Eugene Weekly : Music : 10.28.10


No Rest for the Wicked
The Sawyer Family comes home — for a while
by Molly Templeton

If you’ve ever driven across the country, you know that finding coffee — decent coffee — can be an issue. Not everyone in our fair land has her coffee priorities in order. 

This is more important for some travelers than others. “We carry a bag of Seattle’s Best Coffee so we can brew good coffee anywhere we go,” says Sawyer Family bassist Zac Shafer. The Sawyer Family is back in Eugene after a six-week tour that took the band all over the country; ask the four guys and their manager, Aaron Fox, where they’ve been, and they all start listing cities, talking cheerily over each other. It’s the latest in a series of expanding tours for a band that barely seems local at this point. “Usually we only hit Eugene probably twice a year anymore,” Shafer says.

Two of the tour stories the band tells, standing around their tiny practice space on a rainy afternoon, involve coffee and the making of it. They talk about dirt roads wreaking rattling damage on a trailer full of equipment, about sleeping in their van in New Orleans’ French Quarter and playing in venues that hadn’t hosted shows in more than a decade. The stories are fun, and funny, and they’re all jovial storytellers, dropping into gruff voices to impersonate the characters they’ve met and chiming in on punch lines they’ve clearly told plenty of times before. But on the other hand, these guys are talking about work. “We obviously started doing this for fun,” says guitarist Jarod Rhoades. “And we still do it for fun. But we also have to do it for other reasons.”

It’s a safe guess, Fox says, that the Sawyer Family was on the road 180 days this year. Though the band will hit its 10-year anniversary in 2011, singer/guitarist Seth Rhoades says they’ve been touring heavily for the past two years or so. “We just came to a point with our music and our performances and our professionality where we were just like, ‘Well, I think it’s time.’”

In the background, Shafer and drummer Kyle Hall whisper. “Professionality? Is that a word?”

Touring isn’t a party anymore (though it still sounds like fun, dirt roads and low gas gauges aside). All the band members talk frankly about the realities of the music industry, the unpredictability of playing in a new town every night and the peculiarities of being differently received away from home. “We’re widely regarded in Eugene as a rockabilly/psychobilly band, and we were not received that way elsewhere,” Jarod Rhoades says. 

“We were taken as something completely different,” Shafer says. “There are no rockabilly/psychobilly bands around Eugene, so people would see us, and we had leather jackets and upright basses or whatnot, and that was enough for them to lump us into a category like that.” 

Pigeonholed or not, the band has a fair number of fans at home and is now working to build a national fan base. Fox points to how the band’s fairly new Facebook page is mostly full of fans from other places. It’s still a “roll of the dice,” Seth Rhoades says concerning how many people will show up to their shows — anywhere from 20 to 200. But it’s enough to keep them on the road. The process of building buzz is ongoing, and while the band hopes to have a new record by the end of next year, they also see more miles logged in their future. “The touring thing takes up so much of the year that when we’re not on tour, we’re kind of gearing up,” Fox says. 

Touring is how a band like the Sawyer Family sells records. “We don’t have a record distributor; we sell records at our shows and online,” Hall says. “The way the music industry is now, independent bands are doing this all over the place,” Shafer says. “The thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that all of your favorite bands had to do this at some point, and every single new town was an uphill battle. … You listen to any band, from the Ramones to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, they were breaking their back building a fan base for sometimes years.”

The band’s show this weekend is a homecoming of sorts and a costume party, but it’s also a fundraiser. Fox says they hope to raise money to put toward “new gear, a new tour bus and to record a new album.” There’s more work to be done, more cities to visit and more crowds to “flip,” as Hall puts it, turning them from skeptics into fans. “How many times did we say that [on this trip]?” Hall asks his bandmates. “’We flipped it.’”

“Almost every night,” Shafer says

The Sawyer Family, The Oath, The Lowmen, Not Counting the Mezzanine, 9 pm Saturday, Oct. 30. Oak Street Speakeasy • Free • 21+