Most of us humans, we aren't cattle. We don’t follow the same path. We forge our own.
Mason Tinsley (a.k.a. Boots "Damn" Conrad) and the other gents composing the Michigan folk-punk band, Rickett Pass are perpetually compelled to do so, usually head-first right through the nearest wall. The thing is, they’ll get up, dust themselves off, turn around, walk back in, pay for the wall, get up on stage, and go right back to work.
It's hard not to like these guys, on-stage and off. Most importantly, it's hard not to like their music, infectious stage spirit or to admire their drive. Rickett Pass (stripped down, it's Matt James on lead guitar, Joe Vega on mandolin, Mason on guitar, banjo and vocals, and Michael Tinsley on the washtub bass) has sprung both quality and quantity upon us since their inception in January, 2010.
They quickly released their first EP, 'One Way Road,' which turned into the full-length album, 'Bad Decisions' in January, 2011. The same process is slated to happen to their released-in-October 2012 EP, 'My Mistake.'
They join a rich pool of Michigan musicians adding their own foot-stomp to roots music in the Rust Belt. They are signed to Wayward Parade Records and count a bar by the name of Double D's in Rockwood, Mich., as their home base. Oh, yeah, they drive a Cadillac Escalade and they snort whiskey.
DIY Recording, FYI
With 'My Mistake,' Rickett Pass comes to life as a band. Most of the songs on 'Bad Decisions' were written by Mason with a couple added at the last minute. "My Mistake" is much more of a whole-band collaboration.
"I think this new EP gets to where we are as a band now," agrees Vega. "Rickett Pass is a band and we're all growing as musicians and as people, looking at things in different ways and trying to push the envelope. 'My Mistake' is kind of slower than anything else we've done in a really good way, I think."
Mason agrees: "I'm pretty happy with it," he says, admitting it came together last-second. "I planned an EP release, thought we had plenty of time, then ended up recording it the Sunday of the week it came out, but I couldn't be happier with how fast it got done. Everybody stayed until it was finished, nobody bitched, we just played the damn songs and recorded it in about eight hours at the house, using tables and chairs with blankets over them," he says. "Yes, we built blanket forts and put microphones in them because Matt [James] is the shit and does all that. He is definitely the sound guy. He made a mic clip out of cardboard from a pizza box. He’s the MacGyver with all the sound stuff."
Of recording an EP in a day's time, at home, using blanket forts, Mason says: "Long as everybody works together and keeps a good attitude, it’s not a big deal. If something’s wrong, fix it and do it again. One person fucks up, everybody’s gotta do it over again." The plan is for the full-length to be released in January, 2013, and it's tentatively titled 'Places We Find Ourselves' and now we get back to that thing a couple paragraphs up about Rickett Pass coming to life as a band. "It's going to be more of a look into where everybody's coming from," says Mason. "I'm not going to be the only dude singing, time to take turns. Matt, Joe and I are all writing songs, so it's not always going to be about the road I'm on."
That concentration on Rickett Pass is shared by James, who's putting his other project, The Back Home in Michigan Band (founded in 2006), somewhat on the back burner to channel his creative energy into Rickett Pass. More on that band later, by the way. First, James's thoughts on the new EP. "You listen to the last album and then this EP and you can hear that we've all grown together," says James. "I think the music's tighter and more intricate. We're all opening up now and the fact that we're all writing for Rickett Pass instead of writing for our individual projects is important.
"We've kind of stockpiled and concentrated our creativity. It's opened up and gotten interesting. When you grow together, you start getting into the dirty details and making some really cool music," continues James, getting into the meat of it. "Music is like a woman. You've got to warm up to her and the relationship grows. Well, we've grown and here we go, that's the way I look at it. We're all writing together and working together and as long as it keeps getting better, there's no reason to stop."
How It Started
A headliner in their own right and a popular addition to a show bill these days, things really kicked in for Rickett Pass thanks to a chance meeting with Mikey Classic of The Goddamn Gallows, says Mason: “I met Mikey in Detroit and he’d never heard us play and didn’t know who the fuck we were, but [eventually] helped spark this whole thing.”
He also credits Michigan promoter/booking agent Devilyn Carver with connecting him to a network of people who instantly appreciated the band's music and then, “Every stop we make, we bump into somebody we can connect with,” says Mason. “We’ve been digging the scene and didn’t think we could be a part of what was going on, making all these friends, hanging out with Zach Shedd or playing banjo with Jayke Orvis in my living room.
