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Dharma Bombs Talk Old Time Romance

Words by Craig Zirpolo
Photos by Joey Wharton

The day has finally come: Dharma Bombs long awaited debut album Old Time Romance comes out today via Crystal Pistol Records. The band celebrates the release with Angelica Garcia, Blush Face and Lobo Marino at The Camel tonight at 8:00 pm.

The group features Trey Hall on lead vocals and guitar, Clay Trinkle on Saxophone and mandolin, Drew Brunson on upright bass, Chris Gatens on mandolin and 5-string banjo, Stephen Moser on trumpet, flugelhorn and vocals and Josh Smith on clarinet. Together they create a sound wholly their own, which they have dubbed Appalachian Dixieland.

A local dream team of Adrian Olsen at Montrose Recording Studios (tracking and mixing), Allen Bergendahl (mastering) and Saw Black of Crystal Pistol Records (production) came together with the band to create the record, which is beautifully packaged and photographed by Joey Wharton. He also shot all of their in-studio photos, which are released to the public here for the first time.

The lead singles, “Pack Your Bags” and “Ballad of Big Sandy River,” show the dynamic of the record from delicate love songs to raucous jaunts through folklore and legend, while longtime live staples “Apocalypse Now” and “Trouble Trouble” finally get a proper recording after many years in the band’s songbook.

Check out an interview with Trey Hall about the band’s beginnings, the process of recording the album and what to look forward to over the coming months!

How and when did Dharma Bombs first form? When did the current lineup solidify?

Trey Hall: Dharma Bombs was a phoenix rising out of the ashes of a previous band called Rivers Crude (also known as Rivers Nude). We all wanted to play rowdy folk music that could be energetic enough to capture a DIY house show’s attention but at the same time be able to play at a fancy bootlegger’s ball. The band ranged from 5 people to 9 people and has now mellowed out at a solid 6. That happened last May after the release of our Bird Dog Basement Tape EP. From then on, we’ve been boogying down and playing all over the region.

What were the early jams like?

Some of my earliest memories of the band playing together are mostly busking around Richmond. For those who don’t know, busking is performing on the street with a hat in hand or open guitar case so that people can throw their spare change at you. It’s a wonderful way to build community and we would play for dancing crowds in Monroe Park (back before they built the wall…) and entertain the masses in Carytown. That’s actually how we drifted toward our current image because we were playing outside of Bygone’s and eventually decided to dapper up.

Is the songwriting process collaborative, or does it usually start with ideas from a single member? Did that change over time?

Dharma Bombs is a really collaborative effort. When the band first started, David Brunson (former member of the Bombs who’s about to start his MFA in Poetry at Arkansas) or me would write lyrics and chords, then the band would just kind of jump into it. Now we build the songs in a really communal way where the lyrics and instrumental arrangements are intertwined. I’ll write lyrics and the chord progression, then go to the boys and explain the emotion and story of the song and they create a soundscape that sonically represents the lyrical content (if that makes any sense). It’s so collaborative that I really feel the instrumental arrangements are a lyric that you feel in an emotional way that really pulls you deep into the music.

You guys describe yourselves as an Appalachian Dixieland band. Who are some of your sources of musical inspiration? What elements of those performers come together to create the Dharma Bombs sound?

The personal sources of inspiration within the band are really varied. We’ve got inspiration from Dixieland, Bluegrass, Bebop, Gypsy Jazz, Indie Folk, Classical, the list could go on. A couple people that really inspired our aesthetic are Pokey LaFarge and Devil Makes Three. They really make the old new again and that’s something we are trying to do. Create music that is nostalgic for both grey hairs and college kids alike.

What was the audience reception like at the first shows? Did you find that there were specific bands or venues/houses that complemented your sets best?

I feel like Dharma Bombs is kind of a Richmond oddball. We don’t fit into the traditional jazz community and we don’t fit into the traditional bluegrass community. Our sound is pretty neo-traditional so honestly we first flourished in the house show scene. That’s really where we cut our teeth as a band. We’d play with loud electric acts and then we’d bring the party with an acoustic set. David Brunson, Chris Gatens (our extra sexy banjo and mandolin player), and I used to live on the 200 block of Laurel Street and I would throw big house party/shows and we’ll always cherish those sweaty drunken memories. The other venues that really took us in with open arms were The Camel and Gallery 5 (because they didn’t get mad at us when we stripped on stage). And I’d say we have the best fan base in town but I’m obviously biased. We play with really different bands as often as possible. We love to play on bills with has hip hop, synth pop, or other acts that most people might think would be polar from us. But in reality, we’re all just there to dance and build community.

When did you first go on tour? How did those experiences inform the growth of the band?

Our first tour was the fall of 2016. I can’t honestly recall where all we went. Over the course of two or three weeks, we played shows almost every night, but didn’t even think of it as a tour. We just rambled around and had a blast. Our favorite cities to play are Roanoke, Harrisonburg, Boone and Asheville, NC, and any town that wants to shake it and dance. Adventuring through the mountains and visiting our amazing friends and fans outside of Richmond really inspired us to step up our game so that we could visit them as often as possible.

You guys have a special connection with Boone, NC, and Roanoke, Va, in particular. How do those towns factor into the story of the band?

I’m really glad you asked about this. Boone, NC, and Roanoke, VA are our second homes. Clay, Chris, and I are all from the Roanoke Valley so that’s literally our mountain home. Then Boone, NC, was actually where I was going to move instead of Richmond to go to Appalachian State University, but I changed my mind last minute and came to my beloved River City. We have close friends in bands down in Boone, NC, DisFunktion, Andy Ferrell, Joe Lally and Alexa Rose, just to name a few. Boone and Roanoke are special in so many ways but if I had to summarize it, I’d say they know how to party and those landscapes and mountains just instill a pure energy that is hard to find anywhere else in the world.

When you first went into the studio for the Bird Dog Basement Tapes, what was your approach to recording? Were there any big takeaways in terms of what worked and didn’t work or other learning moments?

Lemme tell ya, that was one hell of a good time and one hell of a learning experience. We named it the Bird Dog Basement Tapes not just to pay homage to Dylan, but because we were slugging Bird Dog whiskey sweet tea and kept playing and riling up Justin’s bird dog, Birdy, who has a couple of featured barks on the EP. We weren’t super prepared when we entered the studio and just partied in the basement. Though it was a good time, we learned that recording should be fun, but there needs to be a sense of artistic seriousness in the recording process.

How did you connect with Crystal Pistol Records, and what about that relationship led you all to work with them again for the new record?

We got connected with Crystal Pistol Records when Drew and Josh threw a last minute house show, and Pete Curry played. At the time, Justin Black was playing with Pete and we all just vibed hard that night. We woke up the next morning with a bunch of Crystal Pistol swag and it was love from there. And we decided to work with Crystal Pistol for the new record because they’re community oriented and have supported our musical vision. Justin and Pete really support our artistic direction and that freedom of expression really means a lot to us. Without them, the Bird Dog Basement Tapes would have never happened, and we wouldn’t have ended up in recording heaven on earth aka Montrose Recording Studio.

From the release of the Bird Dog Basement Tapes to Old Time Romance, what has changed about the band that you hoped to capture on the new release?

We became one unit. I feel like over the course of the year between those releases, we really became one coherent unit and our sound became much thicker. Our horn arrangements are really based on the three-part set up and the strings experiment with more complicated progressions and varied styles. I feel like we’re a little family and each member brings something very special to the table. Stephen, Clay, and Josh really stepped up the horns, and I think that has a major impact on our new sound, while Chris, Drew, and I created a lot of different textures and atmospheres instrumentally.

How does your recording process tie into the legacy of the styles of music present in your songs? How did that inform your choice to record at Montrose with Adrian and asking Justin to produce the album?

That legacy really inspired everything about Old Time Romance. We wanted to record a live album with minimal overdubs to create a pure experience for both musician and listener. In order to make the recording process even more intimate and as a throwback to the way albums used to be tracked, we recorded circled around a RCA 44 mic from around the late 40s with room microphones throughout the studio and tracked straight to a reel to reel tape machine. Our process really felt like that old-timey, singing in a tin can for the radio waves kind of vibe. Adrian was the perfect guy for the job and had all of the expertise and equipment to make our dream a reality. Then Justin was intimate enough with the band and our music to make sure our dream was translated properly. Adrian and Justin were a dream team to work with.

Coming from a background as a student of poetry, literature and southern folklore, how did you approach writing lyrics for the new record? Are there any specific sources of inspiration that spoke to you during the writing process?

This album was a collection of songs written over the past 5 years. Most of my writing is informed by being born and raised in the mountains, and that Southern flavor really is the bedrock of my lyrics. Dharma Bombs is the perfect soundscape to tell stories of southern myth and really croon about that down home couth that is a dying lifestyle. Wanderlust and yearning to be in the mountains is a core element of my songwriting process. Dharma Bombs creates an atmosphere for people to dance and smile, so that also definitely inspired many songs, like the title track for example. But songs like “God Fearing Man” were inspired by our current political climate. Many of the songs are political and a lot of us are engaged in local politics/activism, so that’s another important element of the lyrics. And of course there’s plenty of songs about love and romance.

Allie Smith from Blush Face sings on the first single, “Pack Your Bags.” How did that collaboration come together? And are other guest performers on the album?

Allie Smith and I first met at a house show I booked her at in Carver many moons ago. We ended up singing together at the time I was writing “Pack Your Bags”. We sang that song in coffee shops and during my solo sets and our voices just really mesh. When it came time to record the song, Allie and I sang “Pack Your Bags” together at a show we played with Lucy Dacus to benefit good ole’ Craig Zirpolo when their camera was stolen and from there it was obvious that we needed to capture that on record. Beyond that, we were lucky enough to have two other guests on the album. Marissa Resmini of McKinley Dixon and Friends plays violin (or fiddle depending on who’s talkin) on “Ballad of Big Sandy River” and Garen Dorsey plays piano on “Moonlight Mama”. They were both a pleasure to work with and really had a positive impact on the record.

After seeing the band over the years, I know creating a safe space for people to dance and let loose is a big focus of the live show. How does that factor into the booking process, and specifically how did that inform the decision to start the residency at the Camel?

I’m really glad you brought this up. A big part of the Dharma Bombs experience is to foster a safe space for people to totally let go, dance, drink whiskey, smile, just be totally engulfed in the moment, and savor every sweaty second of it. We really want people to feel safe at our shows and know that we’re a community there to support each other. We’ve played benefits for numerous nonprofit social justice organizations and attempt to bring that consciousness to our shows. Our booking process is definitely informed by places we feel like will be safe for fans to get down and dirty in a safe and supportive environment. The Camel really creates a glowing atmosphere for that community involvement, and they allow us to do the stanky leg whenever we want.

Amid all of this great news, there was a jolt of reality I remember from previous conversations we’ve had. A few months ago you tore your vocal chords, and recently your doctor has recommended an extended break from singing. How have you personally tried to take that news in stride, and what is the plan moving forward until you get the all clear to sing again?

Yeah. The cat’s out of the bag. I’ve been struggling with vocal issues for most of the year, but I was on a path to permanent damage if I didn’t pump the breaks. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling the blues (and I’m not talking about the music genre) but Dharma Bombs, my family, and friends have really been there for me through this. In order to make the most of a bad situation, my close friend, Sophie Wellington, will be singing lead for us until August (when she will be moving to Spain to study through a Berkley jazz vocal Study Abroad Program) and I will hopefully be back to good health by then. Dharma Bombs is going to keep bringing the swing and twang but with fun sets including Sophie or rotating guest vocalists so Richmond will see many exciting surprises in the coming months!

Despite the bad news, it was cool to see that you guys have multiple release shows across the state since you’ve built a dedicated following in Roanoke as well as in Richmond. How was the first release show in Roanoke on Cinco de Mayo? What are you looking forward to the most about the local release show at the Camel?

Roanoke was such a blast. We played at The Spot on Kirk which is a really intimate, smaller venue with seating and the whole nine. It was a listening room kinda vibe so we weren’t sure what to expect, but everybody ended up shaking their butt (whether in a seat or up in front of the stage). The crowd was super invested and so attentive that someone could have heard a pin drop. It was beautiful, intimate, and amazing.

But tonight is the big banger. We’ve been excited about this show for months, and it’s finally happening. Our baby bird is going to fly out of the nest. We can’t wait to get rowdy with our incredible hometown fans and just have a ball with our friends and RVA family. The release show will be the first time Richmond has heard some of our news songs and we can’t wait to share the love!

Dharma Bombs perform tonight at The Camel with Angelica Garcia, Blush Face and Lobo Marino. The show starts at 8:00 pm and tickets are $7 at the door. For more information, visit the event page.