In Conversation With the Dirty River Boys
In today's ever-growing and seemingly saturated world of music, there are fewer and fewer bands that are able to rise to the top of fans' radars. Radio definitely helps, but sometimes there are acts that don't quite fit the mold of what local stations play. Conor Oberst, Wilco, Old 97's, Ryan Adams -- those are just a few acts that have been able to make significant impacts throughout their careers, essentially on their own.
Another band that we think will soon be added to that list are the Dirty River Boys. Hailing from El Paso, Texas, the quartet doesn't quite fit under any one genre; as soon as you think you have a grip on their alt-country sound, they flip it around and take things the way of old-school punk. Without fitting into a specific musical formula, they are creating some of the rawest, most authentic music we've heard in a long time, most notably on their recent self-titled release, out via Thirty Tigers.
While in New York City for a raucous show at the Mercury Lounge, we had the chance to sit down with the Dirty River Boys over a few cold beers and some mouth-watering barbecue at the Texas-transplant, Hill Country Barbecue, and chat about their beginnings, what it's like playing music that transcends genres and how being from Texas has influenced the way they write and approach their craft.
Joining in the conversation are all four members of the band: Vocalist Nino Cooper, Guitarist Marco Gutierrez, Bassist Colton James, a.k.a. CJ, and drummer Travis Stearns. Check out our exclusive chat with the Dirty River Boys -- and then stream their new record in its entirety -- below:
Why don't we start from the very beginning?
Nino Cooper: So at the very beginning, Travis and I were playing shows in El Paso, absolutely everywhere that would allow us. Restaurants, Sunday brunches -- sometimes we were playing three shows a day. Birthday parties, whatever, you name it. We decided to do music full-blown, so we booked everything we could. A lot of these places wouldn’t allow a full band, so that’s how we started this broken down acoustic thing. That's why Travis got a cajon.
Travis Stearns: When we started playing, I was kind of "accompanying" Nino. I’d bring out a snare drum and a kick drum and a high hat or whatever. One show, it was one of the highest paid gigs we got, they wanted it broken down, just really acoustic. So, they suggested a cajon. I looked into it and started jamming it. So, that’s all I used, and I didn’t really know how to play it. I didn’t know what it was.
Marco Gutierrez: Travis says he doesn’t know how to play it, but he’s reinventing the way you play the cajon. Typically it’s a real delicate style, finger-tapping, but he’s like f--king Animal from the Muppets on it, man. He breaks at least one cajon head a night.
Travis: Yeah, I’d play it the way I would play a drum set. When you watch someone like Nino play music, whatever you’re doing, you will drop whatever you’re doing and do it full-time. This was his call, he wanted to do this full-time, so we dedicated our lives to it, and we were getting paid to do it. Honest money. We were learning how to play with each other, we ended up in a bar, and then we met Marco. He was with a band, the West Bend Outlaws -- they were a good band but you could tell he was the strongpoint. He was the one who was dedicated, and we saw that. So, he came out and started jamming with us. He quit his job -- we had to wake up musicians, everyday. It’s a hard pill to swallow, it’s a really f--king hard thing to tell your friends and family and not get a lot of support. But after a year, we got noticed by our now manager, and then it just took off from there.
Marco: Yeah, I was going to school at UTEP, and just failing. I was working at the county tax assessor’s office and hating life. I played music on the side, and then started playing with them, and then it was like, “Oh, s--t, I can actually do what I love and make some money.” They had me, and that’s the initial start of the Dirty River Boys. And then our manager took us to central Texas -- Austin, San Antonio, Houston.
Nino: We did a showcase at a bar called Lustre Pearl on the Rainey Street, and after that we ended up with Red 11, our booking agency. They’ve been keeping us busy ever since. About a year after that, that’s when we met CJ, through our friend Marshall Foster who was our touring manager at the time. We had a show at New Braunfels, Texas, and we were looking for a bass player, an upright bass player specifically. Marshall said he knew a guy, we got in touch with CJ, he winged the whole set, and then he jumped in the van and that was it.
Travis: It was a three hour set and we knew it was a fit. We knew it. That’s a good way to judge a musician or a band. He had the moxie to know he’d do the parts right, even if he f--ked up. And, his bass fit perfectly in the van. [Laughs]
From the beginning, it was Nino and Travis, then Marco, then CJ. And that’s it, there have been no other changes.
Nino: That's right. None.
