We had the enjoyable experience of interviewing Caravan of Thieves not long after their January 18 show at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH. Please read a bit about the band (adapted from http://caravanofthieves.com/) before reading the interview that follows.
Caravan of Thieves, a gypsy swing folk band, began with married couple Fuzz and Carrie Sangiovanni performing as an acoustic duo. In 2008, the band expanded to include violinist Ben Dean and double bass player Brian Anderson. The quartet released their debut full-length album, Bouquet, in 2009, and took their show on the road. According to the band, “This idea of bringing the street performance to the stage led us to gypsy music and the 1930’s swing era as these are free feeling, charismatic performances by real entertainers. With this as the musical backdrop, combined with our fascination with macabre images and sharp-witted sarcasm, we began writing happy sounding pop songs with pretty harmonies, dark thoughts and creepy characters.” In 2010, they released their next album, Mischief Night, a live recording of a sold out show in Fairfield, CT. Their third album, suitably titled The Funhouse, was released in 2012. Fuzz explains, “We had a concept going in, both from a sound and production standpoint, lyrically and thematically. A lot of crazy stuff happens on the road, and we took our experiences from on and off the stage, and brought them into the studio with us.” Caravan of Thieves is currently touring the U.S. To find tour dates, visit their website: http://caravanofthieves.com/tour
Please describe your path to forming Caravan of Thieves.
Fuzz: There was always music around my house growing up, lots of Motown, Jazz, Brazilian, etc so as a kid I loved listening to my parents records. My sister and I used to take junk from around the garage and bang on it and pretend we were in a band. Eventually I picked up a guitar and learned how to actually play and write songs which led to discovering new music. Early jazz, swing and world music have been some of my favorites over the years and after Carrie and I met and were deciding where to go next with our sound as a singing acoustic duo, I had the thought to infuse some of the swing rhythms and gypsy spirit of the Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli Hot Club from the 1930’s. With the right instrumentation it could be reminiscent of this gypsy jazz sound, and we could keep it acoustic while delivering enough energy and rhythm to make it a fun performance. Ben and Brian were the right players and available at this time so it all came together quickly.
Carrie: As soon as I could talk I started singing… according to my mom. I grew up in a very musical family. My father is a singer/songwriter who was always playing and having me find harmonies with him when I was young. He introduced me to all kinds of music from folk to classical to classic rock. Music resonated with me so deeply as long as I can remember and though I have many other interests, it has really been one constant thing in my life that I knew would always be a part of me. Fuzz and I met and connected instantly. We just knew we wanted to be together and shortly after we met we tried playing a few shows together and realized that music was another strong connection between us. It took us a few years of playing and writing together to find our way to what is now Caravan of Thieves. We loved the sound of our voices together and playing our acoustic guitars but wanted to fill out the sound and give it a bit more rhythm, backbone and flavor. So we looked to gypsy jazz as a style to incorporate into our folk/pop writing.
Your sound has been described as “gypsy flavored songwriting.” What do you make of that depiction?
Fuzz: Gypsy flavored songwriting is a fairly accurate description, it certainly was part of our initial intention, as I mentioned in the last question. But we prefer not to have a single phrase that describes our sound as there are limits to that we couldn’t fully commit to. Folk, pop, classical, flamenco, Dixieland and even some comedy and theater also contribute to the overall sound and performance so the gypsy flavor is just one of the ingredients. But it does spark much of the inspiration for what we do, even when the song doesn’t sound much like gypsy music.
Carrie: Gypsy jazz music is definitely an influence on our style and spirit but we are in no way a traditional gypsy jazz band. There are plenty of very talented musicians who do that and we will leave that to them!
There has been a recent resurgence of folk-based music with such bands as The Head and the Heart as well as Mumford & Sons. Where do you see yourself in connection with this genre?
Carrie: I see us fitting in on the acoustic/folk resurgence but maybe coming from a little further left of center than bands like these. The broad genre of “folk” music is something that people will always look back to amongst all of the modern trends and sounds because there is nothing quite like people playing their instruments and telling a story in a very raw and exposed format.
Fuzz: You could say that in relation to those artists and genre, which we do enjoy, we are all acoustic based music with thoughtful songwriting. But other than that, we have carved out our own little niche that is pretty different conceptually and sonically than a lot of the new folk music.
I especially like the vocal harmonizing on “Rattlesnake.” What is it like combining and integrating sounds as a band?
Carrie: Thank you. Fuzz and I have been singing together for about 10 years now and have really found a way to mesh our voices to almost sound like one. Though we both enjoy singing on our own from time to time, there is something really special about creating a sound together. Brian and Ben really complete the picture with the upright bass and violin. We often treat the violin as a third voice either doubling or harmonizing our parts.
