Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned is a fantastic band out of Albany with an amazing nine members. We here at fork/knife were extremely excited to be able to work with such a talented band, and I personally am honored to have been able to ask some questions. They gave us a song to post, and I can tell you it's really fantastic, and that you should hit the play button and then read the interview, as the interview is lengthy (and we love it that way).
Sgt Dunbar and the Hobo Banned - A March Through Charles Mingus' Garbage Pile
Also, they gave us a link to this music video which I think is really sweet. Sweet in an awesome way, not sweet in a kind way. Of course, it was also kind, but I think it's more awesome than kind.
Click here to see an incredibly cool music video
Below is the interview, be forewarned: it's long, but totally worth it. Don't skim either! Different members answer different questions, so pay attention to the name next to the answer.
fork/knife: You really have a truly unique and clever band name. Could you describe how that came about? You mention meeting someone named Sgt. Dunbar on a bus on your MySpace.
Eric: We were reading Catch 22 and...
Alex: We actually got the name from a real hobo who I met on a greyhound bus going from Albany to Kingston, NY around October of 2004 I would say. He was a really interesting guy and told me a lot of stories about his life, like growing up in Georgia and his mom and being in Vietnam and then traveling around the country afterward because he didn't feel like he could live a normal life. He talked about the importance of giving more than you take away, he said that was the difference between a Hobo and a Bum was that a Hobo gave but a Bum only took. He talked about a lot of stuff, and he gave me some of his whiskey and it just sort of made a lasting impression on me. When I got back to Albany I told everyone about it and after a while it came up in discussion that Sgt Dunbar & the Hobo Band would be a great band name and after a little thought we figured that Sgt Dunbar & the Hobo Banned would be an even better band name.
f/k: What is it like having 9 musicians in a band?
Tim: To start with the easy one first: it's awesome being in a band with eight people, especially when they're your best friends.
Donna: I have a cousin who is planning on having seven children; I always thought she was nuts. But since being in this band, I kind of understand what she's getting at, in a weird way. At any given moment Adam will be spitting up on himself while Eric needs a diaper change, Tim's hungry and Alex needs a bath, Jen's pulling out her hair and Louis is eating paste, and I'm crying because Dan dropped a bowling ball on my head. Yet, while all this is happening, we're having the time of our lives creating something that is wholly our own and inherently inspired. And along the way, we've gotten so familiar with each of our own styles and techniques that anyone's middle-child syndrome has gone by the way-side. And like any big happy family, we are our own support system, and our own biggest fans. I'm pretty thrilled about it.
Lou: Being in a band with your best friends is pretty amazing. You would think that with all of us, we would get annoyed with each other pretty easily, but that is certainly not the case. I can't think of 7 other individuals that I would rather be crammed into a Van with on a trip across the country. We are like one giant, weird, music making commune - very supportive of each other. Everyone has a voice, and everyone listens.
f/k:Can it be difficult to express everyone individually with so many different opinions?
Tim: We sort of self regulate ourselves when we're discussing our songs and in that way allow everyone to voice their opinions. sometimes an idea is harshly and cynically shot down (mostly donna's ideas), but for most everyone else people will listen intently to what each person has to say. -- To start with the easy one first: it's awesome being in a band with eight people, especially when they're your best friends. Then the next easiest: it does indeed get cramped on stage, but we've gotten so used to it that it feels a little weird not to be. If I don't take a guitar head to the face or hit Eric with a drumstick at least once during a show then we have too much room.
Lou: Recently, our songs have been written as a group with everyone contributing on an instrument that they feel is right. I had a conversation once with Eric about he was nervous because he thought that he had a trumpet part I should try, but he didn't want to step on my toes. I told him, that he shouldn't be worrying about that, because if it works, then it will be awesome, and if it doesn't work, then whatever we come up with or whatever variation is the result would also be awesome. By the end, we are so excited about playing that no one really remembers what the original idea was anyway. I think a lot of that positive synergy comes from the fact that our opinions are not all that different - Sgt Dunbar has a sound that we all try to work towards, and in the end, we end up right where we want to be.
Jen: Last weekend we were all holed up for a recording session in the old farmhouse where Eric and I live. It was dinner time and the eight of us were huddled in seats around the dining room table (except for Eric, he was kneeling-he’s pretty tall) and we were slurping down soup and ripping off chunks of bread from a loaf and Donna and Adam started fighting over an orange and our good friend Nick Matulis (who is also an incredible musician and member of the Collective) was also there for the weekend and said to us: “Hey, do you guys ever feel like you live in an orphanage?” I can’t imagine loving people more.
f/k: Does it ever get crammed on stage when you're playing?
Lou: Playing crammed is fun. Period. It used to be when I started making it to lots of shows, I used to see small stages and think "ok, where am I going to stand for this one." Now, no matter what the size of space is, I always think "We have fit in way smaller spots than that". You get quick on your feet and learn to dodge Alex throughout the set. Plus, being close to each other makes it easier to swap instruments, and put your arms around someone's shoulder when things get emotional.
