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Armchair Boogie: the spirit of “newgrass” comes from Wisconsin

(Raffaella Mezzanzanica)

Armchair Boogie is a “newgrass”, funk, honky tonk band from Madison (WI). They can be defined from pickin’ and infectious grooves.

Augie Dougherty (banjo, vocals) and Ben Majeska (guitar, vocals) started playing under the name Armchair Boogie on the front porch of a house in the town of Stevens Point (Wisconsin). Then, the band became complete with the addition of Eli Frieders (bass) and Denzel Connor (drums).

In 2018, they moved to Madison (Wisconsin) and released their first eponymous album, Armchair Boogie.

Then, on October 11, 2019, they published their second, crowdfunded album, What Does Time Care?

Since they started as band they have toured all over the United States and they played gigs at several festivals like Blue Ox, Northwest String Summit, John Hartford Memorial Festival, Summer Camp, and Live on King Street.

They have also shared the stage with The Infamous Stringdusters, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, The Dead South, Kitchen Dwellers, Pert Near Sandstone, Trout Steak Revival and many others.

I have interviewed Ben Majeska, one of the two co-founders of the band, and I asked him about the reason why he chose to play such a traditional music genre, what they have learned as a band from playing with incredible bluegrass artists like The Infamous Stringdusters, and if they have found an answer to the question they used as a title for their latest album: What Does Time Care?

Q.: Let’s talk about the origins of Armchair Boogie. It’s a pretty original name for a band. How did you guys come up with it? And of course, where did you meet?

B.M.: So the name actually came from a lack of us being able to come up with a band name when we first started out haha. Augie Dougherty (banjo/vocals) and myself took to asking our friends for ideas. A good friend of ours let the idea marinate… and a few days later he woke up in his cabin to the sight of an armchair across the room with the sun shining perfect through the window onto it. He thought to himself “this is an armchair boogie kind of morning”, then realized that could be a good name for a band.

He ran the idea by us and though it felt slightly strange, we liked it, probably because our music is slightly strange but in a good and funky sort of way. The name implies good energy but in a way that you don’t know what to expect. Later we learned of an album named Armchair Boogie by a great folk musician Michael Hurley, which was an added bonus because we dig that album too.

Q.: You are young and you have chosen an extremely traditional music genre. Have you always wanted to be part of a bluegrass band?

B.M.: I got turned on to bluegrass sometime in middle school but had no idea it would end up being such a huge part of my life. I was already playing guitar at the time but with more of a focus on rock ’n’ roll on my electric guitar. Needless to say, bluegrass really took hold of my heart and added a new dimension to my playing when I started to learn the style of flatpicking on acoustic guitar. I was playing guitar mostly as a hobby until college when I started forming bands but even then my style was more funk rock. It wasn’t until I met Augie when we really started jamming bluegrass tunes and writing songs accordingly. Once we had the ball rolling there I saw myself in it for the long haul when it came to playing this genre.

Just like any genre, bluegrass sort of has sub-genres to it. There’s the traditional vein of only stringed instruments and having instruments within the lineup be played a very specific way. But then time goes on and bands form that push the genre and make it their own. This happens in so many ways but a big example is Yonder Mountain String Band taking more of a jam band approach with lengthy improvised jam sections rather than quick 2-3 minute rippers. For us, we added electric bass and a drum set to back the banjo and acoustic guitar. And while we aren’t the first to do this, it does help us stand out sonically and allows us to explore other genres like country, rock, and funk…. genres that are known for having that type of punch in their rhythm section. To us it’s overall in the realm of bluegrass, but it does help us keep things fresh to change up genres within sets and for that reason we’ll never be a “true” bluegrass band, which is cool with us. And we are stoked on every twist of bluegrass and the traditional genre itself, it’s important to have every realm of it

Q.: Up to today you’ve published an eponymous album in 2018 and “What does time care?” in 2019, which was crowdfunded and have a lot of special contributors mentioned in it. Tell me more about it.

