Driftwood: An Interview
D riftwood was formed in 2005 in Binghamton, NY by high school buddies Dan Forsyth (guitar) and Joe Kollar (banjo). Claire Byrne joined on violin and vocals in 2008, followed by Joey Arcuri on upright bass in 2011. Will Sigel is the most recent addition on drums, and the added percussion seamlessly rounds out the bands’ most recent sound.
Their roots are actually in classic rock, but their current sound blends a plethora of genres with the subtle hints of classic Americana. Since their debut album released in 2009, they have been hard-hitting the East Coast. We caught up with them at Northwest String Summit for their first West Coast music festival performance.
We met after the band had just finished the second of their ‘Tweener Stage sets. The String Summit Tweener Stage sat atop the main stage bowl, giving artists a 30-minute chance to capture audiences between the main stage sets. Driftwood had no trouble doing just that, and after a high-energy half-hour that kept the crowd engaged and moving, we met backstage for a breather and a chat.
The band grabbed a bite to eat and we all settled in for a casual, relaxed conversation in the cool shade of Hornings Hideout…
Driftwood: To Know is to Love
To know Driftwood is to know their roots. Every band has a story, and often times that story is instrumental (pun intended) in how their sound and persona as a band was developed. Listening to Driftwood’s music, one gets the sense that the band is young with an old soul. Their lyrics are sometimes dark and powerful, sometimes light and quirky. There’s a deep, driving force behind each refrain – the kind that makes you dance with your eyes closed, or stop still to take in the energy the band is passing to the audience.
In the title track from their 2016 album “City Lights”, the listener is instantly introduced to a simple beat and the softly sung lyrics “Life’s a bitch and then you’re dead; It’s what my fathers’ father said; So raise your glass and fill your head; With any song you like”. So, yeah, a little dark, a little light. And a definite interest to keep listening.
The band’s story starts simply, as two high school friends start to play music together. But the story evolves as the band grows along with its complex sound, full of spirit and drive.
How The Driftwood Story Began
The two original members of the band Driftwood, Dan Forsyth, and Joe Kollar, initially started as a classic rock cover band. That’s pretty much what any band did if they wanted to book gigs in Binghamton, NY over a decade ago. Actually, if one is to Google “Binghamton Music”, by the time you reach the “Mu” you will see suggestions of “Museums,” “Murders,” and “Mugshots.” So, yeah. Classic rock.
But then, something happened that was integral in creating the band Driftwood. As Kollar puts it, “The acoustic bug came from when Dan moved out to Colorado for a year (in 2002) and I went out and visited, and we went to Telluride Bluegrass Festival. This is the same time ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou’ came out – and there was sort of this resurgence of that sort of vibe. And I remember just being really thrown back by the honesty of acoustic music. I don’t know if honesty is the word, but some sort of rootsy feeling that I wasn’t getting from the electric stuff. So that was kind of the beginning of that step into the acoustic world and folk songs.”
“I remember just being really thrown back by the honesty of acoustic music.” ~Dan Forsyth
Lucky for Driftwood – and for Binghamton – the classic-rock stigma in town has altered over the years. When the Cyber Café opened its doors, the music scene started to change for the better. Then the Belmar Bar and Grill came along. Open Mic nights and acoustic jams suddenly could be found in town. And Driftwood had a place to hone their sound. Over the first few years, the band changed members and picked up Claire Bryne on violin and Joey Arcuri on upright bass. They spread their performance boundaries throughout the central NY area, eventually entering a band competition in 2009 at the GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance in Trumansburg, NY. And they won. Dan: “We heard they had a band competition where if you played it and won, you got a slot. So, we went up to do that – and won that twice. And that was a big catapult for us in that area – so we were able to branch out and get some more gigs. That was huge.” Driftwood has played the festival every year since, and their name is climbing closer to the top of the lineup.
Taking Off on a Jet Plane
Touring as a band is no easy feat, but it can be even more daunting when you add in the challenge of airports and airplanes. Driftwood tirelessly tours the East Coast in their RV, clocking in a hundred or more shows a year. When they all jump on a plane with their gear, they have to keep their packing at a minimum and they’re still learning some tricks of the trade.
As they gain popularity, they are spreading their wings more across this entire country. But it’s still a little fresh.
Joey: “I think it’s a little more exciting [when we fly] because we don’t do it all the time. When we fly, we get on a plane, and when we pop off we’re in a totally different area. There’s a level of excitement, almost like a vacation-vibe with an airplane.”
We were definitely happy to see they made the long flight to their first West Coast festival, Northwest String Summit. If you caught them, you may have noticed a couple of major differences.
The biggest change is that there are now five people on stage since they recently added a new member, Will Sigel, on drums. And the other big change is that Joe, the banjo player, seems to have picked up some new dance moves.
Joe Kollar: “[Having Will on drums] has really been great for me, especially, because I used to play this kick box – and that was sort of a really fundamental part of Driftwood. I spent the past nine years on one leg for every show because I’d have to stand on the one leg and kick on it with the other. So ever since Will, both of my legs have evened out in size, and I get to dance around a little bit.”
Claire laughs and adds “When we got the drums, Joe was dancing during a couple of songs. And Joey and I would laugh because we had never seen Joe dance while he played.” Joey chimes in, “I had never seen him move!! I’m like, he’s moving – what’s he doing? Where’s he going?”
Driftwood’s Northwest String Summit shows will go down in history as the first show ever that Joe didn’t play his kick box, but that doesn’t mean it’s leaving the stage. Painted with the Driftwood logo, the homemade kick box has become a symbol for the band. Not only is it a great brand and marketing tool, but it’s part of the roots of the band’s sound.
The Highs and the Lows
Before Joey joined the band with his upright bass, the kick box was the low-end that Claire and Dan heavily relied on. And Joe would play his handmade kick box, ignoring the burning cramps from standing on one leg for long periods, to give the band the driving rhythms that really started to define their unique sound. Joey came along and the band’s sound became fuller, giving their songs an even deeper rhythmic force.
Then in March 2018, the band played a Creedence Clearwater Revival set and brought in Will Sigel to play percussion. It wasn’t necessarily a job interview, but in retrospect, it was all part of the band’s story. Driftwood would often record songs with drums in the studio, but they couldn’t perform those songs live without the full percussion on stage. Their manager suggested they bring on Will full-time, and he fit in right off the bat.
Joey: “90 percent of being on the road is just being around each other and traveling together. And he’s already like a dear friend to everyone. He just fits right in.”
But those formative years before Will were just as important as these past few months with him.
Claire: “I think the fact that we didn’t get drums for so long, it just forced us to really try – with arrangements and our own instruments – to really stretch out as much as we could to try and get those sounds, to try and make it as powerful as we had it in our heads.”
And with Will playing on drums?
Claire: “We felt so much more powerful. We really did. We just felt like the band had the umphhh that we hear in our heads and are always trying to get.”
What the Future Holds for Driftwood
Driftwood has recently been back in the studio, preparing to bring fans their fifth studio album. As the band matures, so does their recording style.
This time around, they spent 10 days at a recording studio in the Catskill Mountains with Simon Felice (who produced the Lumineer’s hit album, Cleopatra). The entire process went a lot faster than usual since most of their albums have been self-produced. That can take them up to a year, and it means road-testing a lot of the songs before actually hitting the studio to record.
Claire: “[The newest album] was a much more speedy process than even City Lights was, where we at least knew what tunes we were going to be to doing and where we were going to be going with them. But this one… we actually all sent in tunes and Simon picked out some tunes; and then we went into the studio having never really played some of them together.”
Having more than one songwriter in the band certainly helps that process, since multiple band members can contribute their own uniqueness to the ultimate sound of the album.
When you stop to think about it, Driftwood’s story really mirrors the band’s sound.
As you listen to their songs, they have this tendency to start simply, even softly; and each song builds up into this driving, passionate sound. Ultimately, the band’s complete story really has been built out of each band member’s own simple, solitary experience over the past decade or more, and it’s interesting to see that story continue to grow and build over time, to ultimately form the band, Driftwood.