Interview: Zach Lupetin of Dustbowl Revival

Dustbowl Revival

Recently, I was able to sit down with Zach Lupetin (vocals, guitar) of Dustbowl Revival to discuss the band’s seventh studio album, Is It You, Is It Me, available everywhere this Friday, January 31st. We chatted about the band’s upcoming headlining tour in support of the new record, the stylistic changes that went into the new album, and artists that he admires in today’s music scene. I feel that the band grew a ton on this latest album, and I’d recommend Dustbowl Revival for fans of Lake Street Dive, Galactic, and other American-roots rock bands.

Thank you for your time today! Tell me a little bit about how the tour preparations are going for your upcoming headlining tour.

Our new record: Is It You, Is It Me, comes out January 31st. We are rehearsing and figuring out how to bring that album to life, because creating something in the studio and then translating it to a big live show takes some time and consideration. And this new record is a big sort of cinematic exploration of a lot of different stories and sounds. So, we’re going to be learning and experiencing the songs the first time with the audience when we go into January.

It’s a pretty cathartic experience, I’m sure. So how do you feel like the crowd’s going to react to the new material?

I think they’re going to love it. You know, we’ve already started bringing out some of the new songs [on tour] like “Sonic Boom”, which has gotten some really nice responses. And there’s three songs that we’ve put out already – “Mirror”, “Runaway”, and “Enemy” – to give people a sense of what’s coming their way. And the response has been really positive. And I really appreciate the people who’ve been listening to us maybe over 10 years from when we started as kind of an old-time folk and swing band to our gradual transition into more of a funk and Americana soul outfit. And you know what, this new record might be something completely different. We’re always changing and experimenting, so it’ll be really interesting to see how everyone reacts to the new songs when they come out.

That’s great! So, let’s talk about the new record, Is It You, Is It Me. Where did the album title come from, and why do you feel it is most appropriate for these songs?

We had a lot of discussion about what to call the record and this album, for the first time I think, we didn’t have a fixed idea. It was really a collection of emotions and songs that really question the reason why we perform and why we want to bring music to the world – you know, as our life. And that’s something that as a musician, you often are afraid of confronting because everyone assumes that writing songs and getting together with your friends and playing shows is sort of a fun, frivolous activity that really isn’t that necessary for society. It’s more of an added bonus that you bring to people’s lives. But I think more and more, I realized that music is so essential to everybody’s life. And I wanted to examine how it’s the one thing that can really bring opposing sides together in our divided times. So, in a way the title ‘Is It You, Is It Me’ is about two groups of people who have forgotten how to talk to one another, finally looking at their own faults and their own prejudices. And maybe starting that conversation. And maybe it’s the music that actually can bring them into the same room.

That’s a pretty good answer for what I was thinking about the record as a whole. I’ve just listened to the advance of the record, so it’s great to hear your perspective. Who actually designed the artwork for the new record?

The artist is a guy named Dewey Saunders, and he’s a talented collage artist who has done some really cool record covers for Anderson .Paak and others. We have some friends of friends who introduced us, and it was a really interesting process of bringing a lot of our ideas to him and having him piece them together. I wanted to have the cover image be symbolic of the tumultuous combination of everything that our country is right now, if that makes sense?

Yeah it does.

And so, there’s a skull in the middle of it with the snake kind of circling in and out. And again, I think it comes back to the idea that deep down we’re all the same. We’re all going to end up under the ground some day, with the worms crawling through us, regardless of how much we disagree with each other and think the other person’s stupid or wrong. I think he really did a great job of collecting some amazing imagery from the past, and from our own personal lives, to kind of symbolize where we are with the tumultuous nature of our country right now.

So how much input do you typically have when it comes to creating the overall look and feel of the physical product of your albums?

A lot. I mean I work very tirelessly with the artist and our management and some of the band members to really help shape what the look and feel of the record would be. The interior panel of the record is maybe my favorite thing. It’s almost a Salvador Dali modern art collage that kinda has to be seen to be believed, almost? I really look forward for people to open up the record and see this vibrant burst of color. Really great artwork on records is one of my favorite things that has kind of been lost in the modern era. You know, you’d look at your parents’ record collection and see this intense artistic explosion all over the records. That was something I wanted to bring back somehow.

