On a late July evening, I make plans to meet up with Matt Browning, frontman for the Roanoke, Va-based indie roots rock/alt-country group The Floorboards, at The Community Inn, a venerable watering hole in Roanoke’s Grandin Court neighborhood. On a trendy corner anchored by the Grandin Theatre, the neighborhood houses boutiques and eateries, a soda shop, a co-op and coffee shop. The C.I., for short, is a no-frills throwback with wood panel interiors, pool tables and fading photographs on the walls. The place reeks of stories and lacks pretension. It’s where a regular Joe goes for an ice cold one, maybe to watch a game, and perhaps a bite to eat, like a cheeseburger or even a schoolhouse pizza. Yeah, just like the kind you had in middle school. It’s a place where a regular Joe named Matt Browning would go.
When I arrive, Browning is already seated in a booth facing the entrance, and across from him sits Wes Lawrence, a mutual friend who introduced me to Browning some time ago. It’s a Thursday night and the place is abuzz. Beers are ordered [Browning and I ask for National Bohemians – ‘Natty Bo’s’ – and for Lawrence, a Bud Light], everyone’s shooting the shit, and the interview commences a few minutes later. More drinks are ordered – and as the night goes on, friend Wes becomes fanboy Wes, and things get a little awkward. But in a good way.
Since getting their start in early 2012, The Floorboards have released a full-length studio album and are playing anywhere and everywhere from bars to music festivals up and down the East Coast. The group consists of Browning on vocals and rhythm guitar, Jake Dempsey on bass and vocals, Bob Chew on slide guitar, Chris Blankenship on lead guitar, and George Penn on drums and percussion.
Everyone got to talking so much, we decided to break this feature into two parts. Enjoy part one of our interview with Matt Browning of The Floorboards.
Bonham: Matt, talk about how The Floorboards got together.
Browning: Yeah, definitely, man. So we started out…I was in a band called The Royal Greens, and the bass player for The Floorboards, Jake Dempsey, recorded that band. We were working on our second album, and he was working on recording. And we set up at the guitar player for that band’s house, and we were doing like, big weekend sessions – it was a lot of fun – and Jake came, and was doing it, and kind of in the middle of us working on that album—
Waitress: [To Browning and me] You want another beer?
Browning: Yes, please.
Browning: [Laughing] In the middle of us working on that, the band broke up. We were running around…We had this old bus we were taking from town to town, and you know, kind of doing the thing, and the band broke up. It was like [regarding Dempsey], ‘Man, you know, we should do something together sometime, to get something together…’ And that was probably 2009, and Jake and I kind of messed around with that idea for a couple years and played with different people. We would get together and practice with a drummer, randomly. Another guitar player, randomly, and finally we had given up on that. Jake sends me a message – I’m out in California on vacation with my wife, and he sends me a message, and he’s like, ‘I’ve got the band together. We’re gonna get together this date, these people, you can’t argue…This is what we’re gonna do.’ I’m like, ‘Hell yeah.’ I talked to my wife about it, ‘This is cool.’ Jake put it together, we gotta do it now. In September 2011, probably, we got together…the first couple times we were still trying to figure out who’s gonna be in the band. It started out with…Hunter Johnson, who plays with My Radio and owns [downtown Roanoke bar/restaurant] Lucky, he was on drums…From the first day, we were like, ‘This is gonna be cool if we get the right people in here…’, that have the time to do it, basically. Hunter didn’t have the time to do it. That was the first day that I met Bob Chew, the steel player, and I remember Jake asking Bob, ‘Is this something you like to do?’ and Bob was like, ‘I dunno, let’s see how it goes,’ [Laughing] and then at the end of it, Bob was like, ‘Yeah, we should probably get together again.’ So that’s kind of how it started. We tried different drummers. We played with an organ player for a little while…and Jake kind of put the whole thing together. It was his dream, and then it kind of turned into all of our dreams. We were like, ‘This is cool!’ We all kind of wanted to be in, we just didn’t know it yet.
Lawrence: Was it in [Dempsey’s] studio?
Browning: Yeah, it was in his studio.
