Livin’ The Blues With Trampled Under Foot

Trampled Under Foot guitarist Nick Schnebelen talks about life in a traveling blues band and describes why playing with his siblings is different than playing in groups where “members come and go.”

A true family affair, Schnebelen’s sister Danielle sings and plays bass as well as electric six-string while brother Kris keeps the beat.  Like the blues greats that came before them, the members of Trampled Under Foot deliver something new to audiences while they brew up a sound that sound harkens back to the genre’s legends from years past.

Nick spoke with Pollstar only days before the July 9 release of the band’s new album, Badlands, on Telarc, a division of Concord Music Group.  For Badlands, Trampled Under Foot once again worked with producer Tony Braunagel at his Ultratone Studios in Studio City, Calif.  Braunagel, who plays drums for Phantom Blues Band, not only produced the disc, but also played some percussion and brought in a few guest musicians.  Appearing on the album are keyboardist Mike Finnigan whose credits include Jimi Hendrix and Taj Mahal; Johnny Lee Schell, who recorded the album and contributed acoustic guitar to one track and Lisa Swedelund on backing vocals.  Badlands was mixed by John Porter at New Orleans’ Independent Street Studios.

True to the image of a traveling bluesman, Nick was preparing to hit the road when Pollstar caught up with him.

Photo: Matthew Wilson
(from left to right) Nick, Danielle and Kris Schnebelen.

You’re playing the Skanevik Blues Festival in Norway July 5-6.  Touring North America is one thing, but how do you handle overseas trips?  Do you travel as lightly as possible and rent what you need in regards to instruments and equipment once you arrive, or do you bring everything with you?

The places that we play overseas are pretty much set up for us.  The venues have the gear and hire backline companies to provide that for us.  We do keep it stripped down.  I usually travel with an electric guitar and my Dobro, Danielle usually brings her bass and an electric six-string guitar.

Being that you’re all siblings, was it always a musical family while growing up?

It’s always been a musical family. Our parents played music for years while we were kids.  It was a pretty neat way to grow up in Kansas City.  We really had a good time growing up around the musicians in Kansas City.  Several players that are still local, we have fond memories of growing up and playing with.  Our mother is still with us.  Our father passed away in 1999.  That [music] is something that we remember doing with our father.  Our mother still sings with us, occasionally, and we have a good time with her.

When Trampled Under Foot was first starting out and playing gigs in the Kansas City area, did you attract any musicians to your shows, perhaps sitting in with the band on set?

Yes.  We played with DC Bellamy (session player whose credits include playing with Donny Hathaway, Brook Benton and Gene “Duke Of Earl” Chandler).  He performs pretty regularly in the Kansas City area.  We’ve played a birthday party for Ray “Bags” Bagby, who played in a band called Finnigan & Wood back in the day.  I got to play with him for a number of years when I was younger.  He played with Mike Finnigan and we had Mike on our last two records as well. 

You played in other bands before Trampled Under Foot was formed.  What are some of the differences between playing in other bands and performing in a family group?

It’s definitely a different dynamic.  It’s really interesting.  When we came together as a band, I [had been] playing guitar, writing songs and playing in bands since I was 13.  So I played with a lot of different kinds of people from the time I was in that 12 to 13 range until about 18 or so.  My sister sort of teamed with my dad – she was about 12 – and my dad was a pretty well known blues artist in the Kansas City area.  So she came into it with him.  I had played with my dad as well, but I had played in so many different groups [while] my sister’s [experience] was closer to the family.  She also played with different artists as well in Kansas City.

My brother was playing in his teens but wasn’t actually playing in any actively performing bands until this band.  This is his first band.  On the whole, the dynamic is so different.  People come from so many different backgrounds converging into a band and it either works or it doesn’t.  Members can come and go.  You love your friends and forge relationships with people.  It’s a different kind of love and friendship than you have with your family.

