When people see Santa Cruz’s Tater Famine setting up their instruments, they probably get the wrong idea about what kind of music they’re about to hear. They play, after all, an upright bass, acoustic guitar and a mandolin. The first thought running through most people’s minds isn’t punk rock—yet Tater Famine has more in common with punk bands than they do most Americana or string bands.
“My musical roots are pretty heavily rooted in the whole punk rock, hardcore, metal scene. It’s just hard to leave the energy of playing shows like that from when I was a kid,” says mandolin player Matteo Brunozzi.
Technically, the music is not too dissimilar from Americana, but it’s played really loud and with so much fervor that they actually do better with punk rock audiences than with traditional country, Americana and bluegrass crowds.
At first, Brunozzi was surprised at how accepting the punk rockers were of their music. “It’s cool. They’re really open to it,” he says.
But it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock. When he and singer/guitarist John Dodds started to play together in 2006, they actually wanted to be a punk band. Brunozzi played drums and Dodds played electric guitar. Only problem was, they both lived in tiny apartments and didn’t have anywhere they could make a ton of noise—so Dodds switched to the acoustic guitar and Brunozzi took up the mandolin.
“The instrumentation gets us thrown in with other categories, but it’s all got a rock ’n’ roll edge. Johnny’s playing campfire chords, but he’s beating the hell out of them. Lauran [the bassist] hits the bass way harder than in traditional music. I play the mandolin sort of like a guitar, like a metal or surf guitar,” Brunozzi says.
They are preparing to hit the road again for another three months starting this January. They’ve tried doing the touring thing in short bursts, but that doesn’t work as well for them.
“When we tour, we hit it hard cause it’s hard to survive if you’re not playing damn near every day, ’cause we’re not getting paid that much,” Brunozzi says.
In the early days, being a heavily touring band seemed like a pipe dream. Shortly after starting Tater Famine, Brunozzi and Dodds took a break and headed over to Europe, a trip which lasted four months. They hung out, wrote new songs, and busked on the street corners. A few months in, they started to follow some touring bands, and were seeing firsthand how it was done.
“It was a nice little kick in the pants. It was like, ‘we can do this.’ We were living way harder, or just as hard as we would have to live on the road anyway. Why shouldn’t we do it with a plan?” Bruzonni says.
After original bassist Matt Warren quit, they eventually found Laurenzo Burman, and even experimented with a drummer.
“I prefer it without drums for the reason that, it just doesn’t need them. It’s percussive enough with the bass. It’s more like a spectacle, honestly, without the drums,” Brunozzi says.
Other string bands slap the bass with some force, but Tater Famine give it a real punk rock punch. “These instruments weren’t picked up to be played traditionally. They were picked up to kind of adapt to whatever sound we’re feeling we couldn’t express, because we couldn’t play drums and electric guitar in our environments,” Brunozzi says.
Other acoustic-punk bands have formed in the past decade for nearly the same reason.
“With the strict noise ordinances and housing associations and all that shit, people who crack down on that in neighborhoods, it makes it hard to play much but acoustic music a lot of the time. It’s cool because it’s bred this whole new thing. But it’s a shame because I like playing loud,” says Brunozzi.
Tater Famine plays Dec. 22 at the Crepe Place.