CJ, after you joined the band, you busted your collarbone, right?
CJ: I’ve broken a lot of collarbones.
Travis: I was in the van, it was crazy. It was popping out. Holy crap, dude, we just stopped to get coffee.
Marco: I say this seriously, CJ could be a pro skater if he wanted to. He’s really f--king good. He does all these tricks and flips -- and he was going into a store to get a rotisserie chicken.
CJ: I’m always hungry.
Marco: He hit an oil patch and just wiped out, dude.
How has Texas -- and more specifically, El Paso -- influenced your sound? You’re not country, you’re not red dirt, you’re not rock and roll.
Marco: The scene has been so accepting of what we do. The scene is different, and it’s cool for them to be so accepting and loving of what we’re doing. They dig the music. Personally, some of the songs that I’ve brought to the table, being from the desert, I always want to recreate what that sounds like. An old spaghetti western, desolate, you know, that vibe. Being from west Texas has definitely influenced the way I write.
Travis: El Paso is a classic rock town, but they embrace what we’re doing. But we’re not getting spins on the radio, you know?
What's it like living in El Paso?
Marco: I’ve never been in any other place that is quite like El Paso. It’s unique. It’s border culture.
Nino: It’s family, it’s all about family.
Travis: Yeah, it’s a family-oriented town. That’s why it was scary for someone like Marco, who was raised by a Hispanic mother, to go to her and tell her that he’s quitting and going to music. It’s all about staying together. But when it comes to us, we have that same outlook -- we’re together in this. That’s something special. It’s not a big city where it’s easy to find another musician in a second. In El Paso, what we had, we knew it was special and we nurtured it.
Nino: El Paso is definitely secluded from the rest of the Texas scene. I mean, it’s about nine hours from the Hill Country, right? The red dirt scene is not really well-known in El Paso. We were oblivious to it. Culturally, I grew up crossing the border, going to restaurants in Jaurez, going out in high school, going to some of those bars that have been there for 100 years. It’s a unique way of life. The stories, the experiences, they come out in the songs. We try to visualize that desert feel.
Marco, what was that conversation like with your family?
Marco: It wasn’t really a conversation. I stopped going to class. I took less hours at work. Then I quit. Then I told my Mom that I was moving to play music for awhile. She put herself through school, she raised me by herself, she put herself through her Master’s degree. She comes from a very school-oriented mindset, you know, there’s no other way to do it. That being said, my mom is all I have. She loves me regardless.
Travis: Someone said our songs have punk influences, and that probably comes from Marco and his mom not letting him listen to the music he wanted to. I was only allowed to listen to the country radio station in El Paso. I said f--k this, I wanted rock and roll, Rancid, Anti-Flag, Dropkick Murphys. It’s a common theme in the band -- musically, we’re the most different f--king people, but punk really ties us all together. Hardcore Minor Threat s--t, that kind of stuff.
CJ, if El Paso is family-oriented, did you ever feel like an outsider joining the band?
CJ: No, actually it’s quite different. I was wrapped up in the whole Texas music scene and then I met these guys from El Paso. They were oblivious to the whole Texas country music scene, and that’s what drew me to it. I was just out talking to cows, you know, and then I met them and thought that this was something different. I could get behind it. I thought it was cool, that’s what really brought me to them. They were so different, so far outside the spectrum of what Texas country is. And El Paso has treated me nice, they’ve treated me like one of their own.
Travis: And the Mexican women love CJ.
CJ: Good times, man.
Marco: People are very hospitable in El Paso.
CJ: I’ve made a lot of good friends out there that I still talk to you. But it was way different at first. My family is an angrier version of ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ So, it’s real different visiting places.
Nino: And El Paso has the best Mexican food. The absolute best, so there's that.
Since punk is a common theme throughout the band, did you ever consider going strait punk rock?
Marco: We were never like, “We’re going to do this and that’s all we’re going to do.” When I started playing with Nino and Travis, we’d cover everything, from Tom Petty to Rancid to Ryan Adams to Jerry Jeff Walker, we’d do so much stuff.
Travis: That kind of Americana country sound was always coming out because we were playing with broken down instruments. If we went all rock, there would’ve only been a handful of venues for us to present our music. With our broken down acoustic sound, we could play anywhere we wanted to.
Marco: I think Americana is the umbrella that fits our sound, because we cover so much -- rock, country, alternative, punk.