Lawrence: I knew everything, but I didn’t know when [the band became official]…
Browning: Yeah, we got together, and I remember the first day, Hunter brought a click track, and he was like, ‘So, we’re gonna record some shit today, right?’ and he was ready. He had all these…you know, we’d never played before, and Hunter’s got drum parts for this stuff…and I’m like, ‘Man, that’s amazing! That’s really cool!’ And we were really lucky to find George, too, because George was able to fill in, too. We tried out some different drummers in the meantime…
Lawrence: So Hunter was the first [drummer] and he ended up being…
Browning: He wasn’t even that…he didn’t have time to do it, actually, at the time.
Lawrence: So was George next?
Browning: [Thinking] George was actually number three or four.
Lawrence: So was anything laid down before the actual band – [To me] Sorry, I’m doing your interview – were there any tracks laid down before the first band as we know it, was?
Browning: No. I had songs that were my thing, but as far as playing [with the new band], we didn’t record anything. When we got together as me, Jake, Bob, and George…that was the first inception. Patrick wasn’t there yet. At that time we had James Pace with us.
The waitress delivers our beers to the table.
Lawrence: That’s right…
Browning: And the first thing we ever played was [Roanoke’s] Go Outside festival as The Matt Browning Band. Then we just went back and practiced and practiced, and we were like, ‘All right, we’re going to get it together.’ I think in March 2012 was our first real gig, at Martin’s here in town.
Bonham: Wes kind of touched on this, but— [Everyone laughs]
Lawrence: ‘Get him outta here!’ [Laughing]
Bonham: What was it like musically, in your headspace, at the time? Did you know where you wanted to go with the band?
Browning: I think my thought for the band was a little more…I had the songs kind of figured out in my own head, and the cool thing was getting together with the rest of the guys and hearing what they each could add to what was already in my head. Because that’s the fun part anyway. One person can only do so much unless they’re playing every part, and overdubbing things…Really, I think the fun part is getting together with other people and collaborating. We took a while to practice things, come up with parts and get it right before we got in front of people…from probably October 2011 to March  before we played a gig in front of people. We were like, ‘We gotta get this right,’ from taking it to my head to how we’re going to do it as a whole band. That was the fun part. It was cool because I’d been playing these songs in front of people in a very stripped down way – acoustic guitar, playing these songs – so I had the idea of how I’ve wanted to deliver the vocals and to deliver the song, but adding in the dynamics of a whole band made it that much better.
Bonham: And The Floorboards released their first record [a self-titled LP] soon afterwards. What were your influences on the album?
Browning: The biggest influence for the album was getting our sound down so we could get it out to people. Getting in front of people is only so much. Giving them something they can take home with them is a really important thing. At least, it seems so to us. The ability to listen in their car and kind of fall in love with it without being in front of us. In that time, we were able to make that album and send it home with people and they wanted a copy of it. We started seeing people singing the words out in the audience, and I’m kind of oblivious – to keep in my headspace while playing – other people would be like, ‘Half the people in this room know the words to these songs. Have you noticed that?’ and I need to start paying attention. It was a cool feeling…Our musical influences are massive, because we come from different backgrounds, musically. Our drummer and bass player have played together for a long time in reggae bands, soul bands, jazz bands…They’d been kind of a rhythm section for a long time, and they’d played with other people, too, in jam bands. Lots of different stuff. The steel player, Bob, had done a lot of dobro stuff…bluegrass, traditional, country, honky-tonk-type stuff. I had been in The Royal Greens and we were trying to do more rock n’ roll – I don’t know what you’d call that, other than rock n’ roll—
Lawrence: Seventies-meets-Nineties grunge/metal/rock…
Browning: Yeah, between 1992 and 1994… [Laughing] So we were doing that, and then Patrick, who’s no longer with the band – he’s gone on to another band – he had lots of different influences. He played mandolin and fiddle, but he was influenced by Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, and a lot of really strange stuff…GWAR…and just stuff from all over—
Lawrence: GWAR…on a fiddle… [Laughing]
Browning: [Laughing] Yeah, right…It was fun to get in the van and ride around. We’re all like, ‘What’s the next CD we’re going to pop in? What’s the next iPod mix?’ ‘Cause we listen to stuff across the board. I think, as far as producing an album, we wanted it to sound simple and cohesive. We wanted to sound like a band, we wanted to sound clean, and we wanted it to sound like it had some warmth and thought to it. We were really just shooting for something that we could put in front of people, get people to listen to.
