The gypsy is alive and well my friends. No, I’m not talking about those who wander southern and eastern Europe in search of an easy mark. The kind of gypsy to which I’m referring is that of the craft beer and indie rock worlds. Throughout those scenes, there are examples of loner craftsman wandering between breweries and bands and creating product that defies typical industry definitions.
As is usual with these sorts of things, the indie rock gypsy is way ahead of the the craft beer variety. Musicians have been using monikers normally reserved for bands of two or more people for projects with revolving members. The freedom to make all the major creative decisions for a band without worry of the band breaking down has to be a plus. And when they want to pick up and move, there are no band members holding them back. Then, when there is a creative problem to solve, they can call on hired guns to figure them out.
Take Bright Eyes for one. BE is basically Conor Oberst (later to include Mike Mogis) and whichever friends he could round up to fill spots on his roster. His sound and dynamic have generally stayed constant, but Oberst is able to create something new each time out by simply adding a few pieces while replacing others. Oberst could have gone it alone as a solo artist (which has done and probably will continue to do), but he must have liked the comforts and support a band provides. Fewer bands are as tight as an Oberst-led group and there always appears to be a great chemistry. As a gypsy, Oberst was able to move his operation to Brooklyn from Omaha without skipping a beat. Bright Eyes was not the first ever or only gypsy act in indie rock, but it has been an extremely successful one.
Interestingly, Brian Strumke, gypsy brewer of Stillwater Artisanal Ales, revealed to me that he is a big Bright Eyes fan, but their connection as gypsies in their fields don’t end there. Both have stayed true to their hometowns. Strumke brews in Baltimore and Oberst has done most of his work in Omaha. Both have traveled to “meccas” in order to continue their crafts with some Stillwater beers being brewed in Belgium and a Bright Eyes album or two written and recorded in Brooklyn. Both men have honed their crafts into something unique that often defies categorization while still giving a nod to their influences.
The gypsy is able to break free from the constraints and tradition of his craft. The typical indie rocker is stuck with the band structure that determines how many parts to consider in every song and even how many seats to provide in the tour van. Your average brewer must consider the additional costs of running and often upgrading brewing facilities. The gypsy is not bothered by either. His band can take any shape. He can brew in this brewery or travel overseas to brew at another. The gypsy is without the typical worries that dog their more sedentary counterparts.
And why is this gypsy-fication of indie rock and craft beer on the rise? Besides the freedoms mentioned above, we live in a world that is simply more conducive to the gypsy approach. For one, we are a more global society. Due to decades of migration and multicultural educational initiative, we no longer live in a …. society. There’s a reason American brewers make Belgian styles and popular music demonstrates influences from all over the globe. Secondly, technological advancements have made it possible to coordinate projects in multiple locations. Conor Oberst can work in Brooklyn while his Omaha label Team Love GM lives here in Columbia. Brewers can easily participate in beer scenes all over thanks to social media. The world is too small for these creative types to stay in one place. Bands and breweries will just keep them down.
It’s an interesting development that has produced some pretty great results. Below are a few other gypsies I admire.
- Crooked Fingers is the “band” name Eric Bachman (Archers of Loaf) uses. He lives out of vans and people’s couches, but he finds time to round up some players, record records, and hit the road. What started out as a side project of woe has turned into a great bar band, no matter who’s backing Bachman.
- Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project is one of the most sought after breweries in the scene right now. I don’t know all their particulars, but they make some artful brews and incorporate a nose for design.
- Bon Iver started out as Justin Vernon, fresh from band and girl breakups, heading out to a Wisconsin cabin one winter to record one of the most textured and heartfelt records of this century. He seems to have a regular touring band these days, but no one questions who or what Bon Iver actually is.
- Mikkeller is the gypsy from Copenhagen we American beer geeks adore. Not surprisingly, he has a connection to Stillwater as they have collaborated on several brews, some yet to be released.