Led by songwriter August John Lutz II, the Levee Drivers sound is defined by its ability to threaten as easily as it soothes. Heavily influenced by everything from Hank Williams to Jack White, the Philadelphia based band pulls from every genre, stripping each element down to it’s most raw and unpolluted state. The resulting music is an enduring flurry of timeless compositions, sweetened by rich arrangements that reveal a distinguished musical sophistication. And by balancing tranquil moments of quiet introspection with the unhinged abandon of a road-tested rock band, Lutz steers the group toward a sound that is arresting on virtually every level.
Though they are currently recording a new album, August John Lutz II, Kyle Perella, Jeff Orlowski and Ben Plotnick have not stepped away from the stage. Routinely playing shows in the Philadelphia area, they have occasionally treated the audience to new material. Earlier this week, the band did just that during their appearance at Communion Club Night at Underground Arts. The mix of older and newer songs shined a light on the bands ability to effortlessly create a collage of electrifying sound.
Founded by Ben Lovett of Mumford and Sons along with Kevin Jones and Ian Grimble, Communion is an organization that celebrates the unique artistry of independently created music. Philadelphia and New York are currently among only a handful of major US cities chosen to present the live shows that the organization curates. To be selected to perform is to join an elite group of artists and musicians, something that had not been lost on Lutz.
“Though members of Levee Drivers have attended many of these showcases to support local and national acts, this will be our first appearance on the Communion stage. I’m honored for us to be included in this night and to share the stage with hard-working artists such as Ron Gallo and TJ Kong and The Atomic Bomb. These shows in particular are a great way for bands to come together and support one another’s love and passion for music.”
A few days before the band’s Communion debut, Lutz was eager to discuss his influences, his songwriting and the evolution of the group he founded.
Your voice has a lot of depth, and you demonstrate a tremendous control. Did singing come naturally to you as a kid?
Singing came more naturally to me than most other things, and I think a lot of musicians would say the same. When you’re young you don’t hold yourself to any restrictions. If you’re singing as a kid and can’t hit a certain note, you just yell the melody anyway – whether it’s in the right key or not – and then go on with the rest of your day. All of those early years of screaming songs at the top of my lungs gave me a lot of confidence, which made me comfortable performing in front of people. And little did I know at the time, I was exercising my breathing technique, discovering my tone, and working on control and range.
You’ve spoken about having had put together songs before even learning to play guitar or perform. Do you think your writing was shaped by your singing style, or do you think your singing style was shaped by the songs you were writing?
I’m going to have to say a little bit of both, because I was teaching myself how to sing and write at the same time. Some days I’d be working off of lyrics I’d written and other times I’d start with a simple melody I thought might be half decent. Not sure when they both came together as one, but I’m not really sure if anybody realizes exactly when it happens. And still to this day I have a lot of different ways I throw together a song. I have to admit that some of my favorite Levee Drivers songs actually started with a title first before having anything else. And no, I will not tell you which ones!
You got your first guitar in fourth grade. Did it feel like a monumental moment?
Absolutely. Getting that guitar was a huge turning point in my childhood that has shaped my life ever since. I remember the first time I got home and saw this cheap black and white Squier sitting there in my bedroom. I rushed to it, plugged it in and without even knowing how to play a single chord, I started beating the hell out of it!
Where is that guitar now?
That cheap Squier guitar remains safely retired in my bedroom after I was lucky enough to get it signed by each member of The Strokes on November 14th, 2001, right outside of Philadelphia’s TLA…just a few days before my 16th birthday.
You’ve talked about how your older sisters music library was something that piqued your interest as a young kid. What music artists were you introduced to through that record collection?
You name it…The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers Band, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Bad Company, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Aerosmith, Queen, Bob Dylan, The Steve Miller Band…the list goes on. Thanks to her and my mother, Racenne, I could name you every song, lyric and credit on all those records by the time I was in 5th grade. To me, those records were my real homework.
We are part of one of the first generations who were encouraged to play rock music by our parents and teachers, whereas most of the legendary, outlaw musicians that you admire were discouraged. Do you think that fed the rebellious spirit of the songs they wrote?
I definitely believe that had a lot to do with it. I personally couldn’t imagine growing up and being told I wasn’t allowed to listen or perform rock music by any of my family members.
Having been born in such a different time, why do you think you’ve been able to capture that spirit?
Though my family was always supportive of my love and interest in music…I didn’t get that much support from certain friends, parents, or even some of the teachers I had growing up. I’ve never been able to read or write music and I’ll always remember a few teachers in particular telling me that if I didn’t learn theory, I wouldn’t ever be able to have a career in this industry or be able to write a song. That always stuck in my head because at that point, I already had notebooks filled with songs I’d been writing for years. Unfortunately, I feel that whatever generation you grow up in, you’re always going to run into people that want to throw limitations in your face. All you can do is brush it off – or even better, use it to fuel the fire in whatever you’re passionate about.
Growing up in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the city and the countryside are about the same distance away from each other. The music of the Levee Drivers connects those two landscapes. Would you say your songwriting is as influenced by the land that surrounds you as much as the people that surround you?
