The New Song From Townhall
Sitting backstage at the Jam on the River in Philadelphia, one can’t help reflect about how far native sons Townhall have come. And dream how far they’ll go.
The quintet with the infectious, rootsy, funky sound has been together less than two years and has already completed a national club tour, played at major festivals like All Good and Jam on the River, headlined the Theater of Living Arts in Philadelphia and jammed with the legendary Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Townhall is George Stanford (vocals, trombone, guitar, bass, percussion), Nate Skiles (vocals, guitar, bass, trumpet, percussion, clarinet), Tim Sonnefeld (bass, guitar, vocals, percussion, dobro, banjo, melodica), Mark Smidt (trumpet, percussion, bass, flute, guitar, vocals, chromatic harmonica) and Kevin Pride (drums).
In mid-May the Philly fivesome took a novel approach to recording when fans were invited into Indre Studios in South Philly for Townhall’s live-in-the-studio session on March 13 after the originally scheduled date was scratched. For $25, 150 fans not only walked away with a nifty laminated ticket and an eventual copy of the album, but also the chance to watch a talented band on the rise record its debut studio effort. It proved to be an unforgettable experience, with new songs like “Master of the Universe,” “Sister Moon” and “Loose Lips” captivating those in the room that sat in couches lining the walls or positioned themselves Indian style on the floor beneath a suspended chandelier and strands of Christmas lights.
Unfortunately, due to technical glitches, the music recorded was unusable. Quite an obstacle for any band, never mind a group of youngsters. But Townhall did what it knows best, took a third stab, and simply played live again, this time at a studio in nearby Germantown. The tracks were again done live — no separate tracking for instruments or vocals and no overdubs — but because of the smaller size of the studio, the band was unable to welcome back an audience.The self-produced album, The New Song was still tentatively scheduled for a June release and is the follow-up to Townhall’s two-disc live debut, Live at the Point, which came out last year. The band's promotional and management team plans to launch an aggressive radio campaign with hopes of landing its music on commercial radio. If the unsigned, independent group's do-it-yourself efforts are rewarded with a song in heavy rotation on, say, Philly's WMMR, you can bet the industry will take notice.
Despite its newcomer status, one can’t help but ponder Townhall's place in the current rock landscape. It may be a bold comparison, but when the Summer of Love, Sgt. Pepper and the San Francisco Sound began to run their course, The Band came along with a back-to-basics approach that inspired even the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and their friend Bob Dylan to reinvent themselves.
Similarly, rock and roll is currently a rudderless ship. One of the genre’s top touring acts, Phish, is on an indefinite hiatus. Paul McCartney just finished a thrilling and wildly successful U.S. tour, but no one, including Sir Paul himself, is really expecting him to break any new ground. Ditto for the Stones and their upcoming high-profile tour. Meanwhile, second-generation Pearl Jam clones like Creed, and their bastard children like Nickelback are ruling the airwaves, at least whenever they can get a word in edgewise behind the likes of novelty acts like Eminem or Kid Rock.
Rock and roll needs a savior now, maybe even more than it needed Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson in the late 1960s.
At this point, the bubble of daydreams is interrupted when Townhall's Tim Sonnefeld bounds into the frame in our cool sanctuary away from the noise and afternoon heat that is the Jam on the River. And it’s one of those perfect moments that makes everything come full circle.
“I just got Levon Helm’s autograph!” he explains.
You guys definitely have a unique sound, but at the same time it sounds very familiar.
TS: I think that’s because the band draws from influences that you’ve definitely heard but ones you’ve never heard also. Really, stuff that didn’t happen before, say, 1976.
MS: We’re influenced by a lot of the older music but also new music. When you hear something and it just sounds familiar to you, it’s just the feel of it. Sometimes I still hear songs that I feel like I’ve heard but I’ve never heard before.
The key, though seems that you’re able to sneak in the things that people may not be familiar with, like some of the jazz and funk, and the horns, the banjo, etc.
TS: I think music has to have a melody, something that you can hum in your car. In a way. It doesn’t have to, there’s a lot of music I love that I’m not going to be sitting down listening to, Bach’s B Minor Mass. But you have to grab people. You have to play music for people. You can’t go too far over their heads.
