Four years after releasing their debut record, Gentle Spotted Giants, Asheville Americana band Alex Krug Combo is back from the briny depths with a new studio offering. Coming September 19, the follow-up EP Sleeping on the Woodlands boasts another batch of blues-rock meditations on the power and beauty of nature.
As the frontwoman for a group that spans generations, genders, and sexualities, Alex Krug has a unique perspective on life and the natural world, something she harnesses on the record’s elemental first single, “Woodlands.” As she told music blog Adobe and Teardrops, “For those that feel on the margins, we have the benefit of seeing things and observing things. […] That can be a gift and a curse.”
On the other hand, working on stage and in the studio with bassist Zack Page, guitarist Kyle Samples, backing vocalist Rachel Gramig, lap steel player Jackson Dulaney, and drummer Bill Berg has proven to be all gift. Between electric guitar shimmer, steel guitar twang, and the deep, clear water of Krug’s vocals, the band has settled into an earthy sound that twists and turns like a forest trail or a gentle stream.
The band will celebrate the release with a hometown show at Ambrose West on September 15, and beforehand, Krug spoke to The All Scene Eye about the crowdfunding campaign that made the record possible and making old songs new again.
It’s been about four years since your last release, Gentle Spotted Giants. How does it feel to be back on the cusp of releasing new music again?
It feels really, really good. We’ve been wanting to record for a long time, but we didn’t have the resources–like, the financial part–so it feels really rewarding to have it and to get to put it out there.
How have things changed for you between these projects?
For the first project, it was the first project that I had worked closely with a drummer on. Previous to that, I hadn’t had a drummer, and then on that project, Michael [Selverne], our producer, was like, “You’ve got to have a drummer. Who do you want?” My bass player had told me about this guy, Bill Berg, and encouraged me to get in touch, so Michael called him. He liked our project, he did the album, and then–I thought it was just for a session, but after we were done, he was like, “Hey, let me know when you’re playing live. I would like to join if I can,” so that was the beginning of getting to really work closely with a drummer. Bill in particular is a really neat human and a really talented drummer, and we became email pen pals and friends. He lives about an hour outside of Asheville and comes into Asheville sometimes, so we’ve been gigging and practicing. It feels a lot more comfortable.
Once he was part of the band on a more regular basis, did that change the way you were writing, and just stylistically what the band became?
Yeah, it was really empowering because a really good drummer, you can lean into them. Previous to that, as a rhythm guitar player, I kind of had to drive the song forward, and now I have this awesome person who’s providing that in a really fun way. I think the whole band learned to lean into that, so there’s more flow. Sometimes some people step forward and other people step back, and we can all kind of lean on each other in different moments. Between the last album and this album, we also started working with Jackson Dulaney on lap steel, and he’s like our bus driver. We just give him a nod, and it’s like pedal to the metal. He can take us wherever, so it’s been really great.
In that same time, our electric guitar player, Kyle, and the lap steel player, they’ve learned to both play and contribute, but not–if you have too many guitars, it can just be too many guitars [laughs] but they fill certain roles and think so differently. I love it when I have a show and I’m perfectly between their amps. It’s just a really fun spot.
When did you start working on the songs that became this record, Sleeping on the Woodlands?
Because I haven’t had the opportunity to record very often, it’s actually songs from various chapters, so some are pretty new, and then one is slightly older, and then one is a lot older, but I feel like they’re all friends on the album. I don’t feel like there’s a real oddball. They felt like they were buddies, so we have them hanging out together.
Was there a specific idea or a theme that brought them all together and made them friends?
We didn’t conceptually put that together, but I think subconsciously we did. We were enjoying those songs, and I guess they were resonating at the time, so we just went for it. I think they really do belong together. I think the album speaks to people who might feel on the outside or on the margins.
You crowdfunded this album with an Indiegogo campaign. How did you make the decision to go that route?
Well, we did a Kickstarter, like, three months before we did the Indiegogo. We decided to [crowdfund] because it was really the only way that I could foresee us having the money that we needed to record, and we wanted to record in a certain way. We wanted to track as live as we could to get that energy, and also, I’m impatient, so I don’t like the kind of fragmented recording experience where you track things individually and it becomes a headache. For some people, I think there’s a lot of genius there, and it’s definitely expressive, but for me, I like the immediacy of being with the band, so we needed a studio that could accommodate that. Also, I wanted to work with Michael Selverne again, and he likes certain studios, so we knew that in order to be in that kind of space, we needed a certain amount of money. [laughs] I also know that my fans are not–some of my friends, and this isn’t a diss, have people that they know that, like–say they do a Kickstarter, they have people they can call who can just drop $1,000 or five grand in the bucket. I didn’t really have anybody like that up my sleeve.
No wealthy patrons waiting in the wings.
