Note: This is a transcript of the full interview with Kirk Nordby of Bear Market Riot. Click here for the much more concise story on the band’s show at the Treehouse Cafe this week.
We spoke with Kirk Nordby, one half of Americana duo Bear Market Riot. Nordby and bandmate Nick Motil are playing at Bainbridge Island’s Treehouse Cafe on Sunday. It’s a homecoming of sorts for Nordby, who grew up on Bainbridge Island, where he honed his musical prowess playing in Bainbridge band Gruff Mummies.
Nordby talked about the origins of Bear Market Riot, what it was like playing music on Bainbridge Island, and the impact of social media for local bands, from KitsapBands.com to Facebook.
KS: Where did you and bandmate Nick Motil meet?
KN: We actually met through a local songwriter showcase that this fellow Steve Key puts on. He has a production called Songwriters at Play. So he does shows at several different locations throughout San Luis Obispo County and then they syndicate sort of a best-of all those shows on one of the local radio stations, The Krush 92.5. So we both were working with him and doing songwriter nights.
The format would be like four songwriters show up, they’d do like three twenty-minute sets or whatever, and then a final set that’s probably like the headliner that does an hour or so. And so we both worked as supporting artists on that series and met each other and kind of gave each other props to each other’s music. And then he occasionally does tribute nights, so we were both on the same bill for a Paul Simon tribute. So over our mutual respect of Paul Simon, we formed a bond, and then I said, “Do you want to come with me to the Los Osos Farmers Market and play music?”
I’m sure that there’s a collector of vintage hatboxes that would freak out if they’d seen what we’d done to this old hatbox.
At the time, I was working as a line cook full time, so I was just constantly working and Monday was like my little musical escape. I would go play for three hours in a farmers market and just kind of do my thing. Each week I had various guests that would come out and play music. Nick ended up just kind of solidifying. It was like, wow, when we sing together, it goes really well. The songs we play, our catalogues complimented each other really well.
We decided, let’s give it a name and see if we can start playing gigs at spaces that aren’t just paying us in fruits and vegetables. … [Los Osos] means “the bears” in Spanish (which led to the band’s name) … We threw around a lot of different names and we had this kick on this little 100-year-old hatbox that we turned into a drum — which I’m sure that there’s a collector of vintage hatboxes that would freak out if they’d seen what we’d done to this old hatbox, but it’s a very cool drum and it works as our little kick drum and it gives you a nice kind of on-the-road, Americana look and everything. We almost called the band “Hatbox Gumbo” for a second, but Bear Market Riot was the one that rang true and sounded good, and that was that.
You grew up in Bainbridge Island. How did you end up in California?
I moved to California via Olympia, Washington. There were a couple stages of life in between. I moved to Olympia in 2007 and went to the Evergreen State College where I got my degree in performance and humanities, and I ended up in a band at the end of my time at school. I was playing in a rock band called Baker London — like a bread baker, like the city of London. Baker London. I was the drummer for that band and we booked a quick west coast tour — I think we did like a two-week west coast tour right after I graduated. We came through San Luis Obispo and played at the Frog and Peach Pub in San Luis and I ended up meeting a girl there who kind of became my siren to the central coast.
I developed a long-distance relationship with this girl and started visiting and eventually ended up with a job interview down here and decided I would buckle down and work. And I moved here as a line cook. I actually didn’t move here with any musical aspiration at all. Baker London was an incredible group but just not a lucrative group. When you have student loans on top of you, there wasn’t really any room for not working so that you could go play rock shows and drink beer. So I was like, well, I’ve got this great job. I ended up at an incredible farm-to-table restaurant here in Paso Robles called Artisan and worked with an excellent chef and mentor for three-and-a-half years.
And by the end of that time was when I had started playing more, because I ended up working daytime shifts, so at night I had my evenings free and I went well, I can start playing here and there and started playing some singer-songwriter sets, doing a solo gig at a wine bar, or a taproom here and there. And then once I met Nick it just started snowballing and gaining more traction and so I made the choice to leave cooking full time and start promoting music and putting shows together and booking Bear Market Riot. And since then it’s grown pretty exponentially. It’s been a pretty incredible ride so far just over these last two years, going from playing a farmers market where we just show up with a bucket, collect tips and sing with no amplification, to playing some of the biggest festivals in this area, a lot of incredible wineries. It’s been a very cool ride.
