There’s a lot of lip service given to “artisanal,” “homemade” and “hand-crafted” products these days. It often seems more like a marketing plan drummed up to ensnare hipsters than anything truly authentic. But Coal Town Rounders, the Northeastern Pennsylvania bluegrass group, are not only going through the motions of authenticity, they’re also backing it up with substance: a debut album of Americana music delivered in packaging that was literally put together, by hand, by the band members.
The band — Christopher Kearney (vocals, guitar), Jason Zarnowski (upright bass, vocals), Ian O’Hara (banjo, vocals) and Matthew Hiller (mandolin, vocals) – had been performing strictly traditionals and some contemporary covers on stage, but now the CTRs are armed with a debut album, “How It Used To Be,” which will be released on May 12. It will be available for purchase before that, though, at this weekend’s Susquehanna Breakdown festival at Montage Mountain in Scranton, where the band will return to the main stage on Saturday, May 9.
In anticipation of the band’s first album release and the Breakdown, we recently spoke with Kearney about the process of recording the album, the package production process – which was helmed by Hiller, who has his own printing company, Revival Letterpress — memories of the Breakdown and the band’s steady growth since its inception. Above, we’re also presenting the debut of “Headstone,” the lead track on “How It Used To Be.”
The last we spoke, about a year ago, you had some songs you were working on, but you weren’t playing them live and didn’t have plans to record them. Now you have an album coming out. What changed?
I got over myself (laughs). They weren’t as bad as I thought they were, the tunes that I had written, and the other guys didn’t laugh at me when I brought them to them; they were like, “Oh, that’s pretty good.” And I kinda had a deadline hanging over my head, so it was a little easier. I used to do my homework the morning before school, one of those things.
Why was there a deadline?
Well, we had a finite amount of time to record. We had planned on recording while Shane [O’Hara] was in town for Christmas, and we actually recorded it Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. So we had kind of a self-imposed deadline.
Did working on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day create any tension in your families?
No. Actually we recorded it in my mother’s house and she was out of town, she went to visit my sister for Christmas. So we had the whole house in Factoryville and that’s where we recorded it.
Putting the bluegrass flavor aside for a minute, the album info on Soundcloud says the record “is filtered through a post-punk/DIY ethos.” Can you kind of explain how that manifests itself with the band and on the album?
I didn’t put that in the bio, but (laughs)…It’s more of like the DIY thing. We recorded it ourselves, Matt made all the packaging himself, we stuffed our CDs ourselves. Early on when we were playing a lot locally, we made our own posters and hung up our own posters. It’s that kind of thing. Matt and I grew up going to Sea-Sea’s [in Moosic, Pa.] and going to all the punk and hardcore shows, I mean I still like that kind of music, but just the vibe and the work ethic those bands have, it’s inspiring to us. …
That being said, I like heavy music and I like punk rock and all that kind of stuff, and I also like Hank Williams and I like George Jones and Flatt and Scruggs, but I like to keep them separate. There’s a lot of people who, they kind of play punk rock on acoustic guitars, and I don’t like that at all.
Tell us about the process of creating the packaging for the CD.
The cover was drawn by my friend Tyler Pawelzik of Black Casket Tattoo, and then there was a plate made – I think that’s what it’s called – that has the design backwards, and Matt put it in the printing press and that puts the image on the paper. He actually designed the package itself, like how it folds, he did all of that himself. He took some inspiration from other packages, but overall this design was his. It’s on 100 percent recycling paper, it was die cut. Really a lot went into it. He’s a very intense man, he does everything as intensely as possible. So it was die cut and then he printed them on the press and then we waited for them to dry. They were cut, except for one edge, so they wouldn’t fall apart, so we had to cut them and then we had to pop them out like you would pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, then we folded them and put the CDs and in and put them in little plastic bags so they don’t get wet. It was pretty labor intensive.
Coal Town Rounders will be playing at Susquehanna Breakdown this weekend. You’ve played every incarnation of the festival, right?
Yes, yes, we’re charter members (laughs).
What comes to your mind when you think back on those events?
The first year, it was just like being on that stage was bananas. It was totally crazy to be on that stage and to be at Montage Mountain where all these people played. I mean, you quoted me saying that I shared the stage with Britney Spears, and she retweeted it (laughs); that in itself, I feel like I stepped my internet fame up a bit (laughs). Just hanging out with guys like Pappy and JP (Biondo, of Cabinet) and hanging out with Roy (Williams) and Mitch (Williams) from the Moneynotes and Mike Quinn, it was awesome. The last year, my uncle and my cousin came, and it was a really awesome time. Growing up, he was the cool uncle and all the cousins’ hero, and he was watching us play and he was proud; it was a cool feeling to have my family there.
And last year, we played in front of so many people, it was pretty nuts. We were opposite Floodwood, and I was pretty bummed out about that until we played and there were so many people. And then some naked dude came out of the woods, that was pretty cool.
Since the band formed, have you sensed things growing as far as the shows and even online presence?
Yeah. It blows my mind. Sometimes I’ll look at the numbers – it’s not really high – but that many people know who we are? When we got our first gig at Beynon’s in Lake Sheridan I felt it doesn’t get any better than that. But just every time we play somewhere new and people are into it, it’s magic to me, and I love it.
Band photo by Jason Riedmiller