Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Pawns or Kings

"Getting old aint nothing to be ashamed of" seems like the rally cry of a world from a different dimension, especially when it comes from the lips of such a young group of musicians, but "old souls" is the first thing to come to mind when Pawns or Kings break into their signature harmonies. There are echoes of a sound that is older than life itself interwoven between these tales of triumph and woe, as if the mountains themselves have gained a voice. In between the shiny modern pop music of today and the gritty, dusty sound of yesterday you find Pawns or Kings stepping forward with a folk Americana sound that catches the ears of both the young and old. The words seem to whisper tales of sorrow before bellowing declarations of victory making the listener wonder how such young men could speak with such conviction.

Conviction might be the word to explain the drive of this four piece band made up of folk musicians Edward Stengel (banjo and lead vocals), Ben Bigelow (Guitar and harmonies), Devin Langer (Electric Bass and harmonies), and Justin Arndt (Percussion). Coming from the Ozark area of Southern Missouri and basing their tours from St. Louis, Pawns or Kings have a unique take on the popular folk revival that is sweeping the world. "Without the Ozark Mountains... there would simply be no Pawns or Kings" said Stengel during a recent interview. Members of the band grew up playing music together ever since junior high and have been shaped by a variety of influences from classic rock like Led Zeppelin to bluegrass legends like Ricky Skaggs. Having left their previous high schools bands, the group came together due to their desire to find serious musicians who were not already marred by the pitfalls of band life and the industry. It was very important to them that they present a positive image to the listener, one that would inspire and not tear down. They formed as an official outfit in 2010 after a stint in the hospital and a brush with homelessness for Stengel.

The band had released a very limited press EP entitled "It Must Be Out There" featuring many songs that would eventually be on their first self produced LP "Letters to Lucy". The response was so strong by the local community that the band set off to make a live presence in the midwest and to record their sound in their own way. The hand-made album was released at the end of 2010 and moved over 1000 units despite having no distribution, promo, or tour support. "It is crazy, we thought we were done with music and this was really the beginning of something so much bigger" says Bigelow.

The full outfit began playing shows and festivals around the midwest area opening for underground favorites like "Cassino" and "Jessica Hernandez". As their notoriety grew they begin to develop a devoted fan base that calls itself "Team Pawns or Kings" that is made up of mainly European and American fans. The boys gained a reputation for their intimate interactions with fans on facebook and twitter and are known to respond to every fan letter written to them. "The support of Team Pawns or Kings was instrumental in keeping us going" says Stengel. The call for their first full band release became overwhelming, but tragedy would strike before this could take place.

On the eve of the release of their first full band effort "Pomme de Terre" something went wrong. The file that was sent from the studio would not upload. The backup files on the externals and usbs were also corrupted. Suddenly the main computer that powered their studio failed mechanically and three years of hard work was lost. It was a stroke of bad luck that is almost comical, the backups for the studio were still plugged into the computer, rendering them useless. This halted talks with record companies and tour managers. Some fans lost interest in waiting and went off to discover other artists in the scene. The band was back to square one with nothing to show. However, they were not ready to quit. "It was certainly the most disappointing leg of our career, we were crushed." Said Arndt.

They released the free live EP titled "The Silo Sessions" with a companion video series that gave super fans something to listen to. They then began the slow and steady process of rebuilding the album, this time with far more of the dark sound they are now known for. Though they had lost their chance at fast stardom, this was a chance to build a lasting piece of soul. After years of touring and another self released live album, a special "fan version" of Pomme de Terre was released. This version was raw and only lightly mastered, but allowed some sales to be made during shows as a matter of survival. The fully mastered version would not be complete for another few months. Fans went crazy spreading the album like a wildfire across the internet. Now with their team in place, the official "fully remastered" Pomme de Terre will be released to all mainstream outlets come summer of 2014. "We are excited to get this album out there in full, it is a big piece of us that we simply cannot let rot under a pile of other things we attempted to do... this is the one thing that has to see some daylight" Stengel commented in closing.

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