Each month American Blues Scene will be picking a blues or roots based band through Reverbnation for a featured interview. Next up is an incredibly talented band from New York City called Fife & Drom. The thoughts of a certain salsa commercial come to mind when we think of Fife & Drom being from the Big Apple but we digress. Their style of music seems more suited for a juke joint located in the deep south, somewhere along highway 61 but that is part of the magic of the blues. It isn’t so much about your surroundings and possessions as it is about the feeling that the blues brings, either listening or while playing.
Fife & Drom is the brain-child of Abby Ahmad and Mark Marshall and after a charity gig they played together where they focused on the blues, they realized they’d stumbled onto something fantastic. Even though they were already a couple and had played together before, this idea of playing the blues together was new and the band was born. Mark’s guitar and Abby’s voice were clearly meant for each other and as we’ve talked about previously on American Blues Scene, the result of their collaboration is as good as music gets, in humble our opinion of course. Fife & Drom write their own songs affected and inspired by the legends that came before them like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Son House and many others. Their name pays tribute to fife and drum blues music, a highly influential genre which emerged from Mississippi, the heart of Delta blues.
They took the time out of their busy lives to spend some time with us and share some thoughts on their roots, the new album and the music industry as a whole. Enjoy.
ABS: I don’t picture New York being a hot bed for delta blues style artists. So, where did that sound come from?
Abby – Well Mark was really the true point for my introduction into the blues. I had limited knowledge of it, my parents were big Nina Simone fans, so I remember listening to her blues recordings over and over as a child, but Mark was really rooted in that style of music and grew up listening to it. We had been playing for years but when we started living and working together we really wanted to create a project that we could co-write together on, which was something that up until that point we hadn’t done. It came about very organically, we started a charity event in New York City basically just as an excuse to get together and play, and we called it Blues on Twos. We got together all of our friends and just played a bunch of music that was really fun to play. That’s when we realized that there was something definitely happening between Mark and I from a connectivity perspective, and from there we just really organically started writing together and it was blues.
Mark – I think the thing that’s interesting about New York is it’s true you wouldn’t necessarily see it as being a hotbed for the delta blues, but it does share some of the raw energy that Chicago had when all of the people were coming from the delta and going up to Chicago for the electric sound, I mean, it has a little bit of that rawness and that desperation. Although there’s not a huge blues scene here, there are a lot of forms of free organic music. I don’t get my blues roots necessarily from New York City but I did grow up in a musical household, and my dad would play the blues. We had a family friend who really introduced me a lot to all these older blues artists, he nicknamed me Skip, because I really got into the blues early. He was a big influence in letting me borrow vinyls, and I got into lots of different forms of music. I listened to The Beatles and so many different kinds of music that really influenced me a lot, and after I came to New York I was soul searching for music that I kind of grew up on. I had the opportunity, a friend of mine played in Levon’s band, and he asked me to come up to the woods to sit in with the Levon Helm for a couple of nights. And it was actually one of the first road trips me and Abbey did together before we were in a relationship, and that road trip up to the woods, up to the farm, was a pretty important milestone in the beginning of our relationship beyond music. And so I went up to Levon’s, he was playing all these old Muddy Waters songs, because he was a huge fan of that music. All of a sudden I’m moved, the music that was happening with the band, and all the work, it ignited this spark in me again of wanting to explore all these old Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Bukka White songs and to get back into playing the blues, trying to bring a little bit more of that scene back to New York City again.
So where did you come from Mark?
Mark – Well, both me and Abbey grew up in the same small town in Pennsylvania. It was in northeastern Pennsylvania. I’m a little bit older than her, which she likes to remind me of frequently. When she was born I lived right down the road from her, and we didn’t meet until New York City in 2005. So, we had a slew of mutual friends, we were both musicians in that tiny town that we came from , which is saying a lot because there weren’t many of us and we(Abby and I) didn’t even know each others names. So I was booking a little cafe in Brooklyn after I moved here. When we moved here it was only a week or two apart from each other, which was also ironic. And the place that I was booking where we met, you’re gonna love this cause you’re into the blues, I was booking this little cafe in Brooklyn called The Crossroads.
How long ago was it that you decided to embark on the blues journey together?
Abby – We started doing Blues on Twos in 2011, and from there in 2012 it just kind of morphed into a project rather than us sitting down and saying ‘okay we’re going to write these songs and create this sound’. It started very organically with us just playing together.
What was your first concert that you went to?
Mark – First concert I went to. Well my dad used to take me to clubs when I was really little, so as far as seeing shows it was my dad. He’d put me behind the drum kit and let me play the drums, and I remember my feet couldn’t reach the pedals but I played, and I remember people clapping. So I have this very early memory of playing and people clapping. Some of my first concert memories were probably seeing Buddy Rich, I was really young and I got to see and meet Buddy Rich which was a big influence. That was probably my first concert, that and Chuck Berry.
How about you Abby?
Abby – Mark’s are a lot cooler than mine. I remember my parents took me to see Peter, Paul and Mary. And what else did I see? Oh, it was the 80’s, so I think it was Belinda Carlisle.
