The story behind The Ballroom Thieves should give any child or adult who has ever dreamed of playing their favorite festival or the “big stage” hope.
Just five years ago, two members of the Boston-based band were in the audience of the 2012 Newport Folk Festival without a proper name and dreaming of the day they’d play on that big stage. Now, following back to back performances at the Newport Folk Festival, the band that found its name and identity in Newport – has now been tasked with hosting a three-house show on the Museum Stage on Friday of this year’s sold-out festival.
I caught up with Martin Earley, guitarist of the band, on Thursday evening. The italics used for his response to my questions below could easily all be in a “love and respect for Newport Folk Festival” font.
Of course, hoping and dreaming isn’t how The Ballroom Thieves have gotten to where they are, lots of long nights on tour, traveling and hard work is how they got to where they are now – but Newport, according to Earley, has a lot to do with their past and future.
Ryan Belmore (RB): Talk to me about, first of all, when you heard that you were coming back officially to Newport. What was that like?
Martin (ME): We were really excited. We even- We made it happen because we’ve got a show out in Calgary, at the Calgary Folk Festival, that we had accepted before we knew that the Newport offer was coming in. Saturday morning we actually fly out at 6:00 AM to go to Calgary and play there that evening and then the next day as well. It was the kind of thing where we were like, “Alright, this is going to be a crazy weekend, but we’re not gonna ever pass up Newport.” We’re super excited, we’re big, big fans of the festival. Have been for many years, even before we were a band, so it’s just a great honor to be a part of it.
RB: I understand that there is some history with your band name and the Newport Folk Festival, can you tell me how that came about?
ME: Absolutely, yeah. We came up with the band name while at Newport (Folk Festival). We were listening to, I believe it was the Dawes set in 2012 on the main stage, and as they were playing we were just trying to come up with different band names. Before that, we had been touring under Martin Earley and Devin Mauch, which is a horrible band name. We were there, we had had a few drinks for sure, that was back in the days of smuggling booze into the festival via sunscreen bottles and that kind of thing. So we’d had a couple drinks and we came up with the band name right there.
RB: Let me ask you – you mentioned Calgary, which you’ll be playing for the first time, but how hard is it to book gigs during Newport Folk Festival weekend? Do you sit there and leave one day open and hope they might call? Or, do you try not to book this weekend at all?
ME: Well, we don’t try to book it because, you know, Newport is such a prestigious festival that you never really know if you’re gonna get an offer or not. It’s tough to plan for it, but we definitely try to keep it open until the last moment. We try to push everything off to the point of the ultimate deadline. We try to keep it open, but sometimes that doesn’t work. Thankfully for us, for the last three years, it has worked, at least in some capacity. We wish we were able to stay the whole weekend, but, Calgary’s supposed to be really amazing so we’re looking forward to that.
RB: So people should certainly catch you out on Friday, 3:00 PM – 6:00 PM over at the Museum Stage where The Ballroom Thieves will be hosting “Beantown Throwdown,” talk to me about that little show. What can we expect?
ME: So Newport this year approached us a little differently. They said, “We want you guys to do a Museum set.” And we were like, “Alright, great.” And then they said “It’ll be three hours, and you can invite other artists that haven’t played the Fest before – to invite your friends essentially, to come play with you. So we were, at first, a little taken aback, ’cause we were like, “Oh man, how are we gonna fill three hours worth of music with good things.” But we quickly thought about it and we were like “Alright, we have exactly the people for this, we immediately thought of our good friends Tall Heights, a Boston band that has been doing really well lately and fits the bill of the festival perfectly. They’re kind of in the folk-pop realm and they write some really catchy, really beautiful music. We’ve been friends with them for such a long time that we already had a few things in our back pocket in terms of collaboration. We were just really excited to bring them to the Fort.
And then, the other band that’s coming, Ryan Montbleau, who’s a legend around New England and all across the country. He’s been playing for years and years and is one of my all time favorite songwriters and one of the people who I really idolized when I was first starting to get into this whole gig of doing music for a living. When we first started touring he was someone who kinda helped me out quite a bit with showing me the ropes a little bit, telling me the do’s and don’ts in terms of what it means to tour, and what it means to expand your circle and all that kind of stuff. So, it’s just really an honor to have him with us as well. And we’re actually working together on some stuff right now.
RB: How do you explain, or put into words, 2012 – five years ago – sitting there and watching Dawes, and then being invited to play for the first time in 2015, to hosting after parties, to playing in the Late July Kids Tent in 2016, to now hosting a three hour show at Newport Folk Fest?
ME: Yeah, it’s tough to put into words. It’s definitely a big honor for us because, we, like I said, we were big fans of the festival before we ever even became a real band. It’s become a thing where, if I’m not doing anything that weekend I’ll go out to that festival whether I’m playing it or not. Which over the past few years, obviously, has worked out really great. But it’s just, we’re really honored and humbled that we just keep getting invited back in one capacity or another. We’re doing something’ right, but it’s also just a huge honor for us to be a part of it, such a great festival in so many ways that it’s great to just be there for the weekend. It just makes you feel good.
RB: And you guys have played plenty of shows and festivals from 2015 ’til now, what does make Newport special?
ME: To me it’s the family atmosphere. There are few festivals that marry the idea of a really fun, hip festival where young people can go and have a few drinks and have a great time, and also marry that with the family atmosphere where everyone’s safe, there are no weird altercations, there are no fights, everyone is there to see great music. During the shows, everyone is quiet and sits there and listens. Even on the Quad Stage and the Harbor Stage people are there for the music, you don’t hear anyone out of line and that’s just, that’s something that I haven’t seen at many other places. I feel like that’s not as common at Newport as it is at most other festivals.
RB: What are some of the ways you think the band has changed since first performing at Newport for the first time in 2015?
ME: The band has changed quite a bit, yeah, we need to work on our sound a bit and we’ve been evolving quite a bit. We’re all taking on a couple more instruments, we’re all singing quite a bit more. One of the big changes is also that Calin (Calin Peters) has started to play base. Calin has also started to write songs. So whereas before, I was the principal songwriter, I was writing everything, now she’s writing and we’re also writing together. And Devin (Devin Mauch) has also started writing a couple things here and there. We’re all trying to do as much as we can be given that there’s only three of us, so we kind have to make the most of everything. We’ve been playing a lot of shows, and so that definitely helps in terms of just understanding each other better on stage and being able to feel comfortable around each other.
RB: Since last year even performing in Newport during the festival, you guys have released a new CD, album, whatever you want to call it these days, called “Deadeye.” And that was released last October. Are chances good that people are going to be hearing a lot of that?
ME: Well, we’re gonna leave that up to fate, I guess. We’re working on some new songs right now, we’re working on an EP, it’s going to come out at some point this year, maybe early next year, we’re not very sure on the date yet. We were tossing around the idea of playing a bunch of new songs, you know, what better place than Newport to play our new songs.
RB: The Ballroom Thieves have launched a CD in 2015 and 2016. Is it like that in the industry now, where you have to be releasing new music pretty much annually?
ME: Yeah. I don’t know. I think that many people do it in many different ways. I think with the advent of the streaming services taking over, Spotify and Apple Music being the big players there. I think people demand more content on a more yearly basis, I guess. But also, people don’t really demand a full album, so that’s why you see a lot of bands nowadays releasing singles and releasing EPs and kind of spacing things out a little bit so they can keep people happy over a longer period of time. I love that you can get any music at any time and you’re paying a monthly price for it.
I think eventually the competition for new artists will move around a little bit. But right now from a consumer standpoint I really like where things are going. But I do believe that people kind of want more content over the year because they can get anything they want. They have that luxury of just moving on to the next thing. I think that’s a trend that will continue to happen over the next few years. I don’t know. I’m just a musician. I don’t really know.
RB: I’ve read that The Ballroom Thieves call themselves a “rock band in a folk suit”. Can you define what folk means to you and tell me how you guys fall under the category of folk?
ME: To me the folk art of our sounds has something to do with the acoustic nature of a lot of the instruments that we play. The cello is known as a classical acoustic instrument, and obviously the acoustic guitar, and then Devin’s drum setup is pretty unorthodox. He teaches the djembe, which is kind of a traditional African drum. That’s one side of it, and the other side to me at least just are the lyrics. I think folk music is lyrically involved. I think it, the lyrics, mean something to people, whether that’s political or just for more personal. I just feel like the focus on kind of a deeper lyricism is definitely part of the folk one for me. And then including people.
One of our first rules is, is what we’re doing acceptable to different types of people? We’re always trying to make sure that we’re inclusive, and that’s kind of the whole point of folk music. Right? It’s bringing people together and being one with the folk.
RB: Speaking of folk, I know your big influences (and your big fans) of The Avett Brothers. Any other bands in the 2017 Newport Folk Festival lineup that you would recommend people seeing or that you’re upset that you’ll miss because you’ll be in Calgary?
ME: Oh yeah. I mean John Prine is a big one for me. That was a real bummer. He’s been on my list of people I need to see for a long time, and I thought I was going to get to see him this year, and then the schedule came out. Right? Found out he’s on Saturday. That’s one that I feel like anyone, no matter if you’ve never heard of John Prine or not, you should go see him. I mean we’re upset about some of the people we’re missing on Friday too. We’ll be playing for three hours, so we’re bummed we’ll miss people like Regina Spektor. We’ll see a little bit of the Fleet Foxes which is another one of those bands that just over the past few years has seemed unlikely that we’d catch them. But we’re really excited for that one.
The whole lineup is … makes for a lot of tough decisions. Shovels and Rope is playing Friday as well. We’re going to miss them sadly. They’re always fun to see. The key point, the lineup is stacked every year, and yeah. It’s just a time to get out.
RB: How much do you credit something like the Newport Folk Festival or folk music or the relationships you’ve made at these festivals into your growth?
ME: I credit it personally a lot. Definitely, I mean one of the biggest things for the artists at Newport is the interaction between different people. We’ve made some great friends at Newport, some local people to people that we see across the country. One of the notables there, her name’s Kam Franklin from The Suffers, who played the last two years. They’re bummed, but they’re not able to be there this year. But we’ve met up with them now a few times out on the road and we’ve kept in touch. And that’s the beautiful thing. Even if it has nothing to do with helping each other out in a business sense, it’s helped to meet people who are doing the same thing that we’re doing, which is kind of rare. Not that many people fully understand what it’s like to be a touring band, and the pros and cons of it other than touring bands. That’s definitely something that Newport does an incredible job in fostering those relationships. The backstage area is just so low-key and so easy-going, and they do such a great job in making the artists feel comfortable. We’ve met a lot of great people at that.
Catch The Ballroom Thieves and friends on the Museum Stage at the 2017 Newport Folk Festival on Friday, July 28th from 3 pm to 6 pm.
For more information on The Ballroom Thieves, visit http://www.ballroomthieves.com.