Some Q&A with Ironwood Rain
Ironwood Rain was born in the spring of 2008, when Scotte Burns formed an acoustic rock trio cover band to indulge a long-held project goal. As personnel changed, Scotte was joined by childhood friend and longtime bandmate, Mike Kloepfer (an ex-pirate performer) and singer/songwriter JJ Maestas (a Craigslist find) and the trio began writing original tunes. Throughout the inevitable personnel changes, manager Toni Burns (Scotte’s wife) helps keep the band on track.
Q: When did you join Ironwood Rain and how would you describe your role in the band?
Scotte: I am the founder and leader of IR, as well as running its business in partnership with my irrepressible mate. I share vocals and songwriting with my brothers in the band and produce most of our promotional content. Being the bassist, that also makes me the “people person.”
Mikey: Scotte and I have played together in bands since as far back as Junior High School. He said, “I’m putting a band together – if you want to play guitar, the job is yours.” I said yes; shortly thereafter we were so very fortunate to meet JJ, forming the ‘core TRIO’ of the band. JJ’s voice is so distinct, and it blends so beautifully with Scotte’s. It was a cinch for me to add the missing harmony, and voila!
My role in the band? I play guitar, sing, write and arrange songs. Scotte is the heart and life blood of the band; JJ is the soul: I guess I’m the ‘ears.’…just a-flappin’ in the breeze…Ha! That’s a funny, strange visual… LOL
JJ: I joined in October 2008 with a slew of new material inspired by a recent breakup. Because the ad I answered so closely matched my resume, my role is easy: to play what comes naturally. I provide a solid rhythmic foundation on guitar and sing to my heart’s content. I also gave myself the role of multi-instrumentalist with the occasional use of the harmonica or mandolin.
Toni: The first gig the guys played – this was when they were still a trio – was a benefit concert for one of our school families whose father was battling cancer. During the performance, Scotte announced that Ironwood Rain was available for events, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. and they should “just see the lady in the hat.” I am always wearing some type of hat or another and that evening was no exception. I excitedly looked around the audience to see what other woman was wearing a hat before I realized that Scotte was talking about me! That’s when I began as the promotions-booking-marketing agent, merchandise sales person, bouncer, face person, schmoozer, etc., a/k/a band mom (I bring the water and the oranges). :0)
Q: How would you describe your sound?
Toni: Loud and carrying – I’ve been told that my laugh can be heard a mile away. Wait, that was a question for the musicians, wasn’t it?
Mikey: It’s kind of raspy and nasal – kind of like a whale on helium going through a wind tunnel. I do try to keep myself healthy and not catch the cold or flu… it wreaks havoc on my voice. My claim to fame is “well, you’re better than ___(insert well-known Country star, whose name I will omit so as not to incriminate… anybody.) Is that what you mean? No? Oh, well let’s see…
We started as an acoustic TRIO, but have evolved into a full-fledged band. (The baaahnd, maaahn.) Our sound is difficult to describe – which is soooo uncommon!!! You never hear bands say that!
Scotte: Our sound has really evolved quite a bit since Trio, our first CD, which was almost entirely guitar and vocals with a Crosby Stills & Nash vibe. Adding the drums for Burn the Ships in 2010 gave us a little more progressive edge and push, while the newest music we’re taking into the studio this summer is taking that and adding a bluesier touch. I don’t think we sound enough like anyone else to compare but fans of Norah Jones, Coldplay, Moody Blues and Jason Mraz crossover to us the most on Jango and other internet radio stations.
JJ: This question is always one of the toughest for me to answer. Adjectives seem to diminish the ideas they fail to express. Let’s see….we play acoustic-rock-pop-blues with multi-layered vocals for people of at least a few year’s worth of life experiences.
Q: Who does most of the song writing and can you describe your song writing process?
