The gritty urban sprawl of Phoenix, Arizona might not be your typical launching pad for a band sporting bluegrass instruments and four part harmonies, but Haymarket Squares aren’t romanticizing nothing. The city with an identity of many a political mishap, is the ideal locale for a “punkgrass” band that sparks informative lyrics, fast tempos and songs about relevant topics including the border crisis, marijuana reformation and the legalization of gay marriage. There are no sultry compositions about mountains, moonshine and blue eyed girls here, but instead a punk spirited sound and vision that serves as a “voice for the people.” Since their origin in 2009, the four piece (now five) have played more than 500 shows in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and have opened for the likes of Greensky Bluegrass, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Meat Puppets and will be playing the main stage at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival this March.
The Haymarket Squares’ new album, Light It Up, is due for release February 26, 2016. It’s a 12-song summation of the band’s musical influences and lyrical concerns, with tasty dollops of polka, gospel and Latin percussion mixed into the group’s signature punkgrass sound. Each band member contributes lyrically and composition wise, contributing further to the communal voice of the band and its mission of music for everyone and fuck the Status Quo
Glide is proud to premiere “High Demand” off Light It Up, (below) a swing style number that cries out on a topic not often spoken in song- private prisons.
“High Demand” is a song about the private prison industry in the United States, and a critique of incarceration in general, “says multi-instrumentalist Mark Sunman. ” I was inspired to write this song after learning about the private prison industry through different news articles and documentaries. In this country, private companies own many prisons. To keep profits high, they must keep the beds full. In order to keep the beds full, they lobby for tough mandatory minimum sentences.”Corporations write laws and pay legislators to pass those laws. That is our system of government, the oligarchy we live in. The long sentences handed out to nonviolent drug offenders are a result of corrections corporations writing laws and dictating to legislators and judges how to do their jobs, all so that the stock prices of private prison companies will go up. In other words, they want to make prisoners be in “High Demand,” a valuable commodity to be exploited for profit. This profit comes from our tax dollars. They take our tax dollars to confine our people and turn a profit with it.”
“The private prison companies are not the only ones making money off the backs of the imprisoned poor,” continues Sunman. “Cops, corrections officers, judges and lawyers get paid a decent wage to keep the cycle going, even if they oppose it. The whole system targets the poor, keeping them in a cycle in which their lives and bodies become property of the state and the corporations running the state.”
“This is one of those things that is so infuriatingly awful that I knew it had to become a song. A bouncy C-minor swing seemed to be a good fit for all the rage I had to pack into three minutes worth of couplets, so I tried to lay out my case in a fun and interesting way, playing the devastating facts in the lyrics against the carefree attitude and melody of the verses. It’s also really fun to dance to.”
“We spent a good deal of time recording “High Demand” and it paid off. “adds Sunman. ” One thing that makes this song different from all the others on the album is the blazing clarinet, provided by special guest Chris Hoskins. The harmonies on the bridge and chorus were refined during recording and sound amazing. I remember sitting at the piano in the studio between takes, going over harmonies with everybody, and sometimes making small changes at the last second to get exactly what I wanted. Whenever I listen to the final mix, it just makes me smile, especially the conclusion: “Death to every corporation that profits from incarceration.”
Since we got such thought-provoking answers about the premiere track we needed to hear more from Haymarket Squares about their new album,punk-grass sound and more otherwise “entertaining” topics…
Many of the songs on Light It Up have been played live numerous times- was recording this new album rather easier than maybe prior efforts due to the familiarity with the material?
We were probably as familiar with the material on this album as we were with the songs on any of the previous albums, but we worked much harder to get everything to sound just right.Our producer and engineer, Bob Hoag, is great at suggesting/finding/fixing the little things that help a recording really shine.
Recording Light it Up was a lot of fun because it was a mix of old and new songs. The old songs were pretty easy to record and didn’t take much time at all. The newer songs, although we had played them live several times, took a little more time. We were arranging harmonies and instrumental parts down to the last second.
One of the things that standouts apart from your lyrics are the muti-part harmonies. How have you guys excelled on that and what advice would you give to acoustic/string bands on this art?
Vocal harmonies are one of the most important to aspects of our sound. Our mandolin player, Mark Sunman, was a music major in college, so he’s the one who arranges the harmonies.
Sometimes they just come naturally, because Marc Oxborrow (bass) and John Luther (guitar) are great singers and can just pull harmonies out of thin air without even trying. The harmonies usually start that way, then Sunman will refine them so they are perfect. We’ve been trying to improve our vocal harmony game, and the new album shows those efforts have paid off.
We think more bands should utilize vocal harmonies. So often you see a band of 4, 5 or 6 people, they play a 45-minute set, and only one of them sings. It’s not hard to come up with simple harmonies to throw in every now and then to spice up a song. You don’t have to be a music major. You just decide where you want harmonies, figure out what chord is being played at that moment, figure out what note the lead singer is singing, then pick a different note from that chord and sing that note. It gets more complicated, but that’s where it starts, and anybody can do it.
Haymarket Squares have always had a keen and witty eye to the “absurdity” of the Status Quo. Although progression has come in recent years – your songs have developed a sort of unobtrusive rallying cry. Where do you see your music lyrically and its purpose for the listener?
