Josh Read, Justin Jones and Justin Hoben stand alone as veteran singer-songwriters in the Washington, D.C. music scene. Hailing from South Africa, Read (guitar, vocals) cut his teeth with alt-country act Revival. Jones (guitar, vocals), a Rawley Springs, Virginia native, comes from a successful solo career touring with his backing group The Driving Rain. Originally from New England, Hoben (guitar, vocals) is a proven singer-songwriter who toured and recorded under the name John Bustine.
Their musical powers combined, The Deadmen take a DIY approach with their sound, blending rock, folk, blues, and Americana in crafting their own style of soulful, cut-to-the-bone music that’s full of conviction.
Joining The Deadmen are bassist John Hutchins and drummer/percussionist Mike Smirnoff. Hutchins (formerly of Army of Me) is part of melodic garage-pop band Typefighter out of D.C., and Smirnoff, as mentioned in our talks below, pretty much plays drums for everyone. In addition to lending his services to The Deadmen and Polkadot Cadaver, he’s touring with Jones through the summer.
We recently rounded up and kicked back with The Deadmen on a late July afternoon at world/roots music festival FloydFest, for their take on their collective work as singer-songwriters forming a ‘superb group’, touring, listening to ABBA and after releasing both an EP and 7″ earlier this year, the group discusses their plans for an upcoming full-length studio album, slated for a release later in 2014.
What came from our talks was a half hour’s worth of honesty, reflection and – let’s face it, the humor, sarcasm and side chatter started early and often, running right until the end. Joking aside, the Deadmen are a group of hard-working musicians busting their asses to make great music and support their families. At the end of the day, they’re just waiting on their phone call to hit the open road with Tom Petty. Sort of.
All of you got your start in the D.C. music scene and are pretty established musicians. What brought The Deadmen together?
Josh Read: Am I talking? I’m not feeling very talkative. (laughing)
Justin Hoben: Josh (Read) and Justin Jones and myself all played music individually and always dug each other’s music and we wound up playing in each other’s bands or solo projects and stuff like that, and then a few years ago, Josh and Justin Jones got together and started writing songs for the band that would become The Deadmen, and a couple years after that…I had actually, when they played a show at The Black Cat, I said, ‘I want to be in your band,’ and Josh told me I couldn’t. Then a couple years later, I guess he changed his mind and he let me in as a bass player and then I started playing guitar, started doing some of my songs, and these guys jumped on, right around that point. John (Hutchins) and Mike (Smirnoff), who also still have their own side projects and bands. John’s in a band called Typefighter – I think that’s his main band – and Mike plays for everybody, as far as I know.
Read: Yeah, that pretty much covers it. We had a pretty great rock & roll scene in DC, and country rock, and folk and whatever, and we were all just collectively playing shows together and decided to make a supergroup.
Justin Jones: Sort of a ‘superb’ group. (laughing)
Read: We definitely consider ourselves a supergroup.
Jones: Definitely in our own minds.
Read: In our own minds. (laughing)
Could you talk about your EP and the material that went into the album? Was it mainly individual songs or made up of your collaborative work?
Read: Its complicated. (laughing)
Jones: Yeah, I think that we kind of…[to Read] I don’t know if ‘Sons & Dogs’ was an old song, or…
Read: When we first put the group together, Jones and I, we had a different bassist and a different drummer, and we were like, ‘Let’s make a band’. I had some songs, and he had some songs, and we just learned each other’s songs. So we kind of worked them out together, and changed stuff, you know, but basically it’s kind of how it works, for the most part. So far.
Jones: When we started that decision, I wrote some songs, but just in the same timeline as I would be writing songs anyway, and those became Deadmen songs.