Scotte: At first, we brought individual songs to arrange for the band, but now we all share in the songwriting, though we still bring different strengths. Mikey is king of themes and can write these marvelous passages, like those “The Attic” and “Pursuit” were built around. My best contributions, I think, have been lyrical, while JJ creates amazing hooks and progressions. Mikey and I are still waiting for him to come up with something bad… showoff.
JJ: I love that we all share in the song-writing process. My ideas come in every size; from the smallest snippet lovingly coaxed into song to the fully formed compositions that stubbornly get stuck in my head until I figure out the chords. Typically I will start with a chord progression and a melody until the music itself suggests a lyrical theme. Working out new song ideas with the guys is one of the most rewarding parts of being in this group.
Mikey: When it comes to songwriting, JJ’s specialty is the songs with the ‘big hooks’ – and I mean a hook you can land a Marlin with. Scotte specializes in songs of a cerebral nature, blues, and ballads, and our ‘signature’ songs like Burn the Ships. He’s the guy with all the words in his pocket. And then there’s me; I like to think of myself as the guy who writes the ‘other’ songs; you know, the odd ones that kind of round out the repertoire. I tend to go for the more cinematic and atmospheric songs; haunting ghost stories, pirates ships chasing each other across vast expanses of open ocean, long, late nights on the open highway… you know. I go for ‘feel.’
Think of it this way: JJ writes the hits; Scotte writes the signature songs; and Mikey writes the… un-U-su-al tunes. For the most part. But we all cover all the bases at one time or another.
In the beginning, I was the one always coming up with the ‘in-between part’ – the bridge, or the instrumental passage, the ‘missing piece’ that completes the song. However, as the band has matured, we have found our feet as a group who creates songs together. There is an ever-increasing element of collaboration in the songwriting and arranging, and it’s a great thing. Someone always seems to come up with a part for a song that nobody else would have thought of, and it turns out to be just what the song needed.
Does that answer the question? I could go on and on…
Q: Yeah, we better move on here…If you get stuck and need some inspiration, do you have any rituals or activities to get the juices flowing again?
JJ: When I inevitably hit the creative wall I like to approach the song from different instruments. Sometimes just another guitar triggers new ideas. Other times I will use the piano or mandolin to flesh out the ideas. Altering tunings or using a capo to hear different voicings also helps me receive the new songs properly. When appropriate I have been known to let an idea steep for years before adding the final pieces.
Scotte: I’m very event-driven in my personal songwriting; I can go a long time between songs until some emotional trigger falls but then they come in numbers. I love when one of the guys brings a set of lyrics and has me collaborate on them, though – that comes easily and is kind of like living in their world for a while. What comes out of that is really a great partnership, too.
Mikey: Personally, I get a lot of ideas while watching movies. What can I say? I suppose it shows in the songs I write. Honestly though, I usually bring an idea to the guys and say “here’s what I have… I’m missing X.” And someone will inevitably come up with a cool idea – one that I would never have thought of. We really do balance each other out very nicely.
Q: What do you enjoy most about being in the band? Least?
Toni: Spending time with the guys, meeting new folks, getting involved in charity organizations, and the shot of single-malt scotch Sean Pound (band fan and friend) buys me at each performance. The least would have to be the accounting/books.
Scotte: I’m just in it for the chicks. (Well, okay, my chick – right Toni?) Seriously, it’s all about the music and the family that grows from it. When you can play an original song live and see folks singing the words, or when they play it for their kids or at weddings; when your music becomes the soundtrack for the events in good people’s lives…that’s why you do it. Least? Moving equipment – we play for free but get paid for schlepping gear. hehe.
Mikey: Most: I live for those moments when everything comes together: the drums and bass are synced in a groove you could ride like a surfer on a wave, the guitars are playing off each other like four hands on one big, four-handed, guitar-playing monster thingy, and the vocal harmonies lock together and ring like one great big voice. It’s a feeling that’s so tangible, you swear it’s a separate living thing that you could reach out and touch.