Your family, so to speak, you have each other, you’ve known each other for your whole life.  You know each other’s buttons and strengths and weaknesses.  I think it’s very special to play with my family. For one thing, we’re so tight as people.  For what we do it’s definitely an asset.  When we came together to form this band, I had a band that I was with for a long time but some members had changed out and the band started to change.  So I decided to try to start something new.  When I decided to stop playing with them … my brother and sister said they were going to start a band and my sister was going to learn to play bass to keep it a family band.  We weren’t for certain that everybody was going to take the steps to create this band.  But Danielle immediately began studying bass – she was already a six-string player.  I knew it was conceivable for her to play bass.  She started excelling at it and showing great ability to play bass and sing – doing both at the same time.  My brother was playing drums so we were all coming together.  I could see it as a plausible, possible real family band with all three members having the talent and drive to create a viable act.

I’ve seen a lot of families [while] growing up that had people that played [music].  When you’re younger it’s so hard to see that everybody has the fortitude to create that follow through.  This is a very special band. Not only having three people who are talented but also three people who are willing to make the sacrifices [necessary].

But some family-based groups became notorious for their bickering, such as The Everly Brothers, The Kinks with brothers Ray and Dave Davies, Oasis with the Gallagher brothers, or Jesus & Mary Chain with siblings Jim and William Reid. Did you ever look at those acts or other bands featuring fighting family members and think, “There but for the grace of God go I?”

Of course, we have our differences but we value what we have.  Especially for me.  I see how much joy we bring to people [and] I wouldn’t want squabbling to get in the way of that.  We really do see eye-to-eye musically. … My brother [said] in interviews that we’re kind of carrying on the family business.  I like that thought.  Our grandparents and great grandparents were musicians. I tend to think music moves through us. It’s not like we move through music.  You can definitely see it follows families and traits.  If there’s a musician, nine times out of 10 they had a relative that was a musician.  It [music] channels through us. It’s hereditary. 

You have to look at what you’re giving to the world and what they’re getting out of it, too. It makes you put your differences aside and really try to get along for the good of everybody in the band.

There’s a lot to be said for a lot of family bands that do fight.  We’ve had our moments, but more than not we get along.  You spend so much time [together] in a band, there’s a lot of times when members come-and-go, even successful bands.  Personality-wise, they get on each other’s nerves so much, spend too much time together in the van.

What can a new band bring to playing blues that hasn’t been done before?

I like to think, for one, having new blues is cool rather than having a record of covers of old blues songs.  I like to write songs that are familiar yet original and creative.  On our albums we’ve always given a cross section of different styles of blues.  Rather than having an entire album of the same style of blues, we’ll record many different styles.  When you listen to Badlands, there are some funky styles. Right along with that there’s some straight up, almost Curtis Mayfield styles.  There’s also country blues, rockin’ blues, there’s a little bit of something for everyone on the record.

I’ve been a songwriter for years.  Not just writing silly songs, teenage songs, but writing heavy lyrics and studying spoken word and studying all the greats and the best songs that have ever been written.  Not trying to emulate them but trying to find that spark that makes them so great.  There are a lot of different inspirations for that.  The ones I’ve found most recently are memories from my childhood that other people might connect with.  Being a father – I have a 6-year old daughter – that was inspiring.

I don’t always write from circumstance.  When I write a song, like I said, it’s something authentic and genuine for me but it’s also something familiar and original to a listener.

Another question might be, “Why? Why am I writing this song?  What is the importance of it?”  It’s important just to write.  Write what you feel and what you know.  But I think you need to understand what’s valid about it when you’re writing it.  Especially in the melodies. 

Do you keep notebooks for when inspiration strikes?

I did for years and I have all my notebooks.  But now I have an iPhone.  I wish I always had one. I always wanted to have a voice recorder in my pocket and a notepad I could write on.  It makes it real easy.  I used to carry a Walkman around and then I’d try to multi-track on my four-track and it was just a pain in the butt.  I like this new digital world. It’s pretty cool.

