The ‘Round The Campfire Interview Series is Pop Break’s preview series, curated by Lead Music Writer Andrew Howie, for Summer Camp 2023.
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One of the hottest bands touring right now, lespecial is left-field oddball skronk dipped in simmering electronica and roiling with heaviness. They’ve been lauded for both their cover sets and original compositions, and are picking up new fans left and right. Recently bassist Luke Bemand spoke with me about their unique sound and its inspiration, the history of the group, and much more. Dig in!
Andrew Howie: I’m a relatively new fan of lespecial – can you give me the broad strokes of how the group came to be?
Luke Bemand: Rory [Dolan, drums] and I had been playing together since grade school. In seventh and eighth grade we were in a Slipknot cover band, just nu metal stuff. In high school I played in a band with Jonny G [Grusauskas], our guitarist, he played drums and I played bass in this kind of reggae band called the Noise Boys, and we were kind of just playing local gigs. When Rory came to school I suggested we get together, and this was around 2004 or 2005. We were really into the experimental stuff then, you know, The Mars Volta, Medeski, Martin and Wood. We would play house parties, bring a bunch of pedals and put a microphone in a car muffler and run it through effects. Some people thought it was awful but for us it was really fun. Here we are 18 years later. It’s been a journey, and it’s been the one constant in all of our lives. We’re really fortunate to be able to do that and still enjoy making music together and being inspired. We’ve got great management, a great booking agent and a great team around us. So the last few years things have really started to pick up, and we’re touring nationally full time now. It wasn’t a waste of time after all!
AH: How long has touring been full-time for you?
LB: The last maybe four years? The last two years for sure, but even leading up to quarantine it was more of the weekend warrior thing. We would meet up and play festivals on weekends, maybe a five-day run here and there, but maybe in 2018 we started breaking out of the northeast a lot more. These last two years since though, it’s been pretty nonstop.
AH: Would you say the jump to a nationally touring band as your main occupation has had an effect on your playing?
LB: It’s interesting. On the road, the performance is your practice. There’s that term “tour tight.” When we don’t play for a month or so, in some senses it’s nice, we have a fresh perspective, but it doesn’t have that tightness of living together in a van and playing every night of the week. It’s an interesting two-sided coin; it’s exhausting, the traveling, and people don’t see the parts where you’re sitting in the hotel lobby where you only got an hour of sleep last night. All of that just goes into becoming a cohesive unit. At the end of tour is sometimes when we feel we play our best music.
AH: What are some of your go-to methods for recharging during such a grueling schedule?
LB: What I try to do is read and watch horror movies. I’ve tried to just kind of do things that stimulate other parts of my brain other than music. I’ve been reading this book about Ernest Shackleton’s voyage to the South Pole, and it’s wild! I started reading it on tour, thinking it was appropriate as we got through this long, exhausting journey. I do find it hard to find time to read on the road, but when I’m home and I can put my phone down, it’s helpful to take a break and just read. You can find inspiration in lots of books, not even about musicians!
AH: Speaking of touring, you’ve got a big appearance coming up at Summer Camp Music Festival – you’ve played before, to a rabid crowd. What are you looking forward to about returning to Three Sisters?
LB: Summer Camp really just does a great job of bringing together so many different genres. That marriage of jam band and electronic artists just seems to work, plus such left-field artists. Like last year, Bone-Thugs and then Smashing Pumpkins. It’s just such an eclectic festival. Les Claypool and Umphrey’s McGee were just a couple of our favorite bands as kids when we were attending. The first year we played, it was just a very full circle thing for us. We met a lot of fans and cool people there. It’s been fun to go back year after year, it’s one of our favorite festivals. We can’t wait for this year.
AH: Your Primus cover set was especially well-received. Can you tell me a little more about that particular show?
LB: So we’ve grown up as lifelong Primus fans, really. They were one of the first bands we ever covered as lespecial. My drummer Rory and I, we’ve been playing together over 20 years at this point. High school was just smoking weed after class and learning Primus songs, really. Some habits never die. So the Primus thing, they’re a band we enjoy covering, and we had done sets like those in the past, just a couple times. It wasn’t until quarantine where we decided to do a stream; we had done a couple from our studio and thought it could be a cool opportunity to do something different, and that’s when we covered Frizzle Fry in its entirety. We did it as a stream and it was a cool project, and a fun way to connect with fans during quarantine.
