The folk rock trio has released two albums, a new single and is heading on tour.
No, The End of America isn’t a doomsday proclamation. It’s the moniker of a folkAmericana trio that has been making music together since 2008. The name is a nod to Jack Kerouac’s way of describing traveling to the end of the “groaning continent” in “On the Road,” according to the band’s members.
“It’s a reminder to never give up, and to never stop pushing,” James Downes said.
“It encompasses our methods of seeking inspiration in unusual places,” Trevor Leonard added. “We are travelers and we will go as far as possible to be inspired, write and record, even if that means a dive off a cliff of comfort into the unknown.”
Downes, Leonard and Brendon Thomas had toured together with their individual projects. They started “singing harmonies on each others’ tunes,” when a mutual friend told them they were idiots for not starting a band together.
“We took it as a cue, and stopped being idiots,” Downes said.
That same night, according to Leonard, the guys figured out three-part harmonies for “Blackbird” by the Beatles and set up the first writing session for the band, that would eventually be named The End of America — or TEOA, pronounced Tee-OhAh, for short.
TEOA doesn’t have a front man in the traditional sense. They all sing together and take turns singing the leads. Thomas switches between banjo and mandolin, while Leonard plays acoustic guitar and Downes electric guitar. They’ll throw in auxiliary percussion instruments like shakers and a porch board, and sometimes they add piano.
It’s natural to think you’re experiencing a time warp when listening to The End of America. The band actually has a difficult time pinning down a specific genre that their music fits in, with Thomas saying it’s not bluegrass, but they don’t find a lack of words to describe it.
“Appalachian seriousness with a classic rock background,” is how Thomas puts it.
Downes elaborates, making connections with specific artists.
“It’s evolving, but at present, I’d describe it as a modern day Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young,” Downes said. “I think of it as being moody and glassy.”
Leonard agrees with the folk rock super group association and adds a progressive and psychedelic rock band into the mix.
“I’d describe our sound as a modern CSNY meets Pink Floyd,” he said. “Our three-part harmony vocals are a huge part of our sound and we are definitely extensions of the folk (and) Americana genres. We are also very inspired by psychedelic rock and love to play with the expansive moods that music can evoke.”
The End of America isn’t the first band to reach back in time for inspiration and sound, with bands such as Dawes, The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons having brought folk rock back to the airwaves. But TEOA members do think they have some qualities that set them apart from other bands.
“We try to maintain honesty and authenticity on and off the stage,” Leonard said. “We record mostly all live and let our playing and singing dictate the production rather than the other way around, which you find in most modern music. We leave the auto tune for the materialistic pop stars.”
Downes said he thinks it’s because “we sing our (butts) off. It’s our wild card. We love doing it and we’re all still really enchanted with the textures it can create.”
What sets them apart might be the fact that they were all strong lead singers and songwriters in previous projects, according to Leonard, making their harmonies and songwriting that much more powerful.
Or it might be that they try not to take themselves too seriously all of the time.
The band often resorts to Rock, Paper, Scissor matches to decide who will drive the next leg of the trip, or who sleeps on the floor instead of the couch.
The End of America was a band for two years before they recorded an album or played a live show. Before recording “Steep Bay,” the musicians “spent awhile writing songs and thinking about what we wanted to be,” Leonard said. Then, in July of 2010, they traveled to a cabin in the Adirondacks to record a few songs.
“We went to Brendon’s family cabin at Schroon Lake thinking we would record a song or two or just do some writing, but we ended up letting the muse take over and writing songs and recording for real,” Leonard said. “The cabin has no running water or electricity, so we brought a battery powered recorder and played (and) sang live inside and outside of the cabin using just two mics.”
To access the cabin, the trio had to canoe across the lake, and when they were finished recording and were heading back to the main land, they put the recorder in a waterproof container, “just in case the canoe flipped on the way back,” he added.
The band toured in support of the album, writing more songs along the way and recorded more music in June 2012. Downes said their sophomore album, “Shakey” was recorded live, like “Steep Bay.”
“ ‘Shakey’ was pretty similar, only we brought a rhythm section into the fold,” he said.
Jarrod Pedone played drums while Brian “Bean” Pitonak added bass. The band, inspired by Neil Young’s recording approach — the less rehearsal and the less takes, the better — practiced for two days before heading to Gradwell House Studio in New Jersey.
The album was recorded live to tape in three days without much preproduction in the hopes of capturing something special, the band’s members explained.
“We sing better and perform better when we do it all together, so that was the most important aspect in making the albums,” Thomas said. “Everything on (“Shakey”) was done in a few takes. The last two songs, ‘Raining in Philly’ and ‘IV’ were recorded in one take.”
