Flagstaff is known for being a small town that serves as a canvas for new artists to paint on with their music. The Way Down Wanderers band is coming to Flagstaff for the first time on April 13 at 8 p.m. They will perform at the Orpheum Theater, a hub for new and seasoned artists to play in front of a community with diverse music taste.
The Way Down Wanderers music is a collection that primarily consists of bluegrass and eclectic sounds. They come from Peoria, Illinois and have influences in their songs that are inspired by hip-hop, jazz, pop, spoken word and more. The band consists of John Williams, John Merikoski, Austin Thompson, Collin Krause and Travis Kowalsky. To put it simply, bandmembers Merikoski, Thompson and Krause all say that if they had to squeeze their multifaceted music into one category, it would be Americana.
“People quickly put us into the category of bluegrass because we have a banjo player and these acoustic instruments, but we really draw from all over,” Merikoski said.
This group creates music from different ends of the spectrum, but also incorporates a large range of instruments into their songs. During performances, Krause plays the mandolin, fiddle and is also one of the band’s two chief songwriters. Thompson plays the guitar, keyboard, sings and is the second songwriter. Merikoski plays the spoons and drums, Williams is responsible for the bass and electric guitar and Kowalsky plays the banjo and electric guitar.
“[We’re] pushing the boundaries,” Krause said. “We’ve developed a more acoustic bluegrass fanbase but we’re definitely taking some risks and making some music choices that definitely wouldn’t be consistent with a traditional bluegrass band or even folk music.”
The group just released their second album “Illusions” in late February. Merikoski said their