The Roustabouts roll with their ‘organic and natural’ flow to Santa Monica Farmers Market
By Bliss Bowen
It sounds like a sitcom setup: three friends, two instrumentalists and one neighborhood Irish pub.
But those were the seeds that, once sowed with beer and spontaneity, eventually yielded the Roustabouts, otherwise known as vocalist Ally Cool and Michigan-raised multi-instrumentalist pals Jon Licht and Paul Haapaniemi.
“It started because we lived literally across the street from Sonny McLean’s and we’d go on Thursday night and play acoustic,” explains Haapaniemi, whose fine-grit baritone meshes with Licht’s light, conversational tones like they were brothers. “It grew from there, just an acoustic thing, and then it grew into [doing] shows with a full band. We were living with our good friend Brandon, and he started dating Ally, and Ally has been singing since she’s a little kid, so there’s been sort of an organic [process]. It started as a fun thing, and then we thought maybe we could take it a little further.”
Where they’ve taken it over the past three years is a handful of clubs around Los Angeles and the recording studio. Last June the Roustabouts released their self-titled first album, a guitar-centered set seasoned with cello, saxophone, trumpet, violin and harmonies. Most of the songs were written by either Haapaniemi or Licht, before the band came together. “Bad Joe Cody” is a banjo-plucking exception, inspired by a wandering, “modern-day folk hero” in a book by Haapaniemi’s cousin Sam (who may accompany them at the Santa Monica Farmers Market this Sunday). “The Reaper” is a recent co-write, as is “Summertime,” which Cool also had a hand in composing.
With their upbeat rhythms and images of bare feet and porch-front girl-watching, “Summertime” and Haapaniemi’s feel-good anthem “Sonny’s Bar” typify the Roustabouts’ relaxed Westside vibe:
“I can’t blame you for leaving I wasn’t going very far
And if you want to give me reasons I’ll be down at Sonny’s Bar
With all the boys and we’ll be drinking like tomorrow’s 2012
Raising our beers for all these years ’cause we know we can’t save ourselves…”
“I’m a Westsider through and through,” Licht says, “and it definitely has an influence on the music — the laid-back quality and beachiness.”
They namecheck Ocelot Robot and Roses & Cigarettes as local bands with whom they feel a kinship, and list a diverse crew of artists who’ve inspired them — the Avett Brothers, Jake Bugg, Bob Dylan, Frontier Ruckus, Josh Ritter, Ray LaMontagne, Willie Watson, ’60s and ’70s rock bands — before Haapaniemi laughingly sums it up: “Make a big Zen diagram and we’re somewhere in the middle of all that.”
Words like “organic” and “authentic” dot their conversation, whether they’re discussing the Roustabouts’ evolution or song origins.
“I guess that’s the theme of our vibe: natural and organic,” Haapaniemi acknowledges. “Our best stuff starts off personally. Like ‘Big Lake Blue’; that was a very personal experience that Jon had at Lake Michigan, and that kind of earnestness or genuine spark of wherever the song came from seems to have bled through. Songs like that are some of people’s favorites.”
“The best time I’ve had writing a song is, like Paul said, coming back from a trip or some kind of experience, and it comes out organically,” Licht affirms. “The best songs I’ve written ended up not forced. Not, ‘I’m gonna sit down and write this song.’ It should be easy and natural. That’s when people respond. Maybe they can see that you have a personal [connection], they can see the emotion in it and they can relate to it. They can tell when something’s authentic.”
Live, they mix album material with newer, yet-to-be-recorded songs and covers of favored artists like Ritter and Wyclef Jean. At a recent WitZend show celebrating Haapaniemi’s birthday, they mashed together John Denver’s “Country Road,” the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” — an unusual medley that speaks to their eclecticism as well as their go-with-the-flow approach.
“I could definitely see us going the jam-band way because at our last show, we had eight people onstage — fiddle, lead guitar, keyboard — and I love that, getting as many people onstage as you can,” Licht says. “It won’t be perfect but it’s fun, and people love that energy. That’s what I love about Edward Sharpe … having fun and including people. But I like things to happen organically, and the way that it goes is the way that it goes.”
The Roustabouts perform a free three-hour acoustic set from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday at the Santa Monica Farmers Market on Main Street (below Ocean Park Boulevard). They return to Sonny McLean’s Irish Pub (2615 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica) on Thursday, March 26. Find them online at theroustaboutsmusic.com.