Editor’s Note: It was a time where I kind of got out of my comfort zone. It isn’t everyday that I get to talk to a band that is known for indie/bluegrass. Don’t get me wrong, The Way Down Wanderers, out of Peoria, Illinois, are known for incorporating many styles of music into their repertoire! Austin Thompson discusses having intimate music sessions with him and his band at various rest stops and their self-titled album, which was released in 2016. Please check out The Way Down Wanderers on Facebook at www.facebook.com/waydownwanderers and at their official website at www.thewaydownwanderers.com! Without further delay, here is my conversation with Austin Thompson, vocalist/musician extraordinaire for The Way Down Wanderers.
M.T.C.: Is this Austin?
Austin: Yes, you must be M.T.C.!
M.T.C.: You guys are playing a show in Ames tonight, what can fans expect from The Way Down Wanderers in concert?
Austin: Fans can expect a wide variety of things! Some of our original tunes can be described as barnburners, footstompers, sing-alongs, some rock-n-roll as well, and also some old traditional bluegrass.
M.T.C.: What got you started out in music?
Austin: Well, a lot of the band members of The Way Down Wanderers got started at a very young age, like Travis on the banjo, and Collin on the mandolin/fiddle both were very influenced by their family members growing up and the rest of us kind of started the same way. I kind of started up a little later when I was about 14 or 15, I started playing as a hobby with some friends growing up. Most of us went on to study music in college, and from there we kind of all came together.
M.T.C.: If it wasn’t for music, what job would you be doing right now?
Austin: *laughs* Wow man! I always say that if I wasn’t a musician, I would be a driver because that’s what I do the most! *laughs* In all honesty, I think this is it!
M.T.C.: What’s the moment that you realized that you might be doing this for a living?
Austin: Well, the first Way Down Wanderers show was when I realized that this was probably what I really wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was a small show in Peoria, Illinois, but it was a sold out show, probably a hundred or so people there, but we were all pretty overwhelmed, just the enthusiasm and support from our hometown from that show and from every show from there on out, it has been really overwhelming. But the first show was definitely an eyeopener for me for sure.
M.T.C.: I read about “Rest-Stomps”, can you give us some insight on those?
Austin: The “rest-stomps” are really fun. We travel a lot and we drive all over the country to play music, so what we like to do is post something on social media on where we will be heading, we will pick a certain rest area off the interstate, and we will just post the time and place and we will be doing acoustic jams, and we try to invite people out in nearby cities. It’s a really cool thing for a lot of travelers to stumble upon as well as for fans to come out and see a free performance, a lot of the times we get a lot of children out who can’t always make it into the clubs or bars, so it’s just a really cool thing to do. We usually do this during the afternoon, usually they will be during the summer months, we are really excited to get to do those soon.
M.T.C.: Are there any rest-stomps you want to plug?
Austin: As of now, there really isn’t any, but hopefully we will be doing those again in the next several weeks. We will keep the fans posted about that for sure!
M.T.C.: You told us about the most rewarding experience, now tell us about your most embarrassing performance!
Austin: *laughs* We were playing in northern Illinois and just over the border in Wisconsin, and our drummer, he plays the spoons, he’ll get up from behind the drum kit, and he’ll be playing some spoons over a fiddle tune, he was trying to get the crowd all super hyped up and mentioning a nearby city, he gave a huge shoutout, and the room was just completely silent, it was a very awkward moment! I guess in that town, no one liked that town I suppose, it’s probably one of our most embarrassing moments, which it isn’t too bad, I suppose there is always much worse! *laughs*
M.T.C.: Two locals from the Peoria, Illinois scene that we should check out!
Austin: The surrounding area, Chicago Farmer, he lives a few minutes from Peoria, he’s a great local musician. He’s always been an inspiration for us, he’s a great singer/songwriter. Steady Flow is another band that’s coming up, they’re a jam/funk group, but they are another one of Peoria’s finer acts.
M.T.C.: In terms of the production of this record, you worked with Mike Marsh of The Avett Brothers and collaborated with Old Crow Medicine Show, what was the dynamic of the relationship there?
Austin: The Avett Brothers have always been an influence for us just as songwriters and as singers, they tell stories really well, and the way the brothers’ voices blend together has always been something that we are kind of fascinated by. In terms of Old Crow Medicine Show, they’ve always kind of paved the way for us. Our banjo player, that’s one of his favorite bands, it was really cool to have their guitar, banjo and accordion player for the song “Silver Days” from our album. Working with Critter Fuqua was really cool! Other than that, working with Mike Marsh, who is the drummer of The Avett Brothers was a really great experience, we all really took a lot from that, and we learned a lot from him!
M.T.C.: What did you learn from Mike Marsh?
Austin: I think we all learned about serving the song and really try not to overdo too much, just kind of serving the lyric and changing a lot with the groove on the drums as far as that goes. As far as the drums and bass and having a really solid groove and to kind of step back from the trained beat, which in folk music, it can be used a lot, so we try not to overuse it and to expand into a lot of the textures and the groove on our songs.
M.T.C.: Can you give us a day in the life on how a song by The Way Down Wanderers goes in terms of the creative process?
Austin: While we were in the studio, we recorded just south of El Paso, Texas, which is pretty close to the border of Mexico, it was really warm, although it was in February. A day in the life, we all wake up around 8 AM, and get some breakfast in our system, right around 9, we would be up in the studio and wait for our engineer Jerry Ordonez to get in, we pretty much be all drinking coffee and petting cats, playing guitars, and warming up our vocals, and stuff like that. We would just kind of pick up where we left off, we would play about 11 or 12 hours or more per day in the studio, we were down there for about two weeks. It was a really labor intensive process. I don’t think any of us really expected what we got out of it, which was knowing how much time and effort it really goes into cutting a record. A lot of time is just spent in our booths, tracking and re-tracking and working on songs, and getting all of the parts right. We wrap up each night around 1 or 2 AM, and we crash, wake up, and we do it again.
M.T.C.: What are some different themes covered in your band’s 2016 self-titled release?
Austin: I would say that there are different themes all over the record. The theme of travel was definitely a big part of this album, learning how to travel well, and learning what it’s like to be gone for so long. There’s a few love songs on the record, there’s a lot of other songs about exploring nature, and kind of figuring out what we want to all be about, and grow to be as well.
M.T.C.: Are there any songs that should be requested on radio format or anything?
Austin: I always like the song “Heading North”, it’s really groovy tune and we’re kind of heading north! *laughs* So that’s kind of fitting!
M.T.C.: Where can we find you guys?
Austin: You can find us at www.thewaydownwanderers.com at Facebook at www.facebook.com/waydownwanderers, you can find us on Instagram, Twitter, Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, and I-Tunes, pretty much anything you can think of, hopefully you’ll find us!
M.T.C.: Good luck on this tour and thanks for taking the time with us!
Austin: Thank you so much!
Check out their video to “Heading North” below!