Read: We just kind of bring our own songs and then everybody works on it as a group. It generally doesn’t change much. We tend to write them pretty perfectly on our own. Bringing them in, there’s some minor tweaks here and there, and so that EP – we didn’t release it when we recorded it. We recorded it a long time ago–
Jones: Yeah, that was recorded in 2010–
Read: We only released it this past year, because at that time, Justin’s (Jones) band was getting a big push – so he was busy with that – and the other guy, the drummer, was in the Psychedelic Furs, and the other guy moved to Austin, Texas, so it was like…and then his (Jones’) band failed miserably, so (laughing) we got a little extra time. So he called me, and said, ‘Hey man, let’s get that band back together! (laughing)
Jones: You know why that is? You know why that happened? You know why that call happened, though? It was after another sold out performance by my band. We were sitting…I was sitting in the van, and our old bass player was in town from Austin, and this other dude, who I didn’t know, were sitting in the van, drinking, behind the club we just played. And we started listening to the EP on the stereo, and we’re just looking around at each other, like ‘Yeah, this shit’s fucking awesome!’ And getting all excited about it, and then the next day I call Josh, and was like, ‘We gotta do this shit again! We gotta do it.’
Read: And Justin (Jones) said, ‘Only if Justin Hoben is in the band.’ Hey look, that’s it. (laughing)
Jones: That time…they were in a band, which was him (Read), him (Hoben) and this other guy called Brandon Butler playing drums, so pretty much, I started coming to those practices and that became The Deadmen.
Read: I was playing bass, Bustine – er, Hoben, was playing guitar and we were playing only his songs. And then Brandon Butler – he was in Boy’s Life and Canyon – he’s a guitarist – he was playing drums. And then, we just switched. Brandon stayed on drums, Justin took over the bass, I went back to guitar and we starting being The Deadmen for one or two shows like that. Then Brandon moved to Louisville, Kentucky.
Jones: (laughing) Working real hard to keep this band together. [Pointing to Read] He’s moving to Maine at the end of the month–
Read: We’ve had three drummers, two bassists–
Jones: And we’ve got about fifteen fans…
Individually as songwriters – in lieu of egos and friendships, how do you all manage songwriting [as a group]?
Jones: I think we all respect each other enough to trust their vision and then also trust when people have ideas that are worth exploring. To me, I never feel like ‘Ah, what a terrible idea.’…It either works or it doesn’t. We try to roll with that. There are things I want to do to one of (Read’s) songs that he won’t let me…
Read: He does them anyways, so…
Jones: I do them anyway, when we’re playing live… (laughing) So its fine with me. He doesn’t say anything about it.
Read: We just finished a full-length, which I don’t think – we weren’t in the same room, ever. So a bunch of decisions were made when other people weren’t around…(laughing)
Hoben: I was never there with one other band member. I was never there with you (to Read).
Jones: So it’s a live record, is the point. (laughing)
Tell us about the recording process. Take us through ‘a day in the life’ of putting together an album with you guys.
Read: Wake up late, have some smoothies…do a little run..(laughing)
Read: Just ease on over to the studio that’s in a big barn in the backyard. Multi-Platinum winning engineer who does it all…
Jones & Read: No, really, that’s not it at all…
Jones: We’ll get an email at 9 AM in the morning from the engineer, who says…
Hoben: ‘Hey, I have some time from 2 PM to 6 – who can come?’ Then no one would reply until 1:30– I can be there for two hours! (laughing) It was really like that.
Jones: So we got it done–
Hoben: In pieces of time, wherever you could and hoping you could make it work.
Read: The only thing left is I have to sing a song and I gotta do my harmonies, and other than that, everything’s done. And the guy who’s doing it is a front of house touring, so he’s always on and off, and he was going to come here with us, but he’s like, ‘That’s six hours away, man…’
Jones: He was also who recorded the EP as well as the record.
Read: His name is Mike Fanuel…
Could you talk about the upcoming LP and those plans (for the full-length album)?
