A Q&A with Joe Kollar of Driftwood
By Geoff Gehman
The four musicians in Driftwood have the uncanny, canny ability to create the atmosphere of a singalong and a pick-a-long around a camp fire of burning driftwood. They conjure this embracing, bracing mood whether they’re performing a snappy, clappy, Dead-ish original (“Skin and Bone”), a Celtic punk pile-up (the original “The Working Mom’s Anthem”) or a 3 a.m. bourbon boozy version of a Rolling Stones country classic (“Sweet Virginia”).
Driftwood is led by the singing, composing guitarist Dan Forsyth and the singing, composing banjoist/guitarist Joe Kollar, who began the band in 2005, eight years after forging a musical friendship at their high school in Binghamton, N.Y. They share studio and stage with Joey Arcuri, a whiz on upright bass, and Claire Byrne, a whirling dervish on voice, fiddle and feet. The quartet, which has played NPR’s “Mountain Stage,” will debut at the Mauch Chunk Opera House on Sept. 20. The set list will include songs from the unreleased album “Tree of Shade,” produced by Mauch Chunk alumnus Simone Felice (the Felice Brothers, the Luminaires), and a rollicking, raunchy rendition of “Tombstone Blues” that honors a songwriting hero of Forsyth and Kollar as well as the duo’s days as psychedelic jammers.
Below, in a conversation from Binghampton, Kollar discusses falling under the spell of Jimi Hendrix’s beautiful ballads, playing banjo with the edginess of lead guitar, and rolling with the Stones.
Q: I have to start off by congratulating you on Driftwood’s very sweet version of the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Virginia,” Is there a good, juicy, circuitous story about why you guys chose my favorite track from “Exile on Main Street”?
A: I don’t know how a lot of these [cover] songs get chosen. A song will just resonate with somebody in the group and we’ll play it around a camp fire until we think we should do it around other people. “Sweet Virginia” is a great song with great guts. We love to sing “Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes”: it seems to rile people up and get their attention. It’s a great concert closer; when people think the show is over, we get into the middle of the audience and play it. They expect us to play something fast and loud; instead, we do a slow version of “Sweet Virginia.” Everyone gets to sing “Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes” with joyful abandon.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that flayed and slayed you?
A: A couple of songs come to mind; I’m not sure which one came first. The first song that resonated with me was [the McCoys’] “Hang On Sloopy.” I have no idea why. Maybe it was because I had a guitar and it was an extremely simple song and I could play it and it kind of sounded like “Hang On Sloopy.” [laughs] Another song that resonated with me was “Give me the beat boys, and free my soul…” [Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away”]. I used to sing “Give me the Beach Boys…” and my sister would always correct me and then my mom would correct her by saying: “He can sing it anyway he wants.” We were a classic brother-sister duo.
Q: Since you’re a songwriter and songwriting is very important in Driftwood, I’m going to ask you: What was the first song that made you aware of its craft, that made you think, hey, I need to take a stab at writing a song?
A: I’d probably say it was a Jimi Hendrix song because at the time I was very much into rock and roll guitar and I loved Jimi’s loud amps and distortion and experimental sound. Every now and then on his records there was a song I liked that didn’t have a high-energy guitar solo or ripping textures, a sweet song like “The Wind Cries Mary” that made me think, wow, that’s really pretty. I loved Jimi’s unusual combinations of chords and I know that some of my early songs were very clearly influenced by the E7/Sharp 9 he uses in “Purple Haze” and “Foxy Lady.” I ended up writing a couple of ballads more in the vein of “The Wind Cries Mary.”
Dan [Forsyth] and I were very heavily influenced by the first two discs of [the first three volumes of] Bob Dylan’s “Bootleg” series. I made a tape for him and a tape for me and we just about wore those tapes out. Dylan’s songs really changed our idea of what a song could be, what a song could do, how to deliver a song effectively—all those elements that make a great song. We loved “Who Killed Davey Moore?” and “Mama, You Been on My Mind” and “House Carpenter”: I still sing that song with other bands I’m in. We were just turned around by that album. It got us out of our electric rock and roll/jam/psychedelic phase; it really gave birth to our acoustic folk groove.
Q: Who was–who is–your most inspirational instrumental teacher, either face to face or by proxy?
A: Dan and I went to the same high school. At the beginning we were not friends. He’s a couple years older and we rolled with two different crews and we were sort of scared of his crew [laughs]. We had the same guitar teacher, Roy Ettinger, who taught us the songs and the techniques of the Beatles and the Jimi Hendrix Experience and other great rock ’n’ roll guitar bands. Roy had a huge impact on both of us, the physical and emotional aspects of playing. When I was at Broome Community College—it’s now SUNY Broome—I studied with Paul Sweeney, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of music. He seemed to know almost everyone from Gregorian chanters to Alanis Morissette. One of the big concepts I got from him is that you can draw on whatever you want, take whatever you enjoy. There’s no right, and there’s no wrong
It’s funny, I don’t really consider myself a banjo player. When Dan and I started playing together, I played a lot of guitar and Dan played guitar and mandolin, so I became a banjo player almost by default. I started out just picking and I left the banjo pretty much in guitar tuning. It sounded like a banjo but I could play a more guitar-esque style and just explore more options, add more textures and layers. I respect the hell out of the old traditional style but I didn’t really get into it, although I can play some claw hammer. I don’t use a lot of capos. I play very high in the scale. Sometimes I bang on the banjo to make it sound like a piano. I just love how acoustic instruments allow the song to shine.
Q: Why do you like making music with Dan? Your musical marriage is impressively lengthy.
A: I had my first gig with Dan when I was 14 years old. We’ve been playing together for 21 years, which is just insane to me. We have always had the same taste. I don’t know if taste is the right word; I respect his opinion and he respects mine and we have similar goals, perspectives and sensibilities. We both sort of know when it’s right or not quite right, when we’re on the right track or not the right track. I’m also super inspired by his songwriting. I’m always feeling like I have to rise to his level. On top of all of that he’s my best friend.
Q: Your last album, “City Lights” (CD Baby, 2016), was your first with arrangements made in the studio. What are the old and new elements on your unreleased record?
A: On “Tree of Shade” we worked outside my home studio with Simone Felice, an experienced producer who gave us a set time of 10 days to make 10 songs. That was somewhat crazy; it usually takes us a year to make a record–and that’s constantly working. This time we demoed songs; we would send them by iPhone and decide what’s going on the record and not going on. That was a different process; Dan and I usually never really picked songs with the thought that this song goes well with this one.
The new process was really fun and lent itself to some different ways of working. Almost all of the songs [on “Tree of Shade”] were created in the studio and some of the demos even became recordings. On my demos I would hear all the instruments and I would overdub everything: voices and guitars and drums and bass. Dan and I have always been the producer on some level and Simone was very good at recognizing that balance. He would keep us on the rails but not push too hard; sometimes he would step back and say “Okay, I’m going to get lunch.” We ended up going in a different direction, although it’s hard to say what direction.
Q: What was your toughest time in the music trade, when you seriously doubted your calling?
A: Luckily, we’ve been pretty much on the up and up the entire time. We have certainly dealt with adversity but in general it’s been positive. There was a time, in 2010 or 2011, around the time of “Rally Day,” our first album, when we did a cross-country tour after a Kickstarter campaign, which allowed us to buy a $7,000 Ford van. By the time we got to San Francisco we didn’t have any more gigs and we were playing on the street and we started getting heckled by other street musicians. We ended up sleeping in the van right in front of this beauty salon. I remember being really sweaty and really dog tired. I went out and asked somebody where the nearest coffee shop was and they just walked by me, which made me feel a little like a homeless person. I was feeling rootless, wondering if crossing the country had been the best idea.
Q: What was your most rewarding time in the music trade, when you felt on top of the heap and king of the hill?
A: There’s so much excitement now, expanding the team feeling, making the new album with Simone Felice, who just did the Luminaires record. We have a management team updating our book and our look. We’re writing and performing songs we really like at venues we really like. We’ve been part of the GrassRoots Festival [of Music & Dance] in Trumansburg, N.Y. for years and that’s done a lot for us. To play there on the grandstand on a Friday night, with the sun going down and the energy going up, is awesome. I especially remember playing in front of two and half thousand people five years ago and remembering when I was nine years old, playing some song in my parents’ basement, never thinking I could reach this many people at one time. It was an epiphany moment.
Q: So, Joe, what tops your Bucket List?
A: I would love to travel the world, I would love to play music everywhere and connect with people musically, to spread joy at the highest level. I’d like to go skydiving and learn another language besides English and music, maybe Italian or Spanish. I’d really like to have a family with my longtime girlfriend. I want a little bit of everything: I love it all.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: I don’t want anyone to suffer. I can’t believe people starve in America; I can’t believe we’re still full of loneliness and fear. I wish everyone would just do yoga and meditate. I just know they could help everybody and anybody.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. Check out his Mauch Chunk Q&A with Simone Felice, producer of Driftwood’s new album “Tree of Shade,” at https://mcohjt.com/2016/06/the-strange-beautiful-painful-parade/. He can be reached at email@example.com.