Travis: We don’t want to call ourselves real country because we don’t want to disrespect what real country is all about. We’re not against it, we just want to make sure we’re not leading you astray, you know? Fans will find out quick we’re not country, so we don’t want to upset anyone.
Marco: It’s pretty f--king weird, man.
Nino: It’s a blessing and a curse, because we don’t have a specific way to market ourselves or a specific demographic that we’re going after.
Marco: In a perfect world, the red dirt kids would hang out with the tattooed punk kids, but that’s kind of hard to do sometimes.
What are some of the bands that influence you?
Marco: For me, Ryan Adams. I bought the New Found Glory album, and then I saw Ryan Adams in an acoustic guitar magazine. He’s the reason I play music. Him and Rancid.
Nino: It’s a different answer for each of us. Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Foo Fighters, all that kind of stuff.
CJ: I grew up on cold hard country. My dad played old country music. I grew up listening to George Jones, Hank Sr., the real, real country stuff. Back when it was real. I’ll listen to George Jones for six months, but then I’ll listen to Avenged Sevenfold. I go home and ride my horse to old, sad country, and then work out to Avenged Sevenfold.
Travis: I remember hearing Stewart Copeland drumbeats in the era of Motley Crue drumbeats -- I was more drawn to the Police style of that. I grew up and got into that rock music phase, though; I got into theatrical drumming. Morgan Rose from Sevendust, I’m hugely into that guy. Stuff like that drew me in, man. This was the first group of guys that I got to play music that not only encouraged me but inspired me to do more than just play drums. Singing, playing mandolin, whatever I can get my hands on. They were never against it.
On the album and in your live show, you switch up instruments and take turns at lead vocals. Do you ever run into issues with that?
Marco: It can rear its head sometimes, but we try to be as open-minded as possible to all ideas and hearing everyone out.
Travis: And we’re honest with everyone, you know, if something sounds better with someone else.
Your self-titled album came out on Oct. 14, 2014. How did you approach this record differently than records in the past?
Nino: A lot of planning went into this one. We started with a bank of 40 songs and took it down to 16. There was a lot of pre-production. We took our time, we didn’t cut any corners. We cut half the record at Sonic Ranch, outside of El Paso. That was cool because you sleep there, you eat there, you live and breathe the record while you work on it. Frenchie Smith was our producer and had a lot to do with that as well.
Marco: He did a good job of taking all of these different sounding songs and made them mesh together. I’m proud of our old albums, but with this one it’s just like, yes, finally, it’s our dream come true. People say we’re a really energetic live show, and Frenchie met us with that energy in the studio. He was jumping off of sofas, banging on tambourines.
Travis: He encouraged us to go outside of our comfort zones and the instruments we were using for the last four years.
Nino: A lot of times you go into the studio and you hit record and you do your thing and you do a few takes, and that's it. Frenchie always pushed us, always pushed us out of our comfort zones. "Chug a beer, smash it against the wall, and do the vocal take, right now!"
Travis: Frenchie had been in Sonic Ranch before, so he knew all of the rooms and sounds and knew the staff really well. He was able to get instruments in that studio for us to use that a lot of cats going into Sonic Ranch for the first time don’t get. The drum kit I got, it was one of the gnarliest kits I ever played on. He knew what he was doing in that studio.
Marco: I played Jimmy Page’s Les Paul. I played Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Strat. I think doves were flying and I could finally actually play guitar.
So what's next? Are you already looking to the next record?
Nino: We definitely have songs to work on for the next record, but we have to let this one marinate for a little while. We definitely want to go overseas, and we’re gonna keep playing songs and expanding our reach.
You guys are obviously accepted in El Paso and throughout Texas. When you come to a city like New York, do you feel the same love?
Marco: Last night we played in Boston. It was a small room and there weren’t a ton of people there. They didn’t know what we were about, but by the end of the set, they were jumping up and down and trying to dance and enjoying it. No matter who comes to our shows, they dig the energy. That’s what we try to make ourselves about, our live shows, you know?
Nino: There’s definitely a difference between the Boston crowd and the typical Texas crowd, but I think we can still reach them, captivate them. I think that’s something we’re good at, captivating any type of audience.
Travis: There is always one person in our band who can zone in and relate to the audience -- wherever we’re at, I truly believe that we can connect to the audience anywhere. Each person in this band can reach out in his own way. We shine like f--king stars and can work the rooms together. And we usually come out on top.
Stream the Dirty Rivers Boys' Self-Titled Album