"Skifflin' is a state of being. If nothing else, let's definitely say it's a verb," "Farmer" Dave Scher tells Exclaim! on the phone from California. He's talking about the Skiffle Players, a new group he's in with Cass McCombs, Neal Casal, Dan Horne and Aaron Sperske, and the band's debut album, Skifflin' (which Scher produced), out now on Spiritual Pajamas.
Ostensibly leaderless, the Skiffle Players are basically a new vehicle for Cass McCombs' songs and song curation, which came about when the songwriter was set to play (((folkYEAH!)))'s Mollusk Jamboree a few years ago and didn't have a band.
"We pulled some guys together and rehearsed in a motel room at Fernwood," says Scher, "and I think someone played drums on the bed. It was a really good fit. We've all known each other for a long time and the backbone of the musicians have played together so much." (Scher, Sperske and Casal have all played in alt-country group Beachwood Sparks.)
"When we got together it fell together. We were like, 'woah.' It was like a car that started up without needing to warm up. We were off and running."
Not surprising, considering how prolific McCombs is, when the band went into the studio last January, they recorded almost two album's worth of material in two days (the band's already at work on a second album).
There's a spiritual connection between the Skiffle Players and the history of skiffle, which saw two major iterations, first in the 1920s and '30s American melting pot of ragtime, blues, folk and jazz, and secondly in the UK in the 1950s, with young John Lennon and the Quarrymen, Van Morrison, Jimmy Page, along with members of the Stones (and thousands of others) jumping in on the craze.
The Skiffle Players draw from what Scher calls a "living songbook of at-this-point Western humans from Europe and the Americas," without trying to emulate a specific era or locale. Songs like "Coo Coo Bird" and "Omie Wise" are on the record, along with Henry Thomas's "Railroadin' Some," which sounds like the Velvet Underground the way they approach it.
"I don't think skiffle would sound like it did then if [those players] were alive today," says Scher, eschewing a narrow definition of skiffle. "So getting the vintage equipment or playing this old timey thing, that doesn't necessarily mean you're skifflin' man; it's where you're coming from."
Though the Skiffle Players play primarily acoustic instruments on the record (Scher also plays keyboards, lap steel and melodica) and have kept production intentionally limited and performance-based on Skifflin', some of the things they've worked on lately have included tampering around with Star Wars music; "Skifflin' in space" is actually an apt description of the band.
Scher would like to imbue the world skiffle with as wide a meaning as possible, to encompass street performers on the boardwalk in Venice Beach playing battery powered keyboards and "skifflin' for their lives" along with his band.
Skifflin' calls to mind music played on rudimentary instruments by non-professionals. "That would apply to us, we feel," says Scher. "We chuckle at ourselves; there's some humour to it.
"The fact that it's been put down brings more meaning to the word skiffle, without trying to define it too much," he adds, "It's kind of scrappy and DIY, and it ties into a lot of things that we came from when we were younger: punk or alternative, youth spent in music that was under the radar.
"This kind of living history of song is not beholden to any establishment or industry. It's straight from the people and the earth, and it's usually, you know, the facts: murder ballads and songs that contain wisdom. And Cass is quite adept at that: he's spent a lot of time with songs. So he's been the guiding force of this. I think that each of the guys has their contributions as guiding forces, which makes it a fun band. All of us show up at times to drive and help the thing have a force.
"A song like 'Omie Wise,' you're grooving out, but it's a sad tale. This unfortunate event has been immortalized in a way that we remember her. And so keeping that kind of music going feels like an honour. It's like blood, living tissue, and also something of an antidote for some of the aspects of our culture that are a little disconnected and ephemeral these days."