Analogue Music | The Ballroom Thieves

The Ballroom Thieves

By Matt Conner

It sounded silly to write upbeat songs at the time.

In the midst of a global pandemic, Martin Early of The Ballroom Thieves laughed in response to an article he read saying the music industry was starved for positive music. Not only was everyone living in the same confusing cloud, but the band was also enduring their own season of frustration and loss. A newly released album was lost when the world shut down, and a band member would leave after considering his priorities. The Ballroom Thieves would never be the same.

Something about that article stuck with Earley and his remaining bandmate Calin Peters, however. They rolled up their sleeves and began writing new songs, vulnerable compositions that would eventually come together on Clouds. These were honest songs written in response to the pandemic yet approached, at times, as a challenge to give the industry what it needed—maybe what we all needed.

We recently sat down with Martin to ask him about what was lost and found over the last few years and what it means for the future of The Ballroom Thieves. Here is our conversation.

Analogue: Everything I’m reading about Clouds positions it as a musical response to the pandemic.

Martin: Yeah, we’ve had a hard time writing about anything that isn’t real. We always write about what we’re dealing with personally and what friends are going through and what we see in the world. So it’s been difficult because we always got our inspiration from the road and being in different places and meeting new people. So it’s tough to sit in the same house for two years and come up with something new to write about.

The way we got around that was to write about the things we missed on the road, among other things. We missed travelling and even the more mundane parts of being on the road—sleepless nights in hotels and travelling from Best Western to Best Western and going through cities without a real chance to explore them. We missed even the less-glamorous parts of touring.

We also wrote about mental illness and how to accept and handle living with depression and anxiety, topics that have come to the fore a bit more during the pandemic. We’ve always felt like talking about mental illness is really important so since that’s something we deal with, we couldn’t help but write about it. And then obviously we love Harry Styles, so we just had to write about it.

Analogue: Who hasn’t, right? It’s the old familiar songwriting subjects of love, loss, and Harry Styles. [Laughs]

Martin: The big three of songwriting. [Laughs]

Analogue: I’m so glad you brought up the mental illness angle because it’s hard not to see that all over the new album on songs like “Borderline” or “Shadow” or “I Lose” or “Trodden.” They’re steeped in some aspect of emotional trauma. When you’re mining that sort of territory again and again, do you find you learn something about it yourself as you write through or about it?

Martin: Yeah, and it’s different every time. We’re constantly learning about ourselves and each other, so we haven’t hit the bottom of that well, so to speak. We’re also trying to learn more about the topic in general, so we’re reading a lot of books about that kind of thing. In a way, the songwriting as it pertains to the mental illness piece is almost a form of therapy. It’s a way of expressing things that might not otherwise be expressed. It can be difficult to really put your finger on what you’re thinking or feeling, but it’s easier to put words to a song and express yourself that way—at least for me.

Analogue: I know from my own experience that some personal things I discover when processing or reading are not things I would want to share publicly. As you process these things, are there lyrics or lines that you realize will never see the light of day?

Martin: Yes, that does happen. [Laughs] I’ve got a few of those stashed away. We’ll see if they’ll ever see the light of day, but I think it’s important to have that be personal. Sometimes it helps to create something and it doesn’t always necessarily need to be sung in front of people every night.

Analogue: Have you ever taken a chance on a song like that?

Martin: Yeah, I think a lot of our songs even straddle that line. There are a lot that are deeply personal, and we might wonder if it’s too transparent or too obvious that it is personal but so far, so good. We’ve come to terms with that as it evolves as we deal with the things we deal with.

"Sometimes it helps to create something and it doesn’t always necessarily need to be sung in front of people every night."

Analogue: Safe to assume those songs might be the best in terms of fan response?

Martin: That might be the case, yeah. That’s part of the interaction that ends up emboldening us, especially when we see that reaction to something we thought might be a little too personal or too close. When other people identify and gravitate toward it, that’s what makes it worth it. It feels like you’re doing something helpful by talking about what someone else has been dealing with as well. It validates their feelings and, in the same breath, it validates ours.

Analogue: I read where you wanted to counter the feeling of a song by, say, lightening the musical mood for serious lyrics. How do you know when to let a sad song be sad and when to try for some balance?

Martin: Well, we read this article early in the pandemic that talked about how the music industry needed happy songs. Directors for movies and commercials, that’s what they’re looking for. We couldn’t help but laugh because we were sitting at home shortly after the pandemic started unsure of how everything was going to unfold. It was difficult to imagine writing a happy song.

So part of the creative challenge was to write whatever we do write and then see how it would sound if we tried to make it happier or more upbeat. So it wasn’t such a conscious decision from song to song. It was whatever happens will happen. Some songs lend themselves more to that carefree feeling than others and I’ve always loved that juxtaposition of a really sad song that sounds like it’s happy.

Analogue: What song is the best example here?

Martin: “Shadow” is the one that comes to mind first because it really is a sad song about learning to live with depression. It’s realizing it’s a part of you and you have to work with it rather than push it away. But when we recorded it, we wanted it to sound as if you’re riding in an old vintage car with the top down on the California coast—a hair-in-the-wind kind of deal.

Analogue: We’ve been talking about the response to the pandemic, but I’m curious what it cost you on the front end. I know some musicians were already in a sheltering-in-place mode already because they’re writing or not touring—

Martin: We’d just released Unlovely and we were really excited about it at the time. We’d started the release tour and only got six or seven shows into it before it all crumbled. Right before the pandemic, we were also involved in a huge car accident, so it was all a whirlwind couple of weeks.

So one of the tough things about it was that our record was lost in the mix. It was really difficult to promote it without touring, and beyond that, it’s difficult to use social media to promote an album with the world falling apart. People weren’t exactly looking for what the New Music Friday was going to be when we were all glued to the TV watching Fauci’s presentations.

We had to compartmentalize and move on from that album knowing it was never going to get the attention or the time that we thought it was worth. Once we got over that, we decided pretty quickly to move on and write the next thing.

The other thing that came out of it was that our drummer, Devin, left the band. A lot of bands, for the first time, had the time to sit down and decide what was really important and what people’s priorities were and whether they still wanted to be in a band or play music and travel. It’s difficult to take your foot off the gas in a band because there’s always something coming up.

So that was a silver lining of the pandemic is that Calin and I realized how much we need and miss the road and how much we love playing shows and meeting new people and everything that encapsulates touring. Devin also realized his own path, so that was for the best for everyone. That probably never would have happened if not for the pandemic.

VISIT: The Ballroom Thieves