“It’s all just humbling, and new, and I wouldn’t change a damn thing right now,” says Mason, backing up to where it started. "The night I left my wife, I went to Double D’s and Joe was there. Joe was fucking 19. He played his part, did his thing, then sat down. At the time, I didn’t know anyone or anything about it, but wanted to build a band. I booked a show at Double D’s, so it’s where we started, in January, 2010. We learned a couple songs and just played.
"I played guitar, didn't even pick up a banjo until I was looking for a banjo player and instead just bought one," Mason continues. "We were together for two weeks before we played that first show in January, 2010. We got together for just that one show and kept going."
James joined the band in the summer of 2011, bringing a heavy dose of talent and energy to the equation, "He's a way better guitar player," says Mason. "We were playing local shows, playing charity stuff for free and, at one point, didn't have a show for nine months, then Matt came in, got all fired up and sparked the same in us. He was just all excited, like 'Let's record and tour!'. As soon as Matt joined the band, we recorded our first EP, started getting out on tour and that's when we met Devilyn [Carver].
"It does seem like people are liking what we’re doing," says Mason. "We’re not trying to do anything that's already being done. I think there's some Motown in our music, and some Credence Clearwater Revival these days, I'm not sure why it happened that way. Whatever sounds good to us, we play."
For his part, James had been treading folk-punk scene waters for awhile and was lamenting the dearth of banjo players around his own age--justified anger, some would say. Then, it happened. "I was running around with this girl that knew Mason and she kept trying to introduce us," says James. "We basically needed someone who could play the banjo and roll around with us getting stupid.
"Then we were booked on a show together, ran into each other, and pretty much figured we should be hanging out. I started going over to his apartment and playing tunes, drinking whiskey and watching mice in the oven," says James (don't ask, I didn't). "And he asked me to join Rickett Pass and I figured I could handle two projects.
"He originally wanted to hire me and get rid of Joe. I was Joe's replacement, but was like, 'Dude, I'll join your band but you gotta keep Joe. You all already have a dynamic, so I'll join as long as you promise never to get rid of Joe,'" says James, the passion in his voice rising to a point where I can't tell if he's serious or totally kidding.
From Vega's viewpoint, it was happening upon the open mic night at Double D's through an ex-girlfriend that got things going. "I went and he was playing old time and rag time tunes, then he pulled out a banjo a couple of times and things got interesting," recalls Vega. "I was on probation at the time, so I wasn't drinking, and I almost didn't know what to do because I especially enjoyed the songs he'd written, but I didn't want to hang out and be tempted to start drinking and go to jail.
"I went to a couple more open mic's, then started playing, as well. From there, we met Ted Frank Whitman, who played electric bass. One day after Mason and I had been practicing and hanging out, we approached Ted to come and play music with us. We walked up to Ted and we just kind of dropped a washtub bass in his garage and said, 'Alright, man, time to learn.' We wrote quite a few songs in that garage, though we don't play many of them anymore, except "Cocaine" and "Can't Scare Me." Ever since then, it's all gone really quick. I never expected to do what we're doing now ever in my life, at all."
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Sometimes, maybe more often than we think, life is about the company you keep. "Mason and I are the friends we just can’t get rid of, no matter how we try," says Vega. "We’d played at a show with Matt at one of the local venues here when he was in Back Home Michigan Band. We were just watching Matt finger pick and it was more of a bluesy, traditional sounding band and we looked at each other and were like, 'We gotta talk to this guy and see if he wants to play guitar full-time.' We went over there and ran through some of the songs with him and he was like, 'Yeah, man, sounds good.' Said he’d play as long as it’s fun for him and we’ve been having fun ever since and that’s it."
As far as the future, there's no doubt the guys all think about it even while doing a pretty damn good job living in the present. "If we stay together, we're going to make something happen," say Vega. " I don't know what, but something.
"Who knows if this [scene] is here to stay? Will it get really huge, stay the way it is, or disappear completely? Either way, I'll stay for the ride, it's keeping me happy," which most would agree is of fundamental, elemental importance to the human equation, i.e. life. "I think what keeps us together is the desire to keep playing music and the way things have been going, it’s enough alone to keep us pushing. We’re all talking about what are we going to do as far as homes, wives, jobs, finances, whatever. We’ll talk about it for five minutes and then about going on tour and doing these shows and it all just kinda falls to the wayside because the conversation of hitting the road is greater than--and the togetherness of the band is greater than--anything else, really."
