John Eisler is not a drummer, and Robert K. Stern is not an electric guitarist. But when the two principal songwriters of local folk group The Stone Thoreaus met a few years ago, that’s what they initially tried to be.
At the time, Stern was playing with an alternative rock group dubbed The Maybes, and the group was looking for a drummer. Eisler, who happened to own a drum kit but had never played it before, bluffed his way into the band.
“I did a little play on grammar; I said, ‘Oh, I could play drums,’ and to them that sounded like, ‘I can play drums,’” Eisler said recently, sitting with his Stone Thoreau bandmates Stern and Heather Hewitt at a restaurant in Albany.
“And I remember the first practice — I was packing up the drums to go home, and one of the band members said, ‘Why are you packing up? Just leave them in my basement.’ And I said, ‘Well, I need to go home and practice.’ ‘Why do you have to practice?’ I said, ‘Because this is the first time I’ve ever played them.’ So I literally just — he said, ‘Well, I thought you had an unusual approach to the instrument.’”
The Stone Thoreaus and Kitchen Jazz
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Moon & River Cafe, 115 S. Ferry St., Schenectady
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 382-1938, www.moonandrivercafe.com
Despite his lack of experience, Eisler stuck around. The band ended up being short-lived, but Stern and Eisler soon discovered they had a musical chemistry on acoustic, not electric, instruments.
“Robert and I realized, from that, that we weren’t really rock musicians,” Eisler said. “We were playing electric instruments and it just really wasn’t for us, and then we started just going back to our acoustic guitars, and he and I started writing songs together. We were a duo at open mics until we met Heather and realized we needed Heather. And we just started writing a lot of songs, and I think what happens, when one person writes a song, then the next person feels challenged by that, so we started writing a lot of songs.”
Since these initial songwriting sessions, the band — with Stern on guitar and lead vocals, Eisler on mandola and tenor banjo, Hewitt on harmony vocals and occasional member Arya Chowdhury on mandolin, guitar and bass — has hit the coffee shop circuit in the Capital Region, earning a small following at venues such as Cafe Nola and the Moon & River Cafe. Its next gig is at Moon & River on Saturday, alongside Kitchen Jazz.
The band’s approach to folk music is a bit different from the usual Americana roots-based approach often found in the Capital Region. While the group does draw from ’60s folk revival influences, it also takes inspiration from darker British folk traditions, as well as African and Latin music and the music of Stern’s native Montreal.
These differences are reflected in Eisler’s instrument choices of mandola — essentially a larger version of the mandolin, tuned a fifth lower than that instrument — and tenor banjo, which features four strings instead of five.
“I try to play [the banjo] in a more African kind of style rather than, well, certainly not a bluegrass style at all,” Eisler said. “And that’s played with a pick, it’s four strings — it’s in a different register all together. It’s actually the same strings as the mandola, so the two instruments are very compatible with each other.”
Stern’s approach to guitar is also unusual — although he is right-handed, he plays a right-handed guitar left-handed, with the strings from top-to-bottom reversed. He first began teaching himself the instrument about 20 years ago.
“I think that it was really just kind of an accident, in the sense that I started learning just by reading [guitar tablature], and tab, it’s basically pictures of where the strings and your fingers are on them, and it matches perfectly with the guitar,” Stern said. “So it never occurred to me to string the strings in the opposite direction. The interesting this is that since we’ve been playing around in the Capital District, we’ve actually bumped into a lot of people who play that way.”
Stern moved to the Capital Region 17 years ago, but has only been performing seriously for the past five years.
“I used to go to Club Helsinki when it was in Great Barrington, [Mass.],” Stern said. “I did that a lot, and one time I think I saw a poster that said they have a songwriting contest, and I decided to try that — I wrote some songs. That was really the first time I ever played anywhere in public. What took me so long? I’m very shy.”
With help from the outgoing Eisler and Hewitt, Stern has been able to overcome his shyness. The band has been writing new material at a prodigious pace, with Eisler and Stern often collaborating on songs. Later in the summer, the band plans to record six songs at Blue Sky Recording Studio for its first official EP (a home recorded three-song demo is available at the band’s shows).
“[In songwriting] I tend to be inspired by world events, historical events, issues, and I think in a complementary way, Robert tends to be more inspired by emotional life of people,” Eisler said. “Mine’s more externally focused; his is more internally focused. I think he’s inspired a lot by nature, so you’ll hear a lot of nature things in our music, a lot of birds and trees. For me, it’s about issues that I’m thinking about, and I enjoy that challenge of trying to take some kind of serious issue and make it something that could actually be considered entertainment.”