Every Monday through Friday, we deliver a different song as part of our Song of the Day podcast subscription. This podcast features exclusive KEXP in-studio performances, unreleased songs and recordings from independent artists that our DJs think you should hear. Each and every Friday we deliver songs by local artists. Today’s selection, featured on the Morning Show with John Richards, is “Ashes On The Riverbank” by Thieving Irons, a self-released demo from a forthcoming album to be called This Midnight Hum.
KEXP listeners will probably recognize Nate Martinez from his part in the now-defunct band Pela, who won over a legion of fans during the past few years and appeared many times at our events and in-studios. Although a new album from the band seemed imminent in 2009, they shocked their faithful by deciding to part ways before it was released (though you can watch video of some of the songs performed acoustically here). The first to arise from Pela’s ashes is Thieving Irons, Nate Martinez’ solo project, and based on this one song that he’s made available on his website, the new album promises to be fantastic.
While Pela excelled at bighearted, nearly to the point of blustery, athemic rock (and I mean that in the best way), “Ashes On The Riverbank” shows that as a frontman Martinez prefers a more complex and melodic approach. You’d expect a guitarist to write a guitar-centric song, and based on the song’s opening measures (nearly the first full minute, actually) you wouldn’t be wrong. Quickly, though, the song fills up with a meaty bass, an old hollow-sounding piano, and eventually a distorted synth, each building an inescapable catchiness to the song layer by layer. Ultimately, the highlight is Martinez’ voice. In Pela, he occasionally but ably backed up Billy McCarthy arena-sized howl, but after listening to his assured yet plaintive vocals on “Ashes On The Riverbank,” you can’t help wonder why he didn’t more songs himself!
Because there’s not a whole lot out there about the new project just yet, I went right to the source and asked Nate a few questions about Thieving Irons:
How did you get started with your new project? Has it been something that you’ve been considering for a while?
Late last spring I started writing some new songs and I had a couple that had been lying around for a while. So I decided that I should try and record an album all on my own. After spending many years working on Pela I figured it was the perfect time. I guess it was a personal challenge too. I wasn’t sure what the end result would be but I’ve been really happy with the process and the results so far.
So far, “Ashes on the Riverbank” is the only song you’ve released. Have you written other songs? Will/do they have a similar sound?
Yeah. I decided to give this song away. It’s not something I was planning on doing but I wanted to introduce people to this music while I’m finishing up work on the actual album. The demo is something I did last summer while in the writing phase and I had Eric Sanderson [also of Pela] add some instruments. He was pretty inspired by playing drums at the time so he added drums, bass and some piano. This song will be on the album not this demo version though. The album version is a bit more panoramic as are most of the songs.
Is there any particular significance to the band name? Since you’re choosing not to go by your own name, are you considering this project to eventually be a full band?
No significance really. I like the 2 words. Thieving irons is some old 1800s slang that meant a few different things -- hands, scissors, purse snatchers, etc. I think it fits with the music. There’s something with the instrumentation on this album that captures a snapshot of over 100 years of music and music instruments. My friend Mike Brown has a studio called Temperamental studios and he has an unbelievable collection of very old instruments. So we’ve got guitars from the 1800s that we recorded with, pump organs, banjolins, victrolas, quirky old organs, mixed with cheap casios, bowed saws, and random kids toys.
These instruments add a really nice sound to the songs without taking them over. I think this project will definitely evolve into a full live band. At the moment I’m planning on playing most shows as a duo with Mike. Since we both play a bunch of instruments, we figure we’ll just fill the stage with instruments, create loops and have each show be a unique experience with whatever instruments we pick up at the time.
Right now, do you play all instruments? Will there be anyone helping out on the album?
As I wrote the songs for this album, I demoed them out and ended up retaining most of the stuff I recorded in my apartment. I have this quirky, cheap casio keyboard that ends up on most of the songs. I played a lot of guitars, basses, and keyboards. As it developed I had my favorite drummer and friend, Bryan Devendorf play drums on the album. We did some recording at Saltlands in Brooklyn with my friend Jim Smith. I’ve been collaborating with Mike Brown, who I mentioned earlier. He’s added a lot to this album too. Zak Ward, from this band Son Of The Sun, lent some background vocals. Dan Brantigan played some trumpet and a synth trumpet called an EVI which sounds crazy and Soda Gardocki added some guitars and vocals. A great group of talented folks I’m proud to have on the album.
How different is it for you to take on a project by yourself? Have you done it before?
This is my first attempt taking a project on by myself and singing. I’ve sang background vocals in other bands and I’ve written songs over the years that I’ve sang. This is definitely new and it feels great.
Are you performing these songs live yet? If so, how has the response been?
I haven’t played these songs out yet. But that will change in February. My very good friend Josh Kaufman (who’s main project is Rocketship Park and he plays with Dawn Landes) and me will be doing a joint residency at Sycamore in Brooklyn. It will be the 2 of us joined by Mike Brown and each week we’ll have a rotating cast of some of our very talented friends doing different interpretations of our songs. I can’t wait.
I’d be doing Pela fans a disservice if I didn’t ask: Will we ever get to hear the final, as yet unreleased album, Arise Ye Sunken Ships?
Yes, you will. Some day the album will be released.
There you have it, folks. There are definitely things in life worth waiting for. As Nate says in the interview, he’s holding a join residency for four Thursday at Brooklyn’s Sycamore starting on February 11. New York listeners should head on down. Everyone, though, should keep tabs on Thieving Irons through its MySpace and Facebook pages, and hopefully we’ll hear a lot more from this band in the near future. For now, here’s one of three clips recorded in the studio to give you a bit more to sample -- this one show’s them working on a song called “I Can Hear A Pin Drop”: