The five members of Dry the River cut their teeth playing in punk bands in the south of England. However, even after vocalist Peter Liddle moved to London to study medicine, he never lost his passion for music; in fact, the people he turned to when it came time to record a demo were those same mates from his hardcore days. Much to the young band’s surprise, things took off fast: Formed in 2009, they quickly earned a publishing deal and signed a record deal, causing Liddle to forgo med school and the rest of the band to ditch their day jobs.
The quintet has netted more than a few comparisons to Mumford & Sons, especially because of their folk accents and precise vocalizing. But Dry the River’s Peter Katis-produced full-length debut, Shallow Bed, isn’t just another iteration of nÃ¼-folk sincerity. Although “New Ceremony” and “Bible Belt” are exquisite examples of acoustic-based music, several songs — including the 12-minute “Lion’s Den” and hushed, hymn-like “Demons” — boast skyscraping guitar swells in the vein of Explosions in the Sky, while horns, sparkly percussion and Will Harvey’s gracious violin add melancholy and whimsy.
As Dry the River were mired in the middle of a marathon drive from California to Texas, Liddle battled spotty cell reception to chat with eMusic’s Annie Zaleski.
On what areas of medicine fascinated him most:
I only did two years of my medicine degree before we got signed. I was really interested in histology, histopathologyâ€¦like, microscopic medicines mostly. I’m not sure what I would have ended up doing had I stayed on.
On how their punk backgrounds inform Dry the River:
The biggest thing is that we still perform live like a punk band. People are often quite surprised, because some of the music is quite tender — three-part harmonies, quite acoustic. And they come see us live, and we’re all playing electric guitars, screaming at the top of our lungs and jumping around the stage. People often comment we’re all covered in tattoos and have bad haircuts and dress like punk rockers. We didn’t see any reason to alter our aesthetic or the way we perform. In a lot of ways, it gives Dry the River a slightly different heritage to a lot of folk bands out there. There’s a lot of new folk going around, especially from Britain. We came from this hardcore background and we still perform like a hardcore band; we still have those sensibilities creeping into the music in places.
On how their sound evolved:
[When] I went to medical school, I had to be quiet; I couldn’t keep my neighbors awake at all hours, so I was playing a lot of acoustic guitar and trying to sing a bit softer. I ended up naturally writing some stuff that was a little bit more acoustic, because of the circumstances. That was just the way my songwriting progressed — I had always been in bands before where I just wrote lyric and vocals. This was me growing as a songwriter and becoming confident enough to try and write songs from scratch. It was never an active decision to be like, “OK, we’re going to turn our backs on heavier music and we’re going to write some folkier stuff.” It was just something that happened organically through the process.
On how they don’t consider themselves a folk band:
We were kind of surprised when people started considering us as a folk band. We never thought about it until we started playing shows and people said, “Oh, you guys are an indie-folk band.” We had three-part harmonies and a violin, [but] it was strange to us when we first heard that. I don’t think we do even now, really, I mean we’re just a band. If anything, I’d just say we were a rock band. We have loud moments and quiet moments, like every band.
On their diverse musical influences:
At the time when I started writing my own songs, I was getting very into a bunch of records my parents had always played around the house, singer-songwriter stuff. I got very into Leonard Cohen and wrote some deeply melancholy music for a while. [I also] got into Paul Simon — really classic singer-songwriters. I thought that was a really good starting point for anyone trying to write songs. But really, we pull our influences from everywhere. It’s a really diverse, haphazard connection.
Jon, our drummer, is very into hair metal — like Skid Row and Iron Maiden and some really hilarious bands — and then more modern [bands] like Mastodon and heavy stuff. I guess because the drumming is a pretty prominent part of that music. Our bass player Scott’s into weird ’70s prog — Camel, Rush and early Genesis — and some pretty weird, proggy stuff [such as] King Crimson. Our guitarist Matt’s heavily into country music and slightly obscure singer-songwriters; he really likes Townes Van Zandt and Brad Paisley and stuff that people in the U.K. don’t listen to that much. [He also likes] post-rock, and he’s very into Neil Young. He’s an encyclopedia of music.
On what music unites the band:
We have the rule that whoever’s driving chooses the music — and everyone else spends a lot of time with their headphones in. The only band that unites us musically is Creedence Clearwater Revival. If you put Creedence on, everybody’s happy. But other than that, someone will be complaining at all times.
On working with Peter Katis:
We didn’t want to do a really hi-fi record that was computerized-sounding, like a modern record. But we [also] didn’t want to do a really lo-fi, super-reverby record, because when we got loud and heavier, we thought it might get a bit messy.
Katis, having done the Interpol records and the National, we thought he really had a nice balance on the spectrum and uses very traditional techniques but still makes audible records. I sent him an email and said, “Hey, we’re a young band, and we want to come and make a record.” He chatted with the label [about] the business side of things, and we flew out there a couple weeks later and did one track with him. It went well, so we went back and did the record then.
His studio is in the roof of his family home in Connecticut, and he lives there with his wife and child. Half the house belongs to them and half the house belongs to the band — the band gets their own bedrooms, their own living room, their own kitchen. You can roll out of bed in the morning and wander upstairs in your dressing gown and start to record. It’s a very laid-back atmosphere, and a very homey place to work.
On how they respond to Mumford & Sons comparisons:
It’s flattering, I think. In the U.K., when people say it, they sling at you as through it were a derogatory accusation. But it isn’t at all. As I said, we come from a very different musical background. They really are much more in the traditional folk vein, both British and American folk, whereas we’re from somewhere completely different. But there are definitely similarities. Mumford has kind of opened the door for traditional songwriters with guitars.