Least? Hmm…well…looking for a drummer. Again. Or feedback in the monitors. Ouch.
JJ: Playing with Scotte and Mikey really makes me elevate my musicianship and we’ve forged a strong friendship that makes it easy to go to rehearsal. We continue to have fun and grow as both friends and as musicians.
Q: Do you have any advice for other bands on how to keep a band focused and together?
JJ: As a band we allow the songs to dictate who sings lead or how to divide the guitar parts. We share a strong commitment to our band and our common goals. Keep it fun. Remember we are PLAYING music here.
Scotte: Make sure you know what everyone’s expectations are, share some time sometimes that isn’t just band stuff, and be mature enough to realize when you need to stand by an idea and defend it and when you should shut up and listen. Oh yeah, and don’t be an asshole. That’s really important.
Mikey: We have a mantra: “Let The Song Decide.” JJ said it first I think, and it just stuck.
And for good reason. That simple phrase has served us well, allowed each of us to blossom and develop as individual musicians and songwriters, as well as enabling us to progress and mature as a creative collective. And it works in so many situations and circumstances. If the music sounds good, then politics, finances, logistics, equipment malfunctions, weather, acts of God, and petty squabbles are irrelevant.
Most important: Know your bottom line; what motivates you, what drives you to be a musician in the first place. That keeps you centered as everything around you goes all haywire – and in the music biz, it will. I’m in it for the music. In that perfect moment when it all comes together, all life’s problems and worries disappear, and the universe is in harmony… quite literally.
It is my hope that the same holds true for the people in the audience. It is my aim that through my craft, the audience can experience that feeling of delight and harmony I get when I play music.
Toni: Check the egos at the door and don’t let spouses/girlfriends get involved. I know, that sounds odd since I play a large part in the administrative process for the band. But that’s where I stop – The music/creative side is all the boys. It is one of the few times I keep my opinions in check (unless asked).
Q: If there’s one thing you could change about Denver’s original music scene, if you could wave that magic wand, what would that be?
JJ: I’d like to see more people out supporting local music. Many of the music clubs have little to no clientele other than those brought by the bands themselves.
Toni: Musicians would get paid what they are worth. There is so much talent in the Colorado (not just Denver) music scene, but the opportunities to make a living as an original band are woefully slim.
Scotte: I’d like to see it expanded into more venues that are currently just hosting cover acts. Most of us do some covers to stay working for the occasional wedding or corporate thing, but with all the varied talent in Denver (amazing folks like Chris Daniels, Susan Phelan, Something Underground, Dave Preston, James and the Devil, Dechen Hawk, Lost Point…I could go on for pages!) It’s a shame to not have more well-marketed places where they could be seen and supported. And that’s hard enough for the rock, R&B and jazz folks – where the hell is the original country artist supposed to go in Denver?
Mikey: More good venues for original bands to play. And the publicity – getting the word out so that those venues can sustain themselves and thrive. Gotta get people in front of us to hear the music! And for the musicians themselves to come together and support each other, challenge each other to create better and better music. But that’s already beginning to happen, thanks to some great people, many of whom we have gotten to know over the past few years. My personal musical mantra: “Keep the Music Alive!”
Q: What’s coming up for Ironwood Rain? What do you hope to accomplish in the next year or two?
Scotte: Our main goal short-term is recording the third CD. We’re looking forward to working on that with some old friends and a few new ones, and have been enjoying the songwriting immensely. Business wise, Toni and I, along with Wendy Clark from Tequila Mockingbird and a couple other folks from Denver music, are looking at some options for a music services company, using some of the skills and experience we’ve picked up about the new music business the last few years.
Longer term, IR will be expanding our roles in our charity work with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (2nd Annual CDRelief Concert will be in October, y’all!) and Voices United for Veterans, with whom I’ve accepted a role as tour director for their western states concert tour projects. I’d like to get a long-planned film version of our song “The Attic” underway and also a northeast states tour, where we are building some contacts now.