“What Does Time Care?” was a huge milestone for us. Musically for sure, but equally awesome in terms of crowdfunding. We raised $12,000 via Kickstarter, a neat fundraising platform where you actually have prize packages for different donation amounts. We listed everything from merch to writing songs to playing private shows for contributors. We surpassed our goal before our deadline and it all came together so well. Having a successful fundraiser gave us an even better understanding of how strongly our fan base supports us.

Q.: Since the band was founded, you’ve had the chance to take part in many festivals and touring in Wisconsin, Midwest and across the USA. How was that? Did you find any differences about playing in your hometown and in other places?

B.M.: Yeah, the last 3 years we’ve been traveling cross-country for tours that include both venue plays and festival bills. We love traveling and all the experience that comes with it. It really pays off over time as you revisit different states and see the same folks coming out and bringing people with them. Super awesome but it does take time, good thing we enjoy the adventures and staying busy.

Hometown shows are always super special. As our status grows we have to play a little less in our home state just to keep people thirsty, so to say. So when we play anywhere in Wisconsin it feels like a treat because we can expect a strong turnout of friends and families.

Q.: Needless to say that you also had the honor to share the stage with other incredible bluegrass artists such as The Infamous Stringdusters or Kitchen Dwellers. What have you learned from them, if there’s anything?

B.M.: Lots of lessons about how to keep things together when hitting the road hard. While it is very fulfilling, it can also be draining mentally and physically after some time. That’s when you have to pump the brakes on partying, eat better, rest when you can, and do things that keep you comfortable and in a good mindset. Mental health has become a big subject among touring bands in the past couple of years (at least that’s when I’ve noticed it happening) and we are grateful to learn from those more experienced than us.

Q.: The magic of band like yours is watching you guys playing live. I think that having to stop during the lockdown was extremely painful. As far as I know things have slightly improved recently. You have played some “socially distanced festivals” such as Blue Ox “Campout on the Pines #2”.  During the live show (well, I wasn’t there but I saw it!) you said that you felt lucky for having such an opportunity compared to other people/artists. Believe me, this is absolutely true, not only for the artists but also for the audience. Honestly speaking, didn’t you have a different/strange feeling?

B.M.: It has been quite difficult, the lack of shows. In a lot of ways this felt like THE year for us to make our mark on the scene. Although we know we’ve made a dent, 2020 was expected to skyrocket us. It hurts but it’s not like we are the only ones not playing out nearly as much as we usually would. Some bands are not at all due to lack of safe opportunities or they may have to travel a lot or just aren’t comfortable yet, all understandable.

That being said, we’ve been graced with a few outdoor shows that had many safety precautions in place. They felt good to play but there is certainly a “weirdness” to it when you are used to playing for a herd of people rather than lots of little spread out groups. But that was also comforting given the nature of the times, knowing people are enjoying the show safely. I have a feeling venues are going to need to continue being creative and safe with putting on live events well into 2021, but who knows what will happen. At least if we are still battling this next year, there is a lot of time this winter for our midwestern venues to figure out how to adapt to the times when the weather warms in 2021.

Q.: I love the fact that, at unprecedented times like these, you guys have also found “different” ways to play and share good vibes with your fans. For example, you’ve recently organized a “River Roundup”. And you’re not alone among Wisconsin bands to have chosen this “new way” of making live music. You can rely on a beautiful land and lakes. Tell me more about how you came up with the idea and how you made it come true.

B.M.: The River Roundup show is all thanks to an organization called the Funkclub Wagon. Typically it is a band playing on a trailer that drives around Milwaukee and performs throughout different neighborhoods and parts of downtown. Super neat idea they’ve been executing this year! The organizers decided to try it out boat-style and acquired a pontoon boat to use that had plenty of room for sound equipment, a band, lights, crew, etc. So we owe it all to them for having us literally on board!

