successful music career and a family?
Mark: That’s a really good question. It’s totally insane, I barely know where to start with that one. I can say it’s amazing, and a journey, a challenge, and a dream and all those things combined. Emma, Shane, and Odin came out to Utah, and that was fantastic. They’ve all come out to different festival shows and such, but that was the first time that we were really able to spend more time together and have them really become part of it.
The trick has been to go back and forth between the world of “normality” and music, traveling and touring. Emma’s doing a couple of shows with us, performing “Seem to Freeze.” She’s @emmaluciamusic on Instagram. She’s started to do performances of Swedish heart songs. She has a Swedish background, and she wrote these really deep, almost mantra-like songs in Swedish that she sings over bowls and spacious rhythms. It’s pretty powerful. She did that one night in Utah.
It’s definitely a balancing act, and she and I share the same dream of music, so it works. It’s always a balance, though, It takes a lot of communication, and thinking outside the box. You’re kind of marching to your own drummer, and a lot of the cultural references that you might take for how to raise kids or how to live a life might not line up necessarily with the way your life is going. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of emotional commitment, but it’s amazing.
To balance that with any career is a challenge. With music where you have to travel a lot, it’s definitely a learning experience and a growth experience for all of us. But my dream to have the kids grow up more on the road. They love music. I mean, they just want to come to every show. So I hope to raise them as musicians and part of the Dirtwire family, and just be exposed to lots of really cool stuff.
Dave: Put them to work! They’re gonna be setting up our stuff before we know it.
Mark: Oh yeah, if Shane was here right now, all this shit would be set up. He’s the oldest. Shane’s 9. Odin is 4.
You’ve played all over the world now, leaving an impact on every place you visit. What places have specifically left an impact on you, the band, your mission, your artistry? In what new directions is that sending you?
Dave: We just went to Europe and did our first little European run and I think that has a lot of potential. In Europe, they’re very open to cultural exploration, cross-cultural collaborations. So we’re excited to develop in Europe. We’re also talking about going into South America in the near future. We’re on this to keep exploring and keep meeting people and collaborating and learning.
Are you going back to BMGR soon?
Evan: Definitely. That place feels like a home away from home, one of our homes. At this point Ron Johnson’s like our big brother, so it’s pretty awesome. We’ll definitely be back there.
Anything else you want to say before we go?
Evan: We’re really grateful to all of our friends, and fans and family for all of the support that they’ve given us over the years. We thank them for supporting us and our music as we move throughout the world and share this music and all the inspiration of bringing all the cultures together in a good way. So, we’re just grateful to our fans and all the support. For all the listening, and all the dancing that we receive from everyone.
CATALYST presents Dirtwire
Local opener: Moodlite
at the Commonwealth Room
195 W 2100 S (W. Commonwealth Ave)
Buy tickets here.