Zach Lupetin did not always speak so directly on politics. In a 2018 interview, he side-stepped when asked how the current political landscape inspired his writing. “I’m a fan of political protest through allegory and poetry, rather than of directly antagonizing your foes,” he remarked.
Plenty can change in nearly two years. With Dustbowl Revival’s new album, Is It You, Is It Me, dropping this Friday (January 31), they are unafraid of antagonizing their foes in explicit, incisive, and powerful ways. “I’ve become less OK with hiding behind veils of poetry,” he tells American Songwriter over a recent call. “There’s always a fine line you walk as an artist where you want to bring everyone into your music, and you don’t want to alienate or push people away because you feel strongly about gun control or calling out the transgressions of a certain political party.”
The turning point came with the tragic Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, and survivors and Gen Z-ers, including Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, speaking out on gun reform. “Seeing the kids speak out and have more courage than most of us older folks ever had inspired me to lose a bit of that filter and try to say, ‘Look, this is important and we need to say this now,’” he explains. “Let the chips fall where they may. I don’t think realistically what we’re saying is that crazy.”
He adds, “There are a lot of things in American history that seemed crazy at the time – the civil rights movement, women’s movement, people getting basic rights. There were people saying, ‘No, this is not OK.’ There’s always a risk that you come on too strong.”
On songs like “Get Rid of You,” Lupetin aims his songwriting right at political figures and those watching from the sidelines. “Well, they were locking it down / And you could still hear the sound / Of bodies hitting the ground,” sings Lupetin, painting as vivid, honest picture as possible.
“And all we ever see are the old folks doing nothing / You can shove it where the sun don’t shine / With your thoughts and prayers who fucking cares,” he spurs.
Admittedly, while he hopes folks dig into the song’s sharp lyrics, he knows many listeners who might not process the message right away. “Most people won’t know what we’re talking about. I played it for my parents, and they didn’t notice,” he says. “There are people who listen to music in a literary sense where they are listening to the lyrics first, and that’s what I do, and then there’s people who lose themselves in the music, melody, and harmony. That’s beautiful, too. It might take them four or five listens almost accidentally to come upon the hurt and anguish of the song.”
“Sometimes, that’s the beauty of having a bit of that poetry still in the protest songs. You can have them drift away a little bit with the sound, and then have it hit them later on.”
Is It You, Is It Me – produced by Sam Kassirer (Langhorne Slim, Josh Ritter, Lake Street Drive) – is also the band’s most musically ambitious. Such songs as “Dreaming,” “Sonic Bloom,” and “Runaway” marry wide-ranging styles, from blues and rock to chewy pop music. Dustbowl Revival – also comprised of singer/musician Liz Beebe, Josh Heffernan (drums, percussion), Connor Vance, (violin, electric guitars), Matt Rubin (trumpet, flugelhorn, keyboards), Ulf Bjorli (trombone, bass trombone, baritone horn, whistling) – thrive when breaking musical chains.
In a lengthy discussion, Lupetin dissects the album’s bolder musicality, a two-week creative streak, and learning to let go.
In venturing outside your typical style and approach, what were the tensions within the band?
There’s always been a conversation, as a band, over the last two albums where we started to transition away from being solely an acoustic-minded band. We still honestly play instruments you would assume that belong in a jazz or folk world – the brass, violin, acoustic guitar. The discussion was, “Well, do we want to really go ‘electric,’ you could say, or elevate the sound so it’s pushing toward a pop and rock ‘n roll energy – and will that push away some of the folks who’ve stuck with us for 10 years? Maybe it’ll bring in new people…”
We’ve grown up in this band. You start to realize that your habits and tastes change. You don’t stay in one place as a person, and neither does music. We started to bring in more of the funk and soul elements in the last few records, and that was definitely a sign of things to come. It was finding that place where folk music, funk, and rock ‘n roll meet. That’s where our own sound lies. You have to discover your own sound along the way. Early on, we paid homage to a lot of music that inspired me – early jazz, swing, bluegrass, the ‘60s folk movement – and it’s great that you can honor your heroes. Sometimes, you have to be the hero in your own story eventually.
There was mention you dove into this recording with a “two-week” creative streak. How did this shift revitalize you?
What we did do differently this time was we didn’t road test many of these songs. A lot of times bands, us included, will test out songs in front of audiences for months, if not years. That has its advantages but also can tire songs out. Sometimes, you fall in love with a song, and then you fall out of love with a song. It’s not exciting to you, and by the time you get into the studio, you’re going through the motions.