It was a surreal experience to float downtown Milwaukee, playing a show with a fleet of 50-60 kayaks as our audience. I’ve spent a lot of time in that city but I’ve never seen it like that before! It was especially cool because the sun set near the end of the show and all the skyscraper lights turned on, as well as some stage lights on the boat. It was one of the coolest shows we’ve ever played, hands down.

Q.: In your latest album there’s a song called “American Spirit”. What’s the song about? Considering the recent episodes of protests, violence and social injustice, what do you think is the American spirit right now?

B.M.: That song was written by our banjo player Augie Dougherty, who actually meant for the title to refer to the cigarette brand rather than the attitude. I’ll do my best to explain but the song is about a specific person who was self-obsessed, only caring about themselves and blaming their self-made problems on the rest of the world. When in all actuality, they live a fortunate life but complain too much to see it. It obviously can apply to a lot of people in America though I’m not sure that was Augie’s intention.

Rather than relate the song to the current happenings in America, I’ll just give my two cents on it. The “American Spirit” right now is divided, injured, angry, and desperate. Our politics are so far gone that it’s hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel. Everyone I talk to is struggling through this year, really struggling. We need political reform when it comes to racial injustice issues, no doubt about it. Racism is still here in America almost now more than ever, and the fight continues for racial equality and dismantling systemic racism. The band and I stand with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Q.: “What Does Time Care?” Have you guys found an answer to this question?

B.M.: Haha. I guess I would say that it cares very little… kind of a daunting thought but you know, the clock keeps ticking. On some days I spend so much time thinking about time that I feel like I’m wasting time. Other days, the lack of infinite time here on earth really motivates me and adds a special magic to everything I experience. Other times I don’t think about it at all and float through life in the present, which I think is time well spent. It was nice to happen upon that title after we already had all the songs for the album, only to realize how well it fit the subject of each song.

Q.: Your bio ends with the explanation of a sort of ritual to be done before coming to your concerts: “Be warned: if you’re looking to listen to the Boogie Boys, drink some water, eat a banana, do some stretches, and be ready to boogie the night away.”  Water, really??? I don’t believe you. Lol. Tell me the truth…

B.M.: Haha, well we do enough “cheers” on stage to make a sailor tip over, so I think a live show would answer that right quick. Joking aside, our shows tend to be pretty high energy and we like to promote the anticipation of that! I think that explosively fun energy is what keeps a lot of folks coming back. That’s not to say we don’t slow it down, but we try to choose wisely when it comes moving between fast and slow, happy and sad, funky or country, etc.

Q.: And Ben, of course you are known as the guitarist for Armchair Boogie but you also have ever-changing “side projects”. What have you been up to and what do your fans have to expect from you…and also from Armchair Boogie?

B.M.: I am lucky enough to have a residency here in Madison at the Up North Bar called Majeska Monday. On the first Monday of every month (when there’s not a pandemic), I either put together a supergroup of musicians or feature a band for the night that I play with. The genres can be anything from electric funk bands to acoustic bluegrass bands to country-esque ensembles. It is a great outlet for me, playing with different folks and learning all sorts of new music on a monthly basis! Also fun to pack a place on a Monday night!

Besides that I tour around quite often with a band from my hometown of Fond du Lac, WI, known as Northsoul. They’re an acoustic duo made up of two of my best friends, so it is a great fit. Other projects include Harder Deeper which is the banjo player and myself from Armchair Boogie paired with the upright bassist, fiddler, and mandolinist of Milwaukee-based bluegrass band Chicken Wire Empire.

When none of those projects are happening, I love playing solo shows and plan to record my first solo EP this winter so I don’t go too crazy from hibernating!

Find out more about Armchair Boogie:

f.: https://www.facebook.com/armchairboogieboys/
i.: https://www.instagram.com/armchairboogieboys/?hl=en
s. https://open.spotify.com/artist/2KSh6pICPUrZ2ohW7O7Pxw
y.: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=armchair+boogie

All pictures courtesy of Kyle Hilker/Shatter Imagery

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