The River Tramps blend the best elements of folk and pop music, crafting tunes with harmony, gypsy jazz flourishes, and nuanced twang. The duo comprised of Niko Martine and Adam Cohen met while working together in a Nashville restaurant, and after discovering similar musical tastes, the two began a relationship and artistic endeavor that’s endured through years and a pandemic.
AI- What brought you two together musically? Was it just a love of the same style? What started first? Was it the personal relationship or the professional?
NM- It’s kind of a mixture of both We ended up meeting at work, talkin’ about music and deciding to get together and jam on an afternoon. We ended up playing for like four or five hours! And it was awesome!
AC- Since that day it was just one of those things. It felt like it was pretty meant to be, and we just kept playin’ and kept playin’…
NM- Kept hangin’ out!
AC- Hangin’ out! It was very casual– and then it ended being something really special!
When did you form the River Tramps? How long have you been performing under that banner?
AC- Yep! October, 2015. That’s when it started.
What is the river that you take your “tramp” from?
NM- Del Rio being my hometown, in English, it means “of the river,” and Adam coming from a water-based community as well in Jupiter, Florida, we figured that was a good mutual name for us. We came up with Of The River, Two Rivers… We couldn’t quite get that right. I was getting ready for work one day and I was singing “Born to Run”, and I was like, “Oh! It’s tramp! It’s gotta be tramp!” So I called Adam, and I told him, I said, “River Tramps!” And he was like, “That’s it! That’s what it’s gonna be!”
You both are wonderful guitar players. Tell me a little bit about where you got started playing.
AC- My dad was a guitar player growin’ up– and he still plays and he still performs [as] a weekender kind of deal– and it was one of those things where he taught me a few chords and I became obsessed! I ran with it, and I just started to listen to every record I could, puttin’ my headphones on and jammin’ along. And then I took a good break from it for a while when I got to high school. I ended up pickin’ it back up in college and decided it’s what I wanted to do all along!
NM- My grandfather taught me how to play guitar. He taught me in the Spanish style. I was in a mariachi band in school from seventh grade all the way to when I graduated. So I learned the classical flamenco fingerpicking and mariachi chordal structure. I turned to country ’cause I love that too and folk music both from the ’60s and ’70s– and just went from there!
Goin’ back, doin’ some research, tryin’ to piece together your musical history, it would appear that the very beginning of 2020, you guys were about to take a great big stride. You’d released some new music and then of course, as we all know, the bottom fell just fell out of the planet! Tell me about what was happening as the pandemic began and what was the original plan around the spring of 2020?
NM- We’d just purchased our vehicle.
AC- Yeah! We’ve been through four vehicles together and we were finally gettin’ things good and goin’! We had gone on the road for a couple of months, we were releasin’ music, everything good was happenin’– and then all of a sudden (laughs)! Our plan really was to tour as much as we could.
NM- We had just purchased our Ford Transit and we were in the process of renovating it to live in it. We were workin’ on that, getting really excited about touring that summer! And the pandemic hit! So we were just really stuck! We didn’t know what to do! We did a lot of virtual concerts, and it was really great to be able to connect with a lot of people that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise, but it was tough. We’re still working on the van– which we’re almost finished with, so that’s exciting! We’re just really, really grateful and excited to get back on the road!
AC- Full time!
You’ve got a few tracks out there floatin’ right now– “Mare and the Maiden”, “State of Mind”, “Like to be Lonely”. Where did you guys record those? And tell me a little bit about the personnel on the tracks ’cause there’s some really great fiddle on there– and some really great pedal steel as well!
AC- Absolutely! It was definitely a collaborative, eclectic kind of thing that we did recording those songs. We recorded them in a couple of different places. We did them mainly in Columbia, Tennessee, about 45 minutes outside of Nashville at our buddy’s studio.
NM- Sound Revival Records.
AC- We did that back and forth between East Nashville and Sound Revival Records.
NM- We call it our a patchwork quilt EP ’cause it was passed around from so many studios and friends! We were like, “Can you add a shaker? Can you add some steel?” Our really good buddy produced our record and he plays bass on the EP. He had a lot of friends too that came in when they were on breaks from tour [or] playing in Nashville and they were kind enough to come in.
AC- We got really lucky! We always make the joke that we’re the least talented people on the, on the record (laughs)!
Isn’t that what Johnny Cash said? Always surround yourself with better musicians than you are!