Fuzz: Yea, it’s similar to other arts such as cooking, painting or poetry where the combination of colors or flavors affect the senses and in turn, an emotional response. Certain combinations of sounds, pitches and rhythms can really affect the listener’s mood so as a composer and arranger you have to always consider the listener and how they will be affected by your work. We experiment a lot with this stuff and constantly revise based on our own reactions and feelings as well as the audience’s.
How would you describe the difference between the feel of your album, “Bouquet” and your more recent music?
Fuzz: Bouquet was written and recorded all within the first ten months of us being Caravan of Thieves. We had a very specific concept going in, both musically and visually. We wanted to capture something like a street performance or a gypsy camp spirit and the sound and feel of just the four of us playing and singing together in the room, so that was a recording and performance objective. But in addition, there was an emphasis on the macabre and fantastic when it came to songwriting, which made it almost theatrical at times. We maintain a lot of that still, but over the years we have broadened the palate a bit more.
Carrie: Some of our newest material is slightly less gypsy flavored and less far out, as a change of pace for us. We have a few new ones that have a little more of an old time swing feel, looking back to some of the classic love songs. And dance songs. But still with a sense of humor to it all if course.
The video for “Raise the Dead” has an uplifting, communal feel. What role(s) do you see music playing in shaping communities?
Fuzz: Music is universal in its appeal and language, and historically it has brought people of varied race, nationality, religion and gender together as both participants and spectators. Some of those prejudices and divisions in the population only exist within the realms of our spoken language and become conceptualized and propagated as a result. But the musical language is void of all that and focuses on a more primal and emotional connection between people. I feel music contains the fundamental elements that matter most for social connection and community.
Carrie: And that is so clear to us at all of our shows, especially when we perform “Raise the Dead” live. We often close with it by getting off stage, standing in the crowd unplugged and having the whole audience sing, stomp, clap and move with us. It’s a final connection we all make together and at that point it feels a lot less like a show and more of a community event that we all participate in together equally.
Proceeds from some of your song purchases have gone to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which I think is really great. What inspired you to become involved in this cause?
Fuzz: The increase in joblessness and in turn homelessness and the growing gap between the distribution of wealth amongst classes over the past five to ten years has been concerning for us. And we travel to many parts of the country, where this inequality is loud and clear as well as in our hometown of Bridgeport, CT.
Carrie: Fuzz and I had been writing a few holiday songs, one being an anti consumerism Christmas song called “I Don’t Want Anything for Christmas” so it seemed appropriate to offer them up as holiday downloads to raise money for NAEH and raise awareness. And since we were away on tour for most of the holiday season it was a catchy name for our fall tour: “Homeless for the Holidays”.
Is the band involved in other social justice causes?
Fuzz: Not at this time, but hope to keep active in the future. We just have a few songs that make a nod to some of humanities ongoing social snafus in a fun, sarcastic way. Much of the Funhouse album has a message which knocks some of the systems we have set up for ourselves and the pitfalls that go along with many of them. Its essentially the theme of the album. See the lyrics to the last song on the album “The Funhouse Exit”, it pretty much sums that up.
In what ways is your music feminist?
Carrie: I wouldn’t say our music is overtly feminist, and if anything not even very gender specific, since its Fuzz and I singing all the songs together. But some of the underlying themes are of equality and fairness amongst all people, in a variety of situations so in that respect you can find a connection in some of the songs.
I really like your cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” What and who have been your stylistic influences?
Fuzz: Well, Queen is one of them! Along with other art rock and classically influenced pop from the 60s and 70s. Beatles very much so. But Django Reinhardt and other swing music from that era such as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway are big influences as well as quirky songwriters like Tom Waits and a variety of classical composers (mostly Romantic Era).
You have toured with other great artists. What was it like touring with Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris?
Carrie: We didn’t actually tour with Emmylou Harris or Nanci Griffith, we just shared a bill on a big show in Ann Arbor, MI. Glen Campbell was performing as well. It was a great night of music though and we all learned a lot watching the legends at work!
What’s next for Caravan of Thieves?
Fuzz: Carrie and I are writing a lot right now. Our plan is get in the recording studio in the next couple of months and get a record done in time for a midyear album release. Lots of US tour dates being planned, summer festivals and some UK dates on the horizon as well.
Carrie: We hope to also put together and release a few more videos, maybe simpler production and just have more of our music out there in new and creative ways.
What feedback do you have for aspiring artists?
Fuzz: No career happens overnight so it’s important to be patient with yourself and enjoy each step of the journey. The journey in many ways could last your whole life so I’d say don’t get caught chasing the dangling carrot without appreciating what you have achieved so far. A positive attitude can be the most important tool for survival in a career that presents so many challenges along the way.
Carrie: And challenge is the mother of invention, as it’s been since the dawn of time. You have to face the challenges with enthusiasm, so it helps to do what you really love, both artistically and in your day to day. If you go for the quick and easy payoff you can wind up in a situation that doesn’t inspire you and/or forces you into a scenario that’s not right for your lifestyle.
-Sem & Strike