We need to address the most obvious question – has Trampled Under Foot ever been mistaken for a Led Zeppelin tribute band?

Of course, we’ve been asked if we’re a Led Zeppelin tribute band.  I appreciate that from the people who … there are a lot of musicians who know Zeppelin but the general public generally doesn’t ask that.  People who love Led Zeppelin – one of the most famous bands of the world – definitely ask that question.  A lot of the younger listeners don’t really ask that question

We don’t mind being called that.  They’re like, one of the greatest blues bands in the history of the world.  It was a great experience and listening to them while growing up was tremendous.  We’re definitely proud of being associated with that.  But our original material carries us strong enough so we can feel confident [even though] people occasionally [ask] if we’re a Zeppelin cover band. 

Also, We will do a Zeppelin tribute show.  We’ve only done it twice.  My sister kills the Robert Plant stuff.  A lot of guys can’t sing that stuff, he was such a special singer. 

Let’s talk about the business of Trampled Under Foot.  Who represents you?

We have Red Light Management [for management] and Monterey International for booking.  We won the International Blues Challenge competition in 2008.  That carried us into a lot of new realms as far as booking in the blues world.  One of the judges was Kenny Wayne Shepherd and we became really good friends with him.  We’ve done a lot of shows with him.  He’s a really great guy.

I’ve become friends with his dad, as well, who is also Ken’s manager.  And Ken took a special interest in making sure we were [being] taken care of.  I spent a lot of time on the phone with him, trying to figure out the band’s next move.  We didn’t have a booking agency at the time.  We had picked up Intrepid Artists, finally, as an agency. They had been great for us in the blues world.  But we didn’t know what our next step was.

So Ken put me in touch with Jim Zumwalt, an entertainment attorney in Nashville. I spoke to him quite a bit, trying to figure out what we needed. He decided we needed management. … Zumwalt put a call out for us and got us in touch with Red Light.  Ryan Kingsbury was the manager looking best to us.  So we started working with him and he’s been great.  What Red Light Does is, first off, they streamline everything you have going and take a really good look at your image and how you’re doing business and figure out how to improve everything.

The first thing they did was improve our website.  They improved the businesses, the companies we were working with, our photography … everything.  I’ve learned a lot. They’re doing it the right way.

And Jerry Lima is your agent at Monterey International?

Jerry’s a great guy.  In the blues world Monterey is one of the upper-level agencies.  And Ryan helped us pitch [the band] to them.  We had tried to get on Monterey before, but we weren’t ready for them yet. So Ryan got us ready for them and then Jerry took us on.  It’s proven to be a great match-up.  With those two in our corner, it’s a great team.

We talked earlier about the logistics of taking Trampled Under Foot overseas, but what moves the band across North America?

We have a Chevy Express van. … We’re still in the fragile period in that we don’t have a crew on the road.  It’s very expensive to travel these days, very expensive to have extra staff.  Right now we do all of our own tour managing.  There are only three of us so there’s plenty of room in the van.  We do fly-outs and travel in the van.

We used to have a trailer but it was stolen. We were playing when it was stolen so none of our equipment was inside of it, thankfully.

Also, now that we’re on an agency, most of the venues we play provide P.A. systems.

What advice could you give a blues band that just formed this week?

I actually just gave some advice to a friend last night.  I said, “It’s great to do a lot of stuff on your own but when you get a chance to find somebody who can help you hone your business and your band, take them up on it if it’s good advice.”

I would definitely suggest that bands find a manager or somebody to look up to – a mentor – somebody that’s been down the road and follow their advice.  There’s people that have been down that road and know a lot more than you do and know what works and what doesn’t.  There are a lot of things you can do on your own, but there are a lot of things you can’t do on your own.

Photo: Matthew Wilson
“Our grandparents and great grandparents were musicians. I tend to think music moves through us.”

