Paul Harrold and the Nuclear Bandits channel theater roots on moutain rock LP We'll All Be Something Somewhere - WXPN
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A mirage of creatures like those out of fables and wildlife are at the forefront of Paul Harrold and the Nuclear Bandits’ debut “mountain rock” record We’ll All Be Something Somewhere.

Characters of folklore come to life — farmers, sparrows, tigers, sea captains, and more — with the world of their stories being built through the group’s animated music. The record’s omnipresence of vivid storytelling comes naturally to the members of Paul Harrold and the Nuclear Bandits, as they are all professional theater actors, merging the worlds of their creative ventures and forming a craft that transcends the walls of an auditorium.

A distinct liveliness fills each of the album’s nine tracks, as Paul Harrold’s voice echoes brightly with warmth and soul, joined by collective harmonies that soar, thumping banjo and charismatic instrumentals. The record tells stories of different characters that belong to a world of their own, unfolded by the energy of the band. “We’ll All Be Something Somewhere” delivers this message of purpose, that we all have a story worth telling, whether it be that of a sea captain, a regular person, or the admired feathered friend on “Thunder Canyon”: “Country bird top your tree / pour your goodness down to me / spin a song sing it true / I’ve always looked up to you.”

Paul Harrold spoke via email about the crossover of music and theater, making a debut record during COVID, and what it is about Folklore that fuels his passion of storytelling through music.  

The Key: It’s really interesting that the band is made entirely of professional theater actors! How would you say your worlds as actors and as musicians collide, and is there a different approach to these roles?

Paul Harrold: I definitely see my band as an extension of my work as an actor. I am obsessed with the telling of folklore and aim to reflect it with music by creating characters, building detailed worlds, and bring people into them. Many far better songwriters than me can write these amazing tunes about their personal thoughts, experiences, and heartbreaks, but I’ve never felt interesting enough to do that. This album is full of sea captains, cobblers, farmers, etc, and I hope people feel the same kind of “campfire” spirit listening to these tales as they would watching a troupe of actors perform Shakespeare. As an actor, you never have control, needing permission of others to do your craft. Turning to music has been a way to reclaim some control. I can achieve the same storytelling goal creatively, but completely on my own terms, without needing permission from anyone except my own motivation to get out of bed. It’s a creative validation life preserver.

TK:What is your creative background with music and acting?

PH: As a young kid I was involved in acting workshops and theater camps, until I was performing in musicals up through my early teens. When 8th grade hit, I discovered punk rock and for a year and a half my sole life ambition shifted to being in a punk band; I don’t think I thought about theater once then. Throughout high school I was this weird hybridization of balancing playing gigs and small festivals with my garage rock band and rehearsing for drama department productions. I was getting some hardcore classical voice training which had me singing a lot of opera, but otherwise, musically I was completely self-taught.

I went to Acting school at Temple, studied Shakespeare pretty hard, and became very tunnel-visioned. All the time everything was was acting, training, and doing plays. I was around actors and theatre students every minute of the day, so quietly writing folk songs in my room became a way of disconnecting from that and having something that was just mine. Not just writing music, cause plenty of kids did that, but specifically folk songs. Learning about traditional songs from other cultures and their histories got to be my weird thing that nobody else got. The theatre studies world is very insular, so it was nice to have something to make me feel like my own island. It was therapy and still is. It was unfortunate that acting and tunes had to be 70/30, but that just made that 30 more special. My plans are for it to be 60/40 by age 30.

TK: You mentioned that quarantine gave you the time to fall back into music and make the album. Can you tell us what it was like to put together a record with a group of people who are already so creatively engaged?

PH: For this record, having Emily, James, Jessica and Thor, all actors, was a hundred blessings. In addition to the music, they’re all really into the cohesivity of the project as a whole, like how you cultivate things in the theatre because there it’s about “the play” rather than just the actor, designer, technician, etc. For example, James has a deep understanding that these songs are written as characters and the worldbuilding quality, so he’s able to really dig into those things with the timbre and style of his bass playing. He can step back, see the genre as a whole and solidify those traits instinctively. Emily has these incredible branding ideas, which is why we sorta cosplay as space cowboys now to promote this record. These ideas extend beyond just the music and feed the world and characters that this band wants to bring to life. I think we all felt stuck, having lost the momentum of our careers and were a little lost, which is why everybody seemed to really embrace this record with all guns blazing. 

On a fun little side note: Being in a band with actors, in general, is a wild time. You never know which city people will be in or at any given time when people will be free, which is why our lineup can change drastically even from show to show. It’s funny actually, I’ll be in a play and have a folk show one week, and I’ll find an actor in my play, sometimes who I’ve just met, and say “Hey, you play a tiny bit of drums right? Wanna play in my show?” I’ll train them and in a week they’ll be in my band. We’ve got this revolving door network of actor-musicians all across the east coast who can play with us, and theatre folks are always the most generous, kind, and wildly skilled because they’re used to having to do things on the fly and learn fast, so there’s no one I trust more.