MS: I think that as far as changing interments, it could be confusing to throw in a trumpet or a flute. But the way it happens for us we can hear that over the song. We can hear that instrument in that song. It’s such a simple process that it ends up working.
ML- You guys take turns on the percussion setup from song to song, and it also seems there’s a clearly percussive element when you play your other instruments as well.
MS: The groove is the most important thing in Townhall. We all concentrate on groovin’ as hard as we possibly can, always. Being tight, playing together and not worried about solos and things like that.
ML- You also like to change tempos abruptly. Is that a calculated thing, let’s do something unique, or does it just happen?
TS: One example is “Miss Saturday Night” (from Live at the Point). When I wrote that, I just wanted the response to be real sweet and gentle. Just real laid-back. But then I was like, man, I want people to dance to this song.
MS: The music just takes you there. The lyrics can dictate that too. A certain lyric, a certain feel. We don’t just pull it out of the blue all the time. It’s already there.
ML-Recording an album can be an intense and intensely personal process but you brought your fans along for the ride. Was there any wariness on the band’s part to bare it all in front of a sizable crowd like that?
TS: I think that the live energy was kind of what that record was about. A lot of people were like, what is this going to be, this big jam session? But playing our songs in front of people is what we do right now. I don’t know how to use a studio yet, really. That’s a totally different instrument, a different animal. I’m learning slowly but surely. But right now, I don’t think we were ready to do a “studio album.” It only made sense to play a live show for people.
MS: It’s a concept that we really like. The way we arranged the instruments in the songs, we arranged it so it sounds the best playing it that way. We can pull it off with the tune live. Hopefully it transfers over to a studio-sounding thing.
ML- And that session didn’t have the wild, freewheeling feeling of a concert.
MS: It wasn’t like a show. People got to sit there and watch us play a song and us hopefully get it right.
ML- You’ve had a lot of milestones in the past 12 months. One, I’m sure, was playing with Dirty Dozen Brass Band. What was that like?
TS: Those guys were a lot of fun. Sammy, the trombone player, he jammed with us onstage. They’re all just regular guys. That’s the thing you realize. I just met Levon Helm, and he’s just a regular guy. He just happened to play the shit out of the drum kit.
ML- Without a record label, major or independent, you’ve managed to get the word out nationally about your music, get some airplay on college and public radio and generate quite a following for your live act, especially on the East Coast. I know your manager Derek Dorsey and publicist Carolyn Ballen have been a big help. How do you think your “team” has achieved this early success in such a grassroots fashion?
MS: We’re kind of everywhere at once.
(Tim wonders what this means and bursts out laughing.)
MS: In a short amount of time we’ve been a lot of places. I guess I mean that we’ve gotten around in a certain amount of time.
TS: I don’t think a band needs a record label to do all this. If it’s convenient and it works out, and you can still keep your integrity and do it right (we'd consider signing with a label). But record labels mess a lot of things up, the way I see it.
(At this point George Stanford pulls up a chair and joins the conversation. He also has just met Helm and says he gave him a copy of Live at the Point.)
GS: It just has to be a good situation for us, if we’re comfortable (with a label). Nobody’s going to mess with our music, that’s the most important thing. We can play it the way we want to, and spread it the way we want to.
ML- What were some of the band’s goals with The New Song?
TS: I kind of wanted to show people what we were doing now. The last record was recorded in June (2001) and the fact that we’d only been together a year or something like that, we’ve changed so much. We have all these new songs and songs that have evolved, and I wanted people to hear them more than just going to a show. I wanted them to understand them, because at a show you don’t hear all the words, you don’t hear everything clearly. Just a jumble sometimes.
GS: There’s a big difference listening to a record and going to a live show. I think we can really be strong in both areas. We’re just learning, getting our feet wet in the studio.
ML- You guys have been busy touring and recording, practically non-stop. Have you taken the time to reflect upon how far you’ve come in such a short time?
TS: We have a long way to go, that’s all I know.
GS: Exactly. There’s a long road ahead. But we are very grateful to be able to play our music and have that be our focus.
ML- But the steps on your road so far have been positive though, wouldn’t you say?
GS: Very positive. I knew that when we started playing together that it would move quickly and in a positive direction. It’s not a surprise. It feels natural, although it’s happened quickly.
For more information on Townhall, see their official Web site at