Originally conceived to create the fictional home recordings of a nonexistent South Dakotan teenager, The Dust Engineers are in reality a new Brooklyn/Queens-based band. “Ask Bobby Zimmerman about inventing a persona,” laughs Zachary Meyer, singer and guitarist. “Sometimes romanticization is better than the real thing.” After performing at a Bowery Poetry Club multimedia exhibition, Meyer decided to makeThe Dust Engineers more than a fantasy, and enlisted Ryan Egan (bass), Sara Maeder (vocals, tambourine), Erik Rosenberg (guitar, vocals), and Jared Harel (drums) to form the band in 2011. Employing coed harmonies and twangy bottleneck slides with reckless abandon, their new EP Bail proves tough to classify. “One foot on a skateboard and the other in stirrups,” replies Meyer when asked about The Dust Engineers’singular sound.
Dust Engineers have a pretty interesting background: originally the band as started a concept involving the soundtrack for a fictional South Dakotan teenager. How did that idea come about, and why the change?
The first song I wrote for The Dust Engineers, before we were a band and I think before the project even had a name, was a song about this teenage love/westbound trip that ends with the singer and his lover driving into the ocean, and the lyrics map out the trip as going through Wyoming and Nevada into California, and I imagined they were coming from South Dakota. The concept started with that song and grew into an identity, like an alter ego – and really this kid, whose name is Ernest Wheyton, he is still a muse for us, still a part of who we are. So I wouldn’t say we’ve ditched the concept – it’s just that we decided to keep it real, not to present The Dust Engineers as his home recordings.
I mean I was literally going to lie, build the persona up, and I even fantasized about getting exposed in some kind of “Dylan is Zimmerman!” or “James Frey is not a drug addict!” scandal. It’s fun to imagine but pretty impossible to execute, like right now I’d be doing this interview as Ernest Wheyton – let’s say I got interviewed by Chuck Klosterman, who’s from North Dakota, would I pretend to know about bean farming? The web of lies would just spiral into insanity.
Plus it would sort of deny my bandmates the credit that they certainly deserve – so we keep it more like a Bowie character, where, you know, nobody actually thought he was Ziggy Stardust, but Ziggy is a beloved character nonetheless. Actually David Bowie isn’t even David Bowie’s real name, but now I’m rambling…
The guitar tone is pretty distinctive. Reminds me a bit of 90s alt-rock acts like Dinosaur Jr, and in some ways Sonic Youth, then there’s some heartland rock influences as well (especially with the bottle-neck slide.) Where does that combination come from?
Well the 90s influence is just the natural result of growing up listening to and loving that music, and the country and western influences came later, for example in college I played in a bluegrass band (with some great musicians who are still playing today, shoutout to Max Horwich aka Sewing Machines, Ben Seretan, Adam Tinkle, Jon Sirlin, Sylvia Ryerson, and Ruby Ross). We don’t seek to be revivalists, but rather it’s in the way we combine these elements that we hope to create a unique and original sound.
“Bail” was recorded live rather than multi-tracking and over-dubbing. Did you find that process hard or invigorating?
Invigorating for sure. I had been used to multitracking to a click and tweaking endlessly with Logic or Pro Tools, and Andrew Lappin, who recorded us, stepped into a bit of a traditional “producer” role for a moment when he said, “listen, guys, you’re a rock n’ roll band and part of why I’m psyched to be working with you is because I dig your live show – let’s just turn the metronome off and record this live.” We did a few takes like that and were totally sold on it. I mean, I wouldn’t suggest it to a Top 40 dance producer, but there’s a difference between being locked rhythmically and being sterile and in our case the live-in-the-studio approach allowed the songs to breathe and stay raw, stay human. Definitely the right call for this EP.
Your record label, No Horse Town is also made up of writers, visual artists and poets. That’s not exactly a traditional outlet. What attracted you to the label?
I’m one of the founders of No Horse Town – it’s a humble, low-budget collective, you know, a way for a group of artists, writers, and musicians to work together and do the occasional multimedia event without being tied down contractually or financially. A No Horse Town event at the Bowery Poetry Club was actually the first live performance of The Dust Engineers, definitely made me want to get a real band together and make this more than just a conceptual recording project. I should probably throw it out there for the record that No Horse Town wouldn’t get in the way of other labels pursuing us.
What’s next for you guys? Any plans for a full-length?
Yeah definitely. We’re working on new songs and we can hear ourselves sonically getting deeper into the desert, into the country noir sound. More twang, more slide, and less notes. Wide open spaces. It’s in the writing phase, so no date on a full-length, but it’s coming. That said, we’re taking it one step at a time. In the more short term, we’re playing Northside Festival in Brooklyn this Thursday, and we’re looking forward to our shows this summer and releasing Bail on July 17.