Eric: On stage you gotta turn on your peripheral vision... I've been hit with a bow in the cheek, a drum stick in the head, a falling Alex Muro, and other things I never could figure out the shape or size of...
Jen: My favorite part of shows is watching the incredible athleticism that comes from being in an eight person band crammed onto small stages. I can’t stop talking about our last show when Alex started falling over backwards and fell right onto the drum hardware and as the cymbals were crashing to the ground, and Tim kept playing the drums, somehow Alex caught his balance and then he caught the cymbals and no one missed a beat. We couldn’t stop laughing though. Also, I frequently poke someone with my violin bow.
f/k: What, outside of the world of music, inspires you to create? In other words, what influences your music most directly that's not musical itself?
Tim: I am very inspired by a few but growing number of authors like Rainer Maria Rilke, Dante, Emerson and Lao Tzu. I'm also inspired by thinking about life and being poor.
Donna: Outside of music, 2008 was a difficult year. Personally, whatever it was that was making me feel afraid, or sad, or angry was also begging me to express it through something other than freak-outs and tears. Also, I've been playing the french horn since I was eleven, but hadn't been picking it up all that often in recent years. I think the stress of 2008 pushed me back into its homey, horny embrace. Hopefully, 2009 will be a better year. Hopefully, our music won't suffer for it. Oh, and I read. Recently, George Kalamaras, Haruki Murakami, and Nick Matulis.
Lou: I can honestly say that my friends are what inspire me. All of the things they do with their lives, their experiences, and their excitement when we get together and have an epic jam session layering on top of each other. Positve synergy my friend. I just made that up this interview. You can use it if you want to.
Eric: Gardens (broccoli, ladybugs, tomatoes and the carry for these things), trees, seasons, relationships, misunderstandings, childhood, the future, kale chips
Jen: I am inspired by nature. I like following fox tracks in the snow in our backyard. It’s funny because I am the most inspired by nature in the wintertime, when nature is frequently silent. Maybe I just feel the need to fill it with the sound that it is lacking. Oh, and I love my friends.
f/k:You listed Neutral Milk Hotel first under your band influences. I am personally an enormous fan of them, and can imagine how they would inspire musicians to create. What kind of impact has the career of Neutral Milk Hotel had on Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned?
Donna: We've been mostly inspired by their instrumentation. In our earlier days, it'd be fair to say that we weren't yet familiar with our musical selves and consequentially had a very Milky sound. Naturally, as we became more acquainted with the tools that we were inspired to use there was so much more potential and ability to do what we really wanted to do. Not to mention Elephant 6 as a whole, which is moving. We've got a great collective of musicians and bands here in Albany that makes making music so much more rewarding. There's nothing like having a supportive community.
Lou: Growing up in a huge DIY Punk/Hard Core town, it was pretty understood that, to play in a band, and be on stage, you needed to play the electric guitar, bass, or drums. I grew up being trained on the trumpet, and being snickered at for thinking the accordian and bagpipes were cool. NMH was like a kick in the face the first time I heard it and all of its glorious arrangements, and I was like "trumpets, bagpipes, and accordians ARE cool." Additionally, we kind of mimic ourselves around the Elephant 6 collective, whereas, we all have side projects that involve most of the other band members plus numerous others in an attempt to breed creative ideas and outlets.
Eric: none... well that's not entirely true... lots
Jen: Eric & I hadn’t heard of NMH until we met the Hobos in 2006. It was pretty amazing to be in your late twenties and be shown an incredible album you had never known existed. I definitely hold a fondness for them in my heart, just knowing what they inspired. In the same way that Lou explains that listening to NMH made him feel glorified for thinking bagpipes and accordions were cool -it’s the same way I felt when I first saw Sgt. Dunbar & the Hobo Banned before Eric & I became members. There is this unexplainable enthusiasm and positive vibe you get from watching them on stage. You can see how close friends they are, and you can tell that people are playing instruments that they’re not proficient in –instruments they haven’t been playing since they were eight. But everyone just does it, it makes anything seem possible. It’s funny because this was what inspired me to pick up the violin, and now I play the violin full time in the band.
f/k: How would you describe what life is like as unsigned musicians?
Tim: I am taking a different route than the rest of the band members currently. I am unemployed and mostly play banjo all day. I live on a very meager stipend each week from all those wonderful people who pay unemployment insurance, and thus my life is pretty simple: I eat mostly the yams that aren't fit to be sold on the mobile vegetable market that Eric runs, I am constantly in debt to Dan for last months rent, the house is kept at a balmy 53 degrees in the winter, I record my friend's music in exchange for food and beer, and yeah...play a lot of banjo. All in all, life as an unsigned musician is pretty rad.
