When most people think of upstate New York, they either imagine bucolic landscapes or working-class towns. As natives of Binghamton, the members of Driftwood hail from a working town, but play music rooted in the land, leaning alternately into folk, old-time, country, punk, and rock, depending on their personal moods and their songs’ needs.
“It’s sometimes tough to keep any sort of focus on style or sound when you have three different songwriters,” guitarist Dan Forsyth concedes. “But it also allows us to branch out and explore in ways other bands don’t. Also, I think it’s important, as a band, to ask ourselves ‘Is this a good next step?’ I think everyone is very excited to know that it is.” Describing the Driftwood sound, banjo player Joe Kollar offers, “I consider our sound to be more of an attitude and an approach — the result of all of our influences in a completely open musical forum where the only stipulation is to use bluegrass instruments and create it from the heart.”
That’s as close to being pinned down as Driftwood ever gets. Such has always been the case for artists blurring and blending genre lines in order to innovate. Yes, they wield old-time instruments, but they do so with a punk-rock ethos. “I do not know much about punk music, but I do know that it gives me a feeling of tearing into something without inhibition,” violinist Claire Byrne says, adding, “Old-time music has the same feeling for me. The music was a release for people living extremely hard lives in harsh conditions. In this way, the two styles of music are very similar: It’s digging in and making a statement. It’s rocking out and feeling totally reborn through the song.”
Driftwood has been digging in and rocking out since their 2005 formation, playing an average of 150 shows a year. “In the beginning, we hit the road constantly with an all-or-nothing attitude,” Forsyth confides. “We were doing it with a lot of passion, but had no thoughts about long-term sustainability. Life outside of the band was minimal. One thing that I think we started to notice was, when you’re always in it, you have no perspective and you start to lose yourself in a weird way.”
As such, gigging and traveling that much can’t help but influence and inform the band, individually and collectively. In the past, they used the stage to work out arrangements of new songs. For City Lights, they used the studio. “Keeping this kind of touring schedule, we have thought of recording albums as a sort of secondary thing and considered ourselves a ‘live’ band. We learn so much on the road and this kind of work has always felt productive,” Forsyth explains. “It wasn’t until this last album that we took some time off to learn more about being in the studio. We wanted to take our time and record on our own terms.”
According to Byrne, their own terms included “taking a step forward with the production and the arrangements.” Kollar tacks “learning” on, for good measure, while Forsyth adds “good songs and bigger arrangements, and sounds than we had not previously achieved.”