Bonham: What was the arranging and recording process like?
Browning: We started arranging songs…most of the arrangement started in my head, with the first album, which is different than what we’re working on right now, which is a very cool process. I’m really digging the process of the second album and the way we’re going about things as we’re getting out of my head. I’m able to write the melody and the words, and then there’s this band of really great guys that know lots of shit about music – and not that I’m ‘unstoked’ about music – but they’re so stoked about the music part of things. They’re able to put things together that I don’t think of. I think of more on the melody and lyrical side of things, and its a blessing to have all of this together, because they’re really thinking of parts, and how all of this goes together. So the first album was kind of, my train of thought and them adding what they could to my train of thought. As far as the recording process, we did that one in a little more split up fashion. To keep it as tight as possible with click tracks and did all of the rhythm stuff together with click tracks and we went back and added everything. With the next record, we’re making it totally organic. We’re recording everything in the same room together, at the same time. No going back and fixing things and overdubbing things. We’ll add some more things as we go, but we really want to make this second record more organic than the first one. The first one, we were still figuring out our whole process.
Bonham: Talk about your songwriting process.
Browning: So, my songwriting process is…[Looks at Lawrence, laughing]
Lawrence: Go for it…it answers all of my questions—
Browning: Remarkably organic…As organic as you can get. [Laughing] There’s no process. I find that sometimes a song comes, and it’s there, it’s the whole thing, it’s done, and it’s there. I’m excited about it and I go and show my wife, and show…its been Wes…whoever’s around…’You’ve gotta check this out.’ It’s all together. Then there are other times, where I come up with the melody and then I’m like, ‘I don’t really know about that…’ or I come up with the melody and I start writing the chorus or I start writing the verse, and I have to walk away from it, I have to come back to it. I haven’t yet been faced with the idea of sitting down and cranking out songs, and I don’t think I want to be. I like the idea of making it a process that has some time built in there. Sometimes it just happens and it flows, and other times it needs a step back and [time] to figure out what do to next.
Lawrence: [To Browning] Is there a difference between when you used to write things in high school – ’cause you had some amazing songs you wrote when you were in high school, carried on to today – versus you writing songs now? Is there a difference in that? Because I’m sure it was more of a free-for-all feeling than it is now.
Browning: So I think the overall feeling that I’m going for is very similar. When something comes together like that, it’s…I dunno if it’s an endorphin release or what it is. The first time I come up with something, it just feels good. And when I was eighteen, it was very new…
Lawrence: You were talking about shit that fifty-year olds were talking about when you were sixteen…
Browning: [Laughing] I was concerned when I was eighteen, the stuff that I was writing, no one would care about…that it was me working through emotions, and as I got older, I realized that other people felt the same way and maybe they couldn’t relay it or they just wanted to hear the story. Its not all my life and my emotions, but it might be something I’m feeling through a totally fictitious story, and that feeling of getting it out is cathartic. It is my ‘brain exercise’. I started writing like short stories, poems and things like that when I was a kid, and I just liked writing. I liked reading and I liked learning new words and I liked writing things, and I think at some point when I was in eighth or ninth grade, I was like, ‘I’m gonna start playing the guitar, so that I can get girls to pay attention to me, [Laughing] because no one likes somebody that writes, like, sappy shit all the time. [Laughing] So I need to learn to play some chords.’
Lawrence: Instead of painting your fingernails black…
Browning: [Laughing] Oh no, I never painted my fingernails black. I wore some plaid pants and Chucks…and bought a guitar. I had a wallet chain. I never painted my fingernails, Wes…[Laughing]
Lawrence: I’m saying, you made the right choice.
Everyone at the table continues laughing. Lawrence begins to ask another question, catching himself once he realizes Browning and I are laughing at his attempt to ‘take over’ the interview.
Lawrence: Damnit, Wes…
Lawrence composes himself before attempting to ask the question once more.
Lawrence: Was there more of a freedom when you wrote things—
Browning: [To Lawrence] Let me interview you—
Again, everyone at the table – Lawrence included – breaks out in laughter before he tries for a third time to finish his question.
Lawrence: When you were younger, versus now. Is there more pressure when writing a song? Or with the band, does that help you out more, as its more more of a team than it was during the first album?