Donna: I'm currently living off of Christmas money and a university refund check. Needless to say, I'm running out of money fast. I'm kind of looking for a job, but it's tough because we're going to be on tour for over two weeks in about a month. Though, I've heard that the hair market is really booming. I was watching CNN or something and some chick got $9,000 for 12 inches of hair. And she had really boring hair. I don't know if you've seen pictures, but I've got some seriously fiery red hair on this head. I don't know who, and I don't know why, but somebody's going to want this stuff. Life as unsigned musician: Hope to get signed, eat with hair money
Lou: Life as an unsigned musician is like having two lives for me. I work in Washington DC, but it is my day job, and when it is over, I find myself crushing up to New York in my station wagon for various shows, rehearsals, and writing sessions. I moved down there a while ago when my priorities were quite different, and now I work to support the life that I enjoy leading. But hopefully soon enough we won't have to work second jobs to get by, and we can make enough off of all of the hard work we do musically to support ourselves.
Jen: I live off of the money that Eric brings in from working on a vegetable truck. Mostly I live off of the gone-off vegetables that he can’t sell. I spend an awful lot of time writing up budgets and managing money for having so little of it. It doesn’t make sense really. Eric & I also have a band that the rest of the Hobo Banned plays in as well and 2008 was the first year that we actually broke even. It was really exciting. There aren’t any other people in the world I’d rather be scraping the barrel with.
f/k: The band uses a plethora of instruments and people in the songs. The songs all have a very distinct atmosphere about them. Do you go into writing songs with a particular sound and atmosphere in mind, or is it more a result of the instruments you're comfortable with creating a sound that you like?
Tim: For me it goes like this: I hear a new guitar or banjo or whatever part that Alex or someone else has come up with. I'll listen closely as they play and see an instrument on the floor and think,maybe this instrument would be cool/fun/interesting/sound good on this song (it's a bonus if I've never played it before). If I don't like what I've come up with within the first minute or so I'll move on to some other instrument laying on the floor, maybe one that someone else just put down, and keep that cycle up until I find something that I think has potential to eventually sound good and be fun to play.
Donna: I mostly agree with Tim. It's a lot of trial-and-error. For example, A March Through Charles Mingus' Garbage Pile was tough for me. I knew the song demanded a trumpet, so I grabbed it. Then I realized that Louis had figured out something epically awesome on the trumpet already and needed no help from me. So, I picked up the french horn for which I wrote a really lame counter-melody. Finally, I picked up the trombone to find that its tone had allowed me to write a part that did the song justice. Unfortunately, it was my first time playing the trombone, and eventually, I learned that I hate playing the trombone. Luckily, I love the song. And if there comes along another song that demands that I play the dreaded trombone, I'll do it again in a heartbeat... or maybe two heartbeats.
Lou: I think that whatever the initial idea is, it has its own atmosphere, and everyone kind of "feels it", and we gravitate towards an instrument (or instruments) that will fit. Jen: The songwriting style of the band has definitely been evolving, especially I think in the past six months. It feels as though as soon as we become comfortable working a certain way, we have this urge to change it, or at least tinker with it. I think that keeps things feeling fresh and exciting, there’s the adrenaline rush from playing an instrument or in a key signature you’re not one hundred percent familiar with. It’s kind of like an instrument orgy, when things get old it’s time to switch. That statement was very un-lady like. Maybe you shouldn’t print that.
f/k: What's one band out there that you wish more people knew about?
Tim: Hop Along Queen Ansleis (MySpace)
Donna: Hop Along Queen Ansleis
Lou: Without getting too sappy, I would have to say We are Jeneric, made up of our own beloved Jen and Eric. Their ability to flow seamlessly through so many different genres of music, yet still be themselves is pretty amazing. That being said, all of the musical acts that fall into the b3nson collective really have something special, but you said only one band, so I hope I didn't break any rules.
Jen: I am going to go ahead and say the B3nson Collective as a whole. I think there are about 25 or 30 of us and twelve different bands –no two sounding alike. Almost every band includes members of at least one other band. People are constantly helping each other out and offering support –whether it’s Tim helping to record and produce another band’s album, or someone playing a certain instrumental section during a live show, or another person offering their art abilities for CDs –everyone is so positive and supportive. If Sgt. Dunbar is an orphanage then the B3nson Collective is… a really big orphanage. (B3nson)
Alex: Dust from 1000 Years (although I also love what everyone else had to say). (MySpace)
f/k: Finally, you are travelling lost in the woods. You come across a divergence in the road. One path is labeled "fork", the other "knife" Which one do you take and why?
Tim: Fork; because I would be lost and probably be hungry and it's easier to eat food off a fork than it is a knife. Bing.
Donna: Tim's clearly not using his boy-scout brain. What are you going to do, Tim? Impale a bunny and eat it off your fork like a meatball? Knife. Cut up some fire wood, whittle yourself some fire-sticks, stab yourself a boar, cook boar, eat boar.
Lou: Well, if I was traveling in the woods, I would have a twenty sided die. Pretty easy - 1-10: fork, and 11-20: knife. Just roll the d20.
Jen: I would pick fork because there are at least three, usually four prongs on a fork. That’s a lot more options… unless it’s a highly serrated knife.
Alex: My spoon is too big.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank all the members of the band for taking the time to answer our questions, and we really appreciate the effort and depth of the responses. Please check these guys out, they more than deserve it.
Sgt. Dunbar's MySpace