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Americana pie: (l-r) Seamus McNulty, Andy Sink, Matt Begley and Orion Palmer of the Sifters. Photo by: Joe Putrock

Much Is On the Way
Americana rockers the Sifters gear up for the release of their debut CD and whatever else— marketing plans, tours, babies—the future may hold

By Erik Hage

The two songwriters and longtime friends at the center of the Sifters are a study in contrast. The mop-topped, hirsute Seamus McNulty (affectionately dubbed “Moose”) putters around the cavernous rehearsal space, nudging wires, aiming mics, stroking his beard thoughtfully and frequently retreating to a corner nook, where his daunting stack of shiny new recording gear sits next to a glowing Mac screen. He makes slow meandering laps, feeling his way along, lost in his own Sisyphian pursuit of sound. (This, McNulty claims, is the “maiden voyage of the mobile recording rig.”)

His cohort, the baseball-capped Andy Sink, admittedly a little ragged from the previous night’s outing with the other Sifters (it’s rare for them all to have a weekend out together without the pressure of a gig), is cheery and chatty. At the space, he cracks wise, launches a few spontaneous rave-ups with drummer Orion Palmer and bass player Matt “Matty” Begley, engages a music journalist in a furiously anaerobic (nearly bloody) session of air hockey, and works out a few keyboard parts with singer-songwriter Brian Bassett, who will guest at their CD release show. Sink exudes genial normalcy; he comes off like the buddy you can cross streams with at the backyard beer party and not feel weird about it.

The Sifters are gearing up for the May 1 release show for their self-titled debut, an eclectic mix of Son Voltish alt-country, searingly tweaked-out Americana, and a few skronked-out and jammy tendencies. The album is often a push-and-pull between Sink’s more directly alt-rural tendencies and McNulty’s brooding, more experimental fare.

A couple of interview sessions with all four members—a Saturday-eve round of pints and a Sunday rehearsal—back up Sink’s simple assessment of their chemistry: “We’ve been playing together for a while and we like each other. . . . We have a lot of fun, and that definitely comes out.” With the Sifters there is little subtext, preciousness or weighing of words.

An illustrative scene: at the Larkin, Palmer (the earnest, wide-eyed, polite junior member) asks the late-arriving Begley (tattooed, gravel-voiced, Tim Robbins-looking, elder-brother figure), “When did you grow a George Michael Beard?” Begley’s first recorded words: “Hang on—I have to go thrash Orion.” Sink mutters, “Uh, you might want to turn the tape off.” (Fortunately, Palmer escapes unscathed.)

The debut album is the culmination of a long history of friendship, playing together off and on, straying (sometimes to other parts of the country) and inevitably coming back together as the Sifters in late 2001. The group’s roots lie in Cooperstown, where Begley hired Winfield, N.Y., natives Sink and McNulty to work at the Doubleday Café. “Matty and I started playing with this other guy after work, and the other guy brought in Orion. And Seamus started playing soon after,” Sink explains. “Then my car started breaking down a lot so I spent a lot of nights at Matty’s place. We just started playing a lot then. We had talked about doing some shows around Cooperstown or whatever, but there was no master plan by any means.”

The four played under a couple of different monikers (including Powdermonkey) in the Cooperstown-Oneonta area, until wanderlust struck the two songwriters. “We kind of went our separate ways for a while,” McNulty points out. “[Sink] went down south then I went down south.” McNulty attended sound-engineering school in Maryland; he helmed the group’s album sessions and is currently starting Mumblesounds, a mobile recording venture. Sink, also drawn southward, settled in Virginia for a while. “It was a happy time when we decided we were all getting back together after [their] little Southern excursion,” Begley remembers of the trial separation.

Sink was the first to establish a beachhead in Albany, which seemed to have a bit more going on than their native Otsego County; McNulty followed suit and the group began playing local gigs in December 2001, truly catching their stride during Thursday nights at the old Lionheart. (Begley still lives in Cooperstown and Palmer resides in Hartwick.) “We really thrive on live shows,” Sink claims. “That’s where a lot of the piss and vinegar comes in.”

And that points to the paradox of the group’s sound. A few songs into the album, one might regard the Sifters as a fairly conventional alt-country group. But then things start to happen and more experimental (and loud) tendencies emerge: the scorching, art-damaged “Confusion Hotel” and the warped, trashy psycho-blues of “Waiting So Long,” for example. Best not to try and connect the dots; the album is an alternately earthy and surreal Americana landscape, around which McNulty often wraps searingly progressive guitar colors.

“That’s always been the bitch,” Sink says. “Figuring out what to tell people [we sound like].” Begley’s tongue-in-cheek assessment: “Garage alt-country anti-folk.” Palmer remembers, “We were trying to pawn off Johnny Cash meets Sonic Youth for a while.” His bandmates offer a collective guffaw.

As for the immediate future, there’s the matter of their CD release show on Saturday at the Lark Tavern with the Nohellers, the Swindlers and Tom Burre. The event, claims Sink, will be “just a fucking hootenanny.” As for possible tours, he says, “We definitely plan on getting out, now that we have product.” Begley has more serious aspirations: “I want to get on the road and never get off.” (“I miss the road,” sighs Palmer, only half ironically.)

They also have a local marketing plan. “One of the things we haven’t done enough is try to tap into the college scene,” claims Sink. Palmer perks up: “I guess we have to start dating college girls.” Begley brainstorms, “College girls who are involved in events planning.

But as a pending new father (in August), Sink also has some real-life matters on his mind. Upon finding out about the pregnancy, he says he told the other Sifters, “I want to continue and will just have to change a few things.” (“The kid doesn’t have to eat all the time,” jokes Begley.)

But more immediately, there are pints to be drunk and cigarettes to be hand-rolled and smoked on Lark Street among friends that don’t always get a chance to hang out. So with Begley and Palmer out in the Cooperstown area and Sink and McNulty in the Capital Region, do the Sifters consider themselves an “Albany band”? Sure. “Unless the crappy Cooperstown paper wants to interview us,” Begley says. “Then we’re a Cooperstown band.”

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