Dietrich Strause, the son of a Lutheran preacher from Lancaster, PA comes home and comes clean on his new album How Cruel That Hunger Binds. The Boston-based multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter, known for putting his own spin on classic Americana, has cultivated something of a cult following in the New England area. Last year, Strause announced a Kickstarter campaign to finance his new album, which is produced by Zachariah Hickman (Josh Ritter’s Royal City Band.) The result is a polished, rich, golden-era masterpiece that conjures images of a seemingly simpler time and bygone eras of Joanie Cunningham, station wagons, and sock hops. Strause has noted that the album felt like a coming home of sorts for him with its almost hymnal like overtones and diverse instrumentation (he studied music and played horn in an R&B band when he was just fifteen.) Recently, Strause sat down with Glide to talk the American dream, religion, and the sharp contrast of lyrics and music on his latest release.
What is that sound, that almost roar, for lack of a better word, that comes in on the first track (“The Beast Within”) of How Cruel That Hunger Binds?
Electric guitar, atmospheric stuff, wurlitzer with a delay pedal. But also on that song we have clarinets , flutes, me playing acoustic guitar, and I think that is it for that track.
You decided to go in an entirely different direction for this album than your past albums, correct?
My last albums had horns on them, but not that much. The genre I was interested in for my last album was different than this album. Stylistically we tried for more orchestrated songs, less of the folk Appalachia, more of the American songbook, 40s and 50s big band era orchestration style.
That’s funny you mention that, because when I was listening to it I made this note that said “Joanie Cunningham.” The album reminds me of a simpler time but is so rich with imagery. It got me wondering things like, are you religious, making a political statement, or did you go somewhere and have this Justin Vernon moment and hole yourself up in Maine with a bunch of buds? I would love to hear that story.
Yeah, so I go to a writers retreat every year in the middle of Lake Winnipesaukee. I go with about 12 other people – some from the Boston area – everyone gets their own cabin on the lake and most of the songs came from that. The rest came from last winter. My dad is a Lutheran preacher so the language and the vocabulary and the well I had to draw from came from that world a little bit. In term of topics, I think that you can write about love without sounding like a puppy dog and one of those ways is through religion and sex, and if you skirt those issues you sound like a puppy dog.
You mentioned with this album you were trying to move away from the country boy image that people had painted of you. Can you elaborate on that?
I think this album was a stretch for me in that the last album was…I call it unashamed nostalgia porn. It was dripping in nostalgia for folk songs and the American west. Since then I have been a little more cautious about going down that folk road again. I think some people would hear this album as a departure but for me it is like coming home. I went to music school and I played trumpet in an R&B band so it feels a little bit like I came back to the things I really love.
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This album feels a little bit like you were going for the embodiment of the golden era, were you?
We did not intend for it to be Golden Era. it is a different kind of nostalgia. Americana aesthetic seems to ignore gospel in a lot of ways. I mean there are a lot of people who don’t. A lot of arrangements on this album are hymn like. There is a lot of the complex harmony you would hear in church music it makes it a little less of the western nostalgia and more of the suburban nostalgia.
How did you come to the title of the album? It is such a gut punch.
I wrote “Boy Born to Die” during when we had that crazy winter, I would force myself to walk to the grocery store and bookstore. I read three or four Shakespeare tragedies in a few weeks. It was a little harder to title it this time. What I usually do is circle words and images and see if they pop up in other songs. I think that phrase “how cruel the hunger binds” is that juxtaposition encapsulated how we need to destroy to survive. There are these cycles in love and violence and human interaction, how we treat each other in love, how we treat each other on the subway. Hunger is a cycle. You can go to bed full, we are still going to wake up hungry in the morning. Lying in your arms is what that cycle is about even though it comes from “Boy Born to Die”.
You did a Kickstarter campaign to finance the album. Did that put a little more pressure on you?
Oh God yeah. It was done in May. I needed it to be done before the writer’s retreat or I wouldn’t enjoy it. I did it so everyone would have downloads for summer.
What was it like working with Zack Hickman and Sam Kassirer (members of Josh Ritter’s Royal City Band), and how did that come about?
Zack and I have been good friends years and he produced the album and Sam owns studio. I have played trumpet on a lot of albums Sam has produced over years and spent a lot of time at Great North (Kassirer’s studio) over the years. We wanted someone who could play keys. We were all good friends so we wanted to spend a week together making music.
Dietrich Strause’s How Cruel That Hunger Binds is out now. To order the album and find out more check out dietrichstrause.com.
Cover photo by Rose Cousins