Yeah, like, I have food service friends and people that work at Outward Bound [laughs] so I knew that I couldn’t ask for too much and that it would have to be very conservative. We did a Kickstarter and we didn’t meet our goal even though, for an album, I kept it low, but I felt good about it because I got to really connect with people–new friends, old friends. We regrouped and launched an Indiegogo campaign, and that was successful. It was a lot of work, and I knew that it would be–one of my poet friends who has done several Kickstarters calls it getting a rash [laughs] because it’s so hard. I mean, it’s also so rewarding because you do get to talk to so many people. You have to really work hard for it, and it’s neat to connect with people, so. We got it. [laughs]
Why do you think the second campaign worked where the Kickstarter didn’t?
Well, I lowered the budget a little to make it more achievable because the first time, I asked for $12,000. You can kind of do the math, like, “I’m pretty sure about 100 people will contribute, or maybe 200,” and then you can think, “Well, most of them are going to give, like, $20,” so I was like, “I feel like this is too high,” but I knew a lot of people who had done it, so I was like, “Who knows? Maybe that person’s out there and I don’t know it.” [laughs] I went for it, and it didn’t work, which, I mean, that’s how we learn. You just have to get back up, give it another try, and adjust, so we did. It’s cool.
When you don’t have a lot of money, you really just streamline your choices, and that, in a way, is kind of an art. It’s like, “What are the really essential pieces that make this work?” What are the pieces that we can do without?” So we definitely did that. We got a really high-quality studio and experience, and our friends there really made it achievable, so that was great.
As a six-person band going through something like this, just logistically, is it difficult to make those decisions?
We really enjoy working together, and we’re buddies, so it logistically worked pretty well because we just knew that we wanted to make it happen. Even the session–I don’t know if you heard any of this, but the session was scheduled, and it was in December. We live in the mountains, and there was this giant snowstorm slated to hit us, and even though we’re in the mountains, we’re in the south, so there’s no snowplows. The city has, like, two snowplows or something [laughs] so any little bit of snow will wipe us out. They were forecasting a bunch of it, and Jessica, the studio manager, Julian, the engineer, Michael, the producer, and Bill, they were all emailing like, “We really want to make this happen.” They made the studio house available for us to crash at, and Bill rented a four-wheel drive, and it was–people were just like, “No, we want to make this happen,” which was completely above and beyond. It was so affirming and cool. Luckily, the snow was slightly delayed, so we did have to end early and people had to rush home, but there wasn’t a damper on anything.
One of the things you wrote about for that Indiegogo campaign was that this a band that spans generations and genders. How has having all these differences shaped your perspective?
I think in music, or just being alive, we tend to–maybe it’s social media or whatever, we just get distracted. I can go here too, where I start thinking certain things are important, but I’m missing the things that are close to me that are more important and just overseen. As far as music and the band–or, yeah, with life, I would like to be open to the things that feel true to me and the people that feel real to me rather than trying to go for what I think would be cool or what I think would look good. I’m interested in what is honest, and that feels good, I guess.
It’s a real gift to have a multi-generational band and also a band that’s just about half men and half women, gays and straights, because I think individually we all are searching for that connection that feels real and fun versus what would be cool. [laughs] Because ultimately, I think what we’re all looking for, we just get distracted, is something that is tangible and feels right and honest versus what immediately looks trendy or whatever. Not that I–trendy is great, but it can be easy to lose focus.
How has the intergenerational dynamic helped this band grow? How has that been expressed in the music that you make?
Well, both Bill and Michael are, you know, of a different generation than myself. Even in the four years between the records, I stayed in touch with Michael, and we would hang out sometimes, and then Bill and I played together and emailed and stuff. The one thing I’ve really gotten out of it is it’s been really affirming and–well, Bill, he’s worked with so many people and he’s been in so many different live and studio situations with bands that are getting along, bands that aren’t getting along, with all different kinds of personalities and styles. I think that gave him a sense of confidence and an ability to be really genuine, to say what he likes and have an open heart to reach out and connect with those that he wants to, and then just gently and kindly avoid things he doesn’t want to be a part of.
Just seeing that gave me confidence to pursue the things and the people that I want to pursue, to love them open-heartedly, and also to stay away from the things that don’t feel–yeah, just being more confident and unapologetic in a kind way. That translates to the band because you can sit in the music in a more present way when you don’t have all that anxiety about trying to make an impression.
On other axes at play here, I’m also curious about these lines of gender and sexuality. Americana as a genre feels very homogeneous. What has it been like for you inhabiting that space?
I think when people hear us, they like what they hear, but for me, booking shows–I don’t want to sound whiny because I don’t feel like I need to have a chip on my shoulder, but it’s very sexist. It’s very hard to get ahead because people want to book male-fronted acts. That’s what they want, and that’s fine–it’s not fine, but it is what it is. Luckily, I don’t work with guys that think that way. Jackson, who plays lap steel with me, the other two biggest bands he plays with are female-fronted. He’s interested in music, and he’s interested in camaraderie around really good music. He’s interested in discovering the edges of music and where you can take something–Bill is too, and Zack, and Kyle, and Michael, so it’s really rewarding to be in a band with them, but it might mean we aren’t–I think there’s a form or homogeneous template for what people want to book, so it’s hard to work with that, but I’m okay with that.