What are some of the biggest or most fun shows you’ve played?
The most fun certainly would be, like, the California mid-state fair was a lot of fun. It’s kind of one of those things that ranges from super-local groups to like this year, I think Alan Jackson’s playing. Fergie’s going to play, last year we played on the same night as Meghan Trainor. They set it up so that there’s regional touring, (with a) larger stage; there’s the big main stage, stadium stage, and then there’s a local winery-sponsored stage. We got in on the local stage that was sponsored by local wineries and radio and that was a really cool experience. There’s another local festival called Beaverstock that’s produced by my friends at Castoro Cellars and it’s a benefit for one of our local school districts, for the Templeton Education Foundation.
It’s that 10 years of playing, and playing as singer-songwriters, and playing in different groups that gives Bear Market Riot the texture that makes it interesting
They’ve been pulling some really cool artists, like Allen Stone, who I think is a Washingtonian as well and an incredible soul-singer. Last year it was California Honeydrops who are out of the Bay, and then War headlined the second night. It’s a pretty cool festival, so we were happy to be in on that. Here we’ll be doing Live Oak (Music) Festival which is just in a couple weeks and that’s sponsored by the local NPR affiliate. This year, there’s also a pretty awesome lineup. Saturday is also the California Honeydrops headlining, and then Wynonna and the Big Noise, which is … Wynonna Judd and her band, which is pretty cool. Good stuff, so we’re pretty excited about it.
We do a local day at Vina Robles Amphitheater which is another one of the larger amphitheaters in the region that’s putting on some cool classical music there. It’s been cool to get these offers and sort of regionally grow and that was something we definitely set out with.
It’s different starting a band when you’re 29 versus when you’re 19. When you’re 19 and you have very little to be accountable for, it’s easy to get in a band and just go wherever you want to go. And I think my bandmate Nick and I have both had this conversation of, if it was 10 years ago, we would have quit our day jobs and took the risk no problem. But also I think it’s that 10 years of playing, and playing as singer-songwriters, and playing in different groups that gives Bear Market Riot the texture that makes it interesting, because our covers come from a lot of different places.
Our writing style comes from a lot of different places and so it gets packaged as a folk-Americana sound, which is just by nature of being two guys with two acoustic guitars; it sort of comes out that way, but we don’t limit ourselves to playing bluegrass traditionals and Doc Watson and Johnny Cash or anything like that. Despite our love for both of those musicians, we venture far and away into a lot of different pop music, from 1950 to the present day. So it’s pretty cool.
How did the two of you decide on your musical style?
It’s sort of like I said before; it really comes out of two singer-songwriters playing acoustic guitars. Everyone’s familiar with that basic setup. I certainly have an affinity for roots Americana and bluegrass music. Nick’s certainly into more modern singer-songwriters. He comes from more of like a Dave Matthews Band, Ryan Adams. And then I came from somewhere where it’s like Johnny Cash, Iggy Pop and Paul Simon all sat down and made something together. We sort of came from these different sides that have cohesion, but good variables, so then you sort of package that into two guys with beards playing acoustic guitars and a kick drum and harmonica. And it sounds like Bear Market Riot, you know?
It’s not exactly avant-garde. I would not describe anything that we’re doing as way out of left field, or, “Oh my gosh, aren’t they so incredibly innovative?” But I think our innovation comes with just having a broad swath of influence, you know? So you can put something together that sounds new and familiar at the same time. Which is a lot of fun, and it makes a sound that appeals from kids to grandparents, which is really cool.
I don’t know if you looked up my musical past at all on Bainbridge Island, but as a teenager, I was involved in a glam-rock group called Gruff Mummies [You can listen to Gruff Mummies’ music on their MySpace profile. –Ed.] and we were riding around in our old used cars as 17-year-olds listening to Queen and David Bowie and T. Rex and Roxy Music and hanging out with musicians who were way older than us, drinking underage and just deciding to play rock music. We did well for ourselves. We sort of blew up and burnt out, I think, and probably played from 15 to 19 in that band, or I’m sorry, 16 years old to 19 years old. Ended up winning the EMP Sound-Off in 2005, the big under-21 Battle of the Bands at the EMP.
