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Cover Story: The Way Down Wanderers

| February 28, 2019

Peoria natives The Way Down Wanderers may be new to many, but since dropping a self-titled debut in 2016, as well as a pair of EPs and a live recording, the quintet has steadily swelled their grassroots fan base with an alluring, frequently unexpected hybrid of heartland sounds. Comprised of guitarist/vocalist Austin Krause-Thompson, mandolin player/violinist/guitarist/vocalist Collin Krause, upright bassist/guitarist/vocalist John Williams, drummer/percussionist John Merikoski and banjo player/guitarist Travis Kowalsky, the guys’ relentless tour schedule has taken them all across America and overseas, both headlining and supporting The Infamous Stringdusters while making the rounds at several of Chicago’s most coveted rooms.

Along the way, they’ve fine-tuned a sound steeped in bluegrass and Americana, but with shades of The Band’s classic sensibilities, The Beach Boys’ harmonies, The Avett Brothers’ rootsy revival, plus slices of classical, jazz and almost anything imaginable. It’s no wonder why The Way Down Wanderers caught the ear of Grammy-winner David Schiffman (Johnny Cash, Rage Against The Machine, Haim). He produced, engineered and mixed the group’s official sophomore album illusions, which finds the fellas even more seasoned than their previous stretch and possesses a high musical proficiency in general well beyond many in their early to mid-20s.

We got the full profile straight from the mouths of primary songwriters Austin Krause-Thompson and Collin Krause (who just so happen to be brothers-in-law and neighbors) in a wide-ranging phone conversation with IE. Here’s what the boys had to say as they geared up for a pair of record release shows in Chicago and Champaign, where The Way Down Wanderers will debut all the new tunes and make a case for the buzz that’s been brewing as they continue to blur boundaries between genres and generations.

Illinois Entertainer: What was the Peoria music scene like when you were getting started?

Austin Krause-Thompson: When we first got started, Collin and myself were both in different bands. The scene as we knew it at the time was pretty underground and pretty low key. There weren’t a ton of spaces for live music, but lots of small galleries and little bars. Collin and I met at a covers show where there were lots of young bands playing. He and I were both in separate bands, and we kind of came together after that. But it definitely seems like the scene has grown quite a bit since that.

Collin Krause: I think when we first started it was a sense of mainly musicians supporting other musicians. The people that went to the shows were the other bands. That was your audience, which was kind of cool.

IE: How did moving to Chicago give you more significant opportunities and visibility?

CK: We moved to Chicago probably about four years ago. A lot of our other bandmates were living up there, so it was really important to be close with them and to leave for tour easily. It definitely helped just getting to know the other people in Chicago, and I definitely don’t think we would’ve had that opportunity living further south.

IE: Have there been any surprises or challenges about being in the city?

CK: A couple of years ago, we had this 36-foot long tour bus, and we were living right in the heart of Chicago at the time, so we had to park the bus on a residential street. I’m pretty sure we annoyed a nice neighborhood of Chicago residents, but luckily we don’t have the bus anymore. That was probably one of the biggest challenges of living in Chicago and making rent every month with a musician’s salary, but we definitely scraped by. And just to clarify, we have moved back to Peoria recently. It feels really good to be back in our hometown where things started. Austin and I are actually neighbors now, and we get together a lot. We get to make music together all the time, not just when we’re on the road, but when we’re back at home too.

IE: And if I’m not mistaken, you guys are also brothers-in-law. What has that dynamic brought to the band?

AK-T: When Collin and I met, we were in a few different bands before we started The Way Down Wanderers. At that time we were just teenagers, so we were always hanging out. I met Collin’s sister through Collin. We’re very like-minded individuals, we became super close friends, the three of us began hanging out quite a bit, and then further down the road, her and I started seeing each other. It’s always been a super close, tight-knit group, so it hasn’t been one of those situations that have been negative or awkward.

CK: We like to joke about it on stage like it is some awkward thing, but really, we don’t think about it.

AK-T: I think it’s definitely made the group a lot closer, in terms of Collin and myself, in terms of songwriting and just bonding in general. It’s just been one more thing to bring it together.

IE: I hear some early Mumford & Sons, a bit of The Lumineers, plus slices of Americana, bluegrass, indie rock and even classical elements in your sound. Does that all align with your influences?

CK: I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head. We grew up listening to folk music and acoustic music, so many different bands ranging from classics like The Beatles and The Band that influence us for sure, to newer artists, like I know Austin really enjoys listening to Trevor Hall. There’s really just a broad range of influences, and we hope that all of those come through in the music.

AK-T: Collin and I have always been really focused on just the songwriting aspect and have always taken that folk singer/songwriter traditional approach in a sense. Then when we take things to the band, we try to base the groove off of that, whether it be something really dancy or modern or something really groovy that you would hear in a song by The Band or something like that. But more so lately, we’ve just been trying to push the envelope a little bit, whether it be the groove or overall shape of a song, so it’s definitely a good range, from classical American music to modern stuff.

IE: Harmonies are also a major component in your equation. Any specific strategy or approach to shaping those?

CK: We definitely spend a lot of time working on our harmony parts. I end up usually taking the highest harmony parts just because I have a very high singing voice. Our bass player usually takes the lower harmony part. We know where each other’s voices fall best in the chords. We’ve definitely been experiencing different styles of harmonies where each person is trading off doing the melody part and some songs where we trade off back and forth between harmony and melody. That’s been a cool element in some of our newer songs.

IE: What inspired the illusions album title?

CK: It’s a song that I actually wrote about growing up and how relationships change over the cycle of your life. I think that ties in the whole album almost. The album really is about life and death and experience and illusions kind of ties in the whole thing to me.

IE: How do you guys feel about growing up and the passage of time? Positive, negative, bittersweet?

