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Balkun Brothers

Last month I had to write a review about the new CD of the American Duo Balkun Brothers, entitled 'Devil On TV'. The two gentlemen, Steve and Nick, show to be two brothers on guitar and drums and together they play a wonderful blend of rock, blues, jazz and funk. An album that breathes fun. Time to get to know Steve Balkun a little bit better, and apparently he's not a man who is lost for words.

By: Wim S. | Archive under bluesrock

Hello there! How are you? Where are you right now and what are you doing?
We are excellent! Just got home from a tour of the southern USA and played a big hometown show here in Hartford, CT. Now we are preparing for more shows this week, drinking espresso and writing new songs!

Can you tell our readers a bit more about the band and its history? Previous releases? Musical background? Supporting tours?
I'll give a brief history: Being blood-brothers Nick and I(Steve) have spent our whole lives together, but we only started playing together in 2010. We grew up in Hartford, Connecticut and we formed first as a funk-rock trio, then we evolved into a blues band with up to five members at one point. And we eventually evolved now into a two-piece rock n' roll power-duo! We both started playing when we were about sixteen years old, we are now in our late 20's so we have been playing music for about 10-12 years. I play guitar and Nick plays drums.

When we were young kids we were listening to alternative rock like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against The Machine, Nirvana and Primus. So that music was really what got us interested in playing at first and then we got into classic rock like Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Johnny Winter and Jimi Hendrix, who had more of a direct blues based sound, so we naturally wanted to know where this sound came from. And that led us to finding the music of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Son House, Elmore James, Buddy Guy and all the great blues artists that we love. But we listen to almost every kind of music and can find sounds and artists to be inspired by in Jazz, Hip-Hop, Regaee, Funk, Country, R&B, Punk, Metal, even Classical and world music.

When we first started, we would go down to local blues jams and learn from the older players about the blues. We eventually started writing our own music and playing local bars and clubs, and doing shows up at the University that Nick was attending. Playing all of those bar gigs really helped us develop as a band as we started to try and find our sound. We eventually went from playing dive bars, to selling out the local clubs, and then taking the show on tour across the USA. Which lead us to opportunities to tour over in Europe and record our albums. After being voted 'Best Blues Band in Connecticut' at the Connecticut Music Awards for the last four years in a row (from 2013-2016), the band was most recently awarded 'Best Rock Band in New England' at the 2017 New England Music Awards. Balkun Brothers have been featured alongside Johnny Winter, Joe Bonamassa, Gary Hoey, James Cotton, Gogol Bordello, Devon Allman, Melvin Seals and JGB, Eric Sardinas, Albert Castiglia,The Mike Dillon Band, Dopapod, Vapors of Morphine, Selwyn Birchwood and Chris Duarte. The duo has also been on major festival line-ups with The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Motley Crüe, Alice Cooper, Slayer, Iggy Pop, Gary Clark Jr. and Elvin Bishop. Brothers Nick and Steve, independently produced and released their debut album in 2015 entitled, 'ReDrova', which was well received and rose to #1 on the Roots Music Report Blues-Rock album charts and was #5 on the Roots Music Report overall Blues charts. Balkun Brothers signed with European label Dixiefrog Records in 2015 and released their much anticipated second album, 'Devil On TV', with Dixiefrog in May of 2017. In addition to touring extensively throughout the United States, The band has also completed three European tours since 2015, performing in Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and France.

Balkun Brothers is a two man band. One drummer and one guitarist/singer. We only know that kind of line up from The White Stripes. Why do you not have a bass player in the band? Is it an advantage or a disadvantage, composing songs that will have to be played by only two musicians? Do you also play live with just the two of you?
Well, our set up is not something we planned on, but it has just naturally happened. Ever since we started the band there have been many different incarnations of the band and we have had many other members through the past years. We started as a trio with a bass player, then he quit and we had our cousin join as a bass player. At that time we also had a saxophonist join and play with us for a while. Then our original bass player re-joined and our cousin moved to rhythm guitar, so we were up to a 5-piece band. Then we slimmed back down to the original trio, and then our bass player quit again. We temporarily replaced him with another bass player who didn't work out, and we eventually decided it was best to try and continue as a 'Power-Duo'. So, we have tried it all, and now being a duo has proved to be the best way for us to function right now. Being a duo has simplified almost everything for us, writing, rehearsing, traveling, recording, booking shows, touring, getting paid, answering interviews, pretty much everything is much more simple and we like it this way. The more people you add into the mix the more you have to deal with.

