If you take one listen to the stripped down blues-rock of The Sideshow Tragedy, especially on their recently released album, Capital, it’s hard to believe that the duo that comprise the Texas group – Nathan Singleton and Jeremy Harrell – once hit the road as the members of an emo-punk band.
“I was in a band with Jeremy that was sort of an emo-punk band with metal overtones, and it was music that neither of us were really into, but we had friends that played it and it was a gig, and we were young and hungry and wanted to play,” Singleton recalls. “So we were in this band, but at the same time I was getting into songwriters and stuff like Townes Van Zandt.”
Singleton always had a taste for the finer parts of music’s palette, something instilled in him by his father. And unlike most children, when his father played the classics for him, he took it all in and kept it there.
“I grew up on the stuff that my dad listened to, like the Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, and stuff like that, and he also listened to early blues stuff like Son House, Bukka White and Robert Johnson, so it was always around me,” he said. “The guitars I play, the National guitars, they were his and he gave them to me. So it was a thing that was there and it was normal to me to listen that kind of music. I didn’t discover it like a lot of people do.”
And from the age of 11, Singleton had a guitar in his hand, vision clear on how he was going to spend the rest of his life.
“As soon as I picked up a guitar, that’s all I wanted to do,” he said. “I’m going to be a musician and this is all I care about doing. It’s still true to a large degree.”
Drummer Harrell was a kindred spirit, listening to “A lot of John Lee Hooker,” growing up in East Texas, so even though they were playing music far removed from what they were raised on, their mutual interests led to a quick connection.
“We’ve been playing together solid for 13 years now, ever since we had our first practice, and it just clicked immediately,” Harrell said. “We’ve got a language that we can both speak, for lack of a better word, telepathically, where we know where we’re going without really knowing where we’re going. We know how we like things to sound and it comes out of us. There’s no slack to pick up. You can count on the other guy and fully trust the other person in the band, so you can feel free to create together.”
The move from emo-punk back to blues didn’t truly hit until Singleton saw the documentary Be Here to Love Me about the late, great Van Zandt around 2005.
“I saw it in a theater and I said I’ve got to quit this band,” he said. “I want to go more in that direction, be more lyrically oriented. So I was on tour with the band, writing in the van and thinking what I was going to do when I got back to Austin. I thought I’m just going to play songs like a solo bluesman / songwriter. And I could go on the road, but I didn’t want to go alone.”
And he didn’t, recruiting Harrell to play drums in what would eventually become The Sideshow Tragedy. The two never looked back, and on Capital, they’re at their best, showing their influences, but in a way that’s uniquely theirs, which is a tough trick to pull off. They almost bring you back to the days in the immediate aftermath of Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, when every band seemed to be looking to the blues, or at least blues-rock for their influences. And while a lot of garbage came out of that era, there was also a helluva lot of good music as well, with the bluesy rock sound being not just accepted, but celebrated. Could Singleton and Harrell be helping to bring back that good stuff to the masses?
“I hope that it’s coming back,” Harrell said. “Jack White and The Black Keys have definitely been around for the last decade and a half. So I think it’s been here; it’s just what people decide to focus on at any given time.”
“As far as the blues base goes, there’s always something like that going on, and it always seems to come around to that,” Singleton adds. “There’s something about it, for sure.”
There’s also something about the sound The Sideshow Tragedy gets with just two musicians on stage. It’s guitar, voice, and drums, and what a wonderful noise those three elements make. In other words, you won’t miss the bass player or another guitarist.
“I think of myself as a solo guitar player, and it’s solo guitar music plus a badass drummer,” Singleton said. “It’s not like a rock band minus pieces. And I love bass players, but the way I play guitar in his band is something that I’ve evolved pragmatically to deal with that missing frequency when you hear it in rock music. The way Jeremy plays drums is also very, very thought out and calculated, like let’s present this thing and make it sound really huge. And you can do that with space too. It’s limiting too and the limitations are interesting to me.”
It doesn’t sound too limiting, which is a testament to the creativity of the Sideshow Tragedy boys, who have come a long way to get to this point. And with the release, it may be the start of something big. Are they ready?
“Absolutely,” said Harrell. “The more people the better. The show just gets better every time another person walks in the room and that’s the truth. And I’m ready for that.”
The Sideshow Tragedy plays Rockwood Music Hall in NYC on Friday, May 22. For more info, click here