After devouring the band’s oeuvre for days on end, I stalked them until one of the band members graciously agreed to an interview.
Will Mallett talked to me recently about the band’s Maine roots, how it developed its distinctive sound, and the inspiration behind its 2015 release, “Lights Along The River.”
Daniel Ford: Give me a little history of the band. What brought everyone together?
Will Mallett: We got together in 2009 in Portland, Maine. My brother Luke and a few of the guys had been in a band together that had just wrapped up, and I moved down from the home town up north to get a foot into whatever the next project would be. We knew we wanted to start with acoustic guitars and some instruments with an old fashioned country sound; Nick Leen our bass player and spiritual guide recruited the personnel he thought would have some good fun together and we went from there. There have been some changes in the lineup and the sound over the years but overall it’s been a pretty steady charge.
DF: How much does being based in Maine influence your music? Do you think you’d have the same sound if you were based somewhere else?
WM: Maine doesn’t necessarily have a definitive sound attached to it and I think that can be a good thing in terms of shedding requirements or expectations. There have been some amazing rock acts out of Maine, some amazing folk and indie acts, some amazing country, jazz acts. But there’s no real strong genre attachment like you need to be a country act to get anything happening here, or a rap act, or a rock act or a DJ or whatever. Your chances are about equally…dismal/hopeful. The winters can also be a little bleak around here and I think that that dark and cold can creep into any of the music that comes out of a colder climate. But Maine is a unique place, sort of a frontier state with huge unsettled areas in addition to the ocean, the Appalachian Mountains, a rich and varied musical tradition, a little more French influence than the rest of New England, gargantuan income disparity, drug problems, moose, etc. We would no doubt sound completely different if we came from anywhere else.
DF: Your website claims your style “spans across country, rock and roll, Americana and ‘alt-country’ genres.” How did you develop that sound and who were some of your musical influences?
WM: When we first got together the goal was to maybe get a gig or two and make a record if we got real lucky, so we didn’t set out with a goal in mind in terms of fitting into a radio format or a genre or anything like that. To get to the point where that would have been required might have been a little far-fetched. So it was really just a default thing, with somebody or a couple guys bringing a song to the table, and seeing where the group took it. We came from a lot of different musical backgrounds so you had something like a folk song getting a punk rock drumbeat with psychedelic guitar sounds and country style harmony vocals. A lot of fun. Right now we’re basically a rock band with country influences, but the acts we most closely identify with are for whatever reason put into those categories, so we sort of identify with the Americana and alt-country genres to make it easier for people who might dig our stuff to find us.
Our influences are definitely all over the map. The first music I remember hearing would have been Gordon Lightfoot, Creedence, Bob Dylan, and such, but I was born in 1984; Brian (Higgins/drummer) was touring the country with a heavy metal band at that time and Wally (Wenzell/guitar) was living in London hanging out at punk rock clubs around that era. So you get all of that mixed together and a bunch more and it’s a pretty eclectic stew.
DF: You’ve played with acts such as The Josh Abbot Band, Blackberry Smoke, Charlie Robison, the Turnpike Troubadours, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Charlie Daniels, and .38 Special. What did you learn about your own music from touring with these musicians?
WM: It’s great to see the power of a good old-fashioned rock show and the energy an audience can bring to the table, and that’s a very inspirational thing. .38 Special was off the hook, and nice guys. Keeps you aware of the need to bring the heat and to be a cooler dude. But we’ve been pretty honored to get some great gigs, and they’ve definitely provided a lot of motivation to keep traveling the road we’re traveling. And the more you play with other bands that tour a lot, whether younger up and coming bands or old road dogs, it does tend to demythologize the whole rock and roll thing and reminds you that it’s still possible to be a touring band and make it happen.
DF: What’s your songwriting process? How does each member of the band contribute to any given song?
WM: They’re all different but the bulk of our tunes were written by one or two of us with a real basic idea of the direction it would take, and then brought to the band and exploded into whichever direction the wind was blowing on a particular day. Nick and Brian, our bass player and drummer, have a pretty unique aggressive sound between the two of them, and Wally has a distinct style of dobro and guitar, so most of our tunes end up having a pretty distinct Mallett Brothers Band flavor by the time they’re all worked out.
DF: What was the inspiration for the songs on your latest album “Lights Along the River?”
WM: That one came out about two years after our previous record, so a bunch of those songs had been hanging around for a little while. A lot of them were skeletons and we filled them out up on the lake where we recorded in Piscataquis County, Maine. It was October in an old lake lodge accessible only by boat, so we tried to capture that combination of beauty and emptiness and I think that comes through in most of the tunes. The metaphor of the title track, with this image of a character beat to hell and hanging on for dear life, and then seeing signs of hope in the distance, seemed appropriate for the general vibe of the record.
DF: If you had to pick one of your songs that defined the band forever, which one would you choose and why?
WM: For me it would probably be “Low Down” at this point, just because that one seems to have caught hold in a few pockets up in rural Maine in its own little way and that just means a hell of a lot.
DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming musicians?
WM: Keep some Schopenhauer in your back pocket, heed not the ominous signs, make records and hit the road; eat rice and beans; spend your money on strings and gas; keep in mind the small chance that somebody out there might just need to hear that shit right now, or that a simple turn of a phrase could make somebody’s whole damn day. And cheaper beer = better gear.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about the band?
WM: Bands love pizza, and we love pizza.