Jones: The plans, the plans…Yeah, it’s really hard. Its what’s been so great for me, at least playing in this band, is that there are no goals, and I like that. It’s not like, ‘We’re going to take over the world! We’re going to tour!’ I dunno, hopefully we’ll finish that recording. I think ultimately…
Read: We want to make good music and support each other’s tunes. I think people respond to them and people like them, and that’s super-great. But all of us, we’re of an age now, I’ve got two kids, he’s (Jones) got two kids, he’s got three kids…we can’t just get in a van and play shitty clubs for the rest of the year. It’s just not on.
Jones: Its basically Tom Petty or nothing…
Jones: (laughing) Either we’re going on the road with Petty or we’re not. (laughing) You heard me, Petty!
Who influenced you as musicians?
Read: Tom Petty… (laughing)
Everyone: Tom Petty. All the way. (laughing)
Jones: I dunno, man…
Read: I know my influences. I grew up playing classical music. I was a violinist, so classical music, I think, gave me my ear. You had to do a lot of ear training. I would say the bands that influenced me the most were The Clash, The Pogues, and Bob Marley. Those are still very important to me. Not only their music necessarily, also their overall philosophies, talents and lives. The things they did. I don’t know if you’ve seen that Strummer documentary they made – after Joe Strummer was dead. He was a fuckin’ cool man. He would go camping…His friends were like, ‘if Strummer called, you’d take your vitamins because Strummer would be up for days doing stuff’. And they’ve got footage of him with his family on the camera, and The Mescaleros – I know I’m going on about this – The Mescaleros documentary also…He was on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City handing out handwritten flyers for his gigs, and the people were, ‘Get away from me, you old freak!’ and some people were like, ‘Holy shit that’s Joe Strummer!’ So that’s me.
Hoben: The Replacements.
Mike Smirnoff: What was it we were listening to on the way here?
Smirnoff: Yeah. Like a modern, classic, Spaghetti Western band.
Read: John’s into prog-rock. You can tell by his hat. (laughing)
John Hutchins: Fugazi and Big Country.
Smirnoff: [imitating the song’s lyrics] ‘In a Big Country!’
Read: ABBA. My parents listened to ABBA nonstop. I know all of their songs. I found a tape the other day and put it in, and I knew all the music. Like all the changes, everything. My wife was like, ‘What is wrong with you?’
Jones: I kind of liked Creedence. Ray Charles.
Hoben: The Eagles…
Read: The Eagles or death metal.
Read: You know who’s fun writing them too, is Josh Homme. Those guys are…that California scene…what they’re doing up in the hills there. I want to go to that studio and make a record.
With all the songwriters in the group, what balance is there between you as individual musicians and the band?
Jones: Do you mean is there a power hierarchy?
What plays, what doesn’t…
Hoben: Well, Josh will come in with a song, and its catchy but complicated, and interesting, and then Jones will come in with a song that’s like slower and more moody. So I’m like, ‘I’ve got to write something fast and dumb and loud to even things out.’ To make the landscape more negotiable.
Jones: All right. ‘Dumb, loud. Go!’ (laughing)
Hoben: ‘Two chords. Step on it!’
Read: Basically, we’re like, ‘I got a new tune!’ and there’s always like, ‘I don’t care if you like it or not, don’t say anything yet!’ We play through the song, everyone learns it, from the telephone or whatever, and then people just start trying stuff.
Jones: Once the songwriter goes to the bathroom we’re like…
Hoben: ‘Jesus, another one of these?’ (laughing)
Jones: ‘We’re through it, I guess!’ (laughing) ‘Listen, it’s not going on the record!’ (laughing)
Read: So people start trying stuff, and then, ‘I like that,’ or ‘That was weird,’ then we start trying to be like, ‘You know what would be cool? If we did this,’ or someone would say, ‘I think we need to hold that chord longer, make that section bigger’…
Jones: We do this by phone, by the way — (laughing)
Read: Or it goes on too long, or needs to be lengthened, or its not long enough, or its short…or else it comes in, and it’s pretty much right the way it is. We don’t actually get a lot of time to practice, we tend to kind of – over a series of weeks – try different riffs and things, and eventually in a month or two, there’s a tune.
