Bandits on the Run on Robbing Banks and Making Alchemical Art

Six years back, the story goes, guitarist Adrian Enscoe met cellist Sydney Shepherd while busking in a New York City subway station. Soon after, the two added Regina Strayhorn on accordion, melodica, and auxiliary percussion, adopted aliases (Enscoe as Roy Dodger, Shepherd as Bonanza Jellyfish, and Strayhorn as Clarissa) and called their merry band Bandits on the Run. Ever since, true to their name, they’ve been stealing the hearts of listeners with colorful live theatrics and spine-tingling triple harmonies.

2020 may have been a slow year for in-person pilfering, but the three never stopped running. As virus outbreaks and movements for social justice raged, they embarked on a cross-country expedition, self-isolating in a camper van as they made their way to the Seattle studio of producer Ryan Hadlock, whose rap sheet includes such pop folk gems as The Lumineers’ self-titled debut and Vance Joy’s Dream Your Life Away.

It was there they recorded their upcoming EP, Now Is the Time, refining their M.O. like hardened pros in the vibrant, cinematic grandeur of singles like “Hurricane.” But as any criminal worth their salt will tell you, the most important rule of heists is to have fun and be yourself–which they also do with aplomb on the playful “We Battle Giants” and their latest release, the supernaturally-themed “Spellbound,” complete with video that plays out in a lavish (and very much haunted) mansion.

Now Is the Time comes out June 24, alongside a video for its final track, “She’s the Queen.” Apropos for the Pride Month release, the band is using that video as an opportunity to feature drag performers, and they’ve put out a call for video clip submissions due this Friday, May 21. Ahead of the EP release, the trio spoke to The All Scene Eye about their whirlwind year and the alchemical properties of “Spellbound.”

We’re well past the one-year anniversary of pandemic life. Over a year later, how are you all holding up?

Enscoe: I think we’re busier now than we ever were before the pandemic.

Strayhorn: In March of last year, we were on our way to SXSW, and we had all these plans that obviously didn’t happen, but I think we all, A, stuck together throughout the whole thing, and B, we really were like, “Okay, if we’re going to be doing anything, we have to make our work ourselves.” This year’s been actually super generative for us. We literally are busier than ever, but overall, I think that we’re really lucky. We’re really lucky to have been together and to be healthy throughout this whole thing.

Shepherd: Absolutely. Being able to stick together was a huge boon for us, and also because we’re a very, I guess, performance-based band. We love playing live, and a lot of our energy went into our live shows pre-pandemic. I feel like we had to channel that energy into something else, so it was more about writing and recording and producing. We’ve sort of become our own little production company. We’ve been making so many music videos and using that performance energy in a different way.

Enscoe: I think the thing that people were experiencing sometimes with their families, just being able to center on being together–we experienced that with each other and we were able to center on what it was between the three of us that we’d like to create.

About a year ago, you were all quarantining together in North Carolina. How did that come about, and what was it like living as a band in isolation at the beginning of all this?

Shepherd: That came about because we literally found out about the SXSW cancellation while we were in our van on our way to North Carolina, so we were like, “Okay, wow. Well, we’re still going down south, here we are.” I’m from Hickory, North Carolina, so my family lives there, so in that sort of in-between space, we were in Hickory. No one knew how severe the pandemic really was at that point, and we actually played one final show in Nashville. Then everything shut down, and we were like, “Okay, let’s just go back to Hickory, do some writing, see where we’re at,” and we ended up staying there for three months. [laughs]

We’ve been reminiscing a lot about that time now because here we are a year later, and we kind of got to live as a little family. My mom and stepdad really loved having us there, my dad lives five minutes away. It kind of felt like we were–not kids again, but we were super lucky that we had a safe place to be, and to be around nature a lot. I feel like we were really inspired. Like, there was this bird singing every morning.

Enscoe: We involved Sydney’s mom and stepdad in a couple of livestreams that we did. They played characters–Bill, Sydney’s stepdad, was the mailman in one of our livestreams. He came and delivered a vinyl, and we popped out of the vinyl.