Positive feedback doesn't buy gas, but it is important and Rickett Pass seems to garner it regularly. Mason's theory on how you know things are going okay: "When you walk off stage, you automatically know whether you did good or not. If you did good, everyone loves you and slaps you on the back," he says. "If you didn't, you get ignored. I think the way we've been welcomed so far has a lot to do with all of us committing to Rickett Pass and to each other."
Piece By Piece
Here's a little history on each of the guys. Okay, a lot of history.
The Making of "Boots"
The roots music bug got planted early for Mason, as is true with so many of us. Unlike most, he was playing fiddle even before he played guitar. "My dad is from Kentucky and my mom from up here, so, in the end, I've kind of put the two together," he says of mixing roots music with Detroit-influenced punk music. The other piece to that puzzle? Alaska. "I moved up to Alaska at one point and was working in a small town outside of Fairbanks for a couple years," he recalls. "They liked a lot of old-timey stuff and I liked punk rock, and that's where the two came together for me."
A character who would've been home in the logging camps of the last century, the gold-mined hills of Deadwood, South Dakota, or wherever his feet happen to be planted, he's a veteran of the United States Army with two tours in Iraq under his tied-rope belt. He's got medals, but you won't hear him talk about them. He's been around the block for a young guy, even if he channels that seriousness away when the neon lights are glowing, like we all try to do. He's just better at it than you and me.
Born in Arizona, his family moved around a lot. He graduated from high school in Missouri, where he got kicked out at one point because his mohawk was too tall, "…a Detroit kid sent to the Bible Belt," he says. "The more they didn't like the things I was doing, the more I wanted to do them." Well, obviously. "I was on the cover of the newspaper for underage smoking and joined the Army from Missouri."
His father played guitar and introduced him to much of the music that has influenced him. "He left when I was younger, but I still remember him playing those records. He was kinda a three-chord hero," says Mason of his dad's guitar skills. "He introduced me to Jerry Jeff Walker, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Hank Williams, Sr.--old country.
"Once he was gone, I wanted a guitar. My cousin was also real good and I'd watch him play old punk. I wanted to play the blues, but that was short-lived," says Tinsley, who started playing punk instead. As mentioned above, the roots music itch came back to him while stationed at Fort Wainwright in Alaska while still in the Army in 2006. "I met some old-time players and junk bands up there," he recalls. "Then I got hurt, so I got out and moved out into the Gold Stream Valley, raced sled dogs for awhile, got divorced and then, when I moved back to Michigan [in 2009], I couldn't find it. I guess there was a big scene, I just didn't know it was around."
By the way, Mason was stationed in Alaska when he "got hurt," but the injury happened in Iraq. "I was there for the invasion, then back again, and then medically discharged," he says, only willing to talk peripherally about the experience. "I have a certain level of thankfulness for life now. The whole time I was there, it was the last place I wanted to be and music was a big deal, regardless of what type. It's the one thing that sort of calmed the nerves.
"When you're in a hole waiting for one idiot to come by for two days, it's all you have…it's all you got. I listened to a lot of punk and hardcore, then bought a little toy guitar and played it in Mosul and did the same in Baghdad.
"I guess I’m just hoping that at one point in time I’ll give a CD or a song to somebody that will actually need it. Our song, 'Can’t Scare Me,' gets at why is your head hanging so low. Keep your head up dude, it’s going to be okay. Worst that’s going to happen is you’re going to die and, for me at that point, dying was a serious issue." Thus, music. "How people perceive what you’re saying can be read into five different ways and that’s the beauty about music: it doesn’t have to be about any one thing, it just has to comfort you."
Mason joined the Army when he was 17 out of necessity, to be honest. "I was hungry and homeless, so I opted to do the Army thing and was in there almost six years--the 101st Airborne out of Fort Campbell. I was a fire support team leader, so when the helicopters would come in with missiles or artillery fire, I'd tell them where to shoot. My actual job was forward observer. I went in the initial invasion, then again a year later. I had six or seven months between tours. I was there a year the first time and 16 months the second time."
You probably wouldn't guess these things about Mason when you meet him, but you get a feel for it over time. The "let's have good times" look in his eye can quickly be replaced by something else and we'll leave the rest of what's in there to him to tell--good thing he's been known to write a song or two or 12. One thing we can talk about is his pride and joy, Landon Carter Mason. Tinsley shows a whole 'nother side to himself when he talks about his boy.
Another side of Boots:
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Getting It Right
Some of us get to learn the easy way; others, the hard way. "As a little kid, my best friend’s older brother played bass in a bunch of hardcore punk rock bands," says James. "He used to hold us down, tie us to trees and make us remember band titles. We'd listen to Smashing Pumpkins or Nirvana on the radio and he’s throw tennis balls at us if we couldn’t name the singer of NOFX."
