Some of Boston’s best acts creep up from the outskirts, whether it’s the heavy post-rock of the North Shore’s Caspian, which has grown a massive audience both nationally and overseas, or the feel-good rap-rockers Aer who hail from the suburb of Wayland. The Ballroom Thieves is no different, having formed just south of Boston but winning over listeners from the outside in. In just a few years and two EPs later, the band has signed on with New Frontier touring, shared the stage with the likes of Dispatch, The Lone Bellow, and Houndmouth, and established themselves as one of the best young acts in the deep folk scene of the northeast.
Part of the band’s appeal, however, is its drive to grow beyond the conventions of conservative folk. The trio recognizes that an engaging live performance is paramount to the success of any touring band, so The Ballroom Thieves strives for ways to keep its sound reaching toward the future. This could mean incorporating more electric guitar or heavier forms of percussion, experimenting with new sounds on the cello, or melding together genres for a more upbeat and accessible live show. As the band gears up to record another release, it will play the House of Blues on Friday for its biggest local show yet, opening for New Jersey bluegrass kings Railroad Earth. We caught up with drummer Devin Mauch post-rehearsal to talk about the band’s beginnings, future, and its secret love for Celine Dion.
Q. So fill me in on the early days of Ballroom Thieves. You guys haven’t been at it all that long, have you?
A. The band started here in Boston. Martin (Earley, guitar) and I went to college together at Stonehill, just south of the city. We started playing music together around 2010, and formed the band soon after that. We ended up recording our first album in the fall of 2011 under the name Ballroom Thieves. We brought in a cellist for it, and ended up hitting it off with her and asked her to join the band. She was with us for two years until last summer when she left and we met Calin Peters, who is our current cellist and female vocalist. We’ve been with our current lineup of the Ballroom Thieves since about September.
Q. Was Stonehill an easy environment to get a musical project started?
A. We were doing our own projects within the music scene at the school. Martin was doing a lot of singer/songwriter types and stuff, and I was playing drums and singing with different people in different groups. We kind of met through that scene. It was very much organic, just kind of people hanging out in dorm rooms and playing informally. We just ended up playing more and more together. We went on a really fun trip when Martin graduated. We played wherever we could, but it was more about meeting people and seeing places. We drove around the states, covered probably 9,000 miles. That was the first trip we did and we had such a good time that we decided after that that we wanted to go for it and do more touring.
Q. It had to have been an advantage too, especially at that point, to be an acoustic act. You can almost make anywhere your stage.
A. Absolutely. And that’s what we did. We would just play anywhere that would have an extra five-by-five feet to spare. At that time, my percussion set up was just my djembe on floor and then we were both singing, so it was pretty simple and we performed anywhere we could.
Q. Did you guys have any college dorm room serenading songs of choice?
A. Haha well, we definitely were playing more covers at that point. A few more risque songs I guess you could say, from the college years that get requested quite often still with our hometown crowd. I can’t say that it’s very stage appropriate anymore though, and you don’t want Mom getting a hold of your old drunken dorm room serenades.
Q. Acoustic music has had a huge resurgence among young audiences lately. It’s weird though, the college crowd is at really polar opposites, either digging the new folk movement or really into more electronic forms of music. What do you think is the appeal of folk-inspired music for young listeners?
A. Bands like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers have kind of brought this new folk resurgence back to the eyes of the masses, and to the general public and the radio. We don’t associate with that sound all that much, we aren’t really trying to be the next of their kind, as much as we respect what they’ve done for bands like us who want to have folk roots but expand on that style. We find that a lot of students, some that are into the whole folk thing, and others that are strictly into pop music, have a really good time at our shows. We’re able to mix in a lot of styles, whether its rock roots or more heavy hitting drums. It ends up working well for us, but you can definitely see those two very different groups in the college markets right now.
Q. It seems easier in other genres to stay progressive by incorporating new forms of technology into musical concepts. How do you remain innovative in a genre that is mostly acoustic?
A. I think a lot of our drive to remain fresh and different boils down to Martin and his songwriting. He’s got a lot of roots in different kinds of music: classic folk and country that’s all about storytelling and deep lyrics. That angle combined with a lot of our new songs featuring electric guitar, and some pedals and distortion. It isn’t considered experimental by most rock groups, but with our background it’s a new step. It pushes the envelope a bit and weaves folk and rock together. That’s our approach to it these days. If you listen to our first EP, “The Devil & The Deep,” it’s more of a folk experiment sort of thing, but our latest EP was the first time we aimed to be less of a folk band. Now you come to a live show and you’re hearing electric guitar, and the way that Calin plays the cello is totally different, so it’s definitely a developing sound.
Q. And I’m sure it’s easy to keep your roots deep when you’re playing constantly with more veteran acts.
A. Absolutely. I think we find a ton of inspiration from bands that we play with. Houndmouth is one band that we got to play with twice last year. Those guys are awesome, we played a Newport Folk Festival sponsored show with them and the Wheeler Brothers last fall at Royale, and I think that band was one of the coolest we’ve gotten to play with. Even our friends here in town, like Darlingside and Tall Heights, are two bands we play with as much as possible in Boston and out on the road. We’re always bringing inspiration from what they’re doing and developing. The bands that we play with are usually the bands that we’re listening to on the road and who we’re talking about.
Q. What’s the most un-folk things you guys are listening to in the van?
A. Oh man, we listen to a whole bunch of stuff.
Martin. I’ve been listening to a lot of Action Bronson lately. That might not be too stereotypical of what a folk band should be listening to. That’s one that’s definitely a bit out of pocket.
Calin. We’ve been listening to the new Eminem album a lot, too.
Devin. We’re big Frightened Rabbit Fans, too. Those guys kill it, and it’s cool that they’ve gotten so big on the international scale in the past year. We listen to all of their records a lot. Also, Celine Dion is very often sprinkled in between. Phil Collins, too.
Q. What’s in store for the rest of 2014?
A. There’s a lot that we’re really excited about. We signed with New Frontier in the fall, so our show booking has gotten far beyond what we could’ve hoped for. We have a lot of college shows lined up for the year, a lot of west coast stuff, too. We’ll be down at South by Southwest next month and have some other cool festival announcements that we can’t make yet. We’ll be pretty active all summer though. We’re going to record a new record, too. Not sure when it will be coming out yet, but we’ll be in the studio all of June working on a bunch of new tunes. It’s a new sound and we’re hoping to get a full-length out of it.