The next time someone tries to tell me that The Lumineers or, God help me, Mumford & Sons are updating folk traditions for the masses I’m going to plop them down in a chair and make them listen to The Town Where We Live In, the sophomore offering from Brooklyn-based The Habit, who mingle contemporary Americana with the folk-grounded, punk-infused greatness that powered prime Pogues, Waterboys and X side project The Knitters as well as current Stateside kindred spirits like The Devil Makes Three, Trampled By Turtles and Split Lip Rayfield [seriously, “Break Down The Walls” on the new album is the best Shane MacGowan not actually penned by that semi-toothless whiskey sponge].
Like these quality forebears and contemporaries, it’s the mingling of dead solid musicianship, touching vocals, and especially, great songwriting that elevates The Habit above the norm. It’s a careful dance of elements that requires a kind of sincerity and devotion to music in the larger sense that goes well beyond a desire for notoriety, adoration and riches that poisons too many wells. Even just two albums into their catalog it’s clear The Habit skip with moving dexterity and enlivening energy.
Will Croxton (guitars, vocals, songwriting), Siobhan Glennon (lead vocals, keyboards), Tyler Holzer (mandolin, keys), Brian Mendes (guitars, harmonica, vocals, songwriting), Eli Thomas (bass, guitar, vocals) and Mike Ratti (drums) possess a layered synergy that pleasantly recalls the classic lineups of Fairport Convention and Pentangle or perhaps The Byrds with a healthy estrogen infusion. Like their winning debut, Lincoln Has Won [DI review], The Town We Live In was produced by the great Ivan Julian, a man who keeps only quality company, and the results are direct, engaging, and exciting in ways that don’t seem to always be entirely in control [see the shouting, clattering “Leave Her, Johnny” to see what we mean].
We snagged Siobhan Glennon for a double length 7 Minutes chat where we delved into the ins & outs of being a truly independent band in modern times, making music in Brooklyn and more.
Why do you think you’re a musician?
Because it’s really fun! I still don’t think of myself as a musician, so it’s a hard question for me to answer. I tried to do anything but that until very recently, and because I had so much fun playing and dancing I thought, “I can’t make this something I’m serious about because it will ruin it.” But then I found myself in this band and taking it more seriously and it hasn’t ruined it.
It’s kind of a cheesy movie but there’s a scene in Hope Floats where Harry Connick Jr.’s character talks about how people twist the things they love to do to squeeze out money and that often kills the love they had for doing those things. There’s a fear of that with anyone who does creative work where we worry that this thing that sustains us, fulfills us will cease to do that if we do it for money. However, it can be very cool to make a living doing what you love. I get the strong sense from everyone in The Habit – even though I don’t know any of you personally or even tangentially – that you really love being in this band together. You have such a beautiful all-in spirit where you throw everything you have into this music.
I think that’s true but I think it’s because we all have day jobs [laughs]. In fact, we all have day jobs we like a lot. You don’t encounter that a lot in New York City. Finding a way to make money in a way you can tolerate in order to do your music or art or whatever is a charmed thing. So, when we get together we’re just ready to play.
Rugged independence suits this band well. It’s very American in the best sense.
Yeah! Every time the conversation goes in the direction of getting a record label or making more money doing this we end up making a BIG u-turn and deciding to do it on our own. For example, we had a CD Release House Party, where we just invited people to come over and hang out and listen. It’s more our style to hang out.
Building a community around you that specifically digs what YOU do and is down to support YOU is likely the way most independent band in the future are going to sustain themselves. Finding YOUR niche as opposed to the old school chase for a large, generic audience is the more effective survival tactic now.
Once you get over the notion that getting enough people to listen will make you successful, when you see that’s not necessarily true, it’s liberating. And it feels better to become part of a community instead of trying to meet strangers and convince them you’re worth listening to. Who wants to do that? If someone doesn’t want to listen to us that’s okay, and then you have a genuine, honest relationship with the people who want to listen.