Jones: We’ve all released our own records. You know, when we write a song, we hear it, how we want it to be and then somebody might ask, ‘What if you did this?’ and you’re, ‘There’s no fuckin’ way we’re doing that,’ you know, and that’s that. But sometimes there are great ideas, for sure.
Read: I think every song gets tweaked to some degree…
Jones: It does, yeah. Tempos change…
Read: Little things, you know. It affects the greater picture. And I think that because we all have our different styles that each of us plays – we have Bustine (Hoben) on acoustic guitar, and his songs are the fastest and loudest.
Jones: He’s a thrash metal acoustic player. He’s like the thrash metal Ralph Stanley.
Read: But partially, it really does sound really cool and it controls the amount of electric you have going on. I forgot what I was going to say…Everything gets tweaked.
Jones: Everybody thinks they could’ve written that song better.
Read: Since everyone’s style is particular…I can’t help but…we can’t help but sound like The Deadmen. If Justin Jones took a Justin Jones song and played it with Justin Jones, and ‘Bam!’ – it sounds like a Justin Jones song. But when we play with The Deadmen, it doesn’t sound like a Justin Jones song. So it’s his voice, and his style of writing, but then all of the other styles make it something different.
Jones: And I think having three lead singers is fuckin’ awesome.
Read: And we do lots of harmonies and stuff.
What’s it like running your own label (Eight Gang Switch)?
Jones: Highly profitable. (laughing)
Read: We make a lot of money.
Jones: Everyone should start their own label.
Read: Everyone did, didn’t they?
Jones: Yeah, that’s the problem…
[Music plays in the background. A female vocalist can be heard over the loudspeaker on the festival’s main stage, a hundred yards from where the interview takes place.]
Jones: That’s a sweet Otis Redding cover…I think.
Smirnoff: Its McCartney…
Jones: You’re right. Its Wings…
Talk about your touring. I know with families, you’re playing a lot in the D.C. area.
Hoben: Honestly, it’s a lot of fun to play in D.C. because it’s so close for everybody. We don’t sweat being away from families or spending a lot of money on gas. And we’ll play shows in other places, but I mean, honestly if we can play somewhere and make some money, to put into the band, to give to the people we’re trying to support, that’s great. That’s not really too realistic – the shows come few and far between.
Jones: Yeah, it’s really odd, too. I don’t know that really any of us really want to tour…
Read: Touring is not the goal. I think a lot of people get into a band and say, ‘Let’s go on the road! Road! Road! Road!’ But to me, I’m raising two children, which is important to be there. So if we go on the road…
Jones: I want to come back rich. (laughing)
Read: I want to be making money, or else I want to take them with me, get a bus, and take the whole family out. Because you only live once, man, and some people want to live and be famous and have adoration and lots of sex and drugs. I’m 37 years old.
Jones: We just want to make great music, man.
Read: I still want good sex and drugs. Don’t get me wrong…(laughing) In a little bit more moderation.
Do you find it challenging working to spread your music out over the internet, playing shows and festivals? I don’t know if becoming bigger is the goal, or getting your music out there to more people. Do you find the pursuit of success frustrating?
Jones: I think we’ve all been frustrated by trying to succeed in the past. To me, that’s sort of, at least in my perspective, the most refreshing thing about playing. The most liberating thing about playing in this band is that I’m not feeling the pressure to succeed. Not caring about that. We’re just going to do what’s fun and do what we like to do.
