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On the up and up: (l-r) Nate Pallace, Jeff Fox, Kelly Murphy and Tom Hall of Empire State Troopers.

Snow Patrol

Empire State Troopers profess their love of upstate New York, and feed on its virtues as inspiration for their music

By Kirsten Ferguson

Photos By Leif Zurmuhlen

 

We’re at Empire State Troopers’ headquarters, a small house near Ballston Lake, where a recent snowfall has glazed the driveway and made it difficult for guitarist Tom Hall to get in with the band’s rear-wheel-drive van. As bassist Jeff Fox and drummer Nate Pallace head out into the cold night air to help Hall shovel the drive, singer Kelly Murphy excitedly explains how this incident represents the true spirit of Empire State Troopers. Not deterred by bad weather, geographic isolation or poor economic prospects, the members of the hard-rock band proudly call upstate New York their home.

“We’re representing all of upstate with the name ‘Empire State Troopers,’” Murphy says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re from Buffalo or Syracuse or the Catskills. The people that live in the Empire State are a special breed of people. New York City is different. We could be there, but we’re not. We’d rather be out here, being real. Fuck the hipster bullshit. It’s the antiheroes up here.”

Rush plays on the living-room turntable and a copy of The Redneck Manifesto sits on the coffee table next to the Quran and Guitar Army, John Sinclair’s book about the MC5, as Murphy mentions a new declaration on the band’s Web site. Written by their friend Matt Toomey, an Albany musician, the statement serves as the band’s own manifesto, a testament to the oft-unsung virtues of the upstate cities and rural lands that stretch from Lake Erie to the Hudson River.

“We are the Empire State because we alone have all the makings of a great empire,” it reads. “Coal. Grain. Timber. Iron. Granite and Slate. Livestock. Game. Fresh Water. Our per-acre agricultural output far exceeds that of any other state. We are too far inland to be hurt by hurricanes, yet too coastal and hilly to see tornadoes of any significance. Long after the world’s oil is gone, and the deserts once again are parched, we will still have our canals, our rivers and our lakes. This is our birthright, and from all this—from the hardcore squats of mid-1990s Buffalo to the North Country metal parties in July, from the explosives, the grease fires, the dog fights and homemade tattoos—Empire State Troopers make their rock.”

“What he wrote is really good,” Murphy says. “What I really like about what he’s saying is that it works to our advantage to not be disaffected in a big city like L.A. I don’t hear anything good coming out of there. It takes something to live in this environment. The Northeast really does produce some good music.”

“Long winters and no jobs. That’s the ‘trooper’ part of our name,” Pallace quips.

There are Web sites devoted to the question of whether there is an actual upstate New York identity, one that unites the New England-leaning hill towns of the east with the Great Lakes communities of the west, or the farm fields of the rural expanses with the struggling post-industrial upstate cities. Murphy, who moved from her hometown of Buffalo to the Capital Region in 2000, thinks there is a common upstate experience that unites her and Hall (her husband and also a native of western New York) with Pallace and Fox, who both hail from the Saratoga Springs area.

“Our band is a band of loners,” she says. “That’s the true upstate New York attitude. We work hard, but make time for other stuff, like playing in this band. What we have in common is that we’re all antisocial, so that works out really well. Part of the reason you’re up here is you’re kind of a loner.”

The members of Empire State Troopers do have things in common beyond their go-it-alone upstate mentality. Musically, they also share an appreciation for ’70s metal and hard-rock bands like Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult, although there are plenty of discrepancies in their individual musical preferences, as Fox points out, from Murphy’s taste in British metal to Pallace’s appreciation for indie-rock bands from Louisville, Ky. A comment on a local message board once infamously described the band as an unlikely cross between Steve Albini’s uncompromising rock band Shellac and “Love Is a Battlefield” vocalist Pat Benatar. “Before I was in the band, [stoner rock band] Kyuss and Heart was my combination” for describing EST, says Fox.

The band first started playing together in 2001, after Pallace and Murphy met at a show by local rock group Small Axe. (Murphy currently plays bass in Small Axe, and also in St. Jude Pray for Us, a musical duo with Steve Gaylord, with whom she formerly played in now-defunct Albany trio the Wasted.) Although they didn’t warm up to each other right away due to some sort of drunken miscommunication, Pallace recalls being impressed that Murphy “was wearing an Iron Maiden shirt and totally rocking out.”

Murphy’s freewheeling spirit, in evidence onstage when she fronts EST, was born out of the Buffalo scene, where she played in three or four bands at a time before moving east. “This scene was a total culture shock for me,” she says. “Buffalo is more tucked in; it feels safer, more accepting. People are locked into their own universe. You don’t feel so many eyes are on you, so there’s more risk-taking as far as the music and art scene, from my experience.”

“Here it’s a contest to see who can stay the most still,” Hall says, quoting a local music fan’s description of attendees at Capital Region rock shows. But Murphy also praises the dedication and maturity of bands in these parts, mentioning groups like Complicated Shirt, Che Guevara T-Shirt and the Kamikaze Hearts as compatriots in the local rock scene.

