It’s dark, damp and cold. The campfire’s doing the best it can. And there’s a guy carrying a stand-up bass on a frantic search for his bandmates. These things aren’t completely out of the ordinary at Bear Creek—for Vagabond Swing. It’s a fitting first encounter with a band that self-describes itself as a “psycho-gypsy-jazz-vaudeville fusion” outfit. There’s no way a band so diverse and fearless could get going anywhere too far from the Big Easy. IN spoke with vocalist/violin/mandolin/percussion player Jon Stone about the band and how the heck you come up with something so utterly unique.
IN: You guys all came together in Lafayette, La., about two-and-a-half hours from New Orleans. Has forming so close to a city so rich in culture influenced the band at all?
STONE: We’re not exactly writing second-line music or Dixieland jazz, but New Orleans has a certain circus feel to it. That spirit definitely carries over to some of our songs and especially our performance style.
IN: What’s the secret to blending all these different styles of music together so seamlessly?
STONE: We all have an open mind musically, and we all really enjoy playing and learning different genres of music. We’re all really glad to have found a group of musicians that are never really satisfied in doing one or two types of tunes all night and being able to play all these different styles keeps it interesting for ourselves. That’s half the battle and why we’re having so much fun doing it.
IN: Last year, you guys embarked on your first national tour. What’s it been like moving from local gigs to going across the country so quickly?
STONE: We’re all blessed to be able to share our sound with more of the country than just the local places. Coming back home is always a treat, but we want as many people as possible to hear what we’re doing. It’s all about sharing the art.
IN: Any wild tour stories?
STONE: On that first tour, we were going 70-plus miles an hour through Wisconsin, and one of our trailer tires completely came off in the middle of nowhere. The wheel rolled straight past us without even getting a flat tire. You can imagine how surreal that experience was. Things get a little dicey when your entire livelihood is barely hanging on three wheels.
IN: Does it get difficult keeping track of so many guys when you’re on a tight tour schedule?
STONE: It’s easy to keep track of people as long as people don’t lose or forget their cell phones. That’s happened before. We try to keep a pretty good line of communication. Rehearsal schedules stay on the same time of day and days of the week. We’re responsible enough to do this. It can be difficult, but it’s just like anything. The more you do it, the better you are at it.
IN: You’ve done some of the bigger music festivals in the South like Wakarusa and Bear Creek. Have you been surprised at how some of the festivals have embraced you?
STONE: It’s exciting. Playing festivals is our favorite thing to do. We’re looking forward to being a part of more of them. We like the ones where you can camp a bit more. That makes the whole experience more connected—not only to us, friends, and new fans, but also to other artists. I’m talking art of all kinds, not just music. When you spend a weekend together with everyone involved, that’s probably the way we would choose to do it.
IN: There’s also the opportunity to play music in some unique settings at these camping festivals.
STONE: Absolutely! At Bear Creek, we set up in the vending area next to a guy who made cigar box guitars and amps. The trumpet and the upright bass weren’t plugged in, and our drummer was playing washboard, but the two guitar players and myself on mandolin were all three plugged into those little amps. We did that for about an hour Saturday and it was quite successful. Not only that, it was a blast.
IN: It has to be neat interacting with people who aren’t sure exactly what’s going on. They just know they like what they hear.
STONE: It works so well for us because we get the crowd involved and can get in the middle of everybody and get their attention in different ways. It’s important for us to keep our shows fresh and entertaining in an interactive way. We feed off of people.
IN: What can we look forward to in the future from you guys?
STONE: After this Handlebar date, we’ll be coming back to Florida over the Mardi Gras season, so keep an eye out for those dates. We’ll also have a follow-up to our debut record, “Soundtrack to an Untimely Death” out in the summer; so also be on the lookout for that.
Photo: Vagabond Swing Official