Folk rockers Sgt. Dunbar talk about their homeless origins and SXSW festival
Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned has been gaining notoriety within the Albany community and a growing national presence after an appearance at this year's South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. Blending folk rock with over 15 instruments, their style has been described as "Salvation Army band on acid." Starting from humble beginnings at the University at Albany with only three members, the Albany Student Press sat down with lead singer Alex Muro who graduated from UAlbany with a degree in Computer Science and Applied Mathematics.
Give me kind of an idea of how you guys got started.
AM: We got started on Empire Commons, when a bunch of my friends lived on Empire Commons. We started it as a recording project. We were in a rock band called Prost for a while.
ASP: That was a hardcore band right?
AM: Yeah, post-hardcore. Hardcore minus the screaming. And we thought it would be fun. The name kind of came up as joke, I actually met this dude that called himself Sgt. Dunbar on a bus, he was a hobo, he told me a bunch of really cool stories. It was really sort of a memorable experience, I was telling my friends about it and it came up as a funny band name.
ASP: It first started with three of you, right?
AM: Yeah, mainly it was me and then Tim Koch and Dan Pardee and then Adam Zurbruegg was in the band at that time on and off. Different people played with us. And then when we graduated we started playing more because we didn't have anything else to do. Then it sort of gradually went from there, different people joining the band over time until maybe like two years ago we got what our full band is now.
ASP: So how did that evolution happen, adding really elaborate, like a lot of instruments? At least double digits at this point. In terms of the different instruments you play.
AM: Well there's eight people in the band but there's a ton of different instruments. I mean that sort of just comes from our philosophy about just playing whatever is fun, you know what I mean? It's not like this is super strict, you have to play your instrument and you have to be really good at your instrument. We don't nitpick like parts being perfect. So it encourages people to pick up different stuff and learn different instruments and you know like, just to get the sound that we want. There's probably like 15 or 20 instruments we've traveled with, a lot of different brass stuff, and a saw, an accordion, banjo, violin, typewriter. Maybe on our next album we'll have more coffee mugs and other fun stuff.
ASP: Has your sound sort of embodied that make-shift, homeless type of lifestyle where it's like, pick up an instrument, play it, and just enjoy yourself pretty much?
AM: We're not very self conscious, we're not thinking like, "Oh, we're gonna do this in this style so people perceive us in this particular way." But I think at the same time that's definitely how we come off, whether it's on purpose or not. Especially like when we're on stage, we switch our instruments all the time, and it's like, very rag-tag, and sort of random.
ASP: So recently, you went to the South by Southwest Festival. Tell me a little about that, what that was like for you guys.
AM: It was rad. This was the second year we went, we went last year also. I really enjoyed it. I don't know if I'd say I enjoyed it more this year, but I was definitely way more prepared for it this year. Last year I didn't get to see any bands, it was so mind-blowing that I was sort of a little bit awe-struck the whole time. I sort of did a better job of planning what I was gonna do, and I knew Austin a little better. Our shows went really great this year, it was a blast. It's a ridiculous party. It's like nothing I've ever been to before. The festival totally takes over Austin.
ASP: Could you envision your band being mainstream?
AM: Definitely man. The mainstream is always subverting what's weird at one point or another. So I mean, I couldn't picture us being mainstream in 2010 but I could picture us being mainstream in 2013, totally. Not saying it will happen, but absolutely I could picture that happening. When I was in high school, I used to go see punk and emo shows all time when emo had a totally different connotation. Could I ever see that being mainstream? Absolutely not, not in the 2000 but in 2006 is absolutely is and it's disgusting. So you got to be careful about that, I think. But that's how it works.
ASP: what are your sentiments toward the SUNY Albany community?
. AM: I wish in general that the SUNY Albany community was more involved in the Albany community, musically or otherwise. I know what that was like, I went here. The first two years that I lived on campus, I probably left campus like six times. It would be cool if there was more awareness or more interest in what's going on in the city of Albany. Because we're not the only people who are doing things that are interesting music-wise. There are bars that have music that are not on Quail Street. I work here, and I'm here all the time, I love SUNY Albany and it's been really good to me but I definitely think the student population would greatly benefit from some awareness of what's going on downtown, especially in the last two years there's been a lot more cool stuff then there was in the previous two years.
ASP: Do you think you guys have made it yet?
AM: Pretty much how this works, is once you get famous, they send you an e-mail. I'm not really sure who it is, but they send you an e-mail that says "you're famous, congratulations." We haven't gotten it yet. I'll let you know if we do. I've been patiently awaiting the "you've made it" e-mail for a while now. But not yet. We're getting there. I have good feelings.
For the remainder of the interview with Alex Muro, check out our blog at blog.timesunion.com/asp.
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