Dharma Bombs are breathing new life into Americana music

Photo Courtesy of Joey Wharton.
Photo Courtesy of Joey Wharton.

The transition from thrash metal to bluegrass was easier for Richmond-based Dharma Bombs lead vocalist Trey Hall than one might imagine. According to Hall, the only difference between the two genres is a major and a minor key.

Hall played in a hardcore band with Dharma Bombs mandolin and five-string banjo player Chris Gatens before the group formed in 2013. After some lineup changes, they released two EPs in 2016. Produced by Crystal Pistol Records, the band, made up of five former and current VCU students and a James Madison University alum, released its debut album, “Old Time Romance” last year.

With a steady walking bass, swooning horns,  reeds and a foot-tap-inducing swing back-up the opening track, it’s easy to hear regional inspiration in every section. The swanky clarinets and muted trumpets are straight from Bourbon Street, the banjos and mandolins picking bluegrass plucked from atop the Appalachian Mountains. Hall describes this sound as “Appalachian Dixieland,” a phrase he said he made up in an interview when asked to describe Dharma Bombs’ sound.

Hall described the band’s sound as “fusing that New Orleans street music with mountain street music.” Fitting, as he said the band started out by busking on the streets for anyone who would listen, playing with instrument cases open for donations. This shaped their music into the “raucous, southern party sound” they play today.

From the band’s inception until late last year, they performed live regularly, as often as once a week and sometimes much more.

“We burned our candle at both ends,” Hall said. “It was pretty tolling, because we were just nonstop for years on end and that can wear you down. At the time I was doing a lot of screaming, like rowdy bluegrass yelling, and I actually managed to tear my vocal cords.”

Due to Hall’s damaged vocal cords, the band has been on a break since last December. They’ve used this time to write new material and prepare for upcoming shows later this month.

Hall says their new material will be pretty different. The addition of drummer Tekamp has allowed the band to explore new sounds, Hall said.

“We’re just experimenting more rather than playing straightforward Dixie, because that was really fun, but we just want to experiment and push the boundaries a little more,” Hall said.

He says while the new material will sound like recognizable Dharma Bombs, it’s going to be a departure from their old sound.

“It’ll still sound like us,” said Hall. “It’ll still have the horns, the vocal harmonies, pushing the tempo, but it’ll be different.”

He cites musicians like Tyler Childers, Colter Wall and Margo Price as influences on their new sound, saying there will be more of a focus on twang and weird song structures, rather than big choruses with shouting and blaring horns. While those elements will still be present, Hall says they’re focused on evolving their sound.

“Once you do it once, it’s not a novelty, so why make the same record twice?” Hall said.

Hall said the band hopes for a mid-2019 release after hitting the studio this winter.

“A lot of [the new songs] deal with what I’m going through with my voice and cleaning up, so I think some of the songs are a little heavier, both sonically and lyrically.”

Dharma Bombs will make their return to live performances in Richmond on April 28 for the RVA (all day) Block Party featuring NoBS! Brass. Looking further ahead, they’ll play on the main stage at FloydFest in July, a gig Hall said the band is looking forward to since the band members have attended the festival since middle school and high school.

Later this year the band will play at Hoopla, a festival hosted by Devil’s Backbone Brewing Co.

Information on upcoming shows and releases can be found at dharmabombs.com

Quentin Rice Contributing Writer 

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