Life on the road for a burgeoning band is easily glamorized: The joy of playing a show, the wonder of encountering new places and people, the stories that amass. Yet the lifestyle can also be a trying one: The suffocating isolation of a van, the misery of being separated from home and loved ones, the unspoken grievances that stack tensions high. If you’re unprepared, this life can become your downfall. For Boston’s The Ballroom Thieves, it became their sophomore album, Deadeye.
Owing to the success of their harmony-rich 2015 debut, A Wolf in the Doorway, guitarist Martin Earley, cellist Calin Peters, and drummer Devin Mauch have spent the last two years in a sustained state of touring that took them all across the country and to venerable stages like the Newport Folk Festival. As prepared as the trio was for the sudden lack of a sedentary existence — even packing their Boston apartments into storage units — it wasn’t long before nearly nonstop touring rendered any preparation inadequate.
“I think all three of us underestimated how mentally and physically taxing it would be to uproot our lives completely in an effort to jump after the wild and unlikely dream of becoming a successful band,” explains Earley. As the stability of home faded along the relentless road, fresh anxieties came into focus: depression, financial burdens, illness, the breakdown of relationships. With the luxury of hindsight, things could have been handled better, but instead of addressing their personal issues, they doubled down on the band.
“I think if you give everything to something for long enough, you have nothing left for you,” Peters says, “and then you break down.” Playing through the pain started to warp the band’s dynamic. Darkness took over their days as anger boiled over and burned edges that were already frayed. Resentment built, and the end would have been a very real concept if not for, ironically, the one thing that had caused all the strain in the first place: the road.
“Often the only thing that would bring us back together at the end of a hard day was to step on stage and play our music together,” recalls Mauch. “That’s something we could almost always agree on. We love to play. We need to play.”
That need led the Thieves to begin toying around with new songs, ones written in the midst of all their bitter feelings. What went unspoken between band members was turned into the fiercest and most mature material they’d ever written. “It was as if we were trying to find peace and clarity from putting everything out there in the open,” Mauch says. “It forced us to face those things that were so heavy on the mind, which in itself is healing and therapeutic.”
Then in January of 2016, the band took their first multi-week break from touring in what felt like a lifetime. Even with the downtime, they still had no plan to resolve their dilemmas — they only had a bunch of new songs and some studio time.
Months of pent up energy was transmuted into a heftier, expanded sound. “If you have a rough, heavy time, you might end up with a couple rough, heavy songs,” Peters notes. You can feel the weight of the last few months on the beaten dirge of “For Mercy” and the thick grunge of “Pocket of Gold”, tracks bristling with both regret and resolve. Once nervous to take lead, Peters’ voice sears with confident fire on “Blood Run Red”. Even their love songs are gruffer, as on the bluesy romance of “Anybody Else”. “Noble Rot” kicks like a tethered mule, as if the instruments are expressing every heated thought that had crossed the musicians’ minds.
The doubt that arose as the struggle of the road overwhelmed is conveyed in lyrics like those in “Sea Legs” (“And if risk leads to ruin/ My heart would forgive me”) and “Bees” (“This is not the place that I was born in/ But that doesn’t mean it’s not the place where I belong”). You can even hear Peter’s growth as a songwriter as she tackles the same conflicts in “Trouble” when she sings, “Trouble, you’ve found me again/ I struggle to stay away/ But I fit so nicely in your hand.” These are the songs The Ballroom Thieves needed to write.
“For me, recording this collection of songs in the dead of a New England winter, while maneuvering through the fragile atmosphere we’d created for ourselves, was the perfect way of capturing a mood that bespeaks the bleak content of the songs themselves,” Earley says.
Although they’re not proud of how they’ve grappled with these issues, they’re immensely proud of the music that has come as a result. Rough times have helped them explore the darker corners of their sound — which is why they’ve chosen to forgo the standard label release cycle to put out Deadeye on October 21st by themselves. Sharing it now is exposure therapy, letting their fans pay witness to these hardships and the resulting creative evolution while simultaneously helping the band move on. The struggle is still very real, but these songs are a reminder that for this band, there is but one course, and it is forward — not playing or performing together is not an option. Whatever comes next, these songs are here in 2016 where they belong, and the band is determined to overcome their challenges and continue on.
Deadeye captures the band at a time when they were at their absolute lowest, but it may also prove to be the album that saves The Ballroom Thieves.
A smidge of rock, a drop of blues, all under the umbrella of full blown orchestral Americana folk—whatever you’re into, you can find it in The Ballroom Thieves’ new album, Deadeye, out October 21st.
With their sophomore effort, the group continues a tradition of constructing moving music built on the foundation of powerful lyrics, haunting cello, and three soulful voices that, at times, fuse into one angelic whisper, and at others, utter wails full of grit and heart and soul and truth. Harmonies presented in tracks like “For Mercy” prove that The Ballroom Thieves have a mastery of vocal dynamics that effect my ears in a way that my words can’t even touch. Though there are only three members, the arrangements range from the sparsely simple to the grand and lush, as shown on album track “La Mer Peu Profonde”, which has the feel of a full scale orchestra—it even appears the trio use running water, chirping birds, and other ambient sounds as instrumentation.
Though the songs are a product of friction, stress, tension created by the struggles of being in a band, the songwriting is admirably pure and outside-of-the-box—art for art’s sake. Yesterday’s struggles give birth to today’s strengths, and Deadeye is tangible proof.