Smile Politely

From bible camp to bluegrass punk band: Them Coulee Boys defy genres

Portrait photo of the band Them Coulee Boyds, five white men. The image is mostly browns and neutral colors in their clothes and the non-descript background.
Them Coulee Boys – Wolfskull Creative

On Saturday, February 25th, the Rose Bowl Tavern welcomes Them Coulee Boys from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to their stage to entertain the audience with their blend of bluegrass, folk, rock and even a smidgeon of punk, making a sonic stew that will get you moving, swaying, and singing. I connected recently with the lead singer and songwriter for the band, Soren Staff, and asked him how he would describe their unique sound:

I think it’s just this hodgepodge mix, this melting pot of a bunch of guys who have very different influences. I skew (towards) singer songwriters. I was raised on the Joni Mitchell’s, the Jackson Browns kind of thing, whereas guys like Beau (banjo, guitar), his favorite bands are Radiohead, and U2, and so he’s pushing things that way.

Despite the varied influences, and a unique sound, the band has been very successful playing bluegrass music festivals and touring with other folk and bluegrass bands. Staff acknowledges that their music fits well in that setting, but it’s not a sound they necessarily aspire to when they are producing their music.

 “It’s kind of funny now,” says Staff. “I mean we always said we were bluegrass to start, not knowing what bluegrass was. It was just that we were guys that had bought these acoustic instruments without knowing the history of bluegrass, not having any reverence for it. We just weren’t a part of that. So when we cut our teeth in that scene, we realized that we weren’t doing things that were similar to what they were doing.”

“I understand [the bluegrass genre label] because instrumentally it’s banjos, mandolins, guitars, bass. It makes sense,” said Staff. “I do sometimes cringe when I know that somebody is expecting some traditional [bluegrass] shredding. But there’s never anybody saying: ‘Oh, are you sure we should be doing that?’ and I think it’s cool. We’re comfortable playing in all kinds of genres.”

Another genre label sometimes applied to Them Coulee Boys music is punk rock, which may be sonically difficult to identify in their music, but Staff believes punk can be other things as well.

“There’s a bit of that — I don’t know if you want to call it aggression — but there’s an edge to it. As I’ve grown up, I’ve realized that punk isn’t just that [sound], it’s the ethos, too, and we have a little bit of that to us. We like to sing about stuff that we believe in. We’d like to change people’s minds if we can, but I think as you get older, you look at all these things that you call yourself as a kid, and you cringe a little bit regardless.”

Them Coulee Boys was born when Staff met banjo player Beau Janke at a bible camp in Northern Wisconsin back in 2011. They felt a personal bond that made them instant friends, but their musical connection happened while playing background music for a staff training session.

“We were asked ‘Hey, do you guys just want to play something pretty?’ with 30 seconds to prepare,” said Staff. “We had nothing; no time. We were like ‘Okay, let’s do this,’ and I remember having this feeling of ‘Oh, this guy can anticipate what I want to do,’ or ‘I can feel where he’s gonna go’ and that chemistry was just so evident right away.  Some people search their whole life to find people to play like that, and it was so quick with him. That’s kind of where everything was built off of. That push and pull between us has been the basis of this band.”

Approaching their tenth year as a band, the hard work and perseverance is paying off as they are starting to win awards and are becoming staples of the folk/bluegrass festival circuit in the Midwest as well as around the country. I asked Staff when was the moment he realized the band was becoming what they all dreamed it could be.

“We played at First Avenue, Minneapolis, the main room. It was a sold out crowd, we played our set and we did our thing and you know, we have moments in our set that can be very joyous and raucous and just jumping all over the place but there’s also moments where it’s quiet, and to look out at a crowd that was bouncing and jumping and yelling five minutes earlier, and to see them quietly listening. That power, to play with people’s emotions, is addicting.” said Staff. “It was one of those ‘Oh, okay. This is something that I can do. And this is something that I want to do.’ I feel like we’ve been chasing that ever since and you know, we’ve had that moment happen on humongous stages now, so yeah, it’s really cool. But it’s not lost on us regardless of where it is. I play open mics on Tuesday night here in Eau Claire, for ten people sometimes, and I still am addicted to that ‘listening in’ kind of moment, and I’ll try to follow it as long as I can.”

The band has big plans to celebrate their tenth year. They are touring out west with Tejon Street Corner Thieves in March and April, and while they have a new album they are polishing up for a release in late 2023 or early 2024, their next project will be re-recording some of their earlier music for a special release.

“Our first EP we recorded in my buddy’s living room with the dogs barking whenever we got too loud, and that was really fun,” Staff recalls sarcastically. “It was a DIY, let’s just get it out there kind of thing and it sounded awesome for where we were at. Some of those were [recorded] when there’s three people in the band or four people in the band, so we’re going to celebrate the ten years and gonna come back to a handful of those songs, and record them live in the studio.”

Them Coulee Boys
Rose Bowl Tavern
106 N Race St
Sa Feb 25th, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets $10 in advance, $15 at the door

Music Editor

More Articles