Shepherd: Yeah, we really had quite the time there.

Enscoe: But while we were there, we started talking to Ryan Hadlock–he’s produced The Lumineers, Brandi Carlisle, and a bunch of people–like Johnny Flynn, who I’ve been following since I was in high school. And he, every year, would look at the SXSW roster and try to find interesting new acts that he could work with, so when SXSW was cancelled, he reached out to us directly and said, “Hey, you were on my radar. Let me know if you ever want to make an album.”

So while we were at Sydney’s folks’ house, we were plotting our next move in the new world, where before we had had a plan of touring, and I myself was gonna be in an Avett Brothers musical that was happening at Berkeley Rep in California. All of that had fallen apart, so what was left was this opportunity to go out west to Seattle, this hallowed studio, and record some of our newest songs, which we hadn’t put down yet. It’s amazing how, after the fire, the seeds really start springing back up very quickly.

Strayhorn: In a weird way, it was nice to have a moment where we kind of returned to the basics of food, music, family.

Shepherd: We’re all artists in New York City, so we have to have survival jobs most of the time. It was kind of cool to not have to worry about other jobs we didn’t care about and just focus on making music. That was really, really lucky.

So you connect with Ryan, you start planning to record this EP,  and then you go on this cross-country road trip living out of a camper van. Tell me about undertaking something like that during such a fraught time.

Strayhorn: It definitely was stressful, you know? At the time, we were still learning a lot about the virus. We know now that it’s more airborne, but at the time, we were not–we were being super socially distant. We weren’t even seeing anybody. We were camping a lot, and of course, none of us have necessarily traveled with these circumstances before, so it was stressful trying to figure that out, but we ended up having really unique experiences. In Utah, we ended up camping on this horse ranch, and in Washington, we ended up camping in an apple orchard. You know, really unique things that were super special, and seeing the country at the time was big, because it was before the election. Everything was just electric and very intense.

Enscoe: And it was in the wake of the George Floyd protests. Not even in the wake–they were still happening, so we were definitely nervous about going across the country, but we felt confident that we could do it as safely as possible. It felt really important to see the different parts of America and how everybody was coping with the pandemic, and how everybody was coping with the protests. I think on the second day of our trip, we visited some friends in Nashville at a protest. They had been occupying one of the main squares, the town square next to the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. They were trying to get the Nashville city council to agree to take it down, or the Nashville state house. They’d been there for, like, 30, 40 days at that point.

Shepherd: Right, because I feel like the protests were really highly covered in June, and these people were still out there doing the work. It wasn’t as trendy anymore, but our friends were still there every day.

Enscoe: And so we got this portrait of them kind of being like, “Why aren’t people listening?”

Shepherd: They’re in this band called Animal Years out in Nashville, and I feel like they were really trying to get other musicians in the community to rally around them, to be part of this, and a lot of people–I don’t know if it’s because, Nashville, there’s a big country music contingency there, they were afraid of losing fans, but the response from the music community was less than stellar. I think that we’ve always been really vocal about our activism, and I think that made us even more so wanting to be outspoken and make people know that we hear and see them. We want to uplift other people’s voices and stories besides our own, and not really care about what our prospective fanbase might think. So that was interesting, getting into that journey across the country, like, “We’re gonna hold fast to what we believe in.”

Enscoe: But then the next day–this is what was wild. I remember this so vividly as the beginning to our adventure because that first day, we were there hearing the stories of BLM protesters in Nashville, and the next day, we had driven to western Kentucky in the middle of the night, and camped there, and in the morning, we started off again trying to make it to Kansas that night, and our photographer’s van was broken. They’d sprung a leak on their brake line, so we had to find a garage, and we ended up in this garage at the end of a long dirt road in a very rural area.

Shepherd: It was, like, the only place open on a Sunday we could find.

Enscoe: And they had a confederate flag hanging in the middle of the garage.

Oof.

Enscoe: Yeah, I know! But it was literally our only choice. We weren’t going to get in the car and drive 60 miles to the next garage because that would have been extremely dangerous for our photographer, and that whole day was wild, just waiting around for the car to be fixed. It just really outlined the complexities of race in America.