AC- That’s how you get better!
NM- We got really lucky and it was, just like I said, a patchwork, collaborative quilt!
Have you been able to remain productive this last year? Have you been writing? Doing any more recording?
NM- It’s always so difficult for us when we’re not constantly chuggin’ along and on the road to stay as disciplined as we should.
AC- And as inspired.
NM- And as inspired. But we do play a lot together learning some of our favorite songs and just trying to get better at our instruments. Now that everything is picking back up again, we’ve started to write a lot more and finish a lot of unfinished songs.
AC- We had plenty of unfinished songs in the bank. It was tough to finish ’em, but we’ve been doin’ that now. We haven’t done as much recording just because we’ve been goin’ back and forth traveling and picking up work where we can. ‘Cause that’s kind of what we do.
NM- Odds and ends jobs!
AC- So not as much recording, but we’ve been writing a whole lot and we’ve definitely been changing our set around a lot too. Nikol’s been playin’ bass, I’ve got a kick drum at my feet, some percussion, tambourine… So it’s been changing and improving, I think.
Tell me about the writing. Do you write together or do you tend to repair to separate areas and then come back together and see what it all is?
NM- I think it’s a combination of both. Adam has a gift where he just walks around the house with his guitar and sings off the cuff. I joke that I follow him around with a voice recorder because he sings these things that he doesn’t even know he’s singing! And I’m like, “Stop! Sing it again! Sing it again!” (Laughs) On lucky days, we can capture that and he can remember the lyrics. Other times, I’ll write a poem…
AC- Or just a line or chorus. Well, not even a chorus…
NM- Just somethin’ And if it sticks, it sticks and if it doesn’t, no hard feelings.
AC- But then we come together. Then there’s songs that we write that are together.
NM- It’s not formulated.
AC- It’s not formulated by any means. It comes from the sky and when it does, we grab it! We try to!
Tell me about Tough Luck Records and that relationship. That’s a new development, correct?
NM-. Yes! We’ve been working with Michael Krell for about a year and a half now.
AC- Initially, he was helping us get our Spotify out there a little bit more. He had reached out to us [after] we’d played a festival, a virtual festival. It was Campbellsville Folk Fest, which we were supposed to play in person, but it ended up turning virtual. It was supposed to be in Campbellsville, Kentucky and his band, Howl In The Valley was playing it.
NM- He was working with Forthright Records at the time, and we were working with them. He decided this last year, he was going to branch out and asked if we would like to be a part of his label. We said, “Absolutely!”
AC- He’s been doin’ that and he’s been booking, he’s been our manager– he’s just been killin’ it! We couldn’t believe it!
So that’s brand new for all involved then?
NM- Yes, it is. We all quit our jobs collectively and were like, “Alright, we’re gonna do this!”
AC- We knew he was the right one when he’s like, “I’m gonna quit my day job to manage you guys!” Are you kidding me? You’ve gotta be joking (laughs)! It was one of those things that everything just really felt right.
NM- Especially coming out of the pandemic.
Which is the time you’d least expect somethin’ like that to happen!
NM- But we’re very grateful and we’re very much looking forward to what’s to come!
At the end of the month, you’ll get started on a run of dates that’s gonna bring you through Macon on June 25th. Just from this conversation that we’ve had, that seems to me your main focus is getting out on the road and playing for people. Tell me about the live presentation. What are you going for and what is it that you enjoy most about that part?
NM- There’s such an energy that’s created during the live performance on stage that really can’t be replicated, I don’t think. Something that we feed off of that the audience can give us and also just creating something in the moment that will never, ever be replicated is just so cool for us. Each show is different. Each feeling is different.
AC- Each experience. And people!
NM- We love people. We love meeting people. We love talking to people and hearing stories. As much as we love telling stories on stage, we love hearing other people’s stories and that motivates us to keep doing what we do.
AC- Exactly that. I think one of my favorite parts personally is if you play somewhere in one night, it doesn’t matter if it’s one person, they come up to you and you’ve touched them in a way, or you’ve made their day better. That’s always so nice to hear because that’s a lot of the reason why we do what we do, especially the live part of it. Someone comin’ up to you and bein’ like, “You know, I had a really bad week and this was a great night out! And we were able to come together with friends and just enjoy some music!” Or, “I really connected with that song!” It’s those things for me now. That’s one of my favorite parts.