When you’re 17 and you’re all about punk rock and you want to be edgy, you want to do that and then I realized at some point in my young adulthood that there are things that are sort of classic, things that are just enjoyable that I like and you don’t necessarily have to be avant-garde to say something important, but you don’t have to be avant-garde to say something personal and that’s meaningful to people. And so as a project, Bear Market Riot has been really fun, because it is really accessible. It doesn’t take much for us to set up. It started with no sound equipment and now it has a reasonable setup, but it’s still really easy to put together. And like I said, it doesn’t have any pretension to it. It’s very come-as-you-are, which is a funny quote considering that it came from Kurt Cobain, who was indeed an avant-garde songwriter, but the spirit of that is to sort of just be yourself and comfortable. Your two-year-old baby that enjoys the beat and likes to dance, to your mom who remembers the Rolling Stone cover that we did and is like, “Oh yeah, cool. Right on. I recognize that Bob Dylan song, but you played it in a totally different and interesting way.” It’s kind of stuff like that.
Do people seem to respond more to your covers or your original songwriting?
I’m very pleased to say that people really enjoy our original music and I think that’s part of this sort of two-fold package. It’s like, we love the songs that we write and we feature friends of ours who have written songs and adapted, you know, songs we’ve written with other friends to fit what we’re doing and we’ve recreated songs from our past that sound really great. And then also, doing original takes on songs that people really know and love from all kinds of perspectives. We’ll do a Paul Simon cover, but then we’ll also do an MGMT cover or we do an R. Kelly cover as well. It’s fun to watch people sort of turn their ear and they have that face like, “I know what they’re singing, but why is it different?” And then you see the look of, “Oh, okay” wash over them and then they’re like, “Yeah!” That’s a cool transition. But it’s always wonderful when someone comes to see you after a show and says, “Hey, I love all your takes on covers, but your original songs are really strong and I really enjoyed them.” And I think with those original songs it’s easier to take them in all kinds of directions and it’s really fun.
Bear Market Riot is working on a new album, is that correct?
We’re currently working on a full-length album. We raised about $7,700 on Kickstarter last November to produce and record the record ourselves which was really cool. It was really wonderful to have a successful Kickstarter campaign. We used our funding to buy recording equipment so we could have more in-house control and be able to work on future projects as well. On a Mac and a good audio interface and a couple of great microphones that a friend of ours loaned to us, we’ve been steadily working on it but also keeping up with a very rigorous show schedule every weekend. It’s been sort of like our weekends end up being Monday through Wednesday, so whatever we can get done, we get done. But I think we’re looking at hopefully an August release and then we’re going to do a limited run of records, of LPs, that will be available hopefully in the fall, hopefully before Christmastime. The turnaround time for the LP manufacturer takes a bit longer than a CD does, or, you know, obviously a digital release is instant.
Do you visit Washington a lot, or is this show at the Treehouse Cafe a rare homecoming for you?
I come and visit probably twice a year — usually a summer trip and a winter trip. I usually come up and hang out mid-summer for a week. My birthday’s in July and my mom’s birthday is the beginning of August so I’m usually up there around that time. This time around, we actually were invited to play a festival in eastern Washington. We’re going to play in Prosser, Washington, on June 11. It’s called “Bottles, Brews and Barbecues.” It’s just a local wine, beer and barbecue event. We had a representative from I think they’re called the winemakers loft, but she was on vacation in San Luis Obispo and caught a show of ours and said, “We would love for you to come to Prosser and play this event.” And we said absolutely. And I put it together with a show on Bainbridge so I could go see my hometown and share our new music with people I haven’t been able to share music with in such a long time. So it’s pretty special. And it should be a good homecoming. I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of friends at the Treehouse Cafe.
Is this the first time you’ve played in your hometown with Bear Market Riot?
That’s right, yeah. It’s the first time Bear Market Riot has come to the Northwest. And it will be the first time we’ve left California, which will be pretty cool. We usually get excited when we leave San Luis Obispo County, but this is the first time we’re really going on a good trip. Like I was saying before, Nick has a two-year-old son, so he’s got to put his son first and time with his family first. We decided very conservatively when we launched the band like OK, we’re going to stay regional and develop a regional following and fanbase and then start pushing the bubble bigger. So I’m can’t tell you how pleased I am to make that bubble grow and make the family better and spread the word. It’s pretty cool.
The Internet opens a lot of doors. Do you find people tend to find out about Bear Market Riot online, or by seeing you live, through word-of-mouth, etc.?
