California Report: Kenny Feinstein of Water Tower Band

“Bluegrass and folk alchemy with psychedelic and punk influences” is how the Los Angeles-based Water Tower Band is described on their web site. Led by co-founder Kenny Feinstein, the band has endless energy emitting old-time sounds in a modern musical world. I encourage you to read Kenny and the band’s lengthy history.

Hey Kenny. Start by telling us what instruments you play.

Guitar, fiddle, bass, mandolin, banjo, and harmonica. I’m mainly a guitar player, and I spend a lot of time on my custom Preston Thompson guitar. It has an extra-large sound hole in honor of Clarence White and Tony Rice. We have a deep love of traditional bluegrass and the contributions that Clarence and Tony have made, so I wanted to make sure my guitar honored that. One of our founding members, who plays with us when we go to Oregon, helps build guitars over at the Thompson workshop in Sisters, Oregon. 

What’s your favorite Tony Rice or Clarence White guitar solos?

Church Street Blues is my favorite Tony Rice and Billy In The Lowground is my favorite Clarence White solo. 

Kenny does Tony, Clarence, and Doc on his Preston Thompson guitar

You’ve said playing the Ryman would be a dream. What would be your dream lineup for that?

My dream lineup would be playing with Old Crow Medicine Show, Molly Tuttle, and Tim Armstrong. Old Crow has helped us a lot throughout our career, and Molly Tuttle is a rad human being. We are SO excited for her that she just won female vocalist of the year from IBMA. 

You talk about the connection between punk and old-time. Have you ever played a gig where both genres were present?

Yeah, we had the honor of touring with a punk band called Against Me! back in 2012 when their lead singer, Laura Jane Grace, came out as trans, and it was on the cover of Rolling Stone. So that was especially punk rock. A bluegrass band opening for a loud punk rock band with a female singer. We had a blast on that tour. The highlight gig was playing the Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina. We’ve also played a lot of garage shows and house shows with punk bands, and we love the energy there. We got to open for Frank Turner a few times, and while he does play an acoustic guitar, his energy and band are punk rock.

Is there a connection between old-time and punk beyond a hard-edged groove? 

Yes. The idea of self-reliance is inherent throughout both of these genres—the DIY ethic. To create a scene from the friends around us, to schedule our own square dances and house shows, to train-hop, and to learn how to play and sing through the aural tradition. Also the speed of the music. Generally, old-time and bluegrass are played fast, just like punk rock. 

Is the world ready for fiddle mosh pits?

Oh yes. The first time we saw it was in Cardiff, Wales. We had crowd surfers hitting the lights on the ceiling. We were actually at a show in Grass Valley a few weeks ago, playing with Two Runner and Outlaws in the Golden State, and we were moshing to the music. It was a blast. A lot of people didn’t know what to do, but we just brought them into the circle. Now that we have Billy Strings paving the way with his metal influence, punk is ready to dive right into the fiddle pit. 

Talk about your release, Loveless: Hurts to Love, and the wall of sound with acoustic instruments.

I love that you understand the wall of sound concept here. This album was an obsession of mine. It’s a cover of Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. The album came out in 1991 and changed the course of what pop music could be. In fact, Brian Eno called a track on it (Soon) the “vaguest music to ever have been a hit,” and that it “set a new standard for pop.” I felt the same way when I heard the album. I couldn’t stop listening to it. I had the album playing on a 24-hour-a-day loop for a couple of years. I had a separate iPod setup with this album playing so that if I had to listen to something else, I could still have Loveless on in the background. I wanted to recreate the album acoustically, so I approached Jeff Kazor of the Crooked Jades because I knew that he would understand my vision. He spent years painstakingly taking the textures apart and putting them back together. Then we went to Bruce Kaphan to help us record and put the whole thing together. What results is an acoustic wall of sound that helped me to finally stop listening to the album. It really felt like exorcising some musical demon. 

Can you share some unknown history about Secret Love Buzz?

Wow, you’ve really done your homework! Great question. “Secret love buzz” is a lyric from our song, Bobcat, and it was to be the name of our first album as Water Tower. (We’ve put out records as Water Tower Bucket Boys and Water Tower Stringband.) One of our fans even got “Secret Love Buzz” tattooed on her chest! The album is sitting in the closet right now on two-and-a-half-inch tape. I don’t think it will ever see the light of day, but I really hope to get it out somehow. The unknown history is that it represented the dissolution of the band back in 2012. It chronicled our story through addiction and trauma, but it’s stayed in the shadows until now. The beautiful thing about Secret Love Buzz is that it helped give birth to the modern incarnation of Water Tower and our debut album, Fly Around. Some of the songs on Fly Around are the same songs but with totally different treatments. We came to Don Bolles from the seminal LA punk band the Germs to help us put this thing together. He did a great job at understanding where the songs needed to go. 

Talk about Producing the Internet.

We were livestreaming a lot during the pandemic, and Tommy Drinkard figured out a way to include even more people. Producing The Internet started as a way to connect with more people over music. The idea is we would start with a song or a beat, and Tommy would invite the online crowd to help write lyrics and give ideas. It grew into a cool thing that we ended up getting a lot of songs out of. 

