Los Angeles-based roots rocker The Americans have made a five-year career — including tours with Ryan Bingham and backing up the likes of Nick Cave, Tim Robbins, and Lucinda Williams — without releasing a full-length studio album. That all changes early next year with the band’s long-awaited debut, I’ll Be Yours. And if the record’s single, “The Right Stuff” — all coiled intensity, building drum beats, jangly guitars and the emotion-clenched vocal of frontman Patrick Ferris — is anything to go by, it’ll be well-received. Decide for yourself when the band plays some of those new songs at the Isis Restaurant & Music Hall on Thursday, Sept. 22.
But the group has already made impressive in-roads, contributing an original track to Son of Rogue’s Gallery, a collection of pirate songs produced, in part, by Johnny Depp. And they’ll appear throughout the forthcoming PBS/BBC special “American Epic,” which is produced by Jack White, Robert Redford and T Bone Burnett.
“We’d been working with some people in common,” Ferris says of how the band met Burnett. “He’s one of those people who’s interested in anything that’s happening in that category of music. He likes the old stuff.” The category in question is what Burnett describes as “American heritage music.” It’s folk that pre-dates the 1960s-era revival that spawned LA’s Laurel Canyon artists such as Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Instead, “We spent so much time devoted to playing and listening to traditional American music — country blues, string band music, early field recordings of spirituals and jug band music,” says Ferris. “When it came to our own music, we really won’t interested in either copying it directly or modernizing it.”
Their inspirations are from a time when many musicians learned at the knee of a relative. “That characteristic is one of the things that’s profound of that era because those are people who grew up without records,” says Ferris. Of course, learning from albums (or MP3s or YouTube videos) is a viable option now, making accessible lost generations and far-flung cultures to hungry up-and-coming artists.
And, says Ferris, geography is also less a part of the equation these days: “That time is in the past. Everything at this point is archaeology.”
Guitarist and banjo player Zac Sokolow came from a family of musicians — his father and grandfather played bluegrass. Ferris says he and bass player Jake Faulkner “kind of haphazardly stumbled upon it the way you do when you’re listening to all kinds of new music. … For some people it really resonates.”
The Americans’ moniker expresses, to an extent, the way such heritage music spoke to its members. “Band names back then were a lot more straightforward and often came from a location,” says Ferris. And though the group released an EP, a collection of home recordings and also contributed to the soundtrack of the Texas Killing Fields motion picture, “It took us a while to transition fully [from traditional music] to something that we felt was worthwhile and original.”
He adds, “We started in a different place than we are now.”
Playing the historic stuff did give the band an advantage early on, Ferris says. “We’d spent so much time adapting old songs that we were almost better at that, or quicker at that than developing our own songs.”
One thing that was a challenge, however, was “because we were versed in music that was that far away from our era, there wasn’t a direct lineage to the kind of music we were making the way there would be if were listing to music from 10 years ago.” What The Americans did, ultimately, was blaze a new path to where they wanted to be.
“And that’s nothing new in rock ’n’ roll music,” says Ferris. So even if the route was hard to navigate, the musicians were — and continue to be — in great company.