Trampled Under Foot’s current road trip includes this week’s appearances at Quebec’s Tremblant International Blues Festival, Ontario’s RBC Bluesfest, and Michigan’s Traverse City Bluesfest and a gig next week at the Sioux Falls Jazz & Blues Festival in South Dakota.  Other stops include four nights in Sturgis, S.D. and one-nighters in St. Louis, Los Angeles and Phoenix as well as dual evenings in Las Vegas at the “Sin City Soul & Blues Revival.”  Here’s the complete schedule:

July 11 – Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, Festival Grounds (Tremblant International Blues) Festival
July 12 – Ottawa, Ontario, Lebreton Flats Park (RBC Bluesfest)
July 13 – Buckley, Mich., Traverse City Bluesfest
July 18 – Sioux Falls, S.D., Yankton Trail Park (Sioux Falls Jazz & Blues Festival, JazzFest)
July 19 – Kansas City, Mo., Knuckleheads
July 20 – Chicago, Ill., Back Porch At House Of Blues
July 21 – Auburn Hills, Mich., Callahan’s Music Hall
July 23 – Teaneck, N.J., Mexicali Live
July 24 – Collinsville, Conn., Bridge Street Live
July 25 – New York, N.Y.,  Rockwood Music Hall
July 26 – Wilmington, Del., World Cafe Live At The Queen
July 27 – Shirley, Mass., Bull Run Restaurant
July 28 – Annapolis, Md., Rams Head On Stage
Aug. 3 – Calgary, Alberta, Shaw Millennium Park (Calgary International Blues Festival)
Aug. 4 – Bellingham, Wash., Deming Logshow Grounds (Mount Baker Blues Festival)
Aug. 7 – Sturgis, S.D., Easy Riders Saloon
Aug. 8 – Sturgis, S.D., Easy Riders Saloon
Aug. 9 – Sturgis, S.D., Easy Riders Saloon
Aug. 10 – Sturgis, S.D., Easy Riders Saloon
Aug. 15 – Springfield, Mo., Cartoons
Aug. 16 – Little Rock, Ark., Stickyz Rock ’N’ Roll Chicken Shack
Aug. 17 – Jackson, Miss., Agriculture Museum (Jackson Rhythm And Blues Festival)
Aug. 23 – Overland Park, Kan., Light Up The Lawn Series
Aug. 24 – Vernon Hills, Ill., New Century Park (Little Bear Rib Fest)
Aug. 29 – St. Louis, Mo., Old Rock House
Aug. 30 – Topeka, Kan., Uncle Bo’s
Sept. 1 – Thurman, Iowa, Winestock: Sugar Clay Winery
Sept. 7 – Saint Peter, Minn., Minnesota Square Park (Rock Bend Folk Festival)
Sept. 8 – Prince Frederick, Md.,  Calvert County Fairgrounds (Southern Maryland Blues Festival)
Sept. 12 – Los Angeles, Calif., The Mint
Sept. 13 – Phoenix, Ariz., The Rhythm Room
Sept. 14 – Bisbee, Ariz., Warren Ballpark (Bisbee Blues Festival)
Sept. 15 – Las Vegas, Nev.,  Rio All-Suite Casino Hotel (Sin City Soul & Blues Revival)
Sept. 16 – Las Vegas, Nev.,  Rio All-Suite Casino Hotel (Sin City Soul & Blues Revival)
Sept. 21 – Tulsa, Okla., Chandler Park (Hound Dog Blues)
Sept. 27 – Junction City, Kan., Jammin’ Into The Blues
Sept. 28 – Burlington, Iowa, Blues & BBQ Festival
Oct. 12 – Chanute, Kan., 2nd Annual Blues Blast
Nov. 27 – Kansas C ity, Kan., Knuckleheads
Dec. 7 – Bradenton, Fla., Riverwalk (Bradenton Blues Festival)

For more information please click here for Trampled Under Foot’s official website.