It can be a disadvantage musically if you want to play a more traditional power-trio style sound and are concentrated on long guitar solo sections and stuff like that, but we have found it to be a great advantage to us in almost every way, because we are trying to form our own sound and our own way of playing. When we switched over to being a duo about two years ago, it forced us to be creative in a whole new way, we had to approach our style of writing, arranging, jamming and performing in a new but exciting way. When we have a bass player, or other musicians to fill in the sound, we find the music is more concentrated on the instruments, like the song will always have a guitar solo in it. But now we have to cover all of the sound with just the two of us, so it is less about guitar solos, and more about the groove, the riff, the beats and the songs. It has forced us to start to write better songs and have them stand on their own without having to automatically spice it up with a long guitar solo. Don't get me wrong, I love to shred a long ripping guitar solo, but for us it is more of a challenge to write a good song with a great feel and no guitar solos, than it is to write a simple groove that you can guitar solo over for 10 minutes. That's already been done so much, it can seem redundant, so were trying to focus on coming up with our own sounds and songs, rather than show off how many guitar licks or drum fills we can play.

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This, to us, is very exciting because it is this new approach that is helping to really shape our own sound. We still want to sound like a big full band so I have also figured out a way to run my guitar through a guitar amp and a bass amp, so that I can play the guitar and bass lines all at the same time. This is what we do in the studio and at our live shows. I don't use and loopers or backing tracks, we do it all live and try to keep that big huge sound that we had without having to add more musicians. I use my thumb to cover the low bass strings, and my other fingers to hit the melody lines, its a take on an old style of finger picking that the old blues players used to accompany themselves back in the early days of acoustic blues, so I just really adapted that style and cranked it up to rock n roll levels! I also build my own guitars and I am now using a custom baritone guitar that I created, it helps to add a lot of low-end bass sound to the mix as well. To add to it, Nick has started using his drum set more melodically, using the bass drum to accent and fill in a lot of the low end bass-line type stuff and coming up with clever drum fills and hooks to keep it all moving together. We are both so in tune with each other now that its almost easier not to have someone else in the band because we don't have to worry about anyone else following what we are doing, we can go off and improvise or add in new lines if we feel like it when we play live, and we are usually right on point with each other, it makes live improvising very exciting. When an audience experiences all of this music coming from only two people it is almost more mind blowing to them than if we had three or four members, and thats what we are trying to do, blow minds!

I once read an interview with Ray Manzerek of The Doors, one of the greatest bands ever that did not have a bass player, and Ray said when they tried auditioning a bass player they sounded just like the Rolling Stones or The Animals. The Doors drummer John Densmore said adding a bass player made them sound like every other rock n roll band, he said they were determined to do most anything to sound different. I think that is the same kind of idea that we are working with now too. We want to sound like Balkun Brothers and not like everyone else, so not having a bass player is part of our sound.

I really like your album ‘Devil On TV’. An album that gives me a smile on my face, make me feel good. A nice blend of rock, blues and funky grooves. In a nutshell: is that what Balkun Brothers is all about?
Yes in a nutshell, that would be a fantastic assessment of what we are about. Hard grooving, psychedelic, funky blues and rock n roll!! We have experimented with many different styles of sounds on our past recordings but this album 'Devil On TV', we feel is our best work yet. It really is our first album that actually sounds like how we sound as a band now. We self-produced the record at Nick's studio which allowed us to really capture our sound how we've always wanted it to sound. We have worked with other producers in the past and the production never quite hit the mark of how we thought our recordings should sound, and that's quite disappointing. So for this record we really wanted to get as close to our raw live sound as we could. Everything was recorded live, but then we took time to experiment in the studio and come up with some different sounds and textures to lay over the basic live tracks, to enhance the audio experience. So not only is the album a good representation of our live sound, it is the first time we have used sample sounds and over-dubs to create "sound-scapes" to connect all of the tunes and give a more psychedelic listening experience. We tried to give a good mix of Hard riffs, funky grooves, some blues along with psychedelic sounds!

There are two cover songs on your album; one song from Morphine and one song from The Doors/Willie Dixon. Why are these songs on the album; do they represent your main influences or do these songs breathe the atmosphere that you guys want to create yourselves? These songs are songs that we have been playing live a lot lately and we wanted to try some covers in the studio, so these were two that we tried first and got them down in one take. They came out really well and we liked the takes, so they ended up on the album. The Backdoor man/Five to One, Willie Dixon/The Doors medley is a thing that we have done live for many years. The Doors have been a huge influence on us and are one of the bands that really got us interested in blues and psychedelic rock, so we feel really at home with this tune, it fits in very well with our sound and feel, and we were able to arrange it to fit our duo set up. It works so well in our live set that it is a tune we knew we should try and record. It gave us a chance to pay tribute to one of our biggest rock influences and also to continue that connection with the old blues music that we love too.

And we chose to do a tune by Morphine because we had been listening to them so much in the past couple years, they are one of those bands that when we first heard them they just blew our minds, they were so different, nobody sounds like Morphine. Their songs, instrumentation and groove is so unique, we instantly felt connected to the music. They are one of our most favorite bands. We had a chance to play a show with the surviving members of Morphine, they are now called Vapors of Morphine. It was an incredible chance to see them perform their songs live and up close, and led to us meeting their saxophonist Dana Colley, who lent his distinct low-rock Sax sound to our album on the song 'Hey Kid'. That was very exciting for us to have someone from one of our favorite bands play on our song.

