It’s Sunday night in Normal Heights and all is quiet – except for the crowded Sycamore Den, where every seat is filled, along with plenty of the standing space, to hear the folk-rock of the Liquorsmiths. The enthusiastic gathering of 20- and 30-somethings aren’t there to hear the chime-guitar and harmony music blazed by their daddy’s Dylan, Byrds, or Simon and Garfunkel; while this sound shares acoustic guitar in its lifeblood, it has a raw edge and rumbling pulse that is delivered by a trio that features two drummers and only one six-string.
“I feel like folk-rock is the new punk rock. You know you grow up, you listen to punk and rebel, you grow up a little more, only to find that nowadays all of those old punk rockers are writing folk songs; they’ve got stories to tell,” says Drew Thams, the band’s guitarist, singer, and songwriter. “I just grew with that scene in a certain way. Then, of course, the sound – I love tube amplifiers and I love hard rhythms and in general I like treble tones, and that lends itself to that kind of music.”
Thams formed the band in 2014, with Ryan Fischer (percussion, keyboards), and Clayton Payne (percussion).
“The Liquorsmiths” name is a bit of a play on the “craft alcohol” obsession in San Diego, but it is also related to the fact that both Ryan Fischer and I were professional bartenders when we started the group. Ryan and I met at the bar where he works in early 2014. While serving me, we hit it off talking music. I mentioned a new project I was looking to start and he was intrigued. The next week we met and began rehearsing. Clayton joined the group in a pinch, filling in last minute for a show at the House of Blues for a show last May. We also hit it off right away, musically and personality-wise.”
Fischer recalls wanting to play drums when his dad played him Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffitti around the age of nine. Later, he played in punk and indie bands, went to the Berklee College of Music, and then Nashville before he “found more success in bartending than music.” He views Thams and Clayton as kindred spirits, and recalls Thams approaching him about the band:
“I think the key words were, ‘driving and percussive folk-rock,’ ‘two drummers,’ and ‘you can play keys, too.’ That was a little over a year ago, so it’s been a pretty fast evolution to our current state.”
While Thams admires more recent and local artists Delta Spirit and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), he grew up as a fan of grunge artists Pearl Jam as well as Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, which might account for his all-out singing style. To hear Payne tell it:
“Our first show stands out, because I thought I totally blew it! We had rehearsed once at Ryan’s, with no amplification, so all the songs we played were very quiet and delicate. When we played the show, not only had the venue turned us up, but out of Drew came this Chris Cornell roar that catapulted the material to a new level. I was prepared to be a supportive ‘folk’ drummer, so to say I was surprised is an understatement.”
“My roots are more progressive rock than anything else, so Neil Peart and Bill Bruford are huge influences,” says Payne, listing many who have impacted his playing, and including his bandmate Fischer. “Ryan’s been an amazing influence, too. He’s a great drummer, so playing with him really makes me want to elevate my game.”
Fischer describes the interplay of the two drummers: “It really is a conversation while we’re playing, because we’re feeding off of and trying to respond to what the other is doing, while still supporting the song and adding the right elements to what Drew is playing. I think the key is that Drew writes some really strong melodies that can stand alone and that allows the drums to be a little more free.”
“Our influences are wide to say the least. I’m a relatively big modern folk fan, but enjoy garage rock and also a lot of electronic music. Ryan and Clayton are musicians extraordinaire,” says Thams.
The local alternative folk music scene is thriving, if Thams and the Liquorsmiths’ experience is any indication.
“I was a musician in San Francisco, playing similar stuff, a little more mellow. Up there I didn’t get a lot of work. I played in a wine bar, but otherwise I just played electronic music in clubs. Then I come down here, and all of a sudden it’s almost like San Diego was thirsty for it. I started playing, played around, and almost immediately had success. With this new band, we kind of step into the scene, we play a couple of shows, and people knew who we were, and people were ‘Oh cool, do you want to play this Friday night?’” says Thams. “This kind of music is really strong right now; Mumford and Sons did so well and you have the Black Keys who have that rock essence on that side of it.”
Compared to San Francisco and LA, he feels that the scene has been more supportive to folk rock music.
“I’m sure that could happen in LA but for some reason I’ve found it easier here – and maybe it’s just that I’m writing better music, and maybe I’ve found the right players in the right community. I appreciate the community here, also the musicians in this town support musicians – there are so many other songwriters that I know, leads of other bands and drummers, and people I interact with who come to my shows, and I go to their shows. That part of the folk-rock community is awesome.”