Browning: So, the first album, felt to me, like magic. Because I’d had all these songs that I thought were still cathartic releases of me. I didn’t expect them to be something that four other dudes supported, much less put them on a record and lots of other people would know the words and relate to the words. That was still very much a growing process – everything’s a growing process – and still a growing process now. We’re learning with the band how to all write music together and me bring the words. Even maybe somebody else hums the melody and I write words over top of that. I’ve never felt…when I feel pressure by it, I’ll walk away from it for a little while, and I’ll wait and come back to it tomorrow. It’s never been something that I want to just crank out. I want it to mean something, so it wasn’t just regurgitated.
Bonham: That’s definitely fair. Talk about the band’s progression…from last year to now. Your band has definitely grown musically over the last twelve months.
Browning: Yeah, definitely. We’ve just been out on the road. We all still have day jobs – we haven’t been lucky enough to make enough money on the weekend to top doing that, so it’s kind of like, seven days of work…
Our waitress returns to see how we’re doing, and Browning, now aware of her presence, stops talking.
Lawrence: Browning, you can keep talking. [Laughing]
Waitress: Oh, I’m sorry…
Browning: No worries. [Laughing]
Waitress: I thought [the tape recorder] was an electronic cigarette.
Everyone erupts in laughter.
Lawrence: [To waitress] Can we get three, uh, shots of the fake Fireball? [To me] That’s on the interview, too.
Browning: [To Lawrence] Fake Fireball?
Lawrence: That’s Jim Beam’s Fireball.
Browning: [To me] What were we talking about? The band in the last year. So…
Lawrence: [To waitress] Thanks a lot!
Browning: In the past year, we’ve been out on the road a lot, trying to get in front of as many people as possible. It’s almost like a formula in that way. The more people we can get in front of, the more places we go, the better things go.
Bonham: That’s how Dave Matthews Band and The Black Lillies got their starts…
Browning: Right. We’ve played the same venues with The Black Lillies and American Aquarium and we get a lot of comparisons from the venue owners and the club owners, like, ‘You guys fit right into this circle, you guys are doing really good stuff, and just getting in front of people, and the crowd loves you, and we love you…’ We’re happy that…
The waitress returns with Wes’ drink order: three shots of ‘fake Fireball’.
Waitress: Wes… [She sits each shot down in front of Browning, myself and Lawrence]
Browning: [Continuing] The market exists that supports us, the venues exist that want give us a chance, and that people come when the venues give us a chance. It’s really been a growing experience, as far as getting in front of people. That sounds nice and joyous, but people aren’t always there. We go some places, and there are five people there, six people there, but we play the same show because those six people didn’t know about us before. It’s definitely been a growing experience. Patrick left the band and went to do some other things, and we added another guitar player last year, Chris Blankenship. Chris was actually in the ‘first draft’ of ‘people that have to be in this band’, but at that time, Chris didn’t have time to do it. He had a lot of other stuff going on, personal things going on…it just didn’t line up at the time we were starting everything. Adding Chris to the band – and you always hear that line about ‘adding a fresh set of ears and eyes’ and listening to what the fresh person says – and luckily, we’ve been able to do that. Chris has good ideas. Not to say we were getting stagnant – we’ve been having a great time and moving and getting in front of people – Chris is definitely shaking things up and given us a new perspective on songwriting and playing as a whole. A lot of people were worried about the three guitar thing, but personally, I think we pull it off really well. My guitar playing is not very, uh, brazen – it doesn’t stick out very much, for reasons that are meant to be that way. I write the songs on the guitar, sometimes I write songs on the piano. Now, I don’t ever play the piano in public, but… [Laughing] it’s kind of going for the chord structure and the melody. I’m not going to show off on the guitar.
Lawrence: It’s fucking cool when he does, though…
Browning: The ability to have two badass guitar players in the band…it has really been cool.
And as if on cue, Wes raises his glass. Browning and I follow suit and the three of us down the shots of ‘fake Fireball’. I haven’t tasted the real Fireball, but would have to assume the imitation whisky tastes the same as the real deal, flavored after the spicy cinnamon hard candy of the same name that turned the inside of your mouth fire engine red.
Drop back in later this week for the second part of our sit down conversation with Matt Browning of The Floorboards. While you wait, check out the group’s website for future tour dates and have a listen to their down-home, foot-stomping tunes.