Leonard added that they “left mistakes in when the feel was there” in order to capture the raw essence of the five guys playing in a room together. Both “Steep Bay” and “Shakey” were self-released by the band, who also book their own tours to help get their music out to the world. In the past year, TEOA has played shows at SXSW in Austin, embarked on several tours to the Midwest and Northeast parts of the country; they were flown out to Los Angeles to perform at Beck’s “Song Reader” exhibition, and they’ve played several “hometown” shows along the way.
The place they call home
Two thirds of the band — Downes and Thomas — live in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens, while Leonard lives in Philadelphia. They swap travel obligations weekly for band practice.
It works out “pretty well, considering that the first year or two of the band we were in (Washington), D.C., Connecticut and New Mexico and would have to fly to each other for writing sessions,” Leonard explained.
And even though the band takes turns spending four hours a week on the New Jersey Turnpike, according to Thomas, Leonard said it gives them the advantage of building strong connections in both Philadelphia and New York at the same time. TEOA’s upcoming tour, which runs from the end of September through mid-October, has shows in both “home towns.” On Wednesday, Sept. 25, they will play at Ortlieb’s Lounge in Philadelphia, and a few days later on Friday, Oct. 4, they’ll take the stage at Rockwood Music Hall, located at 196 Allen St., in Lower Manhattan.
At the Rockwood show, the band will open for Seth Glier on Stage 2. Seating at the show is limited, and a ticket — which costs $10 per person — does not guarantee a seat. Tickets can be purchased at rockwoodmusichall.com. Additionally, attendees must be at least 21 years old, and there is a one drink minimum at the show. The band’s website, theendofamericamusic.com, is updated often as new shows are added. People interested in following The End of America online, can also find links on the website to their Facebook page, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr accounts and sign up for the band’s mailing list.
Influences and inspiration
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; the Beatles; Pink Floyd and Dawes are just a few of the artists that influence The End of America’s musicians. These artists’ “lyrics, abilities to tell thought-provoking stories, and the moods that they all create are just so killer,” Leonard said.
Though TEOA is made up of three, and sometimes five members who often share similar interests and thoughts, they are also each individuals with their own opinions. For instance, they all find inspiration in different places other than music.
Downes is inspired by drawing and reading “nerdy science fiction or fantasy novels.” Simply living in New York City inspires Thomas. And Leonard’s friends and family, in addition to nature, inspires him. And even though they often write music and lyrics together, they also have favorite spots where they are most creative.
“I like the idea of places that merge the country and the city together,” Leonard said. “A lot of places out West have that vibe where you can be out in the mountains secluded, but (you can) drive a short distance into the city. Ultimately, I think it’s important to diversify.”
Downes would rather be in his bedroom.
“I feel closest to neutral there,” he said. “Being comfortable and in a natural state is important.”
There’s also talk of heading to another location to write and record like they did in the Adirondacks with “Steep Bay.”
“We always talk about doing a record in New Orleans,” Thomas said. “That place has both the spook and some of the best musicians in the world on any street corner.”
The band’s members usually have the same feeling about a show’s outcome. They either all think they nailed it, agree that something was a little off with the sound, or are bummed because the turnout wasn’t awesome on a Tuesday night. But they each cited different shows as their most memorable performances.
Downes remembers playing at the City Winery in Manhattan with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, one of his favorite bands, as a great show.
“It was wild to play then get a chance to sit back and watch one of my favorite performers with the rest of the audience, knowing that we were a part of the whole experience,” he said.
Thomas thinks one of his favorite shows was performing at Beck’s “Song Reader” exhibition opening in Los Angeles, where The End of America was one of four bands to perform some of Beck’s sheet music at Sonos Studio.
“It was an honor to be chosen as one of so few bands, and to meet Beck himself was meaningful to all of us, having come up listening to his music,” he said. “Drinking whiskey with John C. Reilly in the green room after was awesome too.”
But for Leonard, one of his favorite shows would have to be opening up for Rocky Votolato in Milford, Conn. on his Living Room Tour.
“The show was intimate and I think we played unplugged,” Leonard said. “People seemed to really dig our set and so did Rocky. That night he stayed with us…we all went down to the beach and sang songs on the boardwalk. We were all singing (Bruce) Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ at the top of our lungs outside at like 3 a.m. We’ve kept in touch with Rocky and hope to share a tour in the not so distant future.”
Since 2008, TEOA has had something in the works at all times. They recently went back to Gradwell to record a new song, “Silver A.M.” with Pitonak and Pedone, which they just released digitally on Sept. 15. Actually, Thomas said TEOA hit the road the same day the song debuted. For now, it’s just the trio touring, but that may change soon.
“We have yet to play a completely full band show because Bean and Jarrod live quite far away, but we are moving in that direction,” Leonard added.
When this tour ends, TEOA plans to record another album, and possibly travel to the United Kingdom and Europe to tour.