Shepherd: The thing was, the guy who was the owner of the shop, his granddaughter was there and running around, and was really beautiful and cool, and was a mixed-race kid, and we were just like, “How are we reconciling a confederate flag with this guy who has this granddaughter who he obviously loves?” It was a big moment for all of us to be like, “Wow.”

Strayhorn: There was no place that we went that we didn’t feel like we were grappling with really big questions, ’cause everything was very on-the-surface. I feel like all of that ended up in the music and ended up in the recording process, because the trek was to go to Washington state and record this EP at Bear Creek Studio, and by the time we got there, we really were like–I wish that we could flip a switch and make everything the way that we would like it, but we really wanted to put some healing vibes into it for our fans and for ourselves too.

After you’d made this trek, what was it like arriving and getting to work?

Shepherd: It was great. I mean, Bear Creek is cool too ’cause you can live there and work there. We lived in the loft above the studio, so we basically quarantined for two weeks while we were there. We were the first band that Ryan had worked with since the pandemic, so everyone had masks on, and it was definitely an atypical process.

Enscoe: We were fast friends with Taylor Carroll, who’s the studio manager there. I remember him showing us the studio, and just being wowed at the beautiful architecture–it’s an old horse barn–telling us some of the incredible history and all the amazing artists that have recorded there. Ryan Hadlock’s dad had started the studio in the 60s or 70s, and Lionel Richie and James Brown had recorded there, and then Ryan came in and renovated it, made some additions, and started recording some really amazing indie artists from the 2000s onward. Then Taylor showed us the apartment above it all, and we were like, “Wow, this is going to be amazing!”

Strayhorn: It definitely felt like adult summer camp, you know? It was sort of our first venture into what’s next. Like, we’d been quarantining and barely leaving the house, so it felt like being shot out of a cannon, going across the country and then working [laughs] but the process itself, we were full of gratitude, and it felt so nice to quarantine again at Bear Creek.

Enscoe: And it was very mutual, I felt like. Ryan was very happy to be getting back into the studio. We were working with masks pretty much all the time, except for when we were recording vocals in an isolated room by ourselves, so we kind of actually got to know Ryan with a mask on his face.

Shepherd: Yeah, it’s funny, Ryan messaged us recently, and he was like, “Oh, I just watched your music video, and wow, that’s what your faces look like!” [laughs]

Enscoe: One really cool thing that happened, I think as a result of it being during the pandemic, is that they had set up a listening space outside so that we could remain socially distanced and take off our masks for a second. We spent a lot of time listening through stuff outside.

Shepherd: Yeah, which was a cool way to listen to things as they’re being formed.

Enscoe: Ryan has this beautiful dog named Lexi, who’s like–

Shepherd: Oh, angel dog.

Enscoe: I think he got her from a reservation. She’s a very specific kind of breed that you can only find in one place, and she just loves fetch. I have so many memories of listening to our tracks while throwing a ball.

Shepherd: It was pretty idyllic.

Enscoe: Especially after the pace of going across the United States in, I think it was ten days, and all the twists and turns, it was amazing to finally be in one place working very diligently for another two weeks.

I know a number of these songs have been in your live set for some time, and also, the EP divides up evenly so that each of you sings two songs. How did you go about picking the track list?

Shepherd: That was an interesting process. We had this arsenal from songs we would play out a lot that were fan favorites to just demos that we had roughly put together that we hadn’t even arranged or anything yet, so we sent–I think there were 15 or 16 songs.

Enscoe: [laughs] Yeah, it was a lot.

Shepherd: We sent this big folder to Ryan, and he talked about the songs that instantly sort of grabbed him, and then it was sort of a collaboration. Originally, we were planning to do five songs, ’cause that’s more of a typical length of an EP, but it’s funny, because we like to keep our band very democratic. I think what’s super important to us is that all three of our voices have a chance to really be in the spotlight and be supported by the other two people. 

