Interview: The Haymarket Squares ‘Light It Up’ With Socially Conscious Punkgrass
The Haymarket Squares know something important: Depressing, controversial and / or heavy topics are more easily digested, so to speak, when approached with wit and set to an uptempo tune. As Mary Poppins so eloquently put it, "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."
The Phoenix, Ariz.-based "punkgrass" band released their fourth studio album, Light It Up, on Feb. 26. The 12-track project is filled with substantive lyrics set to melodic blends of bluegrass, folk and punk -- all genres with a tradition of social consciousness.
"I want people to dance and get energized while they're hearing this stuff so it's like, 'We can still be happy,' and it's a feeling of 'we can overcome this together,'" vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Mark Sunman tells The Boot. "It's more empowering to have a happy-sounding song because it's giving the middle finger to those depressing facts."
The five-man group even covers "Fortunate Son," one of the most well-known counterculture anthems among all genres of music, on their new disc.
"It's a simple tune, but it's a really fun tune, and a uniting tune for people who feel that way," Sunman, who founded the Haymarket Squares back in the late 2000s, notes, "... and setting it to our traditional punkgrass beat, it worked really well."
Since 2009's Punkgrass for the People, Sunman, Mark Allred (vocals, slide guitar and harmonica), Jayson James (fiddle), John Luther Norris (vocals, guitar and kazoo) and Marc Oxborrow (vocals and bass) have found that they make their best music when they're angry about something. When writing new tunes, Sunman and Oxborrow -- the Haymarket Squares' two tunesmiths -- simply think, "Here's something that's wrong with the world. Here's something that frustrates us and makes us want to bang our heads against the wall or start a revolution," Sunman explains.
"... and [then] you just have this creative outpouring of feelings about a particular issue or about the state of the world," he continues, "and then it can turn into something angry or humorous or even apathetic."
Admittedly, the band's sound has changed -- for the better -- in the almost-decade since Sunman found Oxborrow via Craigslist in 2007. The two played together with a rotating cast of musicians, until Sunman moved away. When he came back to Phoenix, he got back in touch with Oxborrow, and the Haymarket Squares' three other members assembled organically from there.
"In the beginning, [being a punkgrass band] almost meant that I wasn't going to let myself practice or be too polished," Sunman admits; he wanted harmonies, but a raw, edgy vibe. "... But now, for me personally, I want a more polished and precise sound ... I want my solos to be impeccable and impressive, and I want the harmonies to be perfect.
"... We've started to have more complicated arrangements, and our recording quality has gone up," continues Sunman, who says he now "practice[s] my instrument way more than I ever did when the band started." "... [We're] just trying to up our game musically."
Being on point musically has helped the Haymarket Squares earn themselves a diverse group of fans.
"A lot of conservatives like our sound, but they don't like our lyrics," Sunman says, "but they can't help but smile and dance and be happy when they hear it."
But while the band's musical abilities are great and all, it's Sunman and Oxborrow's lyrics that set the quintet's work apart.
"[Oxborrow] is a master of poking fun at the establishment, at different absurdities in the system," Sunman muses (check out the laugh-out-loud "No Such Agency" if you need proof). "I guess I'm a little bit better at being angry about it, and Oxborrow is better at being super witty about it and just making these hilarious jokes about it."
Throughout March and April, the Haymarket Squares will be touring across the Southwest, followed by some summer festival appearances.
"We're trying to get out of town as much as possible," Sunman says. "... We never thought it would get this far, and so at this point, we're like, 'Well, let's just put the pedal to the metal and see how far we can take it.'"
Light It Up is available for download on iTunes.
15 Americana, Alt-Country and Folk Artists to Watch in 2016