It (the Internet) has been helpful. I mean obviously, I think they work hand-in-hand. The internet and social media, it helps you reach a regional fanbase extremely well and just in ten years, your ability to create … you know, you’re your own advertising firm.
I remember though, even back in 2004 and 2005, the same ideas existed, they were just prototypes of those ideas. Way back when, I remember this website — and I wonder if it is still a thing, but there was this website called KitsapBands.com. [Unfortunately, it’s not still a thing, but you can get a peek of what the site was like here. –Ed.]. I definitely had a Gruff Mummies profile and we were able to reach the kids in Bremerton, you were able to reach the kids in north Kitsap and you were able to get outside of the kids that you saw at school.
Every day in school — there was Facebook back then but it didn’t do nearly as much as it does now — and you would make a flyer, put it up around school, get this done, you had a MySpace page, you had links and you had things like that, but being able to network within your region was really a powerful tool. Those tools are even more powerful now, and because of that, it links us to people who were international, people who are all across the country.
We have a ReverbNation press kit that they put together and it allows you to see the breakdown of how many fans you have via different outlets. So currently, Facebook is our biggest outlet. There’s 800 fans, but also we have a mailing list, there’s people who just access us through ReverbNation. Generally, people who we don’t know who find our music on ReverbNation, maybe just because they’ve searched Americana music or they searched folk music or something or they found a band and said, “Oh, that sounds cool.”
And the same goes for YouTube and Twitter. We’ve actually been able to use Twitter as a tool to sort of cold-call people or to sort of create a conversation about something. That was a big tool for us for Live Oak. We knew it was an important influential show to get on, so we reached out and Tweeted Live Oak and said, “Hey, we’d love to get on the bill. We’d love to be a part of the festival this year.” And they Tweeted us back and said, “We’re paying attention.” So it was really cool. We’ve also done that to reach out to other artists and things like that. So it’s pretty neat.
Looking at our stat breakdown, we’ve got fans all across the west out to Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, across the south and the midwest. Nick grew up in Ohio and toured around the eastern seaboard quite a bit and actually toured as a singer-songwriter through his twenties playing at liberal arts colleges. He’s played just a ton of colleges across the nation and so has an independent fan base as Nick Motil that then has brought us listenership across the country, which is very cool.
But again, we’re very much centralized in California. The bulk of our fans are concentrated in our region here in California, but it’s pretty cool and I hope that in the next couple of years we’ll be doing some tour loops, definitely back up the west coast and down, but I’d love to go across the country to the south. I’ve got some very good friends in Louisiana that I love to play music with.
It literally grows out of my face. I have very little control over it. It’s just a natural occurrence.
You could take the family with you and make it like a vacation.
Definitely. That was Nick’s life before his son. He and his wife would go on the road together and travel as he played shows. It was just my luck that they happened to settle in the same place that I did and then we took off on another adventure together. So it’s pretty neat.
Your beards seem to be a theme with the band; silhouettes of your beards appear on the cover of your EP. Is that an image you’re cultivating or is it a coincidence that you both have beards?
Part of our Kickstarter was that we matched 10 percent of our Kickstarter donation to Movember [a global charity focusing on projects related to prostate and testicular cancer, poor mental health, and physical inactivity. –Ed.] and that’s something that’s been important to me just as a dude with family members who have had prostate cancer; men’s health awareness stuff is important to me, so I got Nick in on it.
So last November, we cut our beards off and then said, the beards will come back if we raise these funds for Kickstarter. And sure enough we did and it was like everybody around here has been like, “How in the world did your beard come back so fast? It’s like it never left!” And I think I’ve proved beyond a reasonable doubt I’m a little more blessed in the beard department than Nick is, although I think Nick’s beard is quite handsome. He does well for himself. For me, I joke to people that ask me about it, it literally grows out of my face. I have very little control over it. It’s just a natural occurrence and I think also it has to do with when you’re just working and moving as much as we are, it’s so much easier to grow a beard than it is to cut it off every day.
Tell me more what it was like growing up on Bainbridge Island playing music.
Tons of great experiences in music and it certainly started something in me that’s greater than myself. It keyed me into something that was possible at that time. Especially, I think if you look at the way music works and independent artists work from say the year 2000 until now, the last couple decades, and the rise of social networking and being able to produce your own music and market it, it tells a tale of the death, in some ways, of Big Music.