What we were trying this time was to find the songs that had never been played and had been sitting on hard drives or on my computer or played in passing moments at sound checks. It was about finding those songs we’ve never tried and forgotten about. We’d bring that to life. Sam did a great job of connecting all these ideas into this beautiful, unexpected story. That’s why you bring in outside ears and eyes because you can’t see the threads of your own story sometimes.
What he found was this collection of songs was about facing your fears and acknowledging your own doubt and pain and trying to make something better out of yourself by really meeting these challenges head-on. Also, it was growing up a bit and not running away.
There is such a considerable story arc on the record. In “Dreaming,” you sing about the pressure of live performance, “Starts innocent enough / As the panic often does.” By the final moment, “Let It Go,” you repeat to yourself, “I’m trying to let it go.” What things were you trying to let go?
By the end with “Let It Go,” it’s trying to accept that the doubt and the questioning is part of the journey. I remember a friend told me this years ago that if you’re not a little bit afraid every time you step out onstage, you’re doing it wrong. There’s that jumping off the cliff moment every time you open your mouth to sing in front of an audience. That makes live music so unique and special. There’s no script.
I’ve written movies and plays, and there’s something amazing about putting on a play and seeing the actors say your words every night sort of the same. Whereas, singing and interpreting your songs every night in a different town, you perform it differently every night. You’re always a little bit different wherever you are. I wanted to end the record with “Let It Go” as the song of acceptance.
You’re made up of all these elements from your life – your hometown, your parents, your family – and you’re this collection of ideas and emotions, and that’s OK. You have to be OK with who you are in the moment or you’ll never be able to actually enjoy the ride. One of the sad parts of being a performer is that you’re bringing all this joy and energy to people each night, and you sometimes actually forget to enjoy that process. You’re always afraid of messing up or that you’re not good enough. You have to step back and say, “No, this is enough.”
Speaking of which, with “Just One Song,” you’re grappling with those parts of yourself. You sing, “Well, I don’t know what I’m even doing here / But I might as well put a smile upon my face / Just in case somebody’s feeling low down.”
I’m glad some of these quieter songs made the record. You have to strip back to the basics sometimes to really say what you’re feeling. It’s fun for me as a performer to hide behind the big brass mayhem that we put out there, but it’s much more intimate and vulnerable to get up there with a guitar. Recording those songs was much more intense for me and a challenge. When you’re listening back, it’s just you for awhile. You’re wondering if this is really enough and is it going to work.
You can challenge yourself that way by stripping everything back. This song also came from the idea that music is part of everyone’s life in some way. It lifts us up when we’re down. It helps us process loss, death, and pain. There are certain things I think about when I think of someone like my dad. I think of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” for some reason. That is my dad in one song.
“Runaway” contains the most emotional lyrics. “I held the hand of my grandfather / As his spirit flew away / Something in his eyes that said I’d be coming back someday,” you reflect. How did this serve as a necessary release for you?
Lizz has been very adamant that I should always find the personal truth in each song. A lot of times I’ll fly away into fantasy land, which is sometimes more fun than examining the moment when your grandfather dies in front of you. Songs with those real kernels of truth, even if they are so specific to you and your experience, are the most universal. That’s the beauty of specificity.
Anyone who’s been close with a grandpa and was there when he left this world, that’s something we sort of share in a way. I was able to be there for that moment. It was really powerful, and it wasn’t sad. It wasn’t scary. It was this peaceful, almost comforting thing. He wasn’t worried anymore. That is something you don’t realize until you’re in that moment.
Two songs later, there is “Runaway Chorale.” What purpose does it serve in complimenting and punctuating the story of “Runaway”?
Well, our horn players, especially Ulf, our trombone player, their passion is often composing and creating these lush textures of sound. Some of my favorite records have these interludes and almost classical sojourns, you could say. You have to have a moment of pause to really reflect on what you just heard. There was a day in the studio when they brought in friends to play french horns and they added the bass trombone, flugelhorn, and trumpet.
It was this beautiful, almost Beatles/Abbey Road moment. You couldn’t really hear that when it was blended into the full song. They’re playing that during the choruses of “Runaway,” but because there are so many things happening in that song, it’s just part of the story. Ulf wanted that beautiful pause to be heard on its own. And I agreed. It was a really cool moment to reflect on what came earlier. Having horns blast in an echo chamber is just a pleasurable moment.
“Nobody Knows (Is It You)” is the album’s moment of levity but still politically-charged. You’ve created this character who accidentally runs for president and wins. Who is he?
