The Ballroom Thieves have had a fly-by-night, whirlwind couple of years, stealing in and out of coffee shops and concert halls, making fans and friends across the country. The release of their first LP, A Wolf in the Doorway, a great booking agent, and (one might argue excessive) drive kept the band on the road for two years straight. Exhausted, their lives After the Tour unrecognizable from Before the Tour (they didn’t even have places to live), they set down to record songs of travel and heartbreak that they’d cobbled together in hotel rooms and the back of their van. The result was Deadeye.
After the first leg of their Deadeye tour, the Thieves have returned to the town that made them for a two-night, sold-out run at their favorite local venue, the Sinclair. When I caught up with drummer and vocalist Devin Mauch, he and his bandmates Martin Earley (guitar) and Calin Peters (cello) were taking breather in Upstate New York and rehearsing the hell out of his parents’ basement. We chatted about the band’s origin at Stonehill College, the making of Deadeye, and the folk-music canon.
Blast: I want to ask you more about Stonehill. I’ve been there a couple times and it did not strike me as the kind of place that would foster artistic endeavors. How did you and Martin meet and what was it like getting started in that environment?
Devin Mauch: Me and Martin didn’t really start hanging out until the beginning of his senior year I’d say, maybe the backend of his junior year. Although the creative arts community was small, I was fortunate enough to be a part of it. You’re not far off. . . there wasn’t a big support system. The arts program was great, but it was small and it wasn’t the focus. But the arts and music community stuck together. So we were both part of that and got to know each other.
I was in charge of all of the entertainment booking on campus my junior and senior year, so I was able to set things up so we were playing wherever there was a show on campus, whether it was a small thing or a big show like Spring Weekend, and we’re opening for Sara Bareilles. It was the classic are you a small fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a small pond?
Blast: So from what I know about the making of Deadeye, it sounds like you guys did a lot of writing on the road, a lot more than you did on your previous album. So what was that process like? I imagine it would be a lot more haphazard and less cohesive than sitting down to write an album. Was it any better or worse?
Devin Mauch: It was just different. For A Wolf in the Doorway, most of the writing that took place, we were choosing a room, having a whiskey and a smoke; we were able to have a really comfortable environment. That record did so well that we were fortunate enough to be out on the road for the next two years straight and so the process had to develop. Martin, as our primary songwriter, definitely saw that as. . . I don’t want to say a struggle, but something that he had to grow with and grow into. And Callie started writing songs as well. So you know, it was writing in the hotel room or writing notes into your cell phone while you’re in the backseat and we’re driving across the country for a ten-hour drive. And it was being inspired by the road, and all the emotions we were feeling by being torn away from our homes and being around each other, 24/7, for months at a time.
We took on a touring schedule that most bands, that are peers of ours at least, consider almost foolishly suicidal as a band. On the mental side of things it was tough, but it forced us to incubate in those different spaces, and we were pretty excited about it. And that became Deadeye.
Blast: I think you can hear that on Deadeye. From a listener’s perspective, there seems to be a mix of more genres or influences on there. Whereas your first record was one sound.
DM: Yeah, we’re kind of all over the place genre-wise, but somehow it all works. And I’d definitely highlight our “we’ll do whatever the fuck we want,” sound-wise.
Blast: I think that’s probably the way to go for a sophomore album, because there’s so much pressure there, to just say “fuck it, we’ll do what we want.”
DM: Yeah, you’ve got to take risks and not produce the same kind of album. That’s what we went for, and it seemed to work.
Blast: I was going to ask what the thesis or initial goal was, going into this album, but that seems like it was it. Or was there something else going on there?
DM: We were at a point in our lives, individually, where we were really starting to feel the mental struggle of not really having homes anymore and having romantic relationships not work out because of our schedule and the intensity with which we were attacking everything. So we had a general attitude of “fuck it.” We’re pouring everything that we have, both in the material sense and the emotional sense, into this new music because this is all we’ve got, at this point.
Blast: I didn’t start listening to you guys until A Wolf in the Doorway was a pretty big thing. I know you had a fairly established presence in Boston, but how did the album break for a larger audience? Was there a specific event, or was it just touring a lot?
DM: The big moment was signing with our touring agency. We had this professionally produced product, and people seemed to like the record. We were able to book a few big festivals that year. One was Boston Calling, which gave us more clout in the eyes of our fans, but also the general public. Were playing on this big stage in front of a couple thousand people, where two years prior, we’d been playing on the street, 150 yards from that location for money between tours. And then we got Newport Folk Festival, and so on and so on.
Blast: You guys seem to be part of what seems like a folk tradition of sorts of having three-person bands of two men and one woman. I’m thinking Peter, Paul, and Mary, and a lot of contemporary bands that have the same makeup. How does that benefit you guys? I’m sure vocally, you can do a lot more with harmony arrangements and such, but what do you think works about that arrangement so well? And why do you think it works particularly in folk music?
DM: Maybe it works so well, specifically in the folk world, because the music is so much about storytelling and having the insight of both genders and that’s really important. It’s not to say that a band with two men, or three women or whatever, wouldn’t have good insights. But i think that perspective is important and has been a very interesting thing for us. It was never completely intentional. When Martin and I started off as a duo, we never thought “Oh, we’ve got to find a woman for our band,” but it happened to work out that way. But we gained so much, and it enriches the words we say and the ways that the fans can relate to you and the music in a completely different way. And it just seems more complete.
The complete trio are playing sold-out shows at the Sinclair on February 3 and 4. Check out their website for more tour dates.