You have the perfect voice for this kind of music. Who is your inspiration in the blues, as far as singers?
Abby – Nina Simone was definitely a heavy hitter from an early age. While I do a lot more kind of wailing type stuff that might not be associated with her type of singing all the time, something about her narration and her emotional tap, you know, she executed her vocals from a place of deep connection. That’s what I realized is a kind of through line with all these vocalists that I really love. Elmore James is another one that I’ve really been pulling from, just something so visceral and deep, it’s definitely all from the emotion that they want to convey, and not so much being showy.
Mark, your guitar is just filthy. Some people might not take that as a compliment, but it’s certainly meant as a compliment.
Mark – I viewed it as a compliment because I know what you mean. Thank you.
Okay good. Who are you trying to model that sound after? Or is this just all you?
Mark – Even when I learn music and I have to teach it, I may learn some things note for note to demonstrate for people, but I kind of like to absorb. A lot of times if I’m listening to Son House, or others like that, I’m trying not to just take in what notes they’re playing, but I’m trying to take in maybe why they’re playing them. I want to understand a little bit more about the emotional content of what they’re playing, rather than like ‘oh well that’s a G note.’ Trying to figure out what their reason was? How were they approaching that note? I try to do that more, and I try to play with a lot of emotion when I’m playing. So a lot of the solos and the things that you’re hearing on the record like “Wicked Tongue, that happened on the spot in the studio, there’s not a lot of premeditated stuff. I’m trying to embody their feeling more than, something like, ‘well this is a Son House lick, here’s a magic stamp lick’. I’m trying to think about it like this, well here’s how come Elmore was feeling that like this and that’s where he was coming from. That’s where I get that gritty sound, you’re hearing my feeling more or less.
Okay. Hey let’s talk about the album. What was the process? Was the guitar work done first? Or were the lyrics done first?
Abby – This whole project has kind of been like this: we write these songs when we have a moment here and there. Living, working and playing together, there’s not a lot of time that Mark and I get to really sit down and have writing sessions. We’re just constantly on the go. So, we’ll be home for a half an hour between teaching or playing a gig, and Mark will be like ‘oh I have this riff,’ and I’ll be like ‘oh, yeah yeah yeah, okay, well how about this?’ Then we kind of skeleton out a verse and the next day we’ll be like ‘oh I thought about a chorus for that song,’ so they were really kind of piece-mealed together. And then a lot of the times we would have shows and we wanted to play a new song so we would kind of hurriedly finish the music. I would go to a coffee shop and write the lyrics for the song, and then we would take it to our band mates and we would be like ‘okay we wrote a new song, let’s try it out. I don’t know, we really kind of feel like that with the whole feeling and moment of this type of music, it’s just throwing it out there and not over-thinking it. Not trying to control it and be too analytical about it.
Mark – Yeah, live in the moment a little bit. I think that we put a lot of feeling and thought into the songs, so it’s not like we’re kind of just throwing them together and they don’t mean anything. It’s that we’re trying to get out of our own way when we’re doing it. So there’s that time, like we wrote a song called “Black Widow” that will probably be on our next record that we wrote on the road in a hotel room and then in a car. I had my iPhone out with the little piano on it, and we were trying to produce melodies and lyrics as we’re driving to another gig. So we try to approach a lot of music that way, raw and personal and quick. In general for the record, the music came first and the lyrics followed.
Let’s talk a little bit about the music industry. What are your takes on the music industry these days?
Mark & Abby – Well, I mean, I think it’s just in limbo right now, and I think we’re just going through this transition period of ‘it was something,’ and it’s going to be something, but nobody knows what it is yet. So there are no paths, there’s no clear way to understand how anything works, and everybody’s kind of struggling and waiting for the dust to fall to see what’s really gonna happen. And no one knows, so right now we’re just kind of pushed in this position of we have to do everything, and record sales on top of it, and that sort of thing. Yeah, they’re not really turning over profit or anything that you could really sustain yourself on, even if you’re moderately successful, so that pushes you back into live performances being the way that you make money. And the scope of that, even in today’s world when people go out and see a lot less music, that’s even getting complicated a little bit. So it’s definitely hard, working full time as artists and musicians. It’s a lot harder to subsist on that style of living, whether it be touring or gigs or playing on records, or selling records. And I think where it’s difficult too is when the major industry bottomed out and started failing, everybody was sold this idea of the wonders of being an independent musician, and there are some advantages to that, but there were definitely a lot of advantages to having a structured system, and the problem now is that everybody’s an independent artist, so there’s no filtering going on…Everyone is inundated, so you know, when I reach out to people as my own person, it doesn’t always get taken seriously, because there has to be some filtration system…there’s just thousands and thousands out there., everyone that has Garageband is now an independent artist. It makes it difficult to compete although we don’t like to use the word compete in the arts but from the business side of it, it is a little bit of a competition to try to get your voice heard. Yeah, and by nature as human beings there’s that little tick in all of us that wants to compare and contrast and be envious, but there’s really no place for it in art, you know what I mean? It stifles you from accessing your own creativity and progressing in your business as well, so it’s really something that needs to be extricated to have any form of success.