I would say it’s pretty 50/50. The surrounding landscape and the company you keep will, whether you know it or not, always affect what you do artistically. For me, I love having the freedom to drive to the city one night and catch a show or drink with a few friends, then the next evening have the luxury of driving around on completely open and empty roads in the dark, listening to music by myself…because let’s be honest, that’s the best way to listen to music.
John Lennon once said that before he discovered Bob Dylan, he didn’t think lyrics were important. Has your approach to songwriting changed over the years and has any band or artist’s influence been responsible for that change?
For me lyrically, discovering Townes Van Zandt opened my eyes to how much beauty, meaning, and poetry songs can actually have. He’s one of those artists where I can be just as happy reading his lyrics as listening to his music. Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen have also had a very significant impact on me as well. If it weren’t for those three artists, I don’t know when I would have fallen in love so much with lyrics and storytelling.
In the beginning, Levee Drivers had frequent line-up changes. Did it ever feel like things might not fall into place?
A few times here and there. But where there’s always someone less interested in giving Levee Drivers one hundred percent, there’s someone who is. I’ll never hold a grudge against anyone for not wanting to put as much sweat and life into this project as I do, because it’s mainly my baby to begin with. But I’m also not going to let anyone slow me or this band down at all. Though speed bumps will happen, I only have kind words and appreciation for every single person that has put time into this band, whether it was for one show, one month, or one year. But this band is too important to me to throw in the towel. And it took me a few years but the gentleman I have with me right now…I couldn’t be more thrilled with.
Kyle Perella is an incredible player who adds another layer of dimension to the bands sound, although he wasn’t always part of the line-up. How did he join the band?
We were good friends back in high school, but for some reason or another we didn’t keep in touch too much afterwards. He went to college while I was trying to get this band off the ground. Then one day a few years later, out of the blue, he showed up at a show of ours in Doylestown and we picked up right where we left off. I believe he ended up joining Levee Drivers soon after that, but on bass guitar first. Since then he’s basically been my go-to guy for lead guitar and lap steel and has been an extremely helpful and encouraging friend of mine.
Levee Drivers are an amazing band to see live. Has the band always had that kind of stage presence, or is that a style and approach that you’ve settled into?
I feel that we’ve always walked that fine line between being professional and reckless at the same time when it comes to our live shows. It’s such a rush to walk out onto a stage and not know how the crowd is going to react to your band. It’s a constant game and I’m always looking for us to come out on top. I also am a very strong believer in not being tied down to any particular set list and making each show a little bit different than the last. Being in that state of mind definitely gets your pulse running while taking those first steps on stage to your instrument. Of course, at the same time I want us to sound as tight as possible live and to work together as a unit, but most times you have to play to the crowd first and go from there.
You’ve previously stated that “Wild Horses,” has been a major influence on the aesthetic and sound of the Levee Drivers. What is it about that particular recording that inspires you the most?
It’s not just “Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones, it’s most of their stripped down acoustic songs like “Play With Fire,” “Angie,” and “Dead Flowers.” The recordings of those songs sound so thin and dry, which usually I’m not a fan of, but somehow have so much to offer and will always be my personal favorites of theirs. The style and vibe of those songs gives you a whole different side of that band that some people might not be too familiar with. That element right there is a perfect example of what I try to do with Levee Drivers. I’d get bored if we were only just a rock band or country band that didn’t have anything else to say or offer. And I feel when artists don’t push themselves or their writing, it can get too repetitive for them, their band and especially their fans.
“All Dolled Up In Red,” is a beautiful song that doesn’t follow the traditional “verse chorus verse” formula. Is that the first song you wrote in that style?
First off, I’m glad you enjoyed that number. Thank you very much. And to answer your question, it’s not the first song I’ve written that doesn’t follow the exact formula of verse/chorus/verse. I have a lot of other songs in the vault that are more or less considered structural oddballs, like “Quarter To Three,” from our self-titled EP. I feel that plays around with altering the basic format of a traditional song. That being said, I’ll always be a sucker for composing that Hank Williams type of verse/chorus/verse, though. It’s too damn perfect!
Did you know it was special when you wrote it?
I don’t really know how to answer this question, but let’s just say…a lot of my heart went into writing that song and it’ll always have a very special place in my catalog. I don’t show that side of myself very often in my writing, so when I do it has to be just right and mean something to me.
What album would people be most surprised to learn is in your record collection?
I’m a huge Nat King Cole fan. I think he had one of the most beautiful voices. Whenever I find a slightly varied collection of his songs on vinyl, I don’t think twice and always end up buying it. Even if I already own thirteen out of fourteen songs on it. “A Blossom Fell,” is in my top five favorite vocal performances in music history.
Don’t miss the frontman’s solo set at PhilaMOCA on 9/16
And see the whole band at Milkboy on 9/28 and Kung Fu Necktie on 10/22
Watch this video to see August John Lutz II perform “All Dolled Up In Red.”
Article by: Caitlin Phillips