What’s better than a hometown hero?
Well, when we’re talking about Them Coulee Boys, not much. Gracing the Blue Ox Music Festival next weekend in their hometown of Eau Claire, WI, these natives will be bringing the best of their music to the already exciting lineup.
Blending folk, punk, bluegrass, and rock & roll, the band’s four-part harmonies create a feeling of familiarity and community among those who share the “experience of joy and giving a shit.” After meeting as bible camp counselors in 2011, founding members Soren Staffe and Beau Janke embarked on a musical journey that grew and evolved into a full-fledged, Americana-rock band, now including members Jens Staffe, Neil Krause, and Stas Hable.
Focusing on their friendship, the band uses their unique bond to strengthen their creativity, and hone in on their ability to connect with audiences, leading to performances that feel less like concerts, and more like family gatherings. Their newest album, Namesake is groovy yet introspective, with hypnotizing harmonies and classic-rock themes sprinkled throughout, leaning into Them Coulee Boys’ signature sound. Recorded right in Eau Claire, the album takes on a new trajectory for the band’s sound with nods to legends like Bob Dylan and Tom Petty.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Eau Claire on the 19th, these festival mainstays will be shredding the main stage Saturday afternoon. As Blue Ox regulars, Them Coulee Boys have shared the stage with some bluegrass greats and festival staples including Sam Bush, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, Trampled By Turtles, and Pert Near Sandstone to name a few, and there’s no doubt this year the band will be bringing the heat and making their hometown proud.
Before getting too excited about their Blue Ox set, we had the chance to catch up with them and talk about returning to the stage this year, the new album, and more.
2021 has been a busy year for you guys already what with the release of your album, Namesake. What was different or special about writing and recording this record in particular?
This record is unique to us in the sense that none of these songs really existed before the pandemic. Oftentimes, we would work on new songs for a while, and test them on the road. With that option unavailable to us, we spent a lot of time with these songs by ourselves. The roar and reaction of a crowd can sometimes alter where you want a song to go, so it was interesting to just ask ourselves what the song itself was asking for. Namesake has an intense focus on the songs themselves, and as a result it feels intimate and close. When we came together to make these songs, we had to make sacrifices to ensure the safety of those involved. I think that care bled into the songs themselves.
Are there any songs off the album that you’re especially excited to unleash on the stage?
We really have enjoyed playing “Phil’s Song” in our shows this summer. It’s the closest we’ve ever strayed towards rock and roll, and that makes for a highlight. The song itself is about a friend of mine we lost to suicide, but pairs that sorrow with a reckless joy for the man he was. Confronting that every night can be an emotional moment, but we’ve vowed to make this song feel like a celebration. That makes for an intensely cathartic experience, and one we look forward to every night.
Speaking of stages, you’ll be gearing up for the Blue Ox Festival in your hometown here in a matter of days. It goes without saying that returning to live music is exciting, but how does it feel to return to playing festivals of this magnitude?
I think I can speak for most musicians in saying there really is nothing like playing in front of a huge crowd, and there’s nothing like playing at home. At Blue Ox, we get both of those at the same time. A part of it feels foreign, like an old friend you’ve lost touch with. But getting in front of people that love you never gets old, and we embrace every opportunity to do so.
Since 2017, you’ve been a part of the magic at Blue Ox. Obviously things will be different from last year (considering it didn’t happen), but do you feel a different level of excitement going into this year than previous years?
Blue Ox has always been a measuring stick for us and our careers. Our first year we played in the campground, with the generator dying during our set. The next year we played the side stage early in the afternoon. Every year since we’ve been on the Main Stage, in front of heroes and friends alike. With that growth, we always feel the need to push ourselves, do something different. We’re so excited to show these new songs to such a familiar crowd. We are a band that prides itself on being able to do a lot of things, bring about all ranges of emotions. Each time you come to a Them Coulee Boys show we want the listener to leave feeling like family, and we’re excited to bring more friends into the fold this year at Blue Ox.
Obviously there’s some level of bias, but what makes Blue Ox so special compared to other festivals?
The familiarity of the crowd gives us a comfort that really is rare. We try things at Blue Ox we don’t anywhere else. It’s a position we’re so comfortable with and it brings out the best in us. The festival itself is special in that despite it’s world class setting and line-up, the only expectation is to enjoy yourself. You don’t have to be cool, you don’t have to impress. There’s a joy in just letting go and being yourself that’s common at your local small-town hippy festival, but hard to find at larger events. Blue Ox has the spirit of a small fest with the resources of a large one. It’s really the perfect combination.
It’s no secret there’s still a lot of uncertainty and divisiveness in the air right now. What are you doing to keep your heads up amidst this exhaustive and difficult time, and did you find the past 17 months helped or hindered your creative process and artistic drive?
We are firm believers that finding something you excel at and doing it for the benefit of others makes the world a better place. We have found that the messages in our songs have that power, and we work to get that message across each and every night. It’s our job to use our platform for good, and we do so through tunes about equality, mental health, and more. I think seeing the uncertainty around us only fueled the desire to do something about it. We are very fortunate to have been put in a position where our music can contribute to change, and we don’t take that responsibility lightly. We are so thankful for the opportunity.
On a lighter note, what are a couple of festival/show highlight-reel moments for you guys over the years?
Well, we’ve certainly enjoyed some great times, going on tour with Trampled By Turtles, winning Cayamo’s Soundcheck contest to play on a cruise, and many more. But I think my favorite moment comes at the end of most of our shows, where I get to talk to huge crowds about the importance of mental health and taking care of the ones you love. I am continually floored by how intensely our fans listen, going from frenzied to completely silent. It’s not lost on me that those moments can help those who may need to hear. I know they help me.
What might fans expect from Them Coulee Boys as we barrel towards Fall, and frankly, the end of the year? Tours, new music, a Coulee Boys cookbook?
We are excited to be touring towards the end of the year supporting Namesake, in places we’ve enjoyed before as well as new and exciting ones too. But a cookbook? That’s a great idea. Is there a cookbook out there about how to eat healthy at gas stations? We could really use something like that.
Photo by Peter Cozad