You can build a wonderful potluck existence that way. It’s a neat way to create art. Levon Helm’s Rambles are a great example of this in action, where the people who came to listen also brought a dish for the potluck dinner before the show. Breaking bread and then dancing and singing with people is the raw stuff of community.
It makes sense, and ironically, in some ways, technology may lead us back to that kind of sharing because you realize [through social media and other online tools] that so many people are interested in doing the same things. So, you can struggle to become more noticeable than everyone else doing what you’re doing OR you recognize that it’s okay to do it on a smaller, more intimate scale. There are so many different ways to have a career using technology.
You couldn’t do a lot better in terms of allies than Ivan Julian, who’s produced both albums by The Habit [and we adore him at the Impound too – check out this 2011 interview].
It’s been so great to have his support, especially from somebody from such a totally different background that wants to work with us.
He’s seen as one of the architects of proto-punk but talk to him and you quickly discover he has really diverse tastes. He’s interested in anything that feels real. That seems to be the only real criterion for Ivan.
We have this spot called the Manhattan Inn, which is basically just a room with a baby grand piano in the middle of it, and he wanted to come over and record piano ballads there. Well, I didn’t know he wrote piano ballads [laughs]. He’s all over the place!
Going back to the second record, did it free you up to not have an overarching theme like your debut?
Since I don’t write the songs, I don’t think I felt this so much, even on the first record, but I do think in terms of style and, even more so, in terms of our comfort level in pushing each other out of our aesthetic comfort zones became our priority on this record rather than being an Americana band. Rather than looking for all the areas where we easily came together, we explored the more jagged intersections.
Even though the first album dealt with Lincoln and the period after the Civil War, The Town We Live In has more friction. However, if one looks at the world today through the lens of the first album, the new album seems a logical progression in some ways. The world is frustrating and it’s easy to want things to have moved on further than they have since the late 1800s.
When we gave the debut the title Lincoln Has Won it wasn’t even ironic it was just a lie [laughs]. We thought it was funny. But the theme emerged after the fact as we threaded the songs together; it wasn’t written with the intention of a unifying theme. There were times with the new record we felt like the songs were SO far apart from one another, but having a producer that can meld things so well and living with the songs for a time it all feels of a piece now.
One of my frustrations with a lot of modern rock ‘n’ roll is how it rejects the 60s/70s notion that rock is a wide open space where anything is permitted. The twangy country tune could be followed by a jazz-inflected number followed by a boogie tune and some psych jams. If you wanted to try and it suited the artist in the moment it was fine. That mentality has slipped a lot in recent years, and that’s something that immediately attracted me to the new album, where there are lots of interesting juxtapositions, some of which are downright primal. Was it fun to play in all these different ways?
Absolutely! It was also so challenging but it’s great. Somehow I’m becoming a bit of a bridge between [primary songwriters] Will and Brian. Both have pushed me into songs I wouldn’t normally have been likely to sing.
That’s interesting because you really inhabit the material. It reminds me a bit of the dynamics in The Cowboy Junkies, where Michael Timmins writes nearly every song but Margo Timmins is the voice of the band. There’s a great tradition of this in music, where a lot of my all-time favorites like Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris are primarily interpreters.
I think a lot of credit for this goes to Brian and Will. They just hand them to me and we go. Personally, I just enjoy finding my way into a song. I’m sure my experience singing them is different than someone singing a song they wrote, but for me this is the most fun thing. It feels like you’re a different character on each song.
The Habit is based in Brooklyn, which has become known as a hipster musician Mecca. What’s it like being a band from that borough?
It makes you humble because there are so many bands and so many places to play BUT it’s hard to be special when you’re one of five bands on a bill that night. However, we have the benefit of not sounding like a trendy band. We’re not of the youth culture right now, and while we play some smaller places, it’s great because that feeds that sense of community we were talking about earlier. Generally, you end up playing with your friends even if your bands sound almost nothing alike [laughs]. It’s fun to do those shows, and often the guy who books that show also does sound AND is in his own band playing that night. It feels very cliché but it’s also great to find where the honesty exists in this environment.
So, what’s usually going through your head right before you go onstage?
Don’t fuck up!