Read: And that means we can make the honest music that we make, and you can take it or leave it. But the people that do hear it…I think we’re all…I think the entire arts world is frustrated by the modern techniques and trying to, like it is…the internet can be difficult, you can say it goes everywhere, but you need people to look at it. And then, at a music festival its different, because people pay $400 and they’re camping in the woods, and they’re getting up at 9 in the morning to go see bands all day long. It’s different. But in a city, where people are busy and have shit to do, and they’re like, ‘Ah, its late, do we really gotta go out and see this group? We’ll just look at it online.’ … A lot of the connectivity of rock & roll has been damaged, I think, by the ‘disconnectivity’ of the connectivity. Because it used to be you’re touching people —
Jones: I blame YouTube for this, to be honest…
Read: I’ve been to shows because of YouTube.
Hoben: You could also buy someone’s record because you support music.
Jones: Some people won’t.
Hutchins: People tell me all the time, ‘Oh man, I listened to that record of yours on Spotify’…
Jones: I’m like, ‘Here, just let me give you twenty bucks’. (laughing)
Hoben: It’s good that they like it and its good they care.
Read: People start getting shit for free and they think everything should be free. That train tour that they did back in the Sixties– [‘The Festival Express’ train tour occurred in 1970 with The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and The Band]
Jones: Oh yeah, that was awesome–
Read: You take the best musicians of the era, specifically with that style of music, and you put them on a train across Canada and the first show – basically everyone broke into the show.
Jones: ‘What is this shit? What, we have to pay?’
Read: And the big peace fest, or whatever…The big free show–
Read: Yeah, Woodstock. Technically, the people were supposed to pay for. There’s something about people that – I don’t mean to be criticizing people, I’m just saying they expect it to be free. They don’t know necessarily, the amount of work, the amount of time you need, the amount of work that goes into it.
Jones: Yeah, I mean, that shit started twenty five years ago. For everybody. When we started learning how to play instruments. It’s funny to me, when we’re negotiating with the club, and we’ll give you $250, and I’m ‘No, like a thousand dollars,’…You could get any band to play for $250. That’s such a rip. That’s what sucks. So many people out there that don’t value themselves, that I can’t get the gig I want.
Its undercutting the market, the industry…
Jones: Yeah, there’s always gonna be somebody that’ll do it for nothing.
Read: I think a lot of straight promoters – the Sixties happened because of a lot of promoters – Bill Graham – there wouldn’t have been that Sixties music scene – that was Bill Graham. He made San Francisco. The posters are still a part of rock & roll. They’re just shows from small bands, but they got big because people went. And I think that there is just that – people nowadays – clubs expect you to do a promotion…everyone says these days musicians should be able to record, put out their own music, and get fans all by themselves, and all this crap, and I say the whole thing —
Read: Kickstarter, yeah. I just feel like that’s wonderful, but its only one certain type of person that does that. It’s a certain type, I guess…We’re kind of old-fashioned. We play shows to pay for recordings, and play shows – that nobody comes to – hoping to share our music and sell some records.
Jones: But that’s to say we don’t want to play our shows across the country doing that.
Jones: We don’t want to go door-to-door, selling our music.
Read: [To Jones] You spent five years doing that…pretty nonstop.
[To Jones] You’ve spent 120 dates touring solo…[Jones nods]
Read: I’ve watched a lot of my friends do it.
Jones: And none of them are successful. (laughing) That model does not work.
Read: Brandon hit the road when he was 18, and he got off the road when he was 30.
Jones: That was when I was 22. I remember I met him, we were at a bar, and he had just gotten off the road with Canyon and Son Volt. And he’s like, ‘I’m done.’ He started being a contractor…
Read: And he just started his own business, and he builds houses.
Jones: And now he’s happy.
Funny how that works. What should we expect in the coming months from The Deadmen?
Read: We’re gonna put this record out. We have a good guy that’s doing – that’s done all the business with putting out the EP, the 7″, and then we’ll have a full length, a 7″ and an EP out, and people need to hear it. It takes time for people to hear it. And if Petty calls, we’re all set.
Jones: We have the material, Petty. (laughing)
Read: We could do a full two hours…
Our thanks to Rich Nardo with 24West.