Tell us about NFT digital music, where you think it’s going, and how it benefits musicians.

Yes! We have a few NFTs for sale out there. One of them is a song we wrote on the Producing The Internet show. We collaborated with fans on the livestream to create a song together. They helped write the lyrics as we were coming up with the music. NFTs are just another way to build the brand and spread the music, just another lane to be traveling in. We’re all about reaching new audiences, and NFTs are a way to do that. I’m not sure where it’s all going, but I have some musician friends who make a lot of money selling NFTs. 

What’s 182 Water?

That is my rapper alter-ego. When I get onstage with Water Tower, I step into a character known as 182 Water.

Water Tower Band song AM/PM and more…

Do you think traditional music has a significant place on TikTok?

Yes, I think any music or art has a place on the platform because every kind of person is consuming content on it. People are collaborating and creating music on the platform constantly. New traditional artists are being discovered here! Many people who would never have heard traditional music are getting to interact with it. Artists from all genres are blowing up on this platform. 

If you could transport back to any music time, when would it be?

It would be the 1700s because this was before the recording industry. It would be fun to learn music only from the people who played it. Old-timey music started being shared this way, and I would love to go back and learn from the forefathers. It would be fun to go to an old-school square dance too.

There are a lot of bands with a modern take on old-time music. Talk about how one can modernize a legacy genre yet be faithful to it.

It just happened naturally for us as a result of our deep dive into old-time and bluegrass music. We just wanted to recreate it as faithfully as possible, and we ended up coming up with our own way to do it. I think the key is to go to the roots, study them and replicate them until something new starts to evolve. 

Who are some of your favorite bands and recordings in this modern old-time category?

Foghorn Stringband is one of our favorites. We listen to them all the time. We actually started as a Foghorn cover band, lol… We also love Crying Uncle and Cross-Eyed Possum. 

Tell us about your Netflix show placements.

We got into a couple of Netflix shows. The first one, Say I Do, is a show about dream weddings. We got to be the band during one wedding in Indiana, and it sure was a blast. We love playing weddings, and TV weddings are even more fun because we can watch them again later. But the Netflix show that I got to be a bigger part of is called Country Ever After, which features my friend Coffey Anderson and his wife Criscilla. I was playing fiddle in his band for a few years, and that’s when this show was filmed. It followed us to some shows and stayed up in Coffey’s house for a while. One of the more memorable episodes for me was filming in the Whiskey A Go Go. There are some funny moments during the show that I still get to hear our fans laugh about when they mention them to me. 

Where is your “Tower” in LA?

The idea is that every tower is part of us. So there are many towers that we appreciate around LA. Luckily, we never have to get a billboard to advertise the band because we already have them everywhere. The tower where we started playing music at is actually in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

Tell us about the LA old-time scene and the session that you host in Silver Lake.

There are many musicians out here who play old-time and bluegrass music. Because the city is so spread out, there are factions of it on every corner. My goal is to bring many of us together right in the heart of the city. The Hillbilly Hype House is a monthly event at the Silverlake Lounge (kind of in the middle of the city) that has an old-time bluegrass jam from noon to 4:00 p.m., right in front of the entrance. Then if you walk inside the venue, we have local and traveling acts who play in front of an Ear Trumpet microphone. At 4:00 we invite all the jammers to come onstage and jam with some of the artists who were featured that day. It’s a really fun music party where everyone gets involved. We’ve had people taking their first solos EVER onstage there and playing instruments for fun for the first time EVER. 

Water Town at the Hillbilly Hype House – Semi Charmed Life

How is LA different from Portland?

The Portland scene is more connected because the city is smaller. Less traffic to travel through to get to the square dance. But LA has multiple square dances across the city. Portland was also more connected because of the Bubbaville website, which was started by the late great Bill Martin. He was a pillar of the Portland community who made sure that everyone knew about every event. He also was an amazing square dance caller. 

What else is in the works?

We’re gearing up to release our second album as Water Tower. It’s all recorded live from Palomino Studios in LA. This is very different from our debut, Fly Around, because we spent seven years making that album in the studio. This one was all recorded in one day after 30 days on the road. The album will be our first self-titled. It’s a traditional bluegrass album with some modern sentiments. We decided to use two banjos all over it. Fly Around didn’t have any banjo, so now we’re making up for that with TWO banjo heavy-weights. We just found out that we’ll be playing on the main stage at the California Bluegrass Association’s Father’s Day Festival in Grass Valley next summer. W’’re SO excited about it—we love that festival. 

Is there anything else?

Thank you for all the thoughtful questions! Be sure and check out the bluegrass magazine I help run, All Grass Music.

Fromage Video from Fly Around

Copy editing by Jeanie Poling

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is a California based author, mandolin picker, and composer who writes the California Report column for Bluegrass Today. He grew up in the Ohio Valley right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto rivers dump into the Ohio. His articles, Morning Walk album, and video are available on streaming sites and his website at daveberrymusic.net.