That, in short, explains one half of James's musical foundations. His grandpa was a big part of the other half. "He was a quartet singer and would wake up every morning and sit down at the piano. He’d play and sing until the coffee was gone. I was learning different things on the piano before I could speak," remembers James.
These two distinct musical forces were battling within James early on, and evidently within many of his peers in the Detroit area, too. He goes on to talk about the beginning and progression of what he calls folk-punk. "I just call everything folk-punk. If you're playing a traditional instrument fast, I call it folk-punk," he says. "Detroit was a big hardcore punk scene, then it dropped off and everybody and their grandma was playing open mic's with acoustic guitars, but it was still punk and then punk-rock-folk outfits started popping up everywhere."
Seeing the first tendrils of a growing scene burgeoning in front of his eyes, it took time for James to understand he was not alone in his family-instilled musical dichotomies. "[Bands like] Defiance, Ohio and Mischief Brew, when they started coming into Detroit at the Trumbleplex, an old commune house in Detroit full of crusty, older punk rock kids, that's when I figured out there were more people doing [folk-punk]," says James. "It was mainly the suburban kids and the punk rock kids who couldn’t hold the bands together anymore and they kept playing the songs acoustic.
"I jumped into the scene the same way. I grew up listening to punk rock and playing in punk rock bands and the guy who is my mentor is a hot rod country dude, amazing guitar player, all about country, bluegrass and traditional. He’d hound us when we were 10 or 11: 'You don’t need to be playing that punk rock stuff, that’s for little kids.' He was always trying to sell us on country and traditional music. All the songs he'd teach us were traditional. So, I was playing around with this country stuff when it wasn’t cool. Then, as I got introduced into the scene, I realized this is kind of what I’ve been doing and there’s more people into it.
Hence, the Back Home in Michigan Band and then Rickett Pass and "the door opened: it was like, there is a scene here and a ton of people are into it and they all love it," says James, going on to give an overview of the folk-punk scene from his point of view. "I kind of put it all under one big tent, but there are definitely different sounds coming from different regions. In Kansas, there's Carrie Nation and the Speakeasy and The Calamity Cubes!. In Detroit and Chicago, it's the same type of music but a little more aggressive, The Goddamn Gallows for instance.
"It's really cool to see all the colors of the genre, different dialects of the same. There are more and more people interested in what's going on and paying attention to the music, not gaining the extent of their music knowledge off the radio, but from hard-working musicians," says James, who plans on more of the same. "I'll keep playing traditional instruments really fast, yelling into the microphone and having a really good time."
Viva La Vega
When you talk to people about how they got into folk-punk music, or whatever you want to call it, a grandparent or great-uncle shows up in the story so often that you can almost count on it. Same goes with Joe Vega, something I found out about him the first time we met standing in a doorway to stay out of a driving rain outside of Reggie's Music Joint in Chicago.
"We used to go up north with my family on my mom’s side and my grandpa had a stack of Faron Young CD’s and my uncles would all sit around and sing those songs, and Frank Sinatra," says Vega. "My grandpa on my dad’s side always had country music radio or a tape going in his car. Starting off on a guitar, I wanted to hear different ways the instrument was used.
"For a while there, through high school, I listened to punk rock, hardcore and metal, then went on a hunting trip with my buddy down to his grandparents’ place in Kentucky and as soon as we got past the Ohio River --it was his Dad and him in the truck--they put in Marty Robbins all the way to their papaw’s house, so that really opened my eyes. I started looking around, checking out more artists, started getting into bluegrass and ended up finding .357 [String Band] and the Devil Makes Three, Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs, Ramblin’ Jack [Elliott] and people like that.
"Ever since then, it’s been a staple in my listening. I don’t why I enjoy it but I do. I'll listen to some jazz and stuff, too, to calm down from the work day," finishes Vega, who "started off playing the piano for six years. I wanted to be a drummer, but my Dad was like, 'You can't take that wherever you go. You already play an instrument you can't take with you.' So, I picked up the guitar and started playing when I was 12 or 13." Then, the mandolin.
Vega on staying employed: "I got really lucky, both my bosses play in bands and one is learning the mandolin and fiddle. I took him down to the Muddy Roots Festival with us and he loved it, was actually super excited about letting me go and still helping me continue my apprenticeship. I knew I had a job no matter what when I got back. I couldn’t believe it.
