The National Reserve came together to build their chops with a weekly Friday night stand at Brooklyn’s famed Skinny Dennis. For seven years that outfit has tackled every spoke in the rock n’ roll wheel while developing a polished sound that harkens back while gazing forward. 2018’s Motel La Grange is a warm slice of vintage Americana, and even as we speak, the band is poised for a return to the studio before the end of the year. Frontman Sean Walsh grew up in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, diggin’ on Bob Dylan and taking his turn as a solo troubadour before coming together with his National Reserve brothers. Those nights at Skinny Dennis made the band a real, live machine– and it’s about to roll into Macon on 10/5 at the Hargray Capitol Theatre as part of the Brent Cobb and Them tour!
AI- You grew up in New Jersey listening and playing punk music, right?
What were you diggin’ back then and what was it that made the segue for what you and the National Reserve are doing today?
I feel like the two things kind of go hand in hand. I was just talking about this with someone yesterday and the guy who plays bass in our band, Ryan Gavel– he played in a band called No Warning for a long time– and I think it’s all just kind of goes hand in hand. The big jumping point for me was Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde. I heard that record and I thought, “Man, this was like lyrically… This was just as punk rock as anything that I’ve heard!”
You’ve mentioned that before in different interviews, and another big influence on you and the sound that you guys have cultivated would be The Band. Of course, Robbie Robertson [and Rick Danko] got to play a part in creating Blonde on Blonde. And then a profound effect on you would be Levon Helm’s autobiography (This Wheel’s On Fire), which I guess is a punk rock tome in its own right.
Yeah. I mean, for me, the main thing that I got from, from Levon’s book was that you just had to put in the work. You look at all these guys and there’s no way around that. All the bands that I love spent years and years and years on the road getting good and honing their craft and learning how to be entertainers. Which is something that I think is a bit of a lost art. People write music and they make albums, but they forget that when you walk on stage, you’re an entertainer.
I agree. And you have had the opportunity to sorta revive the idea of the residency there at Skinny Dennis in Brooklyn, New York. How did you get involved doing that?
Actually, we had a residency at another bar called Passenger Bar that was right around the corner. It wasn’t even really my band, it was just me and some buddies that would get together and we play alt-country and rock n’ roll stuff just for fun. And then Skinny Dennis opened about two months into that residency and one of my friends said, “You should go check it out down there. Maybe they’d have you. It’s kind of your vibe. The bar’s cool. It’s like a party every night.” I went down there and asked them if I could play and they said that I could have a month-long residency, so every Friday for a month… And it’s been about seven years.
So you’re still doing that?
Yeah, as long as I’m home, I’m there.
A lot of people might think that is an easy thing to do, but a residency really isn’t because you have the challenge of keeping it fresh, not only for the audience but for yourself. Do you have a secret ingredient for that?
A big thing for us is we inevitably are going to play a lot of the same tunes for a long time because it’s the stuff that you love and the stuff that you know… But the main thing for us was every week just trying to play every song that we can in a different feel or maybe cut a song into half time and see how it feels with the half time. Or try things a little more double-time, like more of a rock n’ roll tune, and just trying to switch the tunes up. ‘Cause a lot of those old rock n’ roll and blues and country stuff, they all can be translated in so many different ways. It’s the one thing that’s so beautiful about the American song form is that you don’t have to play it in the same way every time.
You spent a significant amount of time, if I’m not mistaken, just doing the solo singer-songwriter thing before having a regular band. What finally put it all into motion for you, where you were like, “OK, I’m ready to be a part of an outfit now.”
It was mainly that gig. Seven years ago, I started doing that gig and I got a taste for taking guitar solos! I had never done that before and playing electric… And I realize like, “Man, this is a lot more fun when I can do this with my friends!” It was just more about being able to hang out… I realized like if I do this with a band, that means I get to hang out with my friends all the time.
And there’s something about being a force to be reckoned with as well. Sometimes just being by yourself on the stage and facing that crowd is a bit daunting, but not when you’ve got four or five other guys with you…
Oh, absolutely! It’s definitely a little bit of a “strength in numbers” situation ’cause a lot of the times, I’ll still do solo stuff and I’ll kind of surprise myself at how nervous I’ll get before I go on stage. I usually don’t get nervous too often anymore. But those are those situations always kind of get me.
I spent the morning listening to Motel La Grange… You’re just a little over a year from that release. “No More”, “Big, Bright Light”, “Roll On, Babe”– [those songs] got that Springsteen, Jersey sound, which I guess would sort of come natural to you…
Yeah! Whether I like it or not! (Laughs).
But then you’ve got a significant touch of the Tulsa Sound on songs like “Don’t Be Unkind”, and you get into the Byrds or CSNY a little bit… But overall, I have to say that, to me, the album has a definite Band feel, a Big Pink House feel. That was all calculated in the recording? Or it just happened come out that way?
I think it just kind of happened to come out that way. A thing that I feel really happy about with that record is that it’s the first one that we went in and I could tell you probably everything but the harmony vocals was live. It was the first time that we really were able to capture what our band truly sounded like live. We probably had played Skinny Dennis 200 times at that point. We were real used to playing together, so it was the first time that we were ever able to really capture that, which was cool.
You guys took great care and put the time into making that record happen. Dare I ask if you’ve felt the call of the recording studio recently? Will you be getting back in or have you already What’s the next project coming up?
I just about two days ago booked some more studio time to go in and start trackin’ the next one. I got about half of it written and then we got some time off after this tour. I got almost the whole rest of the year off. We’ve been kind of going non-stop since [Motel La Grange] came out– so a little over a year and a half and we’ve just been playing it like crazy. I got most of October and November off to start banging away at the new record. We’re going to do that at the same studio that we did the last one and try to cut as much of it live as we can. Just like the last record.