Interview: Driftwood Solider

Photo: Kyle Cassidy

Philadelphia-based mandolinist Owen Lyman-Schmidt and bassist Bobby Szafranski met coincidentally and, as musically-inclined folks tend to do, started playing together. “We were a good musical fit, and I stopped looking for other players,” recalls the quick-witted dry-humored Lyman-Schmidt. “Speaking of fit, since there were only two of us, we were able to tour in a Honda Fit, which gets a good 37 miles to the gallon and makes it possible to make sort of a living.”

The pair, who call themselves Driftwood Solider and their style “gutter folk,” have found their place amongst the hardscrabble, DIY work ethic of the Philly scene. “The simple reason we play gutter folk music is so we can be the best at it,” he laughs. “No one else plays gutter folk, so we are number one. However, if we do a good job making gutter fool a style, more people will get into playing it, and I’m sure they will be better than we are.” Finding an identity in the storytelling aspect of traditional folk, Driftwood Solider infuse everything from the blues to the punk music of their adolescence, expressed through Lyman-Schmidt’s mandolin and Szafranski’s melodic bass stylings and junk percussion—a suitcase, a license plate snare, and “the Jangler,” a bottle cap tambourine contraption. Their instrumentation combined with Lyman-Schmidt’s Nick Cave-esque jarring baritone growls produce a uniquely rootsy sound that is much grittier than most would expect, in the best sense of the term.

Driftwood Solider, who released their debut album, Scavenger’s Joy, in 2014, unleashed an EP, Blessings & Blasphemy, on March 24th, which houses old-time gospel as well as anti-religious original tunes. “The idea was to juxtapose reinterpreted gospel music with anti-religious music we wrote. It comes out of feeling that power behind gospel music, and the spiritual force of music in general,” explains Lyman-Schmidt. “I’m not a subscriber to a particular religion, but I wanted to talk about how religion has been used to push agendas of intolerance and oppression. I love gospel music, it moves me, but I think it’s important to think critically about the content, and what it’s being used to promote.”

“A lot of times, there doesn’t seem to be room for dialogue and discussion when it comes to religious dogma,” he continues. “That being said, I’ve been in lots of spaces where people were doing a lot of amazing work coming from a spiritual motivation. I’ve been part of sacred harp singing communities and old time gospel groups; that tension has been present in my life since I can remember—people moved and motivated by their spiritual convictions doing amazing work, and people using dogma to shut down communication and as an excuse not to empathize with others.”

Lyman-Schmidt sees the common and usually heated approach to this subject matter as a barrier to relationships; the goal for Blessings & Blasphemy is discussion. “If you just put out an album of anti-religious music, you make a point, but you also imply that that’s the audience you want to cultivate, and that they are the only people you’re interested in talking to, that believe what you believe,” he says. “If you put out an album of gospel music, you send the same message to a different audience. If you’re like us, and you apparently don’t aspire to have any audience at all when you make something, then you put them out together,” he laughs. “We wanted to let people decide where they fall on the subject. If you say to someone, ‘this is wrong and I don’t understand it,’ there’s no point in having a conversation about it. But if you say, ‘I feel what you’re feeling, but I think something different,’ that leaves room for understanding.”

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