Obviously we still have corporate music and massive record labels that have a lot of sway, especially in what gets played on the radio and what you see on TV. But your ability as an independent artist to own the means of production, it’s much greater than it ever has been at any time and I think, as a young guy, it was as little as just the empowerment of the senior in high school to the freshman in high school saying, Why don’t you start a band? We’ve got a show that we’re doing at the teen center or the grange, let’s put it together and have a show, or let’s do a house party. And you were able to create some music, and especially with your ability to digitally produce music, as soon as you had a laptop or access to a computer, you could record.
It wasn’t that you had to have a high-end studio. And your ability to make a recording sound good got easier and easier and more and more affordable, versus like way back when, when you had to use a 4-track recorder and dump four tracks onto one track, and you ended up with this very hissy, low-fi recording. The ability to make a digital recording sound great has opened a lot of doors for people. In a sense, it also takes value out of the recording itself.
I just read a really great article that was about Duff McKagan from Guns N’ Roses and he was talking about how he was just a total trainwreck, like any of those guys at their heyday with a massive alcohol problem and drug problems and all kinds of stuff, but he got sober and figured his shit out and was able to invest his money wisely and now he still produces a couple different bands. He’s got Velvet Revolver and I think, I can’t remember, he’s also got another project going on. But he talks about how way back, in 1990 or 1989, it was about how many albums you sold and now it’s about how many T-Shirts you sell. It’s about how much merch you sell at a show. You kind of take the loss in the album sales as promotion. I think ticket sales and touring have a lot to do with it, but it’s so much it’s just like being able to market and produce yourself.
Another incredible example was Macklemore as a local northwest artist. I saw him in 2009, probably, in Olympia playing at the Clipper Lounge for like half a dozen people or whatever, a dozen people. A really fun local hip-hop show and he was hilarious, an awesome performer, just really solid. I bought his CD; I have it still with his authorgraph, so I think that’s really cool. And I watched him grow, I watched him promote himself and work on his own network and then it was traveling to different places and promoting his own music and then you have an artist that owns Macklemore LLC and is able to produce their music and own their rights to that, which is vastly different from independent artists in the past to be able to have such an impact.
Growing up on Bainbridge Island, there was actually a really solid punk and hardcore scene, and punk and hardcore music was a lot of what our peers were making, some kids younger than us were making, and bands that were coming out of Seattle. But Bainbridge Island itself has always had a really strong scene. There was a really good, I think the The Stranger or maybe Seattle Weekly did a piece a few months ago [It was The Stranger. –Ed.] that was about specifically the Bainbridge Island punk and hardcore scene and grunge scene that sort of started in the late ’80s and early ’90s and continued on through. It’s absolutely right. It really fostered a lot of music and … it was like having a tight-knit group of people that you could collaborate with and promote shows with and have fun. It really solidified the idea of DIY and promoting your own music.
So it’s cool, but it’s changed so much. I remember in 2005 we were still putting together paper press kits. You still sent a big envelope to a potential venue, especially if it was a bigger venue, with press clippings and xerox copies, your fact sheet, your bio, your picture that you printed out, and now it’s a couple clicks and you can send all that information in a very professional, beautiful layout on the Internet. All that information is going to be used through bands in town and through ReverbNation and Facebook and all those things that just make everything so instant. But it’s very cool and it’s awesome to be an independent artist with some control over what you do.
There was recently a lot of press with Kesha as an artist who is trapped in this awful nightmare with this producer who sort of owns her and she’s like, “He’s using me,” but the judges are saying, well, you signed the contract so you’re still in it for 10 albums, even if you can’t work with this guy. And I looked at my bandmate and I said, how awesome is it that we control all of this? We’re not rich and famous with Top 40 radio hits, but that means at the end of the day, I pick where I’m going to play, what the terms are. I talk to them about my rate. We get our rate and we have jobs. We have work that we do steadily and we’re supporting ourselves promoting and producing our music and that’s very empowering and it’s very cool. If you are trying to be a professional musician and you believe your ship is just going to come in and all of a sudden you’ll be rich and famous and everything will be done for you, you’re probably out of luck. You’re most likely out of luck unless you already had some pretty stellar connections in the first place. From our perspective, it’s a lot of legwork and a lot of love that makes it work, that makes it successful. It’s very exciting.
Steven Wyble is an award-winning journalist who has written for both daily and weekly newspapers.