For Central Oregon roots-punk band Larry and His Flask, busking — playing on the street for tips — has always paid off beyond whatever stray bills end up in the guitar case.
Busking, after all, gave the Flask its new beginning. Formed in 2004 as a hardcore punk band, the group's fortunes changed a few years ago when its old drummer quit, a new group of guys joined up and the music shifted toward a rootsier sound.
The new lineup took its new look to the streets, and people responded, both at home and across the United States. (You can find videos of the band's sidewalk shows all over YouTube.)
The we'll-play-anywhere, devil-may-care attitude behind busking also has been integral to the Flask's rise from scrappy road warriors to opening for huge bands like Dropkick Murphys and the Reverend Horton Heat, stealing the show at the Warped Tour, and scoring rave reviews in The New York Times.
Yes, that New York Times. Last summer, one of the paper's music critics, Jon Caramanica, praised the sextet as “uncommonly joyous,” “deviously astute” and employing a “great deal of precision ... beneath the chaos” alongside a photo of guitarist Dallin Bulkley screaming ferally into a microphone at Brooklyn's Union Hall.
Also, busking is fun. At least, it is if you approach your band the right way, as Larry and His Flask does.
But sometimes, busking just comes down to finances, a new stream of revenue in a far-off, unfamiliar place.
Just back from a five-week tour of Europe, the band will play a homecoming show in Redmond tonight (see “If you go” on Page 3). And last week, gathered around a table at The Horned Hand in Bend, they explained why they busked more overseas than they have in a long while.
“We had to, for the money,” said bassist Jesse Marshall. “We desperately needed the money.”
“We pretty much went flat broke just getting out there,” chimed in guitarist Ian Cook.
“We couldn't eat,” said Jesse's brother Jamin, the drummer, finishing the three-headed thought, “if we didn't do that sort of thing.”
For Larry and His Flask, such dire straits are no big deal. This is a band, after all, that decided at some point to just go and travel and play for people and win their ears and hearts with the pure power of their live show.
And it worked. Thanks to that initial DIY effort, plus subsequent support tours, the Warped gig and gushing press, Larry and His Flask is now one of the buzz bands on the white-hot roots-music-with-punk-spirit scene.
Banjo player Andrew Carew couldn't have guessed what the future held. He joined the fold when he was 19, after his band broke up and the Flask was in flux. When asked if he saw this kind of potential in these guys, he answered simply: “No.”
Then, after a perfectly timed pause: “Hell no!”
He was wrong, of course. Late last week, the six band members — mandolinist Kirk Skatvold rounds out the group — reflected on their favorite parts of the European tour, which carried them through 10 countries: the Leaning Tower of Pisa. A canal tour in Holland. A sunny drive across the snow-capped Alps.
Busking in Edinburgh, Scotland and Florence, Italy and London.
“Those were awesome,” Jesse Marshall said.
So were the shows, where crowds were bigger than expected and lots of folks actually sang along to the band's songs.
But there is stress involved, too, no matter how cool the rock 'n' roll lifestyle may seem. The Marshall brothers' father died of cancer last year, forcing them to cancel a run of Canadian dates. Avalanches sometimes close mountain passes, quintupling the drive between shows. Dealing with the border patrol is always a treat.
Add it all up, and it can take a toll. Just last month, between flying back from Europe and entering Canada, the toll became too much for Jesse Marshall, who had a little get-together with Boston paramedics after an anxiety attack prompted his band mates to call for help.
“I just pushed too hard,” he said. “It kinda gets to the point where you're like 'What the f--- are we doing?' And then you get to the show and people just go off and they're so stoked and right there — that moment — that's the reason we do it. Because it makes people happy and it makes us happy and it's worth it. Sometimes you just lose sight of it.”
Back home, the Flask is going to work on finding a better balance. After a full slate of touring in the fall, the band will take a few months off, stay close to home (and their loved ones) and make another record, for which a bunch of songs are already written. (A separate six-song EP is recorded and due out in September.)
When it's time to fuel up the van again, they're going to be more selective about the shows they take.
And they're not afraid to get back to what they do well, to the style of touring that got them to where they are. Supporting slots on big tours are nice. They make the band step up its game and the music reaches a lot more people, but they also come with less freedom.
“It's not like we can just stop on the side of the road if we see a cool lake and go swimming whenever we want,” Cook said.
Says Jamin Marshall: “I think it works better for us to just build it up slowly and get that time and experience under our belt.”
It took 'em a few years to figure that out, but then this was never a band with a five-year master plan.
“It was always just a constant 'Just go forward,'” Cook said. “Let's not think about where it's going to go. Let's just make sure we're going there.”