The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow’s David Tanklefsky talks songwriting and Passim’s campfire.festival

David Tanklefsky of the band Whiskey Treaty Roadshow is just one in a wide array of dynamic musicians making their way to Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts for the 19th annual Memorial Day campfire.festival from Friday, May 26 through Sunday, May 29.  An interactive music festival presented “in the round,” featured artists interact with each other and the crowd, often improvising and exchanging songs during the weekend.  What often results is the unexpected.  Click here for the full list of featured musicians and for tickets.

The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow’s David Tanklefsky talks about Whiskey’s unique songwriting, the Beatles, and their touring adventures.  Click here to see their award-winning, short documentary and follow them on Facebook.

Sleepless Critic:  You’ll be at Club Passim for the campfire.festival Memorial Day weekend before the Whiskey Treaty Roadshow will make an appearance at Club Passim on Friday, July 14.  You’ve played the venue as well as campfire.festival before.  I understand it is quite an improvisational, interactive music experience.

David Tanklefsky:  I’ve done campfire a few times. This will be my first time playing there with my friend Hayley Sabella, who is terrific. Passim is a special place and we are lucky to have it in the area.  It seems like as less money is available to go around in the music world, the relationship between musicians and venues has become more of transaction.  Passim is the opposite. They are unique and truly care about developing musicians and giving them a platform for being heard.

SC:  How did the Whiskey Treaty Roadshow form and how did you meet?

DT:  Tory Hanna is really the conduit through which the band came together.  One of my best friends, who I was in a band with for years growing up, was living in a loft in Brooklyn with Tory and we started hanging out through him.  His wife Susie went to high school with Greg Smith and Tory knew Billy Keane through the Berkshires music world.  Billy had played a few shows with Chris Merenda and was a big fan of his old band, The Mammals. It happened very naturally, which I think is the best way for creative groups to get together.

The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow

The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow on tour Photo courtesy of Tim Bradley

SC:  Whose idea was the award-winning, short documentary and how did you decide on the details to the documentary?  It features lots of scenic, peaceful views of different areas of Massachusetts.

DT:  Tory grew up with a filmmaker named Tim Bradley who was looking for a new documentary project.  Tim captured our rehearsals for a four night tour we had organized through Massachusetts.  It was our first time playing together as a group.

Watching it now is such fun because it’s a snapshot of a band just starting out without any expectations beyond playing four great shows.  Tim meticulously planned out all the locations and the amazing videography.  When Tory mentioned his friend wanted to film us, I trusted his judgment but never imagined Tim would come up with such a well-crafted film.  It really helped catapult us into being a real band.

SC:  You have a relaxed sound, a rhythm likened to a drive down a peaceful country road.  You have a bit of a country tinge to some of your music.  Was that planned?  How did you end up conforming to a sound?

DT:  In folk music, there are songs and chord progressions that become seared into your soul over time. We’ve never had a discussion about it, but everyone brings songs to the table that we think will work with our instrumentation and vocal abilities. I think the folk/country/Americana textures come from having many stringed instruments on stage and the collaborative spirit of just sitting around, passing the guitar, and sharing songs.

SC:  Folk music is full of rich stories and each of you has a distinct style.  How do you come up with your songs?  Do you write a song together or are the songs bits of each songwriter or one song written by one another?

DT:  In this project, everyone writes independently and then brings songs to the table in various forms of completeness. We’ve been tinkering with different instrumentation and having some songs with more minimal arrangements as it has evolved.  We ask ourselves, ‘Do we need five people strumming away like mad men through this whole song?’  Often the answer is no. In the next few months, we’re planning to do a little songwriting retreat where we write more actively together for the first time, which will be new, exciting, and hopefully fruitful.

SC:  Where did your love for songwriting start?  Your particular songwriting style has a bit of humor with some rich lyrics and a bit of an unpredictable tempo at times.

DT:  When I was 10, I had an unhealthy obsession with the for three years straight.  I thought they were a perfect band.  My friends and I went as the Beatles for Halloween every year between ages 10 and 13. No one wanted to be Ringo and no one was left-handed like Paul so we were four kids with mushroom cuts and right-handed cardboard guitars.

Later I became inspired by songwriters that are always growing, pushing, and challenging their listeners.  I think Paul Simon is the gold standard for that.  I’m in awe of the insatiable curiosity he taps into and I try to write from a position of newness like that.  Being unaware of where my curiosity will take me but trying to just follow it through.

SC:  I understand you are touring.  What kind of venue would be an ideal place for you to play?

DT:  It was a huge thrill to perform with Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter Sarah Lee. That’s way up on the list.

We’ve had the opportunity to play some amazing old theatres over the last year or so. We loved the Academy of Music in Northampton and the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield.  It was total thrill to sell out Mass MOCA, but some of our best shows have been in how-did-we-end-up-here type places too.

We played a last minute show in Cambridge in March at a really tiny place in Central Square and it was packed in with people standing on tables, total chaos.  The bouncer was adamant that no one else could come in because it was too packed.  One person left outside was our drummer, Jimmy.  He came in the back door and was kicked back out onto the street. We said, ‘But that’s the drummer!’  The bouncer replied, ‘I don’t care, I said no more!’  Eventually we brokered a deal and Jimmy was allowed inside and the show went on.  Theatre and dive bar are both okay in our book.

SC:  What are the Whiskey Treaty Roadshow’s future plans?

DT:  Our new EP is almost done and we are in high-level band discussions about a run of shows in the fall to support its release. We did it with an awesome engineer named Marc Seedorf at Barnhouse Studios in Chicopee, Massachusetts. We had to take a month break from recording because he was on tour with Dinosaur Jr. as their guitar tech and he got to play a few songs each night with them.  He’s our new hero.

Click here for more information and tickets to Passim’s campfire.festival at Club Passim, 47 Palmer Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, conveniently located in Harvard Square.  Not only a haven for music lessons, Passim offers live concerts nearly 365 days a year featuring Grammy winners to musicians with a dream.  Click here for their music schedule and follow Passim on Facebook and Twitter.

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