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The River has run dry. After playing together for nearly a decade, first as Pillage My Village and later as the Legendary River Drifters, Curtis Wallach, Suzanne Magnuson and their current bandmates in the River Drifters have simply run their course. And as timing would have it, they're just about to release a great new album. There've been a few bends along the way.
"It was a band where none of us were all that good on our instruments," declares Wallach about his previous band, Pillage My Village. "Although Suzanne shines in the Drifters, she really shined in that band because her voice was good and the rest of us sucked."
"Outside of, like, church choir and singing country songs with my dad, I had never done any music prior to Pillage My Village," adds Magnuson. "I lived right by the Clandestinos collective, so we would just go over there and have shows."
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Pillage My Village started in 2003, around the time that the wave of bands with the so-called gothic Americana sound was just beginning to crest. Wallach and Magnuson had formed the group, inspired by such locals as 16 Horsepower, Slim Cessna's Auto Club and Munly and the Lee Lewis Harlots, in addition to drawing inspiration from the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Warren Zevon. In the years that followed, Pillage My Village steadily garnered acclaim, but the tragic loss of its drummer, Beaumont Biggs, who took his own life in 2006, ultimately derailed the band.
"We got a new drummer and tried to keep things going from there," says Magnuson, "but it was never the same." To process their grief, the former members of Pillage My Village decided to write some new music in a different vein. "I think Pillage My Village was too jokey," observes Magnuson. "We could never take it to a point where we felt like we could take ourselves seriously. I think the age and life-experience thing, too, was a factor. We were a little older and more mature. Being cute and silly, you can only go so far. You outgrow that."
Magnuson first wrote a song with her friend Olivia Quintana, who had played bass in a bubblegum indie-pop band with Nelson Echeverry of the Haircut and was just coming back to playing guitar when she and Magnuson started collaborating. After they wrote one tune, they realized they wanted to enlist some other people to help flesh out the material. Wallach was a natural choice, as was Cyrus Green of PBR Street Gang, a friend of theirs from the punk scene. The new group started with a name that soon proved unsuitable.
"We initially called ourselves Malas Semillas — Bad Seeds," says Magnuson. "But everyone screwed it up all the time."
"And there was already a band you may have heard of," adds Wallace, "called the Bad Seeds." Soon enough, though, a name suggested itself. "Doo Crowder actually came up with the name Dirtier Harryer," Wallach continues. But Crowder seemed displeased with the band using that moniker, so the septet had to look further. "The Legendary River Drifters was more like, 'Screw it, let's pick a stupid Americana band name that no one can misspell,'" Magnuson explains. "It had a kind of ring to it, and it wasn't a foreign language. We thought it made us sound cocky in a funny way, because that's how we are. No one ever called us 'legendary,' but we're completely comfortable with that."
The band, which later dropped the "Legendary" from its name, has proven to be one of the most compelling and emotionally stirring of the acts that have cultivated the Americana sound over the past half-dozen years. Live, Magnuson sings with a mesmerizing conviction and power, and the band's elaborate musical arrangements, written with a deceptive simplicity, display a mastery of the art of dynamic songwriting with a subtle hand for detail. Magnuson brings the fire, and the band brings the vehicle for that fire to shine so brightly.
In 2009, the River Drifters released their first album, Into the Darkness. Consisting of material written before and after the band's lineup solidified, the record may have had a bit of a split identity. "On the first album, there were a lot of songs left over from before we had drums and bass," Magnuson points out. "The sound changed so much from that; I don't know that that's a real fair representation of what we've done since."
While that may be true, that first recording had all the hallmarks of what has made the River Drifters a noteworthy band: strong musical performances all around; songs in familiar musical styles like blues, Americana and rock; and the natural enthusiasm that exists between these people as collaborators.
And while dark subject matter often informs the lyrics, there is a playful spirit in the way the band performs together that is contagious. It's that energy that sees its fullest expression on the band's latest album, Dirtier Harryer. The cover of Dirtier Harryer has the face of Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolfman Photoshopped onto the body of Clint Eastwood in the final scenes of the film Dirty Harry. Wallach created the image as a joke, perfect for a band with a sense of humor and the ability to draw an audience in with the quality of its art. "I think my response was, 'If that's not the cover of the album, I quit,'" says Green with a chuckle. "Hopefully the Lon Chaney Jr. estate and Clint Eastwood are okay with it. We didn't ask permission.