I wanted to write a song about a guy who does all that and then immediately resigns to move and find himself in nature. He wants to be a free spirit. It’s almost the alternate reality of the Trump presidency. In a way, Trump being president feels like a shocking accident. But what if it was this person, and he was this funny guy who talked about trees and making his own wine in the country. And people were like, “Yeah! I wanna be like that guy!” [laughs] Then, he realizes that – like most normal people – he isn’t supposed to be in a place with that much power. So, he keeps going to the next thing trying to find his place in the world and his true calling. Everywhere he goes, he gets kicked in the ass.
In a way, it’s a metaphor for life, in general. We think we have it all figured out, and we then realize we have to keep moving and figuring it out. We all think we know what we’re talking about, but we don’t know. And we don’t really know who it is we’re praying to, in a way. That is what the song is hinting at. Nobody knows where we’re going to, and if you know where we’re going, maybe you should tell us – but you probably don’t know either. Everybody wants to be the head of their own religion, but really, we’re all just trying to get by. We all take politics and the news cycle so seriously. I wanted to have a joke at its expense, maybe.
In “Enemy,” there’s the line: “I can never be your enemy / But now I just can’t be your friend.” Over the last few years, how did you face the volatile nature of the world, and did you find yourself losing people in your life?
That’s a complicated question. I’ll say that families all around me, including some people from my own family, had to realize that things had changed. The way we were able to communicate with one another and to talk about – honestly – basic facts like “is climate change happening?” and “could the person in power be a dictator?” It’s something you no longer could discuss openly or freely. If you have any sort of criticism or questioning of who is in power, then, you’re the enemy. That is something that’s very new, in that people have trouble disagreeing with each other and not hating each other, instead of just being able to talk about their differences.
I wanted to frame it in a way where we have to agree to disagree, and that may be enough. Saying you’re enemies means that you almost want to kill each other. You want to end the other person in some way. It doesn’t have to be like that. People who were friendly or close in some ways before – that may have changed irreparably because of this. Being able to accept the other person’s differences, civilly, instead of trying to make them your sworn enemy and rival, is important. That’s something I think a lot of us are struggling to deal with right now. You feel so strongly about things, and when you see people you care about attacking the things you believe, you want to attack them back. It’s a very primal, tribal type feeling. There’s been wars in almost every generation in human history. There’s a way to acknowledge that there’s a split happening but keep it civil. Maybe it is the acknowledgement of the difference that makes that possible.
Turning back to “Let It Go,” in which you take stock of your life as it now stands, you reference your early 20s. What would you tell your 21- and 23-year-old selves?
I would tell them to beware of your own toxic ambition – but also experiment and explore the world as much as possible. Eventually, when you get into your 30s and you’re “grown up” and get married, and some folks start having kids, you’re not able to really explore who you are and what you want as much. As a young man, I was driven to create things – I wrote plays and movie scripts and I started touring in bands when I was 24 or so. You thought everything was going to happen so quickly for you. Then, you were disappointed with how things were obviously going to be. Realizing that is a slow game, and you have to play the game. The game goes on your whole life. Everything doesn’t have to happen for you when you’re such a young man. Sometimes, failing and playing empty rooms, and creating work that is bad [laughs] is actually good for you.
There’s a line from a speech Dave Grohl that’s been hanging around the internet the last few weeks [a resurfaced quote from a 2014 interview]. It’s about how a lot of folks coming up right now who want to be in this ‘American Idol’ and ‘The Voice’-type experience where they go from zero to star in zero-seconds flat. Dave was saying it was more important to get together with your friends and form a band in your garage that is terrible for years – until it’s not terrible anymore. You actually find your sound and tell the stories you were meant to tell. That takes time, and it takes those years of stumbling and grasping.
I listen to albums I made 10 years ago with some pride but also a lot of embarrassment, honestly. [laughs] I think I thought I was really doing something important, and maybe I was on a small scale, in creating these jazz, sort of speakeasy moments. But really, you were doing something that had been done better 70 years ago. But that’s OK. A lot of times, great artists I respect – going back to Bob Dylan, he started by playing a lot of music he fell in love with – Woody Guthrie. When he was put into that sound studio in New York with John Hammond Sr., they were like, “Play us some all your original work.”
He went, “What original work?” He basically made up all these songs on the spot. It had this almost freestyle, hip-hop folk mashup quality that we now know as the brilliance of early Bob Dylan, but he had to find his own sound at gunpoint. We all have to learn that as artists. What you’re doing at 21 and 23 is not necessarily going to define you for the rest of your life. You grow up, and you change and get better.
Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez