By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A rising psych-blues power trio that has been making waves with it’s kinetic live shows and dogged DIY ethic, Virginia-based outfit the People’s Blues of Richmond is a band edging ever closer to a mainstream breakthrough.
Formed in 2009 by lifelong friends Tim Beavers II (guitar/vocals) and Matthew Volkes (bass/vocals) who started playing music as way to cope with the loss of a friend while the pair was in college, People’s Blues of Richmond would become a life preserver during dark times. Initially teamed with drummer Raphael Katchinoff, the band refined it’s unhinged, passionate take on psychedelic blues by playing every chance they had in their Virginia hometown of Richmond, eventually inviting fourth member Tommy Booker on keyboards to join.
The band’s self-released 2011 debut Hard-On Blues spotlit Beavers’ confessional lyrics and blazing guitar. The album paired with extensive touring built the band a solid regional following, but a desire to spend less time on the road and focus on their band the Southern Belles would lead Katchinoff and Booker to leave the band after they released the follow-up Good Time Suicide in 2013.
Beavers and Volkes landed on their feet, bringing established scene drummer Neko Williams into the fold even as they recorded their sophomore effort. Since then, the band has continued to spread it’s gospel of cathartic self-described “circus rock,” culminating in People’s Blues of Richmond most refined and potent recording yet. Echoing the sound of early White Stripes and the Black Keys while retaining Beavers’ literate Bukowski-meets-Tom-Waits lyrics and the band’s swirling brand of garage-fueled psychedelia, Quit or Die veers wildly across the musical map without ever losing its way.
All three members of PBR recently spoke to CBS SF about life on the road, the band’s unique chemistry and their latest album ahead of two Bay Area dates in Santa Cruz and San Francisco. For the SF show at Slim’s, the group will be joined by local acts Quench and longtime friend and collaborator Pamela Parker (see below) and her own high-powered, blues-infused band.
CBS SF: You guys have already been on the road for a while. How’s the tour going so far?
Matthew Volkes: Well kind of; it’s a weird thing. We get a little crazy sitting at home, so we try and stay on the road as much as we can honestly. This is only day two of two months we’ll be gone from home completely.
But in the past two weekends we’ve played a couple of festivals and we did our last show in Richmond for a while until November, when we’re headlining one of the bigger venues there. But it’s going great! We’re excited. We were at Little Rock last night, we’re in Dallas tonight and Austin tomorrow, then San Antonio. I’m looking forward to the drive to LA.
CBS SF: I was under the misapprehension that you guys were a Bay Area band rather than from Richmond, Virginia, so I was going to ask why you were having a couple of big local gigs right in the middle of the tour. But I get it now…
Matthew Volkes: Yeah, we actually expected that. The first time I went out to Cali I had a friend who was living in that area. Whenever we would meet somebody and tell them we were from Richmond, they’d be like, “Oh, well you know where you’re going.” And I’d say, “No, I mean Richmond Virginia. On the other side of the country”
CBS SF: For me, I guess it was because I saw you at Slim’s with Monophonics, who are a local band, and I just assumed it was a local bill.
Matthew Volkes: Yeah, it happens quite often.
CBS SF: So what festivals did you play the last couple of weekends?
Matthew Volkes: One was in Pennsylvania called the Peace of Mind Festival. Two of the guys from “Trailer Park Boys” – Randy and Mr. Lahey – actually MC’d for the weekend. They do it every year. We played the festival last year and they came out and we had drinks with them. They’re really nice guys and really funny.
All the bands were great there. Actually Midnight North – which is from San Francisco and has Grahame Lesh, Phil’s son, in the band – they were out there. I guess they flew out just for the show. It was great.
We played a bunch of festivals this summer, more on the East Coast than anything else. But it’s been great. We’re excited to go to Red Rocks and play the Laid Back Fest with Gregg Allman and ZZ Top. It’s our first time at Red Rocks and we’re going to kill it!
On your latest album Quit or Die, you’re drawing on a wide range of musical styles. Have you ever worried about being pigeonholed by having the word “Blues” in the band’s name?
Matthew Volkes: Well, we kind of think of it in a different way. The People’s Blues of Richmond is more the pain and suffering of our city. The blues as in feeling down and life being hard, not necessarily pinned down to any specific chord structure. That’s how we feel about it.
So really, the music that we play is our expression of the pain of our city; of what it’s like to live in Richmond and be who we are. As far as have we thought about it, definitely. But we love what it stands for and how it’s grown.
We call our music “circus rock.” I wouldn’t say it sounds like it’s right out of the circus, but as a musician, I would never want to be pigeonholed into one genre. If I want to write a song in any genre or key, we’re just going to do that. If it’s something we’re into at the time, we’re going to experiment with that.
CBS SF: This was the first album you recorded with Neko and, from what I was reading about you, the last album you recorded with your old drummer while Neko was getting familiar with your material and become a member of the band. Did his input change the songwriting process?
Matthew Volkes: Without a doubt. It was super noticeable. One of the reasons we did that was that we’d written those songs with our old drummer and it just felt like the right thing to do to record what was happening at that time in our lives the way it was.
When Neko joined the band, we became a little more aggressive in some cases. We write to each other. It’s all about chemistry. And we were listening to a lot of different types of music.
CBS SF: Neko, what was your musical experience before you joined the band? Were you already familiar with their music?
Neko Williams: I was a fan before I was in the band. People’s Blues of Richmond shows were always the popping shows in Richmond, so I used to always go whenever they played around town. I was playing in a funk band called Soundstorm before I joined the People’s Blues of Richmond.
I was hanging out with Tim because he was seeing woman who was singing in my band. We started chilling and made a side project called Thumper with a bass player named Brian Riley. Then the opportunity came where the drummer in People’s Blues of Richmond couldn’t tour, and since I was jamming with Tim they asked me to try out and it was a fit. I’ve been able to tour with these guys for almost four years now.
CBS SF: From what Matt said, you guys are on the road a lot. Is this pretty much your main gig, or do you have jobs you work when you’re in Richmond to help make ends meet?
Neko Williams: Yeah, this is our gig, you know what I mean? I’ve pretty much have worked a temp job since I was 14 or 15. I work at this music venue in Richmond called the National, but it’s not like a Monday through Sunday at all. Whenever we need some work, I always get us to work there because it keeps us around music. But only if we need it to help us live a little bit more comfortably.
It’s hard being a musician, because you have to put all your money back into the business. So when we come home, we’ve got our little niches, but it’s pretty much all band practice and let’s get back on the road as quick as possible.
CBS SF: “The House on Oregon Hill” is the one song from the new album with a distinctly reggae flavor, though I can hear touches of it in your playing throughout. Was that strictly your influence, or did you come up with it together?
Neko Williams: My pops plays drums for the Wailers, so I grew up listening to reggae. My mom, she played piano, so I grew up in the church with her. So I guess when I joined the band, Tim being aware and conscious of that, he came up with that riff – [imitates guitar] Chank! Chank! – as soon as I heard that skank on the guitar, I just put the one drop to it. And then Matt layered in on top with the reggae bass. So yeah, I think he was aware. I wouldn’t say I created it, but I think them knowing my background, it was fun to explore it and experiment with it.
Like Matthew said, when I joined, it was kind of like anything goes. If we feel it, we’ll play it. We’ve all got different backgrounds. I’m from the church and reggae background. I listen to completely different things than they listen to, but when we come together, it’s all one. That’s why it’s kind of a fusion circus rock [laughs].
CBS SF: The lyrics on the latest album indicates you guys subscribe to the famous William Blake quote from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that reads, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”
Tim Beavers II: There’s a line in “The House on Oregon Hill” that’s like, “The road to excess led me to the palace of misery.”
CBS SF: Yeah, I guess you definitely touch on both sides of the equation. I was struck by the volume of indulgence cataloged in some of the songs. It would Herculean to actually survive it. I guess it had me wondering if you have actually learned what is enough by experiencing what is more than enough?
Tim Beavers II: Yeah, definitely man. At one point, I was washing dishes and had terrible drug habits and dropped out of school and s—t. I was living in this place for like 50 bucks a month where the lights didn’t work, the sink didn’t work, there were flies and standing water three or four inches deep. And this girl moved down there with me who had rats as pets. I told her, “We have f—king rats down here! You have pet rats. I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill your pets.”
I realized then that I wanted to be somewhere else. I spent a lot of time in the f–king suburbs with my parents growing up and I didn’t like that, but I didn’t like the opium den enrichment either. So I’m trying to find my way in between with less drugs and more of the s—t that gives me a good time without a hangover. I’m trying to find that in the music. And the sex ain’t bad [laughs].
CBS SF: So the idea is to channel yourself into healthier interests?
Tim Beavers II: Yeah. It’s crazy. I find myself with a lot of stuff to say after a bender or a binge. When stuff is going fine, I don’t pick up my pen; I just kind of go along with it. But when times get rough, writing is really cathartic for me to get out how I’m feeling and get the dark things out of me. It’s really therapeutic for me. I guess it comes across as pretty dark sometimes. I mean, Good Time Suicide and Quit or Die are the titles to our last two albums…
CBS SF: I was reading in a press release I got that you have some ties to Hyde Street Studios here in SF and one of the acts you’re playing with at Slim’s, Pamela Parker. What’s the connection there?
Tim Beavers II: Yeah, we went and recorded a song at Hyde Street because Pamela works there. She’s a friend of ours we met on the East Coast. She’d been telling us to come out for a while, and we finally made it a couple of tours ago. She said, “You ought to come by the studio” but she didn’t say much about it. She said it was cool, so we said we’d find the time. She was really sweet.
So we go down there, and they’re like, “So you guys want to do a song in Studio A? This is where the Grateful Dead wrote and recorded American Beauty.” And we were like “Uhhhh, yeah we want to get out a song in here!” We did a really frenetic electric version of the song “Cocaine Powder” that kicks off Good Time Suicide. We never released it, but we got the mixes back. Once we get it mastered and everything we’re going to release that. We also played with Pamela and her band at gig outside San Francisco last month.
People’s Blues of Richmond play the Catalyst on Wednesday, Sept. 21, and Slim’s on Thursday, Sept. 22.