During their sophomore year at UVM, Trafton and Genauer had a weekly Wednesday gig at the club Middle Earth. It was there that their following developed and by early 1993, they were playing bars and frat houses throughout the UVM area. Soon the two guitarists were looking for a rhythm section to round out the band. Trafton knew bassist Erik Glockler from growing up in Maine and invited him to come to Burlington to join the band. Luke Smith was Genauer’s friend and dorm mate and was tapped to play drums. The band’s first show as a four-piece was at the Blarney Stone in Burlington in late fall 1993.
Genauer: It took a while for the band to become a cohesive unit, frankly, we sucked for a while.
Trafton: Because Reid and I had one level of communication, adding two people into the mix along with musical styles and approaches became a tough adjustment, so much so that we almost scrapped it in the summer of 1993. Although we were undefined, Reid and I wrote music but weren’t sure about where things would go. So in the summer of 1993, we set up as a band in Luke’s fraternity house in Burlington for the summer and made that the home base for practicing and helped the band develop our sound in preparation for the fall and kept on going.
After solidifying as a band and establishing a live sound, they turned to the studio. The band recorded and independently released their first two albums, 1995’s Lore and 1998’s Weightless in Water.
Trafton: The recording of Lore made it all real and in 1994 we spread out like Phish did, playing locally, then statewide and regionally. We would travel to the smallest bars in the Northeast Kingdom and have the entirety of those in attendance shift to the bar while we played, but when we played Sweet Home Alabama they all came rushing over before going back to the bar during our originals. We played college towns like Middlebury, St. Johnsbury, Brattleboro and Dartmouth, then throughout Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont before recording Lore and debuting the album at Paradise in Boston during January of 1994.
Genauer: Having a professional sound system helped – we rented our first “professional” sound system at an SAE fraternity party. I think the board tape we got from that gig was the first time we listened back and felt like – “wow, we are a band.” I remember distinctly listening to Dance and feeling elated by the notion that we had moved from being a duo into a full-fledged band.
We wound up doing the album at Dan Archer’s studios, where Lawn Boy and Rift were recorded. We felt privileged and excited to work with Dan as he was a pro. In addition to the Phish albums, he had made dozens of other albums. He really understood both the art and science of making a record. We had a nice collection of songs, and came out with a couple great records, or at least a good representation of the band. Lore was a big album for us and took off like wildfire. It was well received by the fans. We took pride in putting it together. I remember the CDs arriving at Paradise the night of the CD release show; it was the first time we saw the package. It was like Christmas times ten.
The band was signed to Mammoth Records in 1998. Mammoth subsequently folded before what was to be their major label debut, Great Long While, could be released. The album, which was produced by Nile Rodgers, was ultimately independently distributed after a long delay in 2000. It would prove to be the last album to feature Genauer.
Genauer: Great Long While was our major label debut on Mammoth Records which was owned by Disney. This label had Seven Mary Three and Squirrel Nut Zippers and sought out underground bands to bring to the next level. There was a great deal of interest in us from our first two albums and with the recording industry peaking alongside our buzz, we took the one of several opportunities to record that we felt would give us the best shot. In hindsight, it contributed to a new kind of stresses on the band that we hadn’t dealt with before.
There were a lot of people stepping into the picture from management, financials, engineers and Nile Rogers who had produced Madonna’s Like a Virgin album and worked with David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Stevie Ray Vaughan. His track record was awe-inspiring but it wasn’t the best fit and that too added to the stress. My recollection of recording this album was through a “fog of war.” We went over-budget, and after one and a half years of trying to get the album out, Mammoth collapsed before the release. This album was for me the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’m proud of the songs and the recording but it wasn’t like the other two. My memory of those sessions of that time in my life and frankly the sonic quality of the record are all a little harsh.
Despite their rough spots in the studio the band was able to forge on and become a formidable force on the live concert circuit. A relentless touring schedule and sharp focus on creating a powerful live show allowed Strangefolk to become a formidable force on the live concert circuit. Their growing stature led to the first Strangefolk festival, which they dubbed Garden of Eden, founded in 1996. Genauer considered the festival a “pep rally,” for the band and a way to connect with their most dedicated followers. Held in Eden, Vt. the Garden of Eden Festival became their signature annual event.
Genauer: Some festivals are 50 percent diehards and the rest of the concertgoers just want to check it out and see what the scene is all about. For Garden of Eden it was 99 percent diehards and a much smaller percentage of people came just to check out the scene. It created a really intense and really joyous experience for everybody, a central sense of purpose. Looking back on them, they were tent poles throughout our career, exciting events and the culmination of each year and everything that we were trying to accomplish. I think that’s the way the fans remember them – with enthusiasm and fond memories. They were kind of shining spots and memories for the band and the fans. Those Edens were everything we had hoped and dreamed for and more.
The same year as the inaugural Garden of Eden Festival saw Strangefolk venture out west for the first time for a run of concerts in places they had never before played.
