There’s no bull coming out of the Bull City when it comes to Durham’s musical talents, and across all genres: Americana, folk, bluegrass, funk, and rock benders and blenders. Durham’s Hardworker will be trekking down to the Port City to play a benefit show for Walking Tall Wilmington on October 14 at Bottega Art and Wine Bar on North Fourth Street.
Originally an acoustic-folk duo, Sus Long (rhythm guitar, vocals) and Mike Conner (bass, banjo) decided to seek out a louder rock sound with the addition of guitarist Danny Nowell and vocalist Alex Treyz in 2015. An EP (2015) and a couple of singles later, they now have a full-length record, “Go Alone” (July 2017).
encore caught up with the Hardworker foursome to chat more about their latest output of art.
encore (e): Tell our readers about this jump from acoustic duo into a more rockin’ version of Hardworker.
Sus Long (SL): The duo lasted until I accepted an opening slot at a bigger local club without consulting Mike. We were playing around town at friends’ houses [and] small, quiet cocktail parties. But, when it came time to fill a room, we realized we should double-down and fill out the sound as well.
Mike Conner (MC): I was just beginning to learn and write on banjo at that time, but I’ve been a bass player for much longer. So, when I write songs, I often imagine them arranged, and I definitely was interested in playing with a drummer. That’s when we caught a vision for how our folk songs could become rock songs. So it was more of a quick decision.
SL: But to be clear: never accept gigs without consulting your songwriting partner.
MC: I think it worked out OK.
e: Sus and Mike, how has working with Danny and Alex directly impacted your music and process?
MC: Our process for writing songs usually begins privately and then becomes collaborative, as we think about live performance. Most of the songs on “Go Alone” began as voice memos that Sus and I sent back and forth on our phones, a banjo riff here, a vocal melody there. I did a lot of the musical arranging on my own, and Sus wrote all of the lyrics. With Danny and Alex in the band, I’m aware of our possibilities at the start of the writing process. I can write something I think Danny will really like, or a part that has Alex’s vocal texture and range in mind. We bonded a lot while recording at the studio, so our second album will likely be more collaborative earlier in the process.
SL: And it should also be said singing with Alex Treyz is like hitting the courts with Maria Sharapova for some doubles. Just having her up there next to me makes me a better performer.
e: Danny and Alex?
Danny Nowell (DN): For me, there really was no “process” before the band. I signed on without thinking before that show Sus mentioned accepting on a lark. I had barely been playing, much less writing or collaborating with anyone. So, like Mike mentioned, we’ve been moving our process from just adding instrumental or vocal parts to really building songs together, which I think usually creates our strongest work.
Alex Treyz (AT): Before joining up with Sus, Mike and Danny, I had been singing at the top of my lungs alone in my car while driving around Durham—likely alarming other drivers. I really missed singing with other people! When the opportunity arose to join the fledgling band at that first gig Sus mentioned, I leapt at the chance. Working with these three has introduced me to bands they love (Wilco, Snarky Puppy, Courtney Barnett), stretched me as a singer, and made me fall even more in love with music and performing.
e: It’s ironic this album is called “Go Alone,” as you all have come together to make this band and music. Tell us more about this name.
SL: “Go Alone” is taken from our first track “Kansas City.” The line is “I don’t wanna go alone.” As we looked at the lyrical threads that connect these songs, we saw a lot of loneliness, a lot of separation, and we recognized the irony of the whole record: 11 songs about isolation produced at a moment when we’re all finally, as a band, experiencing a lot of belonging with one another.
e: How does “Go Alone” reflect how far you’ve come since the first EP?
SL: For me I keep coming back to the magic of collaboration. I mostly pushed the EP through on my own, and it’s a pretty good little record. Since then, the four of us have become true partners, and we’ve been able to make something bigger and more beautiful than any one of us could have done on our own.
MC: A bad banjo player to a decent one.
e: Are there one or two songs you could tell us more about that you feel really capture where you are as a band at the moment (in sound, process, etc.)?
SL: “Kansas City” sums up so much of what we’ve been working on. The tiny banjo layered with thick synth bass, the work Alex and I do to sing with a special kind of synchronicity, and Danny lending that gritty, electric backbone. As far as taste and tradition go, it’s a weird foursome to find in the same band, but some of our best moments come out of a musical fusion that often seems like it just shouldn’t work.
MC: “Lazarus” is an important song to us. When we wrote it, I was participating in a creative writing group with some guys on North Carolina’s Death Row. I had recently preached my grandfather’s funeral, and I was in a class at divinity school on death and resurrection. So I had a lot of thoughts swirling around my mind on death and those condemned to die. Sus also was working at that time with women at a minimum security prison in Raleigh. We wrote “Lazarus” for them, to honor them and advocate for them. Musically, it came together during an early writing retreat with Danny where he added the guitar theme and solo.
e: You worked with a different studio and producer/engineer on this and a couple of singles since the first EP. How much has that come into play in terms of sound exploration and final product?
SL: We’ve been a band for about two-and-half years and have found every step of the process to have a steep learning curve. This has meant that our producers and engineers have taught us a lot about how to craft a mood…
MC: Or a vibe, as Bingham would say.
SL: Across each record.
As producers, David Wimbish and Alex Bingham brought two very strong and very different visions to these records—which is good. We like vision. And, of course, it was an incredible treat to be recorded by Mitch Easter (R.E.M., Ben Folds Five, Pavement) at the Fidelitorium.
e: Per ILM’s show to help benefit Walking Tall, how did you get on board with a fundraising show for them?
MC: Randy [Evans, founder,] and I met briefly in 2016 when we attended a licensing school to become local pastors in the United Methodist Church. Before we booked this show, I was unaware of Walking Tall, but I’m really glad this is the work Randy has chosen to do.
e: Is there anything else you’d like to add about “Go Alone” or the upcoming show?
MC: We paid for the recording and production of “Go Alone” with a Kickstarter platform. We realize this experience was in many ways a gift to us from those who believed in our art, so we are excited to give back a bit at the show. “Go Alone” will be available at the show as a CD, and folks can also listen to it on Spotify, Apple Music and Bandcamp.
SL: And you gotta come out if you want to hear Alex cover Robert Plant.