Like thousands of other bands in early March, Stefanie Drootin-Senseney and her husband, Chris Senseney, were getting ready for SXSW. But she was a little bummed because she was going for the first time without her kids. Instead, the kids were staying at home with grandparents while she and her husband and their band, Big Harp, were headed to Austin.
That’s not normally how a conversation starts with rock bands, but Stefanie and Chris are the exception. And their new record, Chain Letters, is an exception to all of the formulaic songwriting and trendy processed blips that are sure to be on full display at SXSW this year. Chain Letters is a Tom Waits record that got recorded after a night of heavy drinking with Iggy and the Stooges. Chris’ songs are astute, crippling character sketches, all anchored by Stefanie’s newly discovered love, the fuzz bass.
Stefanie took some time out of preparing for the child-less trip to Austin recently to talk about audio-techy subjects like Big Muff fuzz bass pedals, complete non-technical topics like raising a family, and why they’re going to make records for no one if they have to.
Stereo Subversion: I’m glad we got to talk because what sold this record for me was the fuzz bass.
Stefanie Drootin-Senseney: I’m obsessed with fuzz bass.
I think we got to a point where we were like, 'We’ve got a great life. We’re always going to play music, we’re always going to write music, and put out records. And if we make some money then that would be amazing but we’re not going to dwell on it. We just have a good life.' We can’t sit around and worry about people being upset and not buying our record. Of course we want people to like it and we don’t want anyone to be disappointed, but we have to be true to who we are.
SSv: How did you figure out that would be one of the starting points for this record?
Stefanie: Well, I think after so many years of playing bass in bands—not that I got bored with bass—but I was just looking for something new. And I was looking at pedals one night out of nowhere, and Chris and me found the bass Big Muff. I always loved how it sounded on guitar. I’ve had some fuzz pedals before but I never liked the way they sounded on the bass.
So when we got [the Big Muff], I got obsessed with it and I wanted it on every song. We started writing some skeletal songs and we formed them around the fuzz bass and [the instrument] decided the mood of them, if that makes sense.
SSv: I haven’t heard the first record, White Hat, but I understand this one is much more of a departure for you two. Was that a conscious decision or did the fuzz bass decide that for you?
Stefanie: It was both. What happened with the first record was that we had our second child and we hadn’t been playing much music, we were just adjusting to being parents. So, the first record we did was just out of nowhere. We really threw songs together, got in the studio, and recorded them in three days. They ended up sounding like pretty straightforward folk songs—not totally straightforward but pretty mellow. And when we played them live they never sounded like that. And the truth is we like things slightly more amped up than that record came across on the recording.
So that was the first thing; we knew we were going into these songs trying to make more of a rock record, I guess. And then we had the fuzz pedals and we were trying not to be as “by the book” on this record—just messing around a lot and it started becoming what it was from there.
SSv: You said you wanted Iggy and the Stooges to be a touch point for this record, but there’s a Tom Waits-ian baritone and swagger to it, also with some menace underneath.
Stefanie: Everyone you mentioned are people that we are influenced by and it happened naturally for us, so it makes sense to hear that on the record.
SSv: The vocals have a great barroom, baritone drawl to them, but it is definitely a rock record.
Stefanie: That’s Chris’ talking voice, too. We went to get our taxes done, and our tax guy told Chris that he should do voiceover work. [Laughs]
SSv: How did your relationship with Saddle Creek begin?
Stefanie: It began with me so many years ago—in the late ’90s, I believe. It’s such a long story, but the quick version is that I was in a punk band that broke down in Omaha, Nebraska. And I ended up staying at Tim Kasher’s house—he’s in a band I’m in called The Good Life. And him and Connor [Oberst] and Robb [Nansel] from the label were all around and we became really good friends. They would come to LA and I would set up shows for them and they would set up show for us in Omaha.
Then I started playing in Bright Eyes in maybe 2001 and then in The Good Life shortly after that. Then Chris and I moved to L.A. and we made that first record and sent it off to [Saddle Creek] as friends. And they were interested in putting it out, so they did. This is record two and now we’re working on record three.
SSv: You are already working on record three?
Stefanie: Yeah, Chris is ridiculously prolific and that’s what we do when the kids go to bed. [Laughs]
SSv: Do you have to keep it down volume-wise?
Stefanie: Yeah, we do! This next record will be the first one we will have done while they were asleep. The other one was done at my parents’ house and they watched them while we practiced in the other room. But we’re using a Casio and some kids’ percussion toys, some acoustic guitars—it’s going to be electric on the record but it’s a fun way to practice. We do have to keep it down quite a bit. [Laughs]
SSv: Are you keeping the same sound for record three or is it still gestating?
Stefanie: Yeah, but we like so many things that I can’t imagine any record being just like the one before it. To me, some people are shocked in the difference in our first two records and I, actually, am not. Because the songwriting is so similar and I feel like there’s always a link. Chris’s voice, his words, for example. But everything will change because we’re always experimenting and playing around with sounds and feelings. It’s hard to say now—it won’t end up like the first record, but it will be different.
SSv: Are you worried about the fickleness of industry or audience? Because it becomes expected to stay within a certain realm or sound and if you deviate too much then you risk alienating fans. Does it cross your mind at all?
Stefanie: Yeah, it does. When we go to play shows, we really appreciate the fans of the first record and we feel a little guilty because we’re not playing what they want to hear. And no one’s been unkind about it, but I’m sure you’re going to be disappointed if you go see a band and they don’t sound like what you want them to.
And as far as industry, I think we got to a point where we were like, ‘We’ve got a great life. We’re always going to play music, we’re always going to write music, and put out records. And if we make some money then that would be amazing but we’re not going to dwell on it. We just have a good life.’ We can’t sit around and worry about people being upset and not buying our record. Of course we want people to like it and we don’t want anyone to be disappointed, but we have to be true to who we are.
SSv: And who you are changes from point to point, so suggesting that one record might be the same is like suggesting you will be the same person you are now in two years’ time.
Stefanie: And it’s hard to want to do that, unless you find something that makes you feel so comfortable or exactly how you want to express yourself. I guess it’s the same as in a relationship, I think it’s good to change around and find different ways to do what you love. But the fuzz bass will still be there. [Laughs]
SSv: What’s it like being a husband-wife band with kids—which is very unusual in pop music—who have decided to make a go at it and how does it effect what you do? How do you make it all work?
Stefanie: Well, the only setback with the kids—and I don’t even like saying ‘setback’ because everything works out well—is finding the time to work on songs. We wait until they’re asleep and sometimes we work on it while they’re sitting there, but it is hard to find time. As far as travelling and touring, we feel like it works well. We feel grounded on tour. I know in the past it was like a crazy party. You don’t remember where you are—I mean because you’re moving so much, not because of drinking, although that happens, too. [Laughs]
We get up early, we see the towns, I’ve gotten more of a feel for places than I have in ten plus years of touring. Chris’ relationship and mine is solid, because when you’re touring and you are away from your spouse it’s confusing and difficult, too. And it’s like family vacation, but we’re working, too. It’s not conventional, but it works for us is all I can really say. Somehow it works.
SSv: Because you’re passionate about trying to make it work?
Stefanie: Chris and I are adjustable people and our children, because of how they’re being brought up, are also very adaptable. We are very passionate about it, so there’s no way we would drop it. If no one wanted our records we would still make them for us. But we’re so adaptable that it just is how it is and we don’t dwell on it or worry about it. And we certainly don’t feel sorry for ourselves—we feel very lucky that we can do it at all and that our kids get to experience it with us.
SSv: A lot of the songs are third-person scenes—does Chris collaborate with you or does the songwriting just come out of him?
Stefanie: Well, he’s the writer. He tells the children the most amazing stories you can imagine. [Laughs] He is always thinking and observing and watching. He soaks everything in like a sponge, more than anyone I’ve ever seen. And I think the songs really are character sketches. He knows tons of books and I know he was reading Cormac McCarthy not long before making the record—and he’s from a small town, too, so that comes across in his lyrics. A lot of characters from small towns… It’s hard to answer for him, though. Are you looking for where he draws inspiration?
SSv: Well, a little bit. The songs are character-sketches and it’s just not something that I hear a lot of now. It may have been something that you heard a lot of in the ’60s or ’70s with songwriters like Neil Young or Tom Waits, but it was abandoned for a pop formula and nonsensical lyrics, or just love songs. You don’t get a lot of character sketches anymore and that’s what drew me in as a listener.
Stefanie: There are a lot of singers out there that write music, but he’s a writer. He really is a writer. He really thinks about his lyrics and he works on them. I don’t want to say too much about him because he might read it and think, ‘What?’ [Laughs] But so many things influence him. He’s a great writer of songs.
*Top photo by Kim Hager, pull quote photo by Ryan Fox