But for the cover of 'Thursday' we just set up live and did it all on one take, no over-dubs or extra sounds, it sounds just like we play it live. Its another song that we felt very comfortable arranging to fit our duo set-up. The original Morphine sound has their singer Mark Sandman playing slide bass, so I just arranged it for slide guitar, and explored the low end of my guitar strings to pay tribute to the low sound of Sandman's slide bass. Its a sound i find very interesting and intoxicating. Many slide guitar players are more focused on the high, singing, soaring notes in more of the style of Elmore James, or Duane Allman. Which is a beautiful sound. But to me it is exciting to think of the possibilities of using the low string sounds the slide can create, there seems to be a wide area of unexplored territory there for slide, that not many people try to go for. But Mark Sandman was an explorer of this sound, and has inspired me to search those waters as well.

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The wonderful blend of music can also be an disadvantage: blues fans might feel it is too heavy, people who like to dance might think there’s too much blues on the album and metal fans think it is too funky. How do people respond to your music so far? And when you play live, what kind of crowd do you attract in general?
We listen to and enjoy so many different styles of music, that it's all bound to make its way into our sound one way or another. We are not too concerned with trying to fit into and certain type of genre. Plain and simple it's all Rock N Roll, but we like to stretch the boundaries and take chances, explore, and experiment. We are trying to create a sound that is different so it is OK to us that we don't sound like a 'traditional' blues, rock, funk or metal band. It is supposed to be a mix. When we started out we were playing more Funk-rock type stuff, then we sold our souls to the Devil and spent many years playing more traditional blues music, and now we are kind of just evolving into our own type of Heavy-rock sound and taking it wherever we are feeling it should go. So we have played, and still play shows for a wide variety of audiences, and we have learned over the years how to adapt to a certain crowd. If we see people want to dance we will get a little funkier, if we see it's an older crowd that wants more traditional blues, we can do an entire set of that, and if we see people want to get heavy and rock out, well, then we rock out! We like to bring people together of all kinds, we don't care how young or old, or if you like to dance or head-bang, if you want to get down then let's get down! It's all rock n roll!

We will play for whoever wants to come see us. And our audiences reflect that, we have fans that are young kids all the way up to people in their 80s, it's a total mix. We love to turn on the younger people to the old blues, and turn the older crowd onto the new funkier, heavy rocking sounds. Sometimes I see some old people at our shows and think they won't enjoy the heavy stuff, and sure enough I look out in the crowd when we play those heavy tunes and those are the people that are rocking the hardest. And then sometimes I will worry the younger people will not dig the old blues style but they come up to us after the show and tell us how much they enjoyed our blues sound. So it's always a surprise, but for the most part anyone can find something they can dig at one of our shows.

But you can't make everyone happy, sometimes there are traditional blues "purists" that won't like our style, or the funksters won't like the heavy style or whatever. If they don't like it, then so be it. But we like to attract an open-minded crowd so the people that get it stick around the people that don't, they go find something that suits them better, that's cool with us. But all of the great artists that we admire became who they are by pushing the boundaries and coming up with their own sounds and style. And at first most of them were misunderstood simply because nobody had ever heard or seen anything like it before. When Jimi Hendrix or The Doors or Black Sabbath or Elvis or Mozart came out with their style of music, it was such a mix of different sounds put together in a way nobody had ever heard before at the time, it freaked people out. People didn't know what to think, it wasn't quite blues, it wasn't straight rock or it wasn't traditional or whatever. They just made the sounds they felt and it created their own style, that it what great art is all about, its not going to please everybody, but its going to sound like you. So that is what we are trying to do with our music.

You guys already were on stage with people like Joe Bonamassa. How did that came about and what was it like?!
I was selected in a guitar playing contest to travel to Los Angeles to play with Joe and his band, it was quite the experience. It was only for one song and I wish i could have jammed with them longer but it was still a cool experience to be on stage with Joe and his band. He is an incredible guitar player, I was really blown away by his playing.

Are Balkun Brothers a bluesband that play rock, a rock band that plays funk, or a groovy band who are also into metal or rock music?
We are all of those. Like I said before, we listen to all kinds of different music. To us there is only good music and bad music. You can find both is every genre, so we look for good music everywhere we can. We are just as inspired by Muddy Waters as we are by Motörhead. We love Robert Johnson but also the Red Hot Chili Peppers. We will listen to Miles Davis and then put on Metallica. We grove out to Parliament Funkadelic and James Brown and then slap on some Primus and Rage Against The Machine. Everything from Willie Nelson to Nirvana, the Beatles to Bad Brains, Bob Dylan to Bob Marley, Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa. There's so many good sounds out there to be heard, we try to find as much of the good music as we can.

Are there any plans of coming over to Europe again later this year?
We will be back in Europe at the end of October/early November. So far we will be in Germany and the Netherlands. More to come as well, so look out we will be coming to Rock n Roll with you! We love Europe and the people, so we look forward to returning.

Thank you for your time. Any final words or wise thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
Thank you! Look out for the Balkun Brothers, we're bringing the Rock n Roll to the people! Spread the rock n roll across the universe!

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