AK-T: I would definitely say overall it’s been a very positive thing. I think we all kind of came up in good surroundings, and I want to say it’s been even more positive since we’ve come together. But time has been going by extremely quickly, especially since we’ve been on the road. We try to remember that nothing is permanent. It’s all very in-the-moment, and we just try to take advantage of that as much as we can. I think we try to portray that in some of the songs as well.

IE: Storytelling seems to be a priority. Where do your ideas generally come from- fact, fiction or a little bit of both?

AK-T: On my songs, I think a lot of them are fact, whether it’s a situation that I experienced or someone close to me had experienced.

CK: I guess I don’t know if it would be truth to other people, but these ideas that I have in my head that I think are important enough to write down is usually where I’m at with songwriting.

IE: Do you each individually write songs and bring them to the band or are you in the same room co-writing?

AK-T: Usually a little of both. Collin and I typically will write and bring it to the band, but on this album illusions, we probably co-wrote at least three songs together, which is much more than our first record. Collin and I are writing together more often, but typically Collin and myself will share songs with one another before the group just to get each other’s feedback and impact.

IE: In what ways do you feel the group has grown since releasing your self-titled debut a few years back?

CK: Well we’ve definitely gotten tighter, just playing together five years on stage I think really shows both in the studio and at a live show. We’ve definitely grown as people, but also as musicians. I think everyone’s gotten a lot better. Our harmonies were so much better than they were even six months ago or a year ago, so it’s cool to go back and listen to some of those old recordings and see how far we’ve come.

IE: How did you get hooked up with your producer David Schiffman?

AK-T: I think our drummer John Merikoski had suggested him after hearing just a few records that he put out, one in particular by The Strumbellas. They had a great Americana record, but he also has a ton of work all across the board with tons of different rock bands and country musicians as well. We just hopped on the phone with David, and we just love his approach. He’s super easygoing and laid back and just seemed like he was wanting to make it work. He wasn’t really trying to push anything that we weren’t feeling. It was an organic combination, and it felt right.

IE: Did Schiffman share any stories or insights about working with any of his other amazing acts?

CK: He had really good things to say about working with Johnny Cash, and he said he was one of the nicest guys.

AK-T: He told quite a bit of stories of working with (Grammy-winning producer) Rick Rubin (Johnny Cash, Adele, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Dixie Chicks). He used to be, I think, his right-hand man for a couple of years and he learned a lot from Rick. It was really cool just to know that.

IE: How does your live sound expand beyond the studio recordings?

AK-T: The thing about our live sound is usually it’s just a little more energetic [with] a little more hooting and hollering here and there.

CK: We switch the tempos a bit. I think we play the songs a little faster live.

AK-T: But other than that, we’re just extending the live sound with more of the key parts that we have on the record coming out.

CK: I think we are always trying to make the set list as different as possible. We have different transitions where we try to eliminate silence during the show. It’s really a continuous part where we connect like four or five songs together without stopping. I think that’s something that’s kind of different that sets our stage show apart a little bit.

IE: Do you change the show every night or just per tour?

CK: It really depends on the tour. Recently, we got to go on tour with The Infamous Stringdusters, a really big bluegrass band who just won a Grammy for their album. We had a 45-minute set every night, so we played the same set for that tour. But typically when we’re on own tour and we’re headlining every show, we’ll play a completely different set list every night.

AK-T: We definitely like to switch it up for ourselves as well as the audience, because every now and then, we’ll get some fans who will see a few shows in a row and we really like to keep them on the edge and not know what to expect at all times.

IE: What are some of your favorite places to play around town?

AK-T: Evanston Space has been a great venue; plus Park West – we really love that room – and Lincoln Hall.

CK: Schubas definitely was important for us. It’s such a fun, famous room to play.

IE: What can fans expect from your upcoming Lincoln Hall show specifically?

CK: We’re going to be playing our new album for the first time that night live. There’s a bunch of songs that we’ve never played before on stage, so hopefully, that will be a surprise for some people who haven’t had a chance to hear the new album when it comes out. We’re so excited for that show.

AK-T: We also have another release show on March 9 at The Castle Theatre in Bloomington, Illinois.

IE: Tell us a bit about the following you’ve gained along the way and the community you strive to create around your music.

AK-T: I’m a huge Trevor Hall fan, who’s more of an acoustic reggae/rock artist. He’s someone who I think has a great community of followers that’s like a family in a sense. We try to create that environment in live shows and on social media, just a really inclusive and open community that’s all friendly. We’ve definitely seen some people become friends through our fan page, stuff like that, but just a really energetic and positive vibe is what we’re going for.

IE: What do people usually say when they come up to you after the show? Any frequently heard reactions or emotions?

CK: Well our drummer, John, plays the spoons, so he gets a lot of people coming up to him after the show just wanting to learn how to play the spoons. It’s pretty funny. That’s probably one of the main things we hear from fans after the shows (laughter).

IE: What’s on the horizon after you release this record?

CK: Well, we keep writing, so we’re gonna try and put out another album, hopefully in 2020, and then we’re going just to keep the hitting the road until then.

IE: What are your hopes for the long haul?

AK-T: Just to stay consistent, keep being able to tour, expand our live shows and have our music reach more and more people, whether it’s in a concert hall or on iTunes or wherever. We just really hope to bring more people into our Wanderers crew and just keep the ball rolling. I wouldn’t say we have any aspirations of being like a huge stadium band. I don’t think any of us would complain if we were to go that route, but I don’t think any of us would complain if we never made it that far either.

The Way Down Wanderers appear at Lincoln Hall on Saturday, March 2, and at The Castle Theatre in Bloomington, IL on Saturday, March 9.

– Andy Argyrakis

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