EST burned through four variations of their lineup before Jeff Fox joined in 2006. “We were a band for three years but we only practiced once a year,” Murphy laughs. “I’m so glad Jeff’s in the band now. He keeps us on our toes a little. We’ve never had someone in the band as on the ball and motivated as Jeff. Instead of just talking about it, we actually do it.”

Thanks in part to Fox’s friendship with recording engineer Jason Loewenstein, the band now have a fully mixed and mastered recording for the first time since forming. The six-song EP Upstate Again was released last week at shows in Northampton, Mass., and Brooklyn, and at Valentine’s in Albany.

“[Loewenstein] did a real rock recording,” Murphy says.

“It’s awesome,” adds Fox. “There are no effects on it.”

After listening to the hard- rocking CD in the car, I remark to Loewenstein in an e-mail about how the CD sounded great blasting out of the speakers. That’s “one of the touchstones of a good engineering job, and especially for this band in my opinion,” he replies. “I believe people will drive too fast while listening to their record!”

Fox met Loewenstein while living for a time in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where he lived across the hall from the musician, his wife and their “big black hairy mean potbellied pig.”

“It actually at tacked me and bit my knee,” says Murphy, describing her first encounter with the unusual housepet.

Perhaps best known for his tenure as drummer for the legendary indie-rock band Sebadoh, Loewenstein also currently plays in Fiery Furnaces, in addition to his work recording other bands. “My involvement with EST was rather straightforward,” Loewenstein says in an e-mail. “I met and became a friend of Jeff’s when he was living in Brooklyn, and he gave me a call when it came time to record EST, which he had recently joined. I had confidence that I would dig it because of my fond impressions of the other bands that Jeff had been involved with up in Saratoga. . . . I was right. EST are not an indie rock band, but the rhythm section carries forward some of the best aesthetics of the harder bands that came from Chicago in the 1990s, which is paired with classic, heavy ’70s ‘highway rock’ and punk songwriting topped off with great vocals.”

EST recorded with Loewenstein at Fox’s parents’ lake house in Crown Point, New York, on Lake Champlain. “Jeff had access to the fairly typical DIY recording scenario, a room with 30-foot ceilings built out of rough-cut, 2-foot-thick Canadian timber imported from British Columbia, with large glass windows overlooking a large body of water,” adds Loewenstein, facetiously.

Pallace describes the experience of recording with Loewenstein as “super cool and easy. He’s really good at what he does. He’s really mellow, a very even guy. No bullshit. There was no pressure.”

“He was into the same kind of music we were into,” Murphy adds. “I was happy to find out he was a big fan of Skynyrd’s First and . . . Last.”

The finished album captures the live essence of the band well. “One or two takes per song were all that was necessary; all basic tracks were done live and with few overdubs,” says Loewenstein. “They are one of relatively few bands that I know of whose recordings are proof that they are of an embarrassingly rare breed of great live bands. This immediately sets them apart from the current landscape of bands. . . . They are the real deal.”

Armed with the new recording, Empire State Troopers plan to “strategically” tour. “I think we’re all feeling there’s some momentum,” Murphy says. “We’re all realistic enough to know what the situation is [with the music industry], but we enjoy playing the music. We’re going to try to play and get it out there. There is no other option these days. You just do it because you want to do it.”

Spoken like a true upstater.


ROUGH MIX

Kids Rock! Scotia-based NoteWorthy Kidz, a group whose goal is to raise money to buy instruments and lesson materials for Schenectady-area students in grades 2 through 8, kicked off their second annual Midwinter Music Festival at Schenectady County Community College last weekend. The festival continues this Saturday (Jan. 12) with a Country and Bluegrass Showcase, beginning at noon in the college’s Carl B. Taylor Auditorium; in addition to the eight scheduled performers, a songwriters workshop will take place from 4 to 5 PM. Tickets are $10 at the door. Next Saturday, Jan. 19, the festival concludes with the Blues and Bluegrass Blast, featuring Kim Simmonds. For more on the organization or the shows, visit www.noteworthykidz.org.

Old Name, New Game The bacon cocktails are no more. Off-the-beaten-path nightspot Noche has been ever-so-slightly reconfigured, and will experience a rebirth this Friday as Jack Rabbit Slims. According to promoter and booking agent Vegas Nacy, the club, which sits at 895 Broadway in North Albany, is getting a major overhaul. “We are tearing the back wall out and putting in a permanent stage,” Nacy says, and “eventually a real Harley will be mounted on the wall behind the bar.” Sounds drastic, but it’s probably more appropriate than, say, 35 paper lanterns. To mark the establishment’s passage into the realm of music venue, Friday’s grand opening will feature music from Zeppelin tribute band Physical Graffiti; on Saturday, Black End Blue, a Neil Diamond/Johnny Cash act seen on TV’s America’s Got Talent, takes the stage. On Thursdays, the club will host We Own the Night, a DJ-party event that Nacy hopes will combine “the personality of the Q and the maturity of Fenders.” Sounds like a good time to us! For more info on upcoming events, call Jack Rabbit Slims at 434-4540.

—John Brodeur

Let us know about local-music news and happenings for inclusion in Rough Mix: E-mail John Brodeur at jbrodeur@metroland.net or call (518) 463-2500 ext. 145.



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