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Them Coulee Boys Find Theme On New Album, Community In Eau Claire

Them Coulee Boys play The Castle Theatre Wednesday night
Them Coulee Boys play The Castle Theatre Wednesday night

Them Coulee Boys frontman Soren Staff wanted the Eau Claire, Wis.-based band’s third album to hang together thematically. Like many bands, their first album was everything they had written prior to forming; their second was mainly leftovers.

Staff said because songs on the new album “Die Happy” were written around the same time, lyrics and sonic ideas lent themselves to telling a single story.

“We have always listened to albums all the way through,” said Staff. “It was important to us that if you sat down and listened to this record, it was going to be an experience and come together thematically.”

That's apparent musically from the first note on “Pray You Don’t Get Lonely.” The band with roots in folk and bluegrass known for foot-stomping good times opened the album subdued.

“The record before this (Dancing in the Dim Light) literally starts with stomps and claps,” said Staff. “We knew we could get to that point on this record, but we didn’t necessarily want to give it to people right away. We’ve always been a band that has strived to be very dynamic, almost cinematic. Like you build stuff up and tear it down. That was the process of ‘Pray You Don’t Get Lonely’ being the first one. It’s very sparse and contemplative.”

“Hand of God, Pts. 2&3”, the second-to-last track on the 11-song album doesn’t evolve into foot stomps, but it is a glorious, driving pop-rock song with hints of folk and bluegrass. Staff said it is related to the album’s minute and a half long second track, “Hand of God, Pt. 1.” Another subdued song.

“We kind of saw it as something that was going to give an end to the story we trying to tell. ‘Part 1’ leads into another song called ‘Only One.’ ‘Part 1' introduces this musical theme we play on the piano. These three chords we play at certain times during the record … there’s like a D/F-Sharp and minor in D we play in three different songs in sequence. We wanted to introduce this theme at the beginning of the record to show we’re going to tell a story, and this is all connected,” said Staff.

You can hear that progression reintroduced at the end of “Pts. 2&3.

“’Hand of God, Pts. 2&3’ was one of the first songs in the recording session I had an idea on, but it was one of the last songs we finished. That’s our favorite song to play live,” said Staff.

Them Coulee Boys is the latest in a string of, well, string bands that have played Bloomington-Normal in the past year that use folk and bluegrass as a base. But unlike like peers Trampled by Turtles (btw, TBT leader Dave Simonett produced “Die Happy”) Good Morning Bedlam and Peoria’s Way Down Wanderers, Them Coulee Boys' overt embracing of pop and rock seem much less wedded to that traditional base. Staff said it’s intentional as band members that include his mandolin-playing brother Jens, banjo, harmonica and piano player Beau Janke, and bass/percussion player Neil Krause didn’t grow up listening to traditional bluegrass or folk.

“It was something we discovered and co-opted on ourselves,” said Staff. “I think gives us a ‘you’re grounded in where you came from but you’re not restrained by it in any way.’ We’re really excited to be doing different sounds and song structures.”

Staff said TCB are intentional about calling Eau Claire their home base. The city of just under 70,000 located about 80 minutes east of Minneapolis-St. Paul is in a metro area just over 160,000. Not tiny, but not exactly Nashville, Austin, or Portland in either size or reputation. Staff said that may be changing.

“We’re all from small towns in Wisconsin,” said Staff. “And Eau Claire has set itself up as a music city. The music they make here has been getting national and worldwide attention. They have wonderful festivals and venues, and it’s a town that cares about music.”

That goes a long way for many musicians.

“These days its not about having some gigantic city that can give you the right press, it’s about having people that are excited to come listen to you and are going to tell other people. We use Eau Claire as our home base because we know three to four times a year, we can have the time or lives playing a couple shows here. Then we go to other places and build it that way too. So we’re just happy to be in Eau Claire and I think it’s a place we’re going to stay,” said Staff.

Them Coulee Boys and Fireside Collective play the Castle Theatre in Bloomington Wednesday night.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.