Paul Harrold and The Nuclear Bandits | photo credit Helen Stern | courtesy of the artist

TK:For those who don’t know, We’ll All Be Something Somewhere was “recorded from quarantine in closets and living rooms across Philadelphia PA, Atlanta GA, Lancaster PA, and Portland OR.” Can you tell us a little more about the recording process under the circumstances caused by COVID? 

PH: It was a scrappy, ramshackle little endeavor and I couldn’t be more proud. Everybody had a mic and a living room. We all knew the songs since we’ve been playing live forever, but we’d had a little hiatus from that since we were all busy with acting stuff, so there was a bit of a learning curve for all of us in getting it back.

I was in Lancaster where I would record guitar, vocals, and banjo, and then I’d ship the files off to Emily in Philly, who would record a bunch of harmonies. Then they’d go to Thor in Atlanta, who would lay down mandolin, some percussion, more harmonies (I love harmonies), sometimes dulcimer, and he’d send his files back to James, my best friend of 9 years, was also in Lancaster with his folks. He’d record all the string bass and his harmonies in a closet. Jessica, who was quarantined with me would lay down some final vocal harmonies in my closet. Then I’d send all the files collectively to Portland Oregon, where Joseph Freeman of the band River Gods, would mix and master, and we’d go back and forth making adjustments over email. That man has become a great friend, and we’ve never met in person, I’ve never heard his voice! All email, yet I consider him a crucial part of this band and this sound.

The circumstances were interesting because this record wouldn’t have happened were it not for quarantine. Acting always came first because those were our careers and we’d never been able to make a full-length record as a full band yet because we frankly never had the time. One, some, or all of us were always engaged in some theatre work somewhere, and 2020 was pretty packed for the lot of us, with tours and shows lined up. Covid is horrible. I’m not saying “Thank god for Covid because we got to make a record.” I’d say fuck this record if it meant we could have all those people back and undo all of this devastation. But this thing is leaving everybody with a lot of trauma and damage that we don’t really know how to process, and everyone is left in this limbo, grasping at anything to help get them through. This was the thing we grasped at to make it through. And we’re happy we were able to find some meaning together.

TK: There is this really catchy banjo sound throughout the record, and I think you hit the nail on the head with the “cowboy songs about Shakespeare” description. What attracted you to this Appalachian folk meets electric Mountain rock sound?

PH: I’m really obsessed with genre. My girlfriend, who’s in the band, tells me it’s kinda weird. It’s become my pastime to dig into specific genre tropes of varying styles I love, and sorta combine them where they don’t often belong, like the quiet-LOUD drop-ins a la Pixies, but in a bluegrass song or jig. The swelling family-style harmonies of bluegrass gospel, but in a pop-punk song. Pop-punk riffs but on a banjo in what should be a traditional folk ballad. It’s all the little musical treats that get me dancing, smashed together in a row. The genre “Mountain Rock,” is meant to be as specific, and simultaneously vague as possible to encapsulate our sound. I love Americana, but we can’t be a bluegrass band because I love too much English and Irish folk and I want to channel that. I love Romantic and Pastoral poetry, but I want there to be more cowboy grit than those would allow. I want to make skater punk but I love banjos. So we did all of that.

They’re songs from the Mountain, and we’re gonna make em rock. I should note also that growing up in the country may have something to do with my love of folksy, country type music. I wear my bumpkin-ness on my sleeve a lot more now than I ever did growing up, although I take a more explicitly anti-fascist and left-wing approach to cowboy music than some of the folks from my hometown may think appropriate. They, of course, are wrong. 

TK:Your lyrics take a storytelling format, and it made me think of the stories told in plays and musicals. What are your songwriting influences and the approach you take to writing music?

PH: A lot of the old poetry I grew up on finds its way in there. Wordsworth, Blake,  Shakespeare. A lot of the text in my dramatic training. I love that tone and imagery so I’m always trying to conjure similar colors and sounds. I think singing traditional style songs to that kind of poetry evokes the same spirit as an old actor treading the boards by candlelight. There’s certainly connective tissue there. Musically though, all the old American, Irish and Scottish folksingers. Woody Guthrie, Andy Irvine and Archie Fisher. Bluegrass greats like The Carter Family and Stanley Brothers. And rock ranging from The Pixies to Taking Back Sunday. At the end of the day, I’m really trying to write rock songs. I just want them to have the same feeling and tone of old traditional songs.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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