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Feature & Interview: August John Lutz II of Levee Drivers

It has been a long time since the release of the debut self-titled Levee Drivers EP. The five-song collection was released back in 2009. Nearly four years later, we still await a follow up. The delay can be attributed to an assortment of things, including a few lineup changes. But the self-described “sleezy” country-rock group, led by singer-songwriter August Lutz, is ready to take big steps forward in 2013.

Over drinks at Fergie’s Pub, August and I talk about the band’s future, making use of the downtime between a poetry reading and Ron Gallo’s weekly Wednesday night revue at the Irish pub on Sansom Street. He explains that he is working on two EPs for Levee Drivers this year. One will be a solo, “more acoustic-driven” effort; the other will be with the full band—which is now set with Kyle Perella on lap-steel (and other instruments) and Jeff Orlowski on drums. Beyond the new music, the band is putting a strong focus on marketing themselves, enlisting the help of independent manager Marley McNamara, who has “been there [for us] since longer than the musicians in the band.”

Two EPs may not sound like much, but their first EP seemed to serve them well enough. Behind those songs they won the Beta Hi-Fi competition in 2009, then the Deli Magazine’s “Emerging Artist Poll” in 2010. In the years since, they have firmly established themselves as one of the best within the live music scene in and around Philly. Witnessing even a short solo performance, like the one August played for us at PhilaMOCA this past fall, is enough to realize the captivating power of his voice and inspired story-telling from his pen.

Unsurprisingly, Lutz cites “the basics” among his greatest influences: Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. He also mentions some of the growing legends in the singer-songwriter field, Ryan Adams and Jeff Tweedy. He is not a writer that’s trying to reinvent the wheel; he follows in the footsteps of the greats before him by writing great music. He got his first guitar in the fourth grade and, as he self-deprecatingly puts it, has been “trying to convince people that I [am] a singer-songwriter…ever since.” Even a four-year old EP, which you can stream below, is all you will need to be convinced.

August John Lutz II will be part of a show we are very excited to present at Kung Fu Necktie this Friday, February 15th. Toy Soldiers will headline, with an opening set from August followed by Goodnight, Texas. Tickets are available here. More information can also be found on this Facebook event page.

Below, read an edited transcript of my conversation with August.

The Swollen Fox: It’s been a while since you guys released your debut EP (and only release to date), what have you been working on? What can we expect and when can we expect new stuff?

August Lutz: Well actually we’re planning on two small EPs this year. I’m doing a solo, more acoustic-driven one with a friend of mine, I actually have a meeting with him next month [February]. And then in the summer, I think we’re doing a full on, maybe three or four songs, rock [EP]. So by the end of the year we’ll have two more EPs.

TSF: Do you know who you’re working with, what studios you’re going into?

Well for the acoustic one I’m talking with Brian Strouse from The Lawsuits, I’m actually going—I think February 8th is our date to go in the studio and check everything out and see if anything comes out of it. Which I’m pretty sure something will.

TSF: With the band, how do you prefer to record?

Live to tape is what we did with our first EP and I really liked it. I liked the sound a lot better. I think Levee Drivers sound more natural, us doing that. Before the EP we tried to do stuff track-by-track and we just can’t pull it off right.

TSF: What’s been the hold up?

When we made the [self-titled] EP, we didn’t really know where to go from there. We were all pretty young, we didn’t really know what to do with promoting or marketing. It took us a good year to even send it out to certain radio stations. Then it kind of fell upon changing members and stuff like that, kind of delayed a lot of the situation. As of now, we have a lot of people behind us. Friends in other bands, and a solid core of Levee Drivers now where we’re comfortable financially and emotionally to get something down now.

TSF: How did the current lineup form?

I met Kyle Perella—who was our bass player for about a year or two, now he’s officially our lap-steel player and multi-instrumentalist—I went to school with him, and we were in music class and all that stuff together. And we didn’t get together until like two years after Levee Drivers had started, where we were in rotation of certain members and he’s one of the members that stuck. He’s kind of my go-to-guy now for the past couple years.

Our drummer situation, Jeff Orlowski, he was doing a lot of stuff with work off and on, now we’re kinda back on track just the three of us just playing a lot of shows and practicing.

TSF: Where do you rehearse?

We rehearse in Tullytown. It’s near Levittown, Bucks County area. It’s a nice shitty little practice space, christmas lights all around, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen posters.

TSF: When and why did you start playing music? And when did you start writing music?

I started [in] elementary school. I started writing lyrics and songs before I knew how to play guitar or anything like that. Because growing up with my sister, she was like the coolest gal to me when I was younger, and she was into the whole music scene. She’s a couple years older than me so I kind of tried to impress her with little things like that—would steal her records and stuff like that. I got a guitar in about fourth grade and then from there just started trying to convince people that I was a singer-songwriter…have been ever since.

TSF: What singer-songwriters do you look up to?

The obvious ones I would say are Hank Williams, of course Johnny Cash. As singer-songwriters, how very simplified everything was, very right to the point, very easy. For the past five or six years I got into of course Ryan Adams, Jeff Tweedy, Justin Townes Earle—newer artists that you can kind of see grew up listening to Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt and all those greats too, so my next generation of singer-songwriters. Pretty much the basics.

Any other plans for 2013?

2013 is gonna be big on more of the marketing side. We just hooked up with a manager Marley [McNamara] who works at World Cafe [and other independent booking and management], she’s been there longer than the musicians in the band for us. So it just kind of made sense, we started talking about that around last November and December. So now we’re officially gonna start meeting up and getting everything taken care of. I have a list of goals we’re looking to do and we’re kind of knocking them down with stuff like Sofar Sounds, certain shows, we’re already starting to knock them down.

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