The folklore surrounding the Lake Tahoe basin can sometimes seem dark and disastrous. One particular tale recounts a group of carpenters, sent to work on a railroad trestle in the middle of winter back in the 1800s. The workers encountered a sudden blizzard that trapped them in the mountains from which they never returned.
The story fascinated guitarist, Jesse Dunn, and influenced the choice of his band’s name, Dead Winter Carpenters. The fable also effectively reflects the overall feel of Dunn’s music; acoustic guitars accompanied by upright bass and violin comprise an old-fashioned sound and the lyrical content gravitates towards gloomier themes. The lyrics tap into emotions associated with hard times, but the band is able to deliver the music in a way that is upbeat, fun, and even celebratory.
Fans of Devil Makes Three, Old Crow Medicine Show, or even Chico’s newest favorites, Brown Bird, will experience familiarity with the DWC vibe. There’s something about an antiquated approach to music that is especially appealing to the high mountain, ski-town youth comprising their hometown fan base (where they were recently acknowledged as “Tahoe’s Best Band”). The music also seems to resonate with those outdoors types that can be found within kayaks, tents, climbing harnesses, and other various adventure accessories across the country.
Dead Winter Carpenters thrive in the live environment and are impressively versatile. The band can switch from a Grateful Dead jam to a cover of Tupac’s “California Love” at the drop of a hat, and have been known to explore some pretty entertaining stage theatrics as well. For example, last Halloween the band dressed up as characters from The Simpsons and introduced their set with a bluegrass cover of the show’s catchy theme song. Another noteworthy element of the band’s live performance is their ability to frequently switch between acoustic and electric instruments, dramatically expanding the spectrum of their sound.
“We appreciate both styles [acoustic and electric] and that gives our band a little bit of distinction so that we don’t nail ourselves to any certain genre,” explained Dunn.
“If we feel like playing rock and roll, then we’ll play rock and roll, and if we feel like playing bluegrass, we’ll play bluegrass. It’s kind of an open map for us. We all have varying upbringings and influences, so there’s nothing holding us back from doing any style.”
At this point in our interview, I noticed that Jesse’s answers were becoming increasingly cliché. He seemed dismissive and somewhat indifferent towards our conversation. I have respect for the musicianship of his band, but this was definitely one of the worst interviews I’d ever conducted. The best explanation I could think of was that the wearisome effects of being a full-time musician were finally starting to catch up with him. After all, the band has been touring constantly since their inception in 2010. They’re playing upwards of 200 shows a year, making hardly any money, and are likely to have been visited by the nagging question, “Why am I even doing this?”
To add insult to injury, the band also recently had their bus break down in Colorado, forcing them to abandon the vehicle and take a plane to make their next gig. Later they would find out that restoring the transmission would cost about $3,000, a major blow to barely-surviving musicians who’ve already maxed out all their credit cards. Considering all these factors, I felt it was forgivable that Jesse didn’t seem as excited as the other artists to whom I’ve cheerfully inquired, “What’s new?”
On the other hand, things are looking up for the future of Dead Winter Carpenters. They’re wrapping up a stellar season of summer festivals including their second appearance at the mecca of jam, High Sierra, as well as a prestigious invitation to String Cheese Incident’s annual gathering at Horning’s Hideout. The band is also scheduled to perform this Halloween at the Hangtown Ball where they’re sure to rub elbows with some more established touring bands – all of which who’ve probably lost a van or two down the road.
And finally, landing a gig such as next Tuesday’s show at the Sierra Nevada Big Room is a commendable accomplishment that places the band amongst the ranks of previous up-and-comers who’ve gone on to do great things. So suck it up, DWC, and keep on rockin’.
Dead Winter Carpenters perform next Tuesday (10/9/12) at the Sierra Nevada Big Room. The show begins at 7:30PM, tickets cost $15, and dancing is free.