oboken plus music typically equals Frank Sinatra. Old Blue Eyes got his start there before moving his act across the river to The Big Apple. And the Demolition String Band followed in his footsteps. Well, not exactly. Neither member of the band's core duo - Elena Skye and Boo Reiners - spent a childhood on the tough streets of New Jersey. She's from Chicago, and he's a North Carolinan.
Nor do they require strings and horns to back them up; theirs is a honky-tonk-leaning form of roots music that grew out of a mutual love of bluegrass.
But they did meet in Hoboken and formed the Demolition String Band there in 1996 while picking in Skye's bookstore. The name, in fact, is a reflection of the group's city of origin.
While other bluegrass bands pay tribute to their geographic homes by referencing valleys, hollows and foggy mountains in their names, Skye explains that she and Reiners found themselves engaged in the rural stylings of bluegrass against a backdrop of urban razing and rebuilding. Hence the "Demolition." Also, says Skye, "I thought it was tough."
Today, the duo is prominent in New York City's thriving insurgent country/Americana/roots music (choose one) scene. The band moved away from New Jersey, and their music moved from that of the hills to that of the honky tonks. The shift is reflected in the band's two albums: 1999's "One Dog Town" and this year's "Pulling Up Atlantis."
"It was a little softer record," Skye says of the 1999 release, while "Atlantis" "has a more rock edge to it," perhaps due to the "full drum kits on it." (The presence of Reiners' Telecaster necessitated full drums, he explains.)
Only a snare was used on "One Dog Town." Reiners calls the sound "prototypical hillbilly meets urban," a combination of Lefty Frizzell and bluegrass. "Atlantis," he says, "was a nice transition from a lot of bluegrass we'd been playing." Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, who is himself based in the East Village and who produced the album, further cultivated the band's rock leanings within its country sound. A blend of picking and shredding is actually an apt reflection of the duo's musical tastes. Skye says her "first love was bluegrass." At 14, she began playing mandolin - "I picked it up real quick," she remembers - and soon found herself playing bluegrass in bars in a band of "burly men."
While an adolescent, she studied for a short time with Jethro Burns (of Homer and Jethro fame). Burns, whom Reiners describes as a "vaudevillian" instead of a mere musician, "steered me away from bluegrass," Skye recalls; "I learned a lot from Jethro that didn't have to do with the mandolin," including how to be performer as well as a player.
Like any good youth, Skye eventually abandoned her first love (albeit temporarily) to pursue other avenues. "In college, I fell in love with The Ramones," she says. Then "I dropped out of college…and moved to New York to pursue my music."
The music she chose to pursue at the time was louder and grittier. "It was grunge before there was grunge" is how Reiners describes her early bands: Belle Skye and The Minx. Skye, who was bassist in both of the groups, describes the former as a "power trio" and "grungy to the max."
The Minx, originally all women, played equally edgy material. Reiners' music followed a similar trajectory. "I started out as a banjo player," he says ("He's a damn good banjo player," Skye is quick to interject). Growing up in North Carolina, Reiners had more than adequate exposure to bluegrass music. He remembers watching the Jones Brothers and the Log Cabin Boys on television, as well as Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Where he ended up musically in the late eighties, however, was far from the hills of home.
Reiners got a video and an album on Warner Brothers in a band called the Sweet Lizard Illtet; Skye describes Reiners' music then as "a Red Hot Chili Peppers thing." "They were a big deal in this area (New York)" says Skye, but despite their popularity, the Sweet Lizard Illtet did not release a sophomore album.
Before Reiners and Skye knew each other, they'd been playing the same clubs, sometimes on the same night. As the nineties progressed and both heeded the call of bluegrass again, they finally met in Hoboken and began playing together in Blackwater Books, a store Skye co-owned.
"Eventually we took it out of the bookstore," and into the local clubs, Reiners says.
"We just did it," answers Skye, when asked how the Demolition String Band came to be formed. Originally a strictly bluegrass ensemble, the DSB began incorporating more country and rock elements into their sound. Skye, who writes the duo's songs, says, "I had a lot of material that didn't fit into bluegrass. I write country tunes. I always wrote country songs."
"I'm really conservative in my bluegrass consumption," says Reiners, so he was willing to adapt his sound when the songs did not warrant bluegrass accompaniment. DSB's current "mongrel" sound is "definitely a mix, but it's a country thing," says Skye. "For me, it wasn't like I chose it. It's what I hear; it's what I love...When I write, that's what comes out. It's just natural." "It's roots music; it's very American," Reiners
continues. "There's a certain authenticity that's lacking in a lot of music," he muses, but in DSB's sound and in the sound of New York City's country scene, "there's something real and heartfelt in there."
To sate their bluegrass jones, Reiners and Skye, along with Diane Stockwell and Skip Ward, currently play in the band Blackwater Shoals. "We needed to do our bluegrass thing," explains Skye. The group is "a serious thing," she adds. "We've got the little red matching ties."