Genauer: We had a sense of adventure and knew it would be a challenge at best, because the first couple times we tried doing it, talent buyers didn’t know who we were and it was hard to string together dates that made sense in terms of routing and travel. Over time it got progressively better. By the time we started going out west, there might have been a few hiccups but it was more smoothed over. It was intoxicating to go to San Francisco, Portland and other west coast towns and have crowds turn out and in some cases freak out.
In San Francisco the first time we sold out The Great American Music Hall – I can’t think of a more intoxicating situation, playing all the way across the country in what was at the time a foreign city for me. I found it to be a magical city with the Haight-Asbury scene having influenced so much of the music I was informed by. Going to California felt really purposeful, like we were succeeding. We put a lot of blood sweat and tears to have those moments so it was all the sweeter for having set out to do that and have it come to life in front of you, it was really rewarding. It’s not like we were Elton John or anything, we weren’t superstars, we had simply cracked through some layers, poked our heads out for the first time, and it was great.
The band members’ many musical influences played an integral role in the formation of Strangefolk’s songwriting and what would become their signature sound. In their idols they also saw the importance of honing their chops on stage and building a community of fans.
Trafton: In high school in the late 1980s, I was heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and the Grateful Dead. Those were the main influences when the foundation was built. Later, I was influenced especially by Phish and the Grateful Dead, particularly due to their taping policies and that directly spawned Strangefolk. When I was in high school a UVM buddy sent my friends a care package with some Phish tapes and that led to my love of Phish.
I recall the life-changing moment of going jogging and listening to You Enjoy Myself for the first time on my old Walkman. I ran like Forrest Gump when I heard it, especially during the exhilarating transition from the orchestrated part to the open funk jam. My first show was at Townshend Family Park, 6/16/90. Although I’m a guitar player, I actually reacted more to Jon’s [Fishman] drumming simply due to the complexity of his drumming on some songs. Esther is an example – I just loved his sound on it. Of course, there were amazing guitar gymnastics that I was able to witness front row at shows at The Front, Redstone Hall and random venues that were nothing more than, in some cases, 100 person shows. Phish stayed connected and energized, they hadn’t gone into the loop jams yet and stayed focused and meaningful. I remember seeing them in Amherst a few years later and they had blown up and it felt different, like the experience with them wasn’t the same with everyone in on it, so I didn’t see them much for a few years. The scene had just changed so much and I felt disconnected. But I came back to them and attended The Great Went in August 1997.
Genauer: Phish definitely had an impact on our music and everything we did when we started Strangefolk and they became part of our musical lexicon. Most importantly Phish gave us courage – they were ingrained in the Burlington scene and they were succeeding by their own will and under their own rules.
My influences at the time, and in many ways to this day, are Crosby Still & Nash, the Grateful Dead, The Band, Neil Young, The Beatles, Lyle Lovett, the entire 70s generation of singer songwriters. In particular I love Paul Simon, Robert Hunter and John Lennon. I aspire to summon their lyrical prowess.
Reflecting their influences and inspirations, Strangefolk has covered a number of wide ranging selections in recent years at their current festival, Strangecreek, including Handshake Drugs by Wilco and Bittersweet Symphony by The Verve among many others.
Erik Glockler: I love Strangecreek because we get to come back to a familar, cool setting each year. It feels like [festival organizer] Wormtown has learned to run a very organized, comfortable place for all of us to congregate. In the past we have played as The Tells, which is basically us covering one of our favorite bands for an entire show. We’ve done Led Zeppelin, Raconteurs and the Grateful Dead. Now it’s The Tells playing Strangefolk! We realized that we really weren’t playing enough of our own songs.
The band also developed a deep and eclectic catalog of original tunes with each band member contributing to the songwriting process.
Glockler: Anchor was a song I had kicking around for a while. It has a very laid back disco beat that was hard to come up with. As with any song, it’s interesting to search for and find different grooves and feels that may be different from what you had originally written.
Luke Patchen Montgomery: Sweet New England came from the constant drives I would make from Southern New York to New England and it became a song that captured the anticipation of playing music upon arrival
Glockler: I loved the Juicy Fruit commercial from the 80’s and joked around that I wanted to play it. Eventually we did. Fat Albert was a fun idea as well. We don’t take it all too seriously –they’re just fun nostalgic songs.
Montgomery: Lucy Down talks about my experience in Strangefolk, so much that “Lucy Down” and “Strangefolk” are interchangeable in the song’s lyrics.
Trafton: Gone Fishin’ is a classic, a song that we retired for a little while and started to open up the jam a bit upon un-retirement. Come on Down is a song Erik and I wrote, it’s like a comfortable pair of slippers.
Check back next Wednesday for the second part of Mason’s feature which looks at Genauer’s departure, the subsequent lineup changes, Trafton’s battle with cancer and the possibility of Reid and Jon performing together again.