And I think that’ll tune in well with the growing audience of people doing record collecting these days, because it seems like the streaming community is kind of missing a lot of that element of holding an album, going through the liner notes, and things like that. So it should be a good fit. 

Yeah I mean, you never know if people will be confused or intrigued. I mean we’ve done the thing where we had our own picture on the record a few times, and now we wanted to make something a little more out there and experimental and artistic.

So what do you feel are the band’s greatest strengths at this point in your career?

I think the band is never afraid to try and go beyond our own abilities and experiences. Listening to the masters of the album a few months back, it struck me that I actually didn’t even know what some of these songs were about – and I wrote them. They’ve kind of taken on a life of their own. And that comes from having the collaborative process – especially working with Sam Kassirer, the producer. It was great to have someone else, who is not so inside of the songs already, bring them to a new place that I never would have dreamed of bringing them. There’s a lot of elements on the record that are much bigger than anything we’ve tried before. We brought in some symphonic brass, and friends who acted as a lady choir, and all sorts of vintage organs – I play the auto-harp a few times. It’s just a big, beautiful mass of sound that I hope people will be able to listen to for years to come and find new things each time.

Yeah, I think it’s going to expand your audience quite a bit. I’m somewhat familiar with your guys older discography, but to be honest, I kind of gravitate more towards the new material. This one was right up my alley of my interests, so hopefully other people feel the same way.

Yeah, I think we’ll definitely confuse some people who assume that we’re just a folky band that likes playing music that fits in at bluegrass festivals or something. And that’s fun to do as well. But I think we’re not a young up-and-coming band anymore. We’ve kind of grown up throughout our years playing on the road and are ready to tackle some more adventurous territory. We go into some pretty tough subjects on this record. There’s definitely a political reckoning that’s going on. A lot of these songs were written after the election in 2016 and the fallout from that within our own families – seeing how relationships could be really damaged – and I wanted to examine that and not shy away from it this time.

That’s very creative of you guys to try to kind of tune in with what’s going on around us and as listeners we kind of appreciate that, because it seems like it’s more current.

Yeah, I hope so. I’m sure there’s always going to be some people who are offended.

Well you can never please everyone, right?

Yeah, but if we’re not going to speak up now, when are we going to do it?

So, how have your writing styles changed from each album? I’m sure they have quite a bit, but how would you describe your artistic growth from your debut – You Can’t Go Back To the Garden of Eden all the way to where you are now?

Well, I’ve been writing songs and been in bands since I was 14 in Chicago. And I think I’ve always liked telling songs that have twist endings or have story arcs like a screenplay or a movie. I went to film school and I write plays as well – I love writing songs that can take you on a journey and bring you somewhere you didn’t expect to go. I think early on, when I was pretty young and the band was just starting out with ‘Garden of Eden’, we were just sort of paying homage to a lot of the music that inspired us – whether that be gospel music or blues. I grew up in Chicago and listened to a lot of blues with my dad, so I always wanted to have that as the backbone. So you’ll hear a lot of blues forms being twisted and sort of expanded. And I heard that in a lot of the records that I was inspired by – you know, from Bob Dylan to Tom Waits and modern people, even Wilco or JD McPherson – people who are taking the past and making their own vibrant vision of it now. And the difference, I would say, between the writing styles of maybe ten years ago, when we started, and now is that I think we’re a little more confident in our abilities to make our own sound, instead of lovingly recreating a style. We’re trying to make our own style. And maybe it’s not quite there yet, but I think the goal is to try to really tell your own story.

You have a lot of modern elements in this new record, so I was just curious what artists today do you admire besides the ones you already mentioned? And why are you particularly drawn to these artists?

