|Sirsy's Melanie Krahmer and Rich Libutti at Wurstküche|
800 E. 3rd St., Los Angeles (Downtown) 213-687-4444
Laughter is contagious whenever spending any amount of time with Sirsy. The Upstate New York-based duo of Melanie Krahmer and Rich Libutti have been performing and writing songs together for 12 years, so it's no wonder that they share such an amazing rapport, and once you're around them it's easy to fall right into their habit of exchanging witty banter with one another.
"I slip just a tiny bit of drugs into his coffee every day," jokes vocalist, drummer and flautist Melanie of her longstanding musical partnership with guitarist Rich. "We really try to respect and listen to each other. We also bust each other's balls nonstop, so it's good."
I was able to witness quite a few playful exchanges between the two when they met me at Wurstküche on the day of their first L.A. show at the Viper Room last week. With its long wooden tables and benches, exposed brick walls and beamed ceilings, the gastropub – known for its German sausages and extensive list of imported beers – has a sleek yet welcoming vibe, conducive to gathering to catch up with a group of friends or getting to know your table neighbor.
Melanie chooses a British soda, Fentimans Mandarin and Seville Orange Jigger, to drink, while I go with an L.A. one, Reed's Spiced Apple Brew (homemade ginger ale with apple and lemon juice, honey, herbs and spices), which tastes just like apple pie. Being a beer aficionado, Rich is in his element and opts for the Floris Apple Ale, a Belgian wittier fermented with apples.
"It's really good," he offers, after taking a sip. "I love to go to different places and try everything when we travel, especially with the craft beer explosion. We hang out more and relax on the road. When you're 'self employed,' chasing your dream—"
"You feel guilty if you're not working the whole time," Melanie finishes. "We give ourselves more time to relax and enjoy a beer when we're on tour than when we're at home. I don't drink a lot of beer, but I am really into Lindemans Framboise, a Belgian Lambic. It tastes like fresh raspberries."
"The cheesy touristy thing is to go look at stars on the Walk of Fame, so we're going to go do that today," Melanie replies. "I've actually always wanted to go to the Viper Room, so I'm really excited that we're playing there."
"As we tour in different cities, we often go to places that are iconic in TV and movies, so we'll take a look at the Hollywood Sign," Rich adds. "In Dallas we went to Daley Plaza where JFK was shot."
"We do things you want to check off your bucket list while you're in that city," Melanie continues. "We saw the magical side of space travel on this trip, when we spent some time in Roswell, N.M. We went to the International UFO Museum, which was fun."
Aside from the usual Hollywood spots, Melanie has also been able to experience a favorite pastime of many Angelenos, shopping on Melrose Avenue. She shows me a skirt she found at American Vintage for a steal and admits that thrift shops are a frequent pit stop whenever they roll into a new city.
"It's really fun to go into those places; you never know what you're going to find," she says. "I got one of my favorite skirts in a thrift store in Asheville, N.C. I was looking through a rack and saw a Yoda skirt. This girl makes recycled clothing from scraps of material, so this was a skirt made from four different scraps and one had Yoda from Star Wars on it. It's literally a one-of-a-kind item. You get a little bit of the personality of the town from these local shops."
Although Melanie is vegan, there are several options for her to choose from on the Wurstküche grilled sausage menu. She orders the Vegetarian Smoked Apple Sage, and Rich gets the Sun Dried Tomato & Mozzarella with smoked chicken and turkey. My favorite item is actually the Belgian Fries, which are twice fried and served with one of their delectable dipping sauces that range from the spicy Chipotle Ketchup, creamy Bleu Cheese, Walnut & Bacon, savory Sundried Tomato Mayo and the Sweet & Sassy BBQ.
Sirsy plays over 200 shows a year, so they spend an inordinate time on the road and have of course developed some habits over the course of their 12 years together.
"I might have tortured everyone on the way here from Tucson with my guilty pleasure," Rich admits and then divulges Melanie's on-the-road guilty pleasure. "She wears an assortment of shoe wear as most women do, and on long rides she likes to take those shoes off and put on these fuzzy socks that are soft so she can relax."
"I usually put my feet up on the dashboard and recline. That's true, I do that," she confesses before sharing their usual habit as a duo. "One of our favorite places in New York City where we go every time we're in town is a little falafel place called Mamoun's. Even though it's 2013, somehow you can get an entire meal there for $3. Every time we play in Greenwich Village we go there."
Rich grew up in Rhode Island, while Melanie was raised an hour outside of Albany, and they had distinctly different musical upbringings. For Melanie, the first time she heard the Beatles' Abbey Road, her life changed. She also loved Thriller by Michael Jackson and older jazz artists like Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James.
"My family liked music, but there weren't any musicians in my family. When I was a freshman in high school, the person who sat behind me alphabetically in homeroom the first day was this guy Steve, who actually became my best friend. He said to me very early on in our friendship, 'I play guitar. You should play bass so we could meet girls,'" Rich remembers with a laugh. "So I begged my parents to buy me a bass, and we didn't really accomplish the girl thing."