On Sunday night, the band doesn’t take long to set up, and they get busy while one of the Jackass movies plays on the screen behind the bar nearby and the crowd starts to build. Payne has a small drum kit, and Fischer’s keyboard and percussion set-up goes up quickly, while Thams has the only vocal mic and runs his acoustic flat-top guitar through a Fender tube amp. The seats that were empty at 9pm are gone now, and the band kicks off with “Blank Page,” a good intro to the Liquorsmith sound: tom-toms thump on the right, with a snare from the left, creating an undercurrent that the guitar’s power strums and Thams’ urgent vocal ride over the top of. It is a unique and captivating combination of sounds – there aren’t any other bands that sound like this. The band’s dynamics center on various drum rhythms, the lightness or urgency of the guitar strumming, and Thams’ soulful vocals.
The crowd is familiar with the songs, as the set progresses to “Sycamore Rope,” which has some keyboard flourishes by Fischer and may be the closest thing the band plays to a catchy and infectious pop tune.
Next, the band plays a spoken word piece with bongos and percussion backing, as Thams recites some observations about society and race relations – topical any time, but especially so on the eve of Martin Luther King day. “Get Well Soon” follows, starting pretty much as straight up alt-folk, then builds with power-strummed bridges as the song morphs into a segment with both drummers playing a sort of percussion conversation with one another, then eventually resolving with a final vocal chorus. The most memorable song is probably “Let It Come,” which blends catchy folk hooks with rumbling drums by both drummers to perfection. As Thams sings lyrics about thunder many in the audience are singing along. The song is about thunder and the guys play it with a curious mix of acoustic guitar and drums.
“We play monthly at the Sycamore Den. I love that place,” says Thams. “That place is very welcoming to us, that’s why we like to play there. We can surprise them with new material, try out all these different things, do extended solos; the casual environment allows for that and that’s really nice.”
About the spoken word songs in their sets, Thams says, “A couple of people call it my monologue. It’s not always political, the piece [on Sunday] night was by a woman named Leah Green, who’s from Oakland, a young African-American woman. I thought that was appropriate because it was about equality, appropriate for the times, on Martin Luther King day.”
“I was always taught growing up that when the time comes for you to take the lead and you are given a stage, speak loudly.” Sometimes he writes the pieces himself, as well as finding and sharing the writings of others.
The Liquorsmiths have been working in the studio and recording a video.
“We are working on an EP to be called This Book Belongs To. It’s got a variety of tunes intended to show some versatility from the group.” The planned release date is late spring or early summer.
“We recorded six songs for the EP and also did a few songs live, and we had a videographer with us. The live ones aren’t going to be on the album, so they’ll be kind of bootlegged, and then the video promotion, but that’s building the press kit as well; promoters want to see you live before they book you.”
“The live tracks are all originals. They are songs we put together after we had already tracked the studio stuff. We decided – we play these songs so often now – that we should include them in a certain way, so let’s just do them live.”
Thams’ goals for the band are to get more and better gigs in the next couple of years. He would like to see the band become active on the festival circuit.
For material, the band does a few covers, but most of their songs are Thams originals.
“In writing, I pretty much come up with the material, bring it to the band, and we mold it as a group to fit. I usually have a goal in mind when sitting down to write a tune that evolves into something unexpected. As far as topics, I tend to write about my family and friends. There are a couple love songs thrown in as well, naturally.”
According to Payne, “Drew is always dropping these wonderfully written songs on us at shows… there’s just a new name on the list. Sometimes he’ll take mercy on me and at least let me know if it’s in three or four. Drew’s got such a gift that for narrative – both musically and lyrically – that it informs the drum accompaniment naturally.”
A collector of vinyl records who tinkers with guitars and amps, Thams’ goals for the immediate future seem to be continuing to build the band’s fan base. And he likely will continue his “made-from-scratch” spoken word pieces at local gigs.
“I’ve done a couple about standing up for yourself and a couple about musicians. One I’ve done pretty often, about how we’ve been waiting our whole lives to stand right up here in front of all of you for our chance, for our cue to say ‘Welcome.’ That is sometimes the introduction for the band.”
“Welcome to the Liquorsmiths.”