Summer Camp is a festival we would go to as kid and see Les Claypool with different bands. We’re SO stoked that the Frog Brigade is playing this year. So that Primus set just kind of made sense to us, and our booking agent just pitched it to the fest, and they jumped on it. It just made sense. It ended up being a really fun set. That Soulshine tent gets a little muddy and grimy, we had a mosh pit, some rails broke down. Kris Myers from Umphrey’s asked if he could get up on stage with us, and he played ‘Jerry Was a Racecar Driver’ with us. That was a blast.
AH: Speaking of memorable Summer Camp stories involving lespecial, can we discuss the epic tale of Dean Ween stealing your smokes?
LB: It’s weird how many people have been introduced to our band because of that stupid story that I made up. I think that’s why it caught fire the way it did; I think Ween fans are loving it because that’s very Dean Ween, and they’re like who’s this nerd that got his smokes stolen? I’m just happy to provide entertainment on the internet, that’s why we do it.
AH: So back to lespecial – they say the triangle is the strongest shape in nature. Do you find that to be the case with your trio?
LB: We’ve played with other musicians before. There was a time where we had a sax for a bit, because Rory and I played in more of a free jazz thing in high school, and it always just felt better as a trio. That triangular dynamic always worked for us. So many of our favorite bands are trios, you know, Nirvana, Primus, it was kind of just in our DNA.
That said, we also really like to back up other people. We’ve been playing with Mike Dillon, it’s been a blast. Maybe we’ll do something at Summer Camp. That is kind of every genre you can imagine with Mike Dillon just standing on top of his vibraphone screaming. He’s a hero and a legend. We enjoy being a chameleon trio like that and being able to back other musicians as well as doing our original stuff, but lespecial just works as a trio. It’s always been that way and probably always will be.
AH: Your sound isn’t exactly the typical kind of music you would expect to hear at an event like Summer Camp, but you’re one of the most-hyped acts on the bill in my circles. What can you tell me about having such a different sound and bringing it into this space?
LB: I think it’s easy for festivals and promoters to market things as “jam band,” but so many things fall under that umbrella. We’ve always embraced falling into the category that’s a bit darker and heavier than other bands. We came up listening to Nine Inch Nails, Tool, bands like that. The more we embraced that and being heavier, the more we have connected and resonated with people. Sometimes it’s refreshing, too; if you’re at a festival and it’s all chill, cool, mixolydian guitar noodling, and at the end of the day you hear some drop D power chords and double kick, you’re like yeah fuck me up! Festivals like Summer Camp specifically fostered an environment for bands like that, like us, to be ourselves and not have to cater to everyone. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea and that’s fine, but as of late, we have really embraced that heaviness. I think it resonates with people, and that’s been really cool to see.
AH: Let’s talk about your album, Ancient Homies. That was my introduction to lespecial and I see why it garnered the hype it did. What can you tell me about putting that record together and how your approach evolved from your earlier albums?
LB: Ancient Homies was a little bit different than our two records before that. For those, we had just gone into a studio with all the music written, recorded in about a week, and then did the mixing and mastering. It was a relatively short process as recording goes, whereas Ancient Homies took a few years to come together. We were able to do a lot of work on it during quarantine. A lot of the music had been written before lockdown started. Since we were local to each other, we were able to finish the music at our home recording studio, the Music Cellar, in Millerton, NY. We had it mixed remotely by Dave Sanchez. It gave us time to polish things, and we released it in December 2020. We were blessed to be able to take the break from touring and finish it.
But what we’re excited about now is we have an entire new album recorded. Dave Sanchez was in the studio this time, able to track and record it with us, and it’s already a massive improvement. We’ve been hard at work on it for months now. Artwork is coming together, final stages of mixing, little things like that. We’re really excited about it. We’re cranking it up a notch. Hopefully people will be just as into it. The way our music is going is further down that path. If you like Ancient Homies, this album will be a step up.
AH: We’ve covered a lot of ground here today. Before we sign off, I wanted to get your opinion on this: what would you say are some good tools or things to keep in mind for young musicians trying to pursue this as a livelihood?
LB: I think it comes down to this: how sustainable can it be? How much of your life can you dedicate to it? Some bands rise to fame, and some can’t hack it. You understand elements of both sides. It’s usually not creatively difficult; people enjoy creating music with their friends. But it gets to that point where you have to ask yourself how much time off from your day job can you take to go on tour? Is it going to pay your rent? It’s an accomplishment to even get to the point where you have to make that decision, but you do have to choose. You need a lot of good breaks, you need a lot of luck and support behind you, and you really need to fucking believe in yourself and believe in what you’re doing. We’ve been fortunate in all those respects. It’s not an easy journey, but as cheesy as it is, at the end of the day it’s about how much you believe in it and how much you’re going to fight for it.