Ten years ago, Zach Lupetin moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of a fabled promised land. Initially his hopes were directed at screenwriting and playwriting but, having played in bands since the age of 14, he also put up a Craigslist ad to find like-minded musicians.
Lupetin listed 16 instruments he wanted for the ensemble, a project that would bridge brass and string traditions and meld genres — folk, bluegrass, Dixieland jazz, New Orleans swing and a little bit of gospel — into a modern take on roots music. It was supposed to be a side gig. Fast forward to now: His eight-piece band, Dustbowl Revival, tours 200-plus days of the year and will release their fourth full-length, a self-titled album, on June 16 via Signature Sounds.
Dustbowl Revival have performed in Canada, Europe and even China, spending a month there in 2015 as part of the U.S. Embassy and Chinese Cultural Department Cultural Exchange program. Singer Liz Beebe says, “I kept pinching myself. I couldn’t believe we were playing in China.”
“People didn’t know what to make of us,” Lupetin says of the China shows. “They were used to either traditional instruments played by people in the community or DJs and boy bands from the pop machine.” The reception was polite at first. “Over there,” he says, “people are more conscious of being appropriate.” But with some coaxing and encouragement from dancers the band brought overseas, every show turned into a boot-stomping frenzy.
That quintessential live Dustbowl experience was captured on 2015’s With a Lampshade on, an album of songs recorded at the Troubadour and San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. A chance encounter with Dick Van Dyke at a wedding they played led to him starring in a music video for the album’s first single, “Never Had to Go.” The video has almost 4 million views to date. When people come to shows based solely on having seen that video, which Lupetin describes as “a little more squeaky clean than we really are,” they’re surprised when the band unfurls its range, most recently a turn toward soul, funk and R&B.
“We have been finding our own sound in the last couple of years as opposed to paying homage to certain eras or styles,” Lupetin says. It’s a direction he feels is captured well on The Dustbowl Revival. “When you’re playing live for a rabid audience, you want to give the party, upbeat energy, which we love. But the cool thing about this record is that our producer, Ted Hutt, challenged us to step back a bit and not show off, focus on really good songs and tell a story that means something to you.”
Before entering the studio, the band spent all of last December in their rehearsal space poring over songs and making stylistic tweaks with Hutt, the Flogging Molly guitarist turned Grammy-winning producer, who urged Lupetin to dig deep.
“Some of these songs are more emotional, raw and dark, and get to certain fears and parts of my life that I wouldn’t have explored otherwise,” Lupin says. There are quite a few love songs, but rather than write from a place of heartache, Lupetin wrote songs inspired by his fiancée, about things actually working out, like the Stax-inspired “Good Egg” and “The Story.” Finding someone you want to love forever also introduced some anxieties he hadn’t known before. “Got Over” tells an emotional story about a guy whose love is lost in a car accident. “There’s this fear that the person that you found could be taken from you,” he says. “God forbid, but when you really love someone, you think about that stuff.”
Beebe sings lead on many songs and harmonizes with Lupetin on the rest. She’s got some versatile, commanding chops. While she wrote the lyrics for only one song, “If You Could See Me Now,” she inserts herself into the stories Lupetin writes and sings them as if it’s her own experience.“My background is in acting,” she says, “so I literally make every song my own story when we’re performing it. People want you to give them a good time, but they want you to be real with them — and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Throughout the record, trumpeter Matt Rubin and trombonist Ulf Bjorlin add a dynamic swagger to the grooves provided by drummer Joshlyn Heffernan and bassist James Klopfleisch, accentuating the sexiness where it’s sultry and the darkness where it’s melancholy. “We’ve always wanted to push boundaries with instrumentation,” Lupetin says. “The trombone might play bass lines on folk tunes, and Daniel Mark on mandolin is playing almost these keyboard hits like in a hip-hop song.” Fiddler Connor Vance has harnessed his love of Jimi Hendrix, playing his instrument through a wah-wah and other pedals that manipulate octave, reverb and delay. “To be honest I don’t know how he does what he does,” Lupetin says. “He can make it sound like an organ, or a cello, violin and viola together, creating a mini orchestra behind us. All I know is it sounds really dope.”
So has Lupetin fulfilled the dream he envisioned when he first dipped his toes in the Pacific Ocean back in 2007? “As it turned out, the community playing folk music and jazz and blues was super warm and inclusive,” he says, “whereas I found the film industry to be far more skeptical at all times. With music, I can tell stories and perform and bring joy to people, and what’s better than that?”
The Dustbowl Revival play the Teragram Ballroom on June 17.