The Pines exist in the prairie of America. They exist in the lonely, abandoned houses overlooking the sprawling grasslands in late autumn. They exist in the weary, crumbling barns that could use a new coat of paint. They exist in the never ending rows of cornfields, reaching to the edge of the back roads that see little traffic these days. They exist in the Midwest.
The Pines are an ever evolving group of musicians, all who call the Midwest their home. They tour America while playing a mix of folk and bluegrass music. I had the opportunity to talk to the original members David Huckfelt and Benson Ramsey before their “Live from the Backroom” performance at Colectivo in Milwaukee last Friday.
How many times have you been to Milwaukee so far?
B: We’ve played Milwaukee sporadically throughout the years, but not as much as we would like to.
You both moved to Minneapolis after meeting in Arizona. Describe how it felt moving back to the region where you grew up?
D: We are from different parts of Iowa. Benson and I met in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, far far away from the Midwest. It took about thirty seconds for us to make the decision to move. We were walking down the street in Livingston Montana, and Benson says “Hey, what do you think about moving to Minneapolis.”
B: As we were writing our own songs, to be where you’re from is what worked for us. Minneapolis was the place, we started from scratch there. We had never been there, it was totally new, but it was the Midwest and we knew that there was music there. We had spent a fair amount of time in Chicago, and it was just too big for us. Minneapolis seemed new.
On every album you write openly and often about the beauty of the frontier and the prairie. Describe your love towards the Midwest.
D: It’s the slow moments, the things we take for granted when we grow up. The people keeping alive old traditions and the things when we have the right lens it’s very unique. It has tons of character, tons of history and it is its own sort of melting pit. It’s hard to characterize it because it’s just so compelling.
B: People have a lot of heart here. It’s just a place where you can be, and exist.
B: My Dad played music, so we grew up in it. Our dad played with old Iowa folk artists. It was kind of all we’ve ever known. Folk music is kind of like a religion to us. We grew up on all the Iowa guys. It started with folk, then it was blues… Chicago blues, Delta blues. David and I really bonded over that.
D: We used to play four hour blues gigs down in Arizona. To everything from Muddy Waters to Tom Waits.
B: Once you start writing your own songs then the bars weren’t necessarily the place for us.
How do you approach writing lyrics? Is this done collectively, or is there a single lyric writer in the group?
B: That’s the age old question, it’s so mysterious. They sort of come from all over. One of us will usually have an idea and as you do it longer you can throw something on the table and it will start to congeal. It will happen really fast and you will know if it’s going to take or not. If it takes, then we develop it. It’s usually the weird songs that come out of nowhere and that are interesting to us that we record and that we like to play. There’s nothing too methodical about it.
D: It has developed into a little Bermuda triangle…like a little workshop. Some things take just minutes. Everything is fair game. We always have some instrumental songs on our records. Some songs originate with one person, and then there are total collaborations. Even so, everything gets touched by everyone else.
B: You are always working on stuff just to stay in it, but if you’re trying to do it, it doesn’t work. It’s the ones that catch you off guard.
I definitely see the themes on your albums, usually having to do with nature and beauty and how it relates to isolation or loneliness. Describe how you guys write an album and what ideas you chose to put in it.
B: There is usually something that we latch onto, that will start to form something. We like to make records, and we like the form of a record.
D: Part of what The Pines is to us, is an organism. The ideas come out of the relationships that we have in this band and in the world. They (the ideas) come from our friendships, perspectives, movies, other records, what we are learning about. So by the time that we process it, the songs can feel like they are coming from one voice without being too self-centered.
B: Lyrics too, there is sort of an anxiety in writing them by trying to leave them open in a way. Being in cities and being out in farm towns. The small towns are dissipating and the cities are growing. Taking a step back and looking at the earth, and how simple but complex life is. It’s all mediations on that theme, at least it has been for a while. That’s what keeps us inspired to keep working and going out and playing is being with people in that space. Are we really more connected or are we more alone? It’s really a paradox.
The Native American activist and poet John Trudell is featured on your last song on “Above the Prairie,” entitled “Time Dreams.” Why did you chose to include this on your album?
B: That was massive for us. If anything that was a great reason to put the record out. He was one of our heroes. When Dave and I started diving into songs we actually gave our first demo to him.
D: It was ten years in the making. We got to know him a little bit and we thought our music would make a nice backdrop to some of his poems. He was interested in having the walls come down for what he was trying to say as well.
B: It was one of those things. We were dwelling in a space, and we cross paths in this dimension. It fit with the theme and where we were dwelling in the time.
For the last question, what have you all been listening to lately?
D/B: Ozzy is pretty comforting for us. Something about that is really reassuring.
Make sure to check out their music!