Strange Brew - Ski Mag

Strange Brew

Features
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0
Band Practice

BELOW SMUGGLERS' NOTCH, in the town of Jeffersonville, Vermont, at the edge of a sloping swath of pavement known as Route 108, there is a bar. And in that bar, pressed into a corner, sweaty and at least a little drunk, there is a band. And on the floor, the fans, some 30 or 40 of them, loyally pop open two-dollar PBR tall boys. They swirl and jump and dip. They spin and noodle and pant. They stumble and slurp and whoop as the nor'easter that's been building for the past three hours brings to bear its full wrath against the steamed-up windows.

As a rousing rendition of Kenny Rogers' "Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was In)" comes to a close, the band's hand drummer leans into his mike. "I'm gonna get up at five and get first tracks," he shouts. Given the advanced state of his slur and the fact that midnight came and went nearly two hours ago, it seems highly unlikely that he'll be doing anything at five that doesn't involve drooling on his pillow. But the crowd cheers anyway. "Fuck you,

I'm

gonna get first tracks," someone yells, and the hand drummer flashes a mock surly look while the guitarist runs his pick across his strings, signaling the rest of the band that it's time to cut the chitchat.

The bar is the Brewski, a vacant-in-the-summer, packed-in-the-winter quintessential East Coast ski-bum joint, and the band is Named By Strangers, a six-man group comprising two lifties, two cousins, and a keyboardist whose girlfriend bites. It's mid-March, and the Carhartt-clad, good-times band is in the midst a four-week, 19-show run throughout New England. Things are looking up. Last year

Relix

- a national magazine that focuses on the jam/folk rock scene - declared NBS a "band on the verge." The last Vermont band that was hailed as the next big thing actually lived up to the prediction. That band was called Phish, and they played for the same demographic of hedonistic noodlers that Named By Strangers plays for now. That was nearly 20 years ago, and Phish has since broken up and moved on. Which means there might just be room for a replacement. The question is: Could the next major musical export from the Green Mountain State really be a bunch of ski bums?

[NEXT]

MY QUEST TO ANSWER THAT QUESTION HAD ACTUALLY BEGUN a few weeks earlier, when I drove to band headquarters-a rental house in Moretown, Vermont-to meet up for a day of skiing. The house is shared by Drew Lafrenz, 32, the lead singer and rhythm guitarist; Morgan Lamphere, 27, the drummer and primary songwriter; and his cousin Ian Lamphere, 29, the hand drummer. Yes, this band has a hand drummer.

The rest of the band is scattered throughout New England. Bass player Adam Quinn, 29, lives 40 miles away in Underhill, Vermont. Keyboardist Brian Lauri, 31, resides in a condo at Sugarbush. Lead guitarist Chad Dahlstrom, 29, lays his head in Boston, where he works at Home Depot, dreaming up licks while helping customers decide between the hot-dip galvanized and stainless-steel deck screws.

The house smells like cat piss and stale beer. The kitchen floor is half covered by bags of garbage and recyclables - mostly Progresso Macaroni and Beans, Bush's Boston Recipe Baked Beans, Mountain Dew, and Bud Light. I was relieved to see Drew light incense soon after I arrived. The first big storm of the season hit last night, and the region is smothered under 18 inches of crystalline powder. I'm antsy to make it to the mountain. But this morning, a little before 9 A.M., there isn't exactly a sense of urgency in the air.

Drew, tall and thick through the trunk, with a poultrylike, chest-forward posture that may be the result of the decade he spent living in a renovated chicken coop, is shirtless, having just risen from the mattress he shares with Goose, the grotesquely obese cat responsible for the stench. Morgan is still snoozing in his windowless basement room. In the bathroom, Ian is making the sort of nses that are better left unexamined.

Drew, Ian, and Morgan are the core of the band's rhythm section. They're also the group's most enthusiastic snow sliders. Drew favors tele skis, Ian fat alpine boards, and Morgan completes the one-mountain, one-love hat trick by riding a snowboard. The boys are also connected to the ski industry via their day jobs. Drew and Morgan bump chairs down the road at Sugarbush - which, it turns out, is the ideal job for fledgling rockers. It can be performed on little sleep and affords plenty of downtime to write songs and play compact travel guitars. Ian is a producer and writer at Stowe's High Angle Media, a company that creates ski content for the cable network RSN. It's a good gig, and has given Ian the chance to ski all over the world, including in Chile, Argentina, and France.

By the time we make it to Sugarbush, it's nearly 10, and the wind has picked up considerably, forcing the closure of the main mountain lifts. It's tempting to retreat, maybe drive up the road to Mad River Glen, where the lifts are running full steam. But the NBS boys, who rack up high-double- and triple-digit-day seasons, aren't easily dissuaded. Besides, Drew is claiming knowledge of a sweet little tree stash off the remaining open chair, so we queue up.

Thirty minutes later, we're crashing through a dense thicket of grabby spruce. "Damn," mutters Drew. "I know it's in here somewhere." He lurches forward, catches a tip under a deadfall, and nosedives into the snowpack. "I think we're getting close." We've already lost Morgan. Wary of schlepping his snowboard through the undergrowth, he planted himself in the snow and pulled out a flask. Ian's still game, following in earnest.

After another half-hour of bark busting, we find the prize - a whopping 500 or so vertical feet of erratically spaced birch. Drew is ebullient, Ian is bemused, and Morgan is still missing. We swivel a few turns, and make our way to a cat track where we find him flask in hand. "What took you guys so long?" Morgan asks. "I'm almost out of whiskey."

[NEXT]

DREW INSISTS NBS ISN'T A JAM BAND - BUT HE'S WRONG. IT'S not so much that they

sound

like the Dead or, say, Widespread Panic, although they do cover both. It's the vibe at their shows that invites comparison. While their original tunes tend to be tighter and shorter and a bit more straight-ahead rock-and-roll, the crowd is decidedly Phishy: Hairy-legged women dance languidly with one another for hours on end, and guys in worn Carhartts shuffle their feet and drink from plastic cups. To be sure, there are plenty of bands plying the scene that rely onsimilar material. What separates NBS from the other bands-and the leathery dudes with eye patches and ponytails butchering Jimmy Buffett songs in ski towns across the nation-is that their originals actually sound better than their covers.

NBS is currently courting the Beantown market, four hours away from band headquarters-an effort complicated by their '92 Ford Econoline, which is currently in the shop for its third transmission in two years. Most weekends, though, you'll find the band playing $800 gigs, mostly in bars in ski-country towns like Lake Placid, New York, and Waterville, Maine. But like any band, NBS has its Spinal Tap-esque issues. For one, the keyboardist's girlfriend has the indefensible habit of biting the doormen at the clubs they play, a situation Ian describes as "a gripping saga in the annals of NBS history." And then there's the corporate-world-bound bass player, who recently announced his plans to leave the band.

Drew admits frustration at the disparate paths. "I just wish everyone was able to throw everything aside and go at it with us," he tells me. Perhaps because of his unwavering commitment to the dream, Drew functions as the band's unofficial den mother. He books the gigs, handles the dough, and, when necessary, cracks the whip. "Sure, I have to yell at Morgan to get him out of the house sometimes. I can do that. Hey, I want to get drunk and have fun too, but getting drunk and having fun are not what this is all about. Well, mostly. But not all."

That sentiment is shared by Tom Baggott, whose company, thebookingagency.com, books gigs primarily for popular regional acts, bands that, in his parlance, have reached Point B: They regularly draw between 100 and 500 fans (while NBS occasionally attracts these sorts of numbers, most of their shows are seen by fewer than 100 people). "It's incredibly challenging to get to the next level," says Baggott. "They're still a very regionalized band, still popular only at certain venues. If they're going to make the next step, they need a manager and a publicist."

Perhaps, but the signs are encouraging. At Nectar's, the Burlington, Vermont, nightclub famous for spawning Phish, NBS is one of the top draws. "I'd say they're firmly in the top three," says co-owner Damon Brink. "They've got a sound that people are really responding to. And they're not afraid to work." The band's relentless touring has pushed sales of their 2003 self-released album,

Gone

, to almost 5,500, and downloads of their live shows are nearing the 15,000 mark. Their new, self-titled record has already sold nearly 1,000 copies.

Those are the sorts of numbers that can catch the attention of a respectable record label. But the boys have been around long enough to know that there's nothing predictable about success. Relix's pegging them as a "band on the verge" hasn't had as much of an impact as they'd hoped. "Here we are a year later, doing the same thing," says Drew. "On the verge of what? We don't know."

[NEXT]

A COUPLE OF WEEKS AFTER OUR ON-SNOW OUTING, I venture back to the house to watch the boys audition a new bass player. A half-dozen pairs of skis are stuck in a snowbank, and inside, various pieces of winter apparel are scattered about. The tryout was supposed to start at seven. But by nine, they've added 16 Bud Light cans to the kitchen floor and not a lick of music has been played.

Eventually, we make our way down to the basement. Morgan's dungeon is partitioned off into a corner, while the rest of the space is given over to drums and amplifiers and mike stands. Overhead, the main toilet drain has sprung a leak and is now dripping intermittently, creating a suspiciously brown-hued stain on the concrete floor. The bassist has yet to arrive, and keyboardist Brian is AWOL, so the band is reduced to a quartet. It's probably a blessing in disguise, as the 18-pack is gone and only a half-bottle of Jim Beam remains.

The crew is working on a cover of Pink Floyd's melancholy "Time." It's a strange pick for a band that specializes in unrelenting good cheer, but they pull it off nicely. The bassist arrives and he shakes hands around, obviously nervous, obviously hoping for something.

Down here in the NBS basement, with shit-water dripping onto the floor, Chad mumbly-drunk on Beam, an untested bass player trudging his way through the band's signature tunes, and Drew padding about in a pair of fur-lined moccasins, it's hard to imagine there are bigger things in store.

[NEXT]

SIX MONTHS PASS BEFORE I SEE Named By Strangers again. I've hired them to play my family's annual pig roast, and, true to form, the boys show up some two hours late. They're missing two key members. Keyboardist Brian Lauri simply stopped coming to shows. But since no Brian means no bouncer-biting girlfriend, there's a certain sense of relief at his absence. Chad, the lead guitarist, moved to Portland, Oregon, to study psychology and vocals. His absence is more noticeable - his songwriting and guitar skills were a big part of the band's style.

But Named By Strangers sounds as good as ever. The new bassist, Peter Bixby, is in the groove. Morgan has moved over to lead guitar, while his cousin Ian has abandoned his hand drums foto get him out of the house sometimes. I can do that. Hey, I want to get drunk and have fun too, but getting drunk and having fun are not what this is all about. Well, mostly. But not all."

That sentiment is shared by Tom Baggott, whose company, thebookingagency.com, books gigs primarily for popular regional acts, bands that, in his parlance, have reached Point B: They regularly draw between 100 and 500 fans (while NBS occasionally attracts these sorts of numbers, most of their shows are seen by fewer than 100 people). "It's incredibly challenging to get to the next level," says Baggott. "They're still a very regionalized band, still popular only at certain venues. If they're going to make the next step, they need a manager and a publicist."

Perhaps, but the signs are encouraging. At Nectar's, the Burlington, Vermont, nightclub famous for spawning Phish, NBS is one of the top draws. "I'd say they're firmly in the top three," says co-owner Damon Brink. "They've got a sound that people are really responding to. And they're not afraid to work." The band's relentless touring has pushed sales of their 2003 self-released album,

Gone

, to almost 5,500, and downloads of their live shows are nearing the 15,000 mark. Their new, self-titled record has already sold nearly 1,000 copies.

