Collin Krause is the first to admit that his band, The Way Down Wanderers, isn’t easily categorized. While there are those that would describe them as bluegrass, simply for the sake of convenience, the band’s penchant for bending the boundaries and stretching the parameters make any attempt at typecasting meaningless regardless.
“I shy away from the bluegrass handle,” he notes. “However I certainly love bluegrass.”
Krause demonstrated that fact early on. As a youngster, he was drawn to an old school sound after taking up fiddle and mandolin. However, the other members of the band boast very different backgrounds. Drummer John Merikoski started his career playing in a jazz band. Bassist John Williams was originally trained in classical music. Singer/guitarist Austin Krause-Thompson, who shares the songwriting responsibilities with his brother-in-law Collin, was originally a drummer in a rock band. Travis Kowalsky, who plays banjo, allows the band to maintain its grasp on a rootsy regimen.
“I love that tradition,” Krause insists. “We don’t go around telling people we’re a bluegrass band. If so, people would look at us and say ‘Oh no, that’s not a bluegrass band because they’ve got a drummer!’ I like to say we’re an Americana band, because that has bluegrass influences, folk influences, and rock and roll too. It allows us to fit into this very broad category, one that enables us to explore it fully and pretty much do whatever we want.”
Krause-Thompson has his own reasons for championing change. “The one most common complaint about bluegrass is that much of it sounds the same,” he suggests. “Like blues, punk, surf, or any style of music that easily falls within a specific genre, the instrumental accoutrements tend to dictate a sound that makes typecasting sometimes appear all too easy.”
“I haven’t met anyone who seemed super upset about the spin we put on the music,” Krause continues. “Our music is a combination of all our instrumental influences, and that brings it a little bit beyond that realm.”
Krause-Thompson concurs. “When I write a song, I try to figure out where it’s going to fit with what we have, or what we don’t have already. I start out trying to go for a totally different feel than what I might have had before. I write without knowing how it might end up. Some things start out one way, but then get totally changed after the preproduction. Knowing that, I still try to keep it as organic as possible.”
Indeed, over the course of their pair of EPs and two studio albums — 2016‘s eponymous debut and their sophomore set Illusions which came out earlier this year — The Way Down Wanderers have, as their handle suggests, evolved by digging deeper.
“With our first full length record back in 2016, our producer Mike Morris really helped us get out of the envelope,” Austin-Thompson recalls. “It involved things as basic as tweaking some drum rhythms. So that really helped me when I started writing for the second record. I kind of kept the pacing in mind. We wanted to put songs on there that people could dance to. We also took a leap sonically by putting a lot more keyboard on some of the songs. We pushed it forward sonically without trying to force anything. We wanted to keep growing while still retaining that rootsy focus we had on the first album.”
He credits David Schiffman, the man behind the board on Illusion for helping them push things forward even more.
“David was a great producer to work with,” he says. “He was very organic. He wasn’t trying to make us to do anything we didn’t want to do. So we were all on the same page and it was a really great experience.”
Other experiences helped the new album take shape as well. “A lot of it is based around personal events or things closely related to home,” Austin-Thompson says, discussing the initial inspiration. “Some are stories about other people that we’re close to. Life is a crazy thing and there’s always something to be written about, whether it’s right here in your front yard or someone else’s. We try to reenact that as much as we can.”
While some songs seem borne from spontaneous jams, much of the album emphasizes tuneful qualities that reflect influences as diverse as the Band or the Beach Boys, not to mention the occasional hint of jazz and hip-hop. The upbeat and effusive Dead Birds sets the tone, while the wealth of memorable melodies — Heading North, Circles, and Hollow Man among them — suggest that it’s song and not style that steers their MO.
“We’ve grown into our sound over the years,” Krause suggests. “Our intention is to highlight the lyrics and the songs, and that’s how we blend all those elements together.”
It also helps that Krause and Krause-Thompson have a personal partnership, as well as a professional one. The two have known each other since childhood, leading them to first form the group in 2013 when they were 15 and 19, respectively. A year ago, Krause-Thompson married Krause’s older sister, and their relationship evolved even more.
Even so, home life seems to take second place to touring these days. The group spends nearly half the year on the road, playing as many as 150 dates a year. “We’re trying to spend as much time on the road and get as much music out there as possible,” Krause-Thompson explains. At the same time, they’re also thinking ahead to their next album which Krause reckons ought to be out sometime next year.
“We’re trying to jump the gun a little bit because there was such a lull between the first two albums because of all the touring,” Krause-Thompson says. “Recording wasn’t as prominent on our agenda. Collin and I just finished up a song a few weeks ago and we have a few more in the works. So we’re trying to turn the next one around a lot quicker. “
Whether or not they’ll pull further afield from the traditional template remains to be seen. However it is clear that no matter where their road takes them, The Way Down Wanderers will offer their followers a jubilant journey.