It’s easy to equate Wilmington’s folk-rock band Driskill to another group of North Carolina’s Americana sons. Ethan Driskill (vocals, guitar, banjo) cites The Avett Brothers’ early years of college touring and unpolished tracks of albums like “Four Thieves Gone” (2006) as a heavy source of inspiration for combining Driskill’s own elements of punk, bluegrass and quick-spitting lyrics.
“Unpolished and raw is what we want to put out,” Driskill agrees.
In fact, when Driskill, JD Williamson (vocals, guitars) and Joel Wise (drums) went into the studio to finish recording their forthcoming EP, “Love, Dreams & Foolish Things,” they especially wanted to avoid sounding overproduced. “I wanted it to sound very real and as close to a live performance as they could be,” Driskill adds.
The 8-track record is rough around the edges in all the right ways. Simultaneously, it’s cohesive—despite recording four songs, including “American Dream,” in 2017 and the final four in 2018 at Logan Manor Studios with Lee Hester.
“We didn’t really know how it was gonna flow together at first,” Driskill admits. “We tend to have a trend where, like, if JD writes the song they’re always more finished than my songs. . . . Typically, the ones I bring to the table are pieces of songs that are like different parts but don’t really make sense together. We have to figure it out like a puzzle almost every time.”
Drummer Joel Wise joined Driskill right after releasing their first record, “Country Blues” (2016), which was recorded at home with only Driskill and Williamson. They then explored sounds and songs as a full band throughout 2017, even picking up bassist Dylan Drake for a time thereafter.
“So with that, we were able to change the songs we [JD and I] had already written and expand on them,” Driskill explains. “We recorded everything ourselves on [‘Country Blues’] and at the time that it sounded great and we were so proud of it. Now, looking back, neither one of us like listening to it at all because it just seemed so dated.”
Drake moved to Iowa last year, but Driskill says the current trio owes a lot of recording and writing on this latest album to their former bandmate. They set up to record “Love, Dreams & Foolish Things” as if at a live show and tracked very few instrumentals individually throughout the process—meaning they executed as many songs as a whole, from start to finish.
“[Drake] used to work with Beta Radio,” he adds, “so I immediately knew this was going to work out. . . . Dylan was the one who helped us finish recording and layering on some individual guitar at his home studio in Jacksonville [before he moved].”
Most of the songs on the record are reflecting on human tendencies and motivations: Why we do some of the things we do. Driskill penned “Hopeless Romantic” in 2015 about his infatuation with his now wife, who is expecting their first baby boy this March.
“For the longest time, it was a one-way thing,” Driskill admits. “But that was just like a phase of my life where I felt like a hopeless romantic, and it’s just a funny throw-away phrase that people use.”
In “Hopeless Romantic,” Driskill explores an inexplicable draw lyrically, “songs about love” and hopes she would call against advice to “let this one go.” He also tells a story with the gentle pluck of a banjo, which kicks up the pace—evoking the same sense of optimism our narrator feels.
“Better Than That (Sweet Version)” is carried over from “Country Blues,” which originally was featured as a more fast-paced track. “Righteous Man” was written by Driskill, Williamson, Wise and Drake, and actually gives the sense of sitting on the back porch with them as they gently play it out—unlike a lot of songs which are purposefully more of an in-your-face listening experience, like in “American Dream.”
“We try to play as loud and as obnoxiously as possible [at live shows],” Driskill quips. “People will get really annoyed and leave, or it will draw them in.”
“American Dream” was born of election season and these days of social media and obsessions. Driskill—in a very punk-rock fashion—bluntly questions the driving forces behind what people are most passionate about: the endless chase of success or at least the appearance of success.
“Why do we care so much about the idea of an ‘American dream’?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s funny because we never offer a solution . . . we’re just fussing about how we focus too much on money and success and fame. And that’s all people want. . . . It’s not that important in the grand scheme of things.”
They close the record with a hymn, “Uncloudy Day,” which has become somewhat of a tradition for every album now. All three members find the hymns they chose for “Just As I Am” (“Country Blues”) and “Uncloudy Day” (“Love, Dreams & Foolish Things”) as perfect ways to close both albums.
“All three of us love Jesus and try to convey that as an underlying theme in most of our songs,” Driskill explains. “At the end of the day, there’s a much bigger picture to be seen beyond our daily struggles, and we want people to know the hope we ultimately look to. It’s definitely not uncommon for artists in our genre to play hymns (especially live) but we hope that people know the real message within all of the songs.”