"I started in June and it was 'I can probably bring you on here,' and then it turned into full-time. The hardest thing about last two tours was that I lost two jobs on the first one and the most recent one, I got back and worked for a couple days, then we were opening for Jesco White and how do you say no? They said decide whether you're playing in a band or working, but I couldn’t say no. That’d be dumb." Good decision, don't you think?
The Mandolin According To Vega
Having decided that, while the banjo is gaining both practitioners and adherents at a rapid pace these days, the mandolin seems to still be a fairly scarce item, even in a roots music scene rife with traditional musical instruments. Vega work on the mandolin is key to Rickett Pass, as his evident concentration and intensity when on stage.
"Joe has really good phrasing on his mandolin," says James. "He's technical and he's also loose, he's got flow on the mandolin. He can mimic anything on it, he speaks it just like the English language. He can sit down and just play that thing, man. He can play loose and melodic or rip into it and give you something aggressive. He's a natural with that thing. And he's got little hands."
The mandolin stands out on the stage, but doesn't seem to be getting as much air time as, say, the banjo these days--Jayke Orvis being a glaring exception. The Michael Jordan of folk-punk music slings a mean mando, of course. "Jayke's playing is so clean and that's what I want to learn, more runs utilizing all the strings and cleaning up my picking," says Vega. "What else can you say about Jayke? He’s fucking phenomenal. He takes it to a whole new level with his writing and his playing."
Since James was saying all those nice things about Vega and his mandolin skills, I figured to get to the bottom of how he picked up such a small-yet-powerful and possibly under-utilized instrument. His answer: "After we started the band, I was on guitar and Mason on banjo, and we played the Trenton Folk Festival. We saw this mandolin and Mason picked it up for $30 bucks or something. Times got hard and we were both kinda learning it a little bit, so it became a loaner for the two of us. We’d buy it back and forth off each other when we were hard up for cash. We did that for awhile, then I ended up buying it last. “Can’t Scare Me” was one of the first songs we ever wrote with it.
"[The mandolin is] different, not something you see out all the time and, to me, it’s a little bit easier than the fiddle. It’s fretted, so easier for me to learn. I look at it like a backwards guitar. The chords and stuff were the easiest for me. Once I figured out how those were all relative to each other, it came together," continues Vega. "I learned to read music when I learned to play piano--thirds and fifths, flats and sharps, half-steps and whole-steps. The hardest part was and still is getting the finger speed and the dexterity that goes with it." Next on his to-learn list: "The first thing I moved to after lead licks was tremolo picking and now I'm about my finger work and picking."
More mandolin thoughts from Vega: "I took a little from the mandolin player for Carrie Nation and the Speakeasy the first time we played together, and he plays the horn, too. His main focus was running scales and learning the fingerboard. You can’t play a sheet of music unless you know the keys you’re pushing, so I went back to piano and how I learned where all the notes were on a piano. That’s what Jayke does, plays a lot of very clean scales through all of his tunes. The other thing I like about the mandolin, it’s a percussive instrument. I’m pretty much the high hat of the band without drums. Because it’s so high pitched, it’s more like the high hat going where the banjo is kind of like the snare."
A Busy Year: Touring, Recording & Living
Right now, the guys are excited as all get out for January and their longest tour to date to get here (everybody's now legally allows to cross state lines!). They should have the full-length album out somewhere in there, as well.
Speaking of touring, Mason sent a shout-out to “Sister” Sarah Oliver," Rickett Pass tour manager. "She helps out with mercy and has always been badass, finding us deals on stickers and buttons, keeping shit organized, putting her foot in our ass when we need it. Obviously, [thanks to] Wayward Parade, Captain Bobo and those fools. It’s run by John Wiley, Captain Bobo, and Lindsey Sayre from The Darling Sweets. They got us on Amazon, iTunes and are working on Pandora. They're doing all the business now, which is nice."
When not on tour, you can often see Rickett Pass at the aforementioned Double D’s, south of Detroit. "It’s home base," says Mason, also calling out Cork Town Tavern as a favorite. "There's so much good music coming through here, nobody wants to go to Detroit anymore. [Double D's] only holds 100 people and it's filling up regularly."
For my part, I've seen people who weren't too sure about any of the music I love so dearly take a second look at it when they hear Rickett Pass. To me, that says a lot about their talent, energy and songwriting ability, so check'em out online, support the tour, and when you do, don't be afraid to say hello and if you end up snorting whiskey, well, that's just a bonus.
"Love Song" at Reggie's Music Joint, Chicago, on Sept 8, 2012, because it's got my name in it:
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