"Unbeknownst to them they were both nerds, so that was the flaw in their plan," Melanie interjects. "Unlike Rich, I grew up in a very musical household. My father is an amazing piano player, so my first instrument was voice because I used to sing along with him. Then I learned to play the piano. In the fourth grade, they make you choose an instrument, and I really wanted to play the saxophone. My mother said, 'Saxophone is $600, and the flute is $200, so you will be playing the flute.' My mother's very supportive, but they were broke. That's when I started playing flute and had my illustrious career as a band geek. I was in drama club and sang in school plays. I've always been pretty musical and it's always been what I wanted to do. I think RIch wanted to be an astronaut."
"There's no jobs for astronauts though anymore, so I went this way instead," he chuckles. "When you're a kid, your parents tell you that you can be anything you want – President of the United States, an astronaut. Then when you're applying to colleges they say, 'You can still be whatever you want, but maybe you should major in something that you can get a job with. As a musician, you face a life of making no money, so I went to school for Biology, toying with the idea of going to med school. I always had many interests but music was always that one underlying thing. It was always there as something that I liked."
"I had been in a bunch of different bands, but it wasn't until I started writing songs with Melanie that I felt that music was a realistic possibility," Rich recalls. "We worked really hard at it, to the point where we both petered out of serious jobs. It's been eight or nine years since we had any other job. We've been out there pounding the pavement touring."
"We started playing music together, and the first time that it really hit me was looking into a crowd of people and seeing a bunch of people I didn't know singing along to a song that we made up. That was amazing," Melanie remembers. "We would get an e-mail from a fan saying this song changed my life, and there's nothing like that in the world. That's it for me, the fact that we're able to connect with people and change their lives in some way. It doesn't get any better, even if we're broke for the rest of our lives, it's worth it."
Rich and Melanie began as a two-piece, playing acoustic music but writing indie rock tunes. They wrote and released three albums – Baggage (2000), Away From Here (2002) and Ruby (2004) – and hired more band members to translate the songs to stage. Unfortunately they were never able to find the right mix, and
"It's really hard to have a cohesive sound when you keep going through band members, but it's also really hard to find two people who are as insane as we are and want to live on the road, play as many shows and basically not have a life outside of the band. That's where the two us, where our hearts have always been so it's not a sacrifice for us to do it. We lucked out and found each other. When we write and play songs ,we generally are on the same page. We tried but never really found that with anybody else," she tells. "After going through many changeovers, we just said, 'Let's go back to a two-piece and play all of the instruments ourselves.'"
So ever since 2006, she has played a full drum kit on stage while singing and shared bass duties on a keyboard with Rich (who plays the keyboard with his feet). The released their first effort as a duo, Revolution, in 2007, working on every single aspect themselves, from building a studio at Rich's house to recording and producing. With their fifth full-length, Coming Into Frame, they pushed themselves even further by expanding their recording horizons by working with a pair of award-winning producers, Paul Kolderie (Lemonheads, Buffalo Tom, Uncle Tupelo) and Sean Slade (Radiohead, Hole, Dresden Dolls, Pixies).
"Working with Paul and Sean, who have worked with some of our favorite artists, we already knew that we trusted them going in. They came and saw us live, so they got our vibe," Melanie says. "They said they wanted to capture the live energy that we have on stage. They noticed that when we played one song live there was a peak when it sped up and was exciting. They said we shouldn't record it with a click track, that we didn't need to use a metronome."
"In a Lady Gaga/Katy Perry world of music production, everything is very structured and rigid, mathematically laid out and Auto-Tuned, and we didn't want to make a record like that," adds Rich.
"I don't like to use Auto-Tune on my voice. If I can't sing it in tune, then I shouldn't be singing it, and that was their philosophy, too, on the record. We were breaking all types of rules, but we were able to capture more of us live," Melanie says. "They used a lot of our production ideas, taught us so much and really made us grow. It's our best album because of them. I like to think that we got better as songwriters, but a lot of it came fem working with them."
"Also, we wrote way more songs than we ever have. We wrote 25 songs, and 10 made it on the CD. In the end it's the 10 that we're most happy to have on there," Rich says.
As Sirsy has made their way across the country debuting songs from Coming Into Frame, Melanie says that the first two songs on the album, "Cannonball" and "Lionheart," have been going over well because they're full of energy and fun. There are two other tracks from the album that really move audiences as well and hold special meaning to the close-knit musical pair.
"I don't share this very often, but I actually went through a battle with breast cancer while we were writing the album, so 'Brave and Kind' and 'Gold' both came from that place. When you go through something like that, it just comes out of you, so I think that's why they speak to people," she says. "I've had several people come up to me after shows and say 'That song 'Brave and Kind,' I went through this and this, and that song, it's me, how did you write that?' It's neat for me to take something that's a life struggle, learn from it and be able to make a song that speaks to other people. That's pretty special for me."
Coming Into Frame is currently available. For more information, visit sirsy.com.