Our lyrics typically point at some absurdity or injustice in our society, and/or our feelings about that absurdity or injustice. Our band sometimes feels like the cheerleaders for the activists doing social justice work, and we are okay with that. Somebody should be cheering them on. We also feel that our lyrics are a way to bring people together who believe in equality. A lot of people feel the way we do but sometimes are afraid to say it or don’t know how to say it. We want to empower people and the idea that it’s okay to stand up for yourself and your neighbor and against status quo. It is a far-flung hope that our lyrics will actually change anybody’s mind, but we don’t discount the possibility. If enough people raise a voice to stand up for the poor, to defend immigrants and minorities, and to bash the idea of the authority of money, that steers us toward progress, and we want to be a part of that.
You mentioned that – “We’ll hear or read something on the news that pisses us off, and a few days/weeks/months later, a new song arrives,” – where do you go for your news and how soon after hearing something disturbing does the pen hit the paper? What has been your most recent new song from the news?
We stay current on what is happening in the world mostly through NPR and the internet, because corporate TV news is a joke. Sometimes a song will come right away, and other times, an idea can fester for years before it becomes a song. One recurring theme on the album is the border and how our country views and treats immigrants. Immigration has always been a big issue here in Arizona, and two songs, “Horrible Inventions” and “Let’s Jump the Border,” are devoted exclusively to that. A third song, “Heaven,” mentions the issue by suggesting we should “smash the borders.” As a band, we realize that borders are imaginary lines and that immigrants are people. The land we live on used to belong to Mexico, and before that to Native Americans. Even the name of our state, Arizona, is based on a Spanish interpretation of a Native American name for the land. The idea that it “belongs” to the descendants of white Europeans and that we have a right to keep other people out is idiotic. There is an enforced role reversal on who is the native and who is the immigrant, and we’ve got it backwards.
The latest issue that we cover is in a brand new song that is not on the album, and that is this awful trend of extremists killing for their own perverted idea of God. The recent attack on a Planned Parenthood location solidified what the song would be about.
You recently dropped a song from your set-list that was speaking out for gay marriage legalization. Do you miss that song at all or does that feel to let it go? What song/cause do you hope to drop next?
We still play the song “Opinions” occasionally, even though we are very happy that it is irrelevant. It defends gay marriage, which is now thankfully the law of the land. Before we play the song, we often joke about how the song caused the Supreme Court to make the right decision. We would love to have“High Demand” be obsolete next.
You guys choose a cover of “Fortunate Son” for the new album. Can you talk about why you picked a CCR cover and why this one?
CCR is a working person’s band, and we like to think we are as well. Like Woody Guthrie, standing up for and speaking about issues that are important to those of us who must work to thrive, as opposed to those who just shuffle around money and people like chess pieces. The song “Fortunate Son” really hits it home, and the disdain for the ruling class expressed in the song is something we and our fans can relate to. It’s also just a really fun and catchy song, and it’s fast rock beat easily turned in a fast punkgrass beat.
Your music has often been described as punk-grass? Do you still ride with that label and what else do you see it as? What I admire about Haymarket is you guys have string instrument but have never bent into long winded jammy stuff other string bands sometimes jump into. What has enabled you to keep the song first?
Although our sound has been getting more sophisticated lately, we still call ourselves punkgrass. As our writing and playing improve, our sound may be approaching newgrass with some swing and some waltzes, but our lyrics have always been and will always be punk. That is, we stand up for people and the planet and stand against the oligarchy. We love (some) bands that can jam for hours on end, but that has never been us. Our strength is definitely in the songs. We’re good on the instruments and striving to get better, but we are far from the best instrumentalists out there. If we were virtuosos, it might be a different story.
Maybe in ten years we’ll run out of things to write about and we’ll have songs where we sing about love and trains for two minutes and jam for eight. For now, we just want to write good songs and keep them relatively short. Our first love is a great melody and some thought-provoking lyrics to go along with it.
People might be surprised to know a string band is out of Phoenix vs say Flagstaff or Tucson. Do you prefer to be big fish in a small pond in Phoenix so to speak? What other cities have you guys played in that have welcomed your sound?
People are often surprised we come from Phoenix, but that is usually due to our lyrics rather than our sound. Being one of the few gigging string bands in Phoenix does have it’s advantages. Nobody around here sounds like we do. Music fans and other bands find it refreshing to hear a band that has no drums or electric guitar, so it’s easy to grab people’s attention. However, that can also make us lazy because don’t have to improve our game to stand out from the pack, at least locally. It’s great to travel to areas where string bands are more common, because it forces us to see where we can improve. We’ve played many cities that have appreciated our sound, whether it is something they are used to hearing or not. Flagstaff, Tucson, San Diego, LA, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Albuqueque, Boulder, Ft. Collins and many others have all welcomed our punkgrass style.
On a final note- what is the biggest advantage for you of having a Luthier as a band member? What other talents does the band have that you want to share?
Mark Allred, our slide resonator player and luthier, is invaluable to the band. Not only does he build his own instruments, but he is great at fixing just about any little thing that goes wrong with our instruments or electronics. He is magician with wood, wire and sound. And his past life as an auto mechanic has come in handy more than once, too.
Marc Oxborrow’s abilities as a professional graphic designer have also been indispensable. He designs our album covers, merch, website and more. He’s just an all-around creative genius, musically, lyrically and visually.
As a professional yoga instructor, Mark Sunman tries to keep himself and the band from getting too stiff/sore/cranky on the road.
John Luther is our “people person.” On tour, after a show at a bar, when we are all ready to call it a night, John is still selling CDs and making friends and contacts that will help us next time we roll through town.
Jayson James is the most recent addition to the band, and his remarkable fiddle work has given the “grass” part of punkgrass more credibility. We jokingly call him our resident redneck, since he’s the band’s biggest fan of country music.
Band photos by Rachael Smith