What’s the antidote for that? Is the fix just to say, you know, book more women?
I was talking about this with some other artist friends in Asheville because I think a lot of people want there to be more of an egalitarian approach to art, music, and life [laughs] in general. Even some people here that I love and enjoy, they book some big spaces in town, and there was this one lineup recently where it was a whole day of, like, Americana, bluesy, jammy bands. They had one female-fronted act, and on all the posters, her name was either not mentioned in the lineup, or it was at the very bottom [laughs] like, the very smallest, even though she’s won big awards. She won the battle of the bands at Merlefest, which is huge. She’s slaying it and working so hard, and a lot of these other bands have full teams–they have a booking agent and a publicist. She’s hustling it all on her own and she’s doing really good because I think it takes women a lot longer to get that team of support in general, so I was–this is, like, the normal picture. My friends and I were talking about it, and we were thinking a solution might be for–because all those bands are great people. I really like all those bands.
[laughs] Men can be musicians too.
Yeah, and they’re great, but there are a lot of great women that are invisible. It’s like the money in your pocket. You pull it out, all the bills have men on them. All the coins have men on them. These show lineups, they all have men on them, and it’s not to say those specific men are bad. This is just not really representational of what’s going on, and so the thought was–I don’t know how effective this will be, but what if some of the men that are on these lineups, in their riders, they start pointing it out to the bookers. “Hey, just noticing this. I can only play this lineup if it’s more equal.” The rumor is Gregg Allman was starting to think this before he died, so this might have come from him.
I’ll only play this show if there’s x number or x percentage of women on the lineup.
Yeah, because I think a lot of people cringe now. Not everyone. A lot of people still don’t even notice, but there’s a lot more of us who are cringing, men and women. It doesn’t matter. A lot of people want change, so I think those that feel like they have enough confidence to start saying that can say that. That’s just one idea.
The first single from this album, “Woodlands,” deals with that perspective of being an outsider. You recently released a video for that song with a lot of close-up imagery–it’s a video where perspective is crucial. Where did that concept come from, and how did you make it?
My friends–actually, I’m at their house now–they’re both scientists. One has her masters in entomology, and my other friend is a scientific illustrator. We were just cooking dinner, and after dinner, they brought out this contraption that my friend Chris–he has a band called Carpal Tullar because his last name is Tullar–he took this piece of Plexiglas, he put a lens on it from something else, and then you could put your phone on it, you could hold things up to it, and it would magnify. We were just looking at things, so I asked him if they would help me with the video.
A few days later, we hung out, and originally, we were just going to do plant matter and not insects, but then when we went out in the yard and we got these plants, there were insects you couldn’t even see with your naked eye that were crawling around. We were all [laughs] just recording it and being like, “What?” We thought that one little bug had a lot of charisma. I was like, “Aw, man, this little one is the main character.” That was just a five-minute clip that I–because it was just looking at us and walking around. I had some other ideas for a music video and I think they would have been fine. This happened accidentally, but in the end, it felt better than any of the ideas.
I really love the song “Merriment,” which has such a tone of encouragement. What’s the story behind that song, and where did that encouraging spirit come from for you?
It’s actually the oldest song on the album, and I’d recorded it before, but with a different band. I didn’t really want to do it again, but Bill and Michael really liked it, so I was like, “Sure, let’s do it,” because now I enjoy the song through their enjoyment of it. [laughs] They make it new again. When I wrote it, I was just in a real playful time. I think I’m still in a playful time, but some friends of mine were in love and getting married, so I was thinking about them and my own life.
What’s next for you after this album, and what’s your hope for this release?
I’m hoping this album will help me get some booking support because I really want to play more, and when we travel, we won’t be able to travel as a six-piece. We’ll probably have to travel as a three- or four-piece, but I would love to do more. Rachel, who sings harmony with me, lives in Colorado, so we play a lot out there, and in Kentucky and Maryland and random places we do tour to, but I would like to be able to–there’s a lot of music I want to write, and I find that I’m spending so much time on the computer. I’m really dyslexic, so I am not very good at it [laughs] so I’d like to attract some booking help and also do another EP in the next year.
If you could tour with any artist, who would you want to go on the road with?
Oh, man. The genre thing is hard because I like so many different styles that I would not fit well with.
Reach for the stars–this is an open hypothetical.
I really like Charlie Hunter’s latest album–I really like the groove there. If we’re going to go big, obviously Brandi Carlile is awesome. Neither of those artists are in my immediate cards, but [laughs] I love them.