Generally, when you listen to our songs, whoever’s singing lead was the main writer of the song, so we wanted to have something that was very representational of all three of our voices, but we were afraid we only had time for five songs–“Hurricane” was the song that we were on the fence about recording. It’s a lot moodier and it didn’t quite, I guess, fit the atmosphere of the other songs, but I’m so glad we decided to do it because it adds this different color and dimension, and I think it helps look at us all in this holistic way.

I don’t see us doing an album where we don’t all have the same amount of songs. When we’re making setlists for our live shows, it’s not always entirely like, “You have three, you have three, you have three,” but it’s almost that, ’cause it’s very important to us.

Enscoe: Our songs tend to come in triplets too. I think we usually come up with songs in threes. I don’t know why.

The next song that’s coming out is “Spellbound,” which is a Regina track. Tell me about when that song was written, and what sparked it.

Strayhorn: “Spellbound” started from an experience that I had–a confusing relationship experience that didn’t go very well and felt like ghosting. The song was written about that confusing moment right after a romance fizzles out, and you’re like, “Wait! I thought this was something completely different than what it turned out to be.” I brought the lyrics and the melody to Sydney and Adrian, and we all worked on it and edited it together.

Something that I particularly love about this song is it kind of exemplifies for me how art can be like alchemy, where the beginnings of the song were from one circumstance, and from that, we’ve gotten to connect with our audience so much. A lot of the time, when we’re playing it live, we’ll say, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever been ghosted!” And like, half of the audience will raise their hand, because it’s such a big conversation point. And then I’ll also say, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever been the ghost,” and half of the people will raise their hands, ’cause most of us have been ghosts. What I love particularly about this song is that it’s given us so much connection to other people out of a circumstance where I was feeling disconnected from someone.

We filmed the music video at this historic estate called the Lyman Estate in Waltham, Massachusetts, and we’re playing out this ghost story, and at one point while we were filming, I turned to Sydney, and I said, “Art is amazing. Like, I’m so happy I’m not even with this person that I wrote the song about initially because this is so much better.” [laughs] You get the chance to act out your feelings in this particular way, in this grand, historic mansion.

You have these songs where one person will start the idea and bring it to the group, so from there, what is it like building on it?

Enscoe: It’s my favorite thing in the world, honestly. I love supporting the seed of someone else and adding another layer to it that deepens the meaning and helps explain certain things. But I mean, it kind of changes. I feel like our method can wander a little bit. A lot of times, we’ll get together, whoever kind of wrote the majority of the lyrics will sing some ideas, and then we’ll just jam on it a little bit. Often we’ll go through the lyrics and be like, “This moment didn’t really make sense to me,” or, “Can you explain that?” We might change some of the lyrics. 

Shepherd: Right, I feel like the lyric work is very personal, and then the music work is very sort of emotional and things evolve very fast. It’s cool because as the person who is bringing in the song, it instantly makes you look outside of just your perception of what you wrote and hear it how other ears are hearing it. You know, you’re seeing the same blue, but that color resonates with a different part of you. I think we’re super lucky ’cause we have three people with very different skill sets and different brains, and once we do throw a lot of paint at the wall, we have something that is very distinctly Bandits, but also undefinable in all other ways.

Enscoe: It took us a while to get to the point where we felt comfortable being the outside voices for each other.

Shepherd: Yeah, because it’s very vulnerable. We all understand the vulnerability of coming at two people being like, “Hey, this is the thing that I’m thinking in my heart and my soul, and let’s sort of beat it up and tear it apart a little bit and put it back together.” [laughs] It’s hard, and it’s emotional, and we’re three very highly sensitive people, but we’ve been a band for a long time, and I think we’ve really learned how to communicate in constructive ways. It’s still not perfect, and we still definitely butt heads on things. I feel like especially Adrian and I butt heads sometimes. We’re a couple, and we don’t fight that much outside of the band, but when we’re working on music, [laughs] sometimes we have very strong opinions that are very different. It’s always a learning process.

Enscoe: It’s wonderful, though. I love that we come at our songs from such different perspectives because I always feel like that tension creates something that none of us could have ever imagined.