Those are the sorts of numbers that can catch the attention of a respectable record label. But the boys have been around long enough to know that there's nothing predictable about success. Relix's pegging them as a "band on the verge" hasn't had as much of an impact as they'd hoped. "Here we are a year later, doing the same thing," says Drew. "On the verge of what? We don't know."

[NEXT]

A COUPLE OF WEEKS AFTER OUR ON-SNOW OUTING, I venture back to the house to watch the boys audition a new bass player. A half-dozen pairs of skis are stuck in a snowbank, and inside, various pieces of winter apparel are scattered about. The tryout was supposed to start at seven. But by nine, they've added 16 Bud Light cans to the kitchen floor and not a lick of music has been played.

Eventually, we make our way down to the basement. Morgan's dungeon is partitioned off into a corner, while the rest of the space is given over to drums and amplifiers and mike stands. Overhead, the main toilet drain has sprung a leak and is now dripping intermittently, creating a suspiciously brown-hued stain on the concrete floor. The bassist has yet to arrive, and keyboardist Brian is AWOL, so the band is reduced to a quartet. It's probably a blessing in disguise, as the 18-pack is gone and only a half-bottle of Jim Beam remains.

The crew is working on a cover of Pink Floyd's melancholy "Time." It's a strange pick for a band that specializes in unrelenting good cheer, but they pull it off nicely. The bassist arrives and he shakes hands around, obviously nervous, obviously hoping for something.

Down here in the NBS basement, with shit-water dripping onto the floor, Chad mumbly-drunk on Beam, an untested bass player trudging his way through the band's signature tunes, and Drew padding about in a pair of fur-lined moccasins, it's hard to imagine there are bigger things in store.

[NEXT]

SIX MONTHS PASS BEFORE I SEE Named By Strangers again. I've hired them to play my family's annual pig roast, and, true to form, the boys show up some two hours late. They're missing two key members. Keyboardist Brian Lauri simply stopped coming to shows. But since no Brian means no bouncer-biting girlfriend, there's a certain sense of relief at his absence. Chad, the lead guitarist, moved to Portland, Oregon, to study psychology and vocals. His absence is more noticeable - his songwriting and guitar skills were a big part of the band's style.

But Named By Strangers sounds as good as ever. The new bassist, Peter Bixby, is in the groove. Morgan has moved over to lead guitar, while his cousin Ian has abandoned his hand drums for the kit ("not necessarily a bad thing," according to Drew).

[NEXT]

THAT NIGHT, WITH BOTH THE PIG AND keg down to bare bones and the set complete, we sit tight to the bonfire, cuddling beers and telling stories. Soon it will snow, and soon Named By Strangers' gig calendar will start filling up with their bread-and-butter venues, winter hot spots like the Brewski, or the Rusty Nail in Stowe. Maybe this will be the winter they make it big; maybe it won't. But one thing is for certain: They'll be back on the slopes, slinging chairs and mining lines on Mount Mansfield and Sugarbush - and wherever their gigs take them. Morgan grabs a stick of poplar and tosses it on the bed of coals. Sparks fly and fade.

MARCH/APRIL 2006

Get Insider Tips and Exclusive Online content delivered right to your inbox. Sign up for the SKIINGmag.com newsletter here
s for the kit ("not necessarily a bad thing," according to Drew).

[NEXT]

THAT NIGHT, WITH BOTH THE PIG AND keg down to bare bones and the set complete, we sit tight to the bonfire, cuddling beers and telling stories. Soon it will snow, and soon Named By Strangers' gig calendar will start filling up with their bread-and-butter venues, winter hot spots like the Brewski, or the Rusty Nail in Stowe. Maybe this will be the winter they make it big; maybe it won't. But one thing is for certain: They'll be back on the slopes, slinging chairs and mining lines on Mount Mansfield and Sugarbush - and wherever their gigs take them. Morgan grabs a stick of poplar and tosses it on the bed of coals. Sparks fly and fade.

MARCH/APRIL 2006

Get Insider Tips and Exclusive Online content delivered right to your inbox. Sign up for the SKIINGmag.com newsletter here

Related