Well, I think there’s a couple elements. There’s obviously the songwriting and lyrical content that inspires me as a writer. Then there’s also just the killer live show elements. Because what we’re known for most of the time is our live experience. I try to bring people on a wild ride through different eras of American roots music, and then bring them into our own version of what the future of roots music will be. Someone who does that really well right now that I love is Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats. I think they’re really showing that they can come out of his folk music past and bring this fun, historically relevant, soulful joy to stages everywhere. Another person that I’ve gotten super into is JD McPherson, who I mentioned earlier and I just had him on my podcast. I have a podcast called “The Show on the Road” and I saw how someone like him, who went to graduate school for fine art  – you know, like making experimental art installations – and then bring that intellectualism into straight up pleasurable rockabilly dance party music. And it’s sort of rejuvenating what old school country music is now. I think country music sometimes gets a bad rap, you know. And we are sometimes lumped into that because Americana and country on certain platforms are the same. But I think it’s about staking your claim that we’re making our own version of what country music is. There’s a great artist named Robbie Fulks, who has this saying, “you know of course I make country music, because I live here, don’t I? My country!” So I would like to see more daring roots in Americana and country music be able to be lifted up into a mainstream consciousness. I think we’re always feeling that we’re pushed to the margins of especially pop culture. You know you watch the Grammys and the people like us, or even the folk and roots categories, they’re not on TV. They’re not really being shown and I think that has to change. And certain people like Brandi Carlisle or Sturgill Simpson are bringing roots music into a much bigger place, which is inspiring. And I think that’s a good sign.

And I think Sturgill (Simpson)’s record in particular kind of caught a lot of people by surprise by like this bluesy kind of raw rock record, you know?

Yeah, he really goes for it. He’s just really fearless. And someone like Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes is also someone that’s been inspiring for me. She has this singular vision that’s very personal, very raw and very accessible at the same time. And people are really responding to that, and I hope that in some way my songs can do this same thing at a certain point.

Yeah, I certainly hope so! What sources of art do you find for inspiration in your writing in particular?

I’m a big movie buff, and there’s been some awesome films that I saw this year. Just going to the movie theater sitting there in the dark I think is such an old fashioned, beautiful thing that honestly most of my friends don’t do anymore. You know with Netflix and Amazon, people stay home and don’t really go out and experience film as a public art – which it is. There is something about experiencing it with other people for the first time that’s really unique. And I saw that movie ‘Joker’ when we were on tour in Germany, and the way they integrated the music and the madness that was portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix was really harrowing to watch. It was just such a cool, haunting performance. I think seeing someone like Joaquin Phoenix just dive headlong into a role is something that I want to try to do more of as a performer. Because a lot of times when you’re on stage, you’re doubting yourself or you’re looking in the audience to see if people are actually digging what you’re doing instead of focusing on just creating the music and not waiting for constant validation and a reaction. So, I’d like to be able to be more focused on stage somehow.

So, I understand this is your seventh studio album. Is that right?

Yeah, but who’s counting? (Laughter)

That’s amazing! So what do you attribute the majority of your success to, or longevity, whatever you want to call it?

Patience? I think honestly, to be real, music is just an obsession that won’t let me be, you know. A lot of us in the band know that the 150 days on the road and sort of scrimping by are worth it to create your own sound in the canon of music that you love so much. Because there’s nothing more thrilling than seeing your album in a record store window with Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson next to it. It’s like that’s the music that you listen to growing up, and you’re seeing your band right next to them. And that’s a very surreal and cool thing, and we’re really lucky that we’ve had enough people throughout the years supporting what we do. It’s about creating something new and going beyond the boundaries that you set for yourself – trying to create something that no one’s ever heard.

So the last question I have for you is if you were to describe the band today in one adjective, what would that be, and why? 

Adventurous. We’re never satisfied to stay in one place, which sometimes gets us into trouble because people maybe don’t know how to define us or what exactly we’re doing. It’s a lonely place at times to be either ahead of your time or without a scene to play in. And, we’ve been lucky to be sort of included into the folk and jam band world at festivals. And I think we’re hoping to appeal to a larger group of people who can discover us maybe for the first time with this new album – as something that’s beyond just guys with beards playing acoustic instruments. I think we’re a little more daring than that. There’s a lot of intense intellectual discovery going on in these songs, and that comes from ten years of practice and honing your craft.

Cool! Well thank you so much for your time today!

Of course!