As part of the release for the EP, you have something called the New Song Fund, and part of that is offering custom singing telegrams for people who donate to you. What has it been like writing in that mode?

Strayhorn: It’s been such a surprising joy. We have always loved to write songs for ourselves that were sort of kooky, or in a very distinct style that’s not necessarily Bandits. We’ll be like, “This is gonna be like a bossa nova song. This is gonna be an 80s punk song,” or whatever–we’ve done it amongst ourselves, so it’s really fun to strengthen that and share with other people.

Personally, I’ve been surprised by the depth of feeling and giving that some of the singing telegrams offer. Like, we don’t put any stipulations on the telegram. We’ll make a telegram about anything for anyone, and we’ve had people who’ve approached us about making a telegram because their friend just passed away, and they wanted a song to honor them. We’ve written songs for people’s parents to say, “I appreciate you. Happy Birthday.” We’ve had people say, “My partner has been struggling, and I just want to give a song to say that I love them.”

Shepherd: Yeah, and when the election was happening, we had some grassroots political people hire us to do some telegrams for some progressive candidates in North Carolina.

Strayhorn: And that was amazing!

Enscoe: What’s crazy is, we’ve always been a very people-person kind of band. We love adventuring, we love traveling, we love meeting people. That was the whole busking connection for us in the first place. We made so many interesting experiences and friends from just being out in public playing our songs, and when the pandemic hit, we were really deprived of the ability to get to know somebody on the spot. What the singing telegrams have provided us with is a way to kind of get to know somebody in a similar way. Like, a stranger that we don’t know, we’re suddenly writing a song for, and at the end of it, we feel like we know something about them. It’s a really magical experience.

As people hopefully get vaccinated and we start to shift out of hunkering down and being isolated, what are you most looking forward to about the rest of the year?

Strayhorn: Well, I don’t know how quickly we’ll get back to this–I don’t know if it’ll be within the next year–but I will never take for granted hugging strangers after shows ever again. I love meeting somebody and giving them a big hug and talking about the music, and then learning about them. A lot of the time, the people who come who are fans become friends because we have the most amazing people come to our shows, and we’re like, “Who are you?” I think that’s the thing that I miss the most, is the post-show getting-to-know-you.

Shepherd: I totally feel that. For me, I want to travel again. Like, having that freedom of motion and the inspiration that comes with being in a lot of different places–I miss that so much, and I’m so excited to play new places and meet people in new places. So, yeah, getting back on the road, really.

Enscoe: Yeah, that’s what I was gonna say. I really miss adventuring, but I’m thankful to the last year for what it’s taught us about what we can do without that. I think that now that we know those things, we can combine them in new and exciting ways in a hopefully-post-pandemic world. It’s pushed our boundaries to figure out how to make a really interesting livestream, or how we can communicate with people across the world. That’s been an amazing journey, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how we use those going forward as things kind of return to normal–what new dreams we can cook up with these skills that we’ve learned.

“Spellbound” being kind of a magic-y track–for each of you, if you could do any one magic trick, what would it be?

Enscoe: I would like to breathe underwater, ’cause then–I mean, think about the places you could go.

Shepherd: I remember seeing–was it David Blaine last year who flew around with a bunch of balloons? [laughs] I think that’s what I would want. Whatever he did with those balloons. Like, flew across–

Enscoe: No, he just went so high. He went to the height of, like, two Mount Everests on balloons.

Shepherd: Yeah, something like that. Flying and balloons.

Strayhorn: I’d want to rob a bank. [laughs] Just getting away with–

Shepherd: [laughs] Pulling a fast one!

Strayhorn: Yeah, I think I’d rob a bank, and I’d keep some of the money, but mostly, I’d make my own record label and I’d hire all my friends.

[all laugh] 

It’s a very Bandits answer!

Strayhorn: It is! It is.

Enscoe: In my mind, I picture you having a hole in your pocket that you just carry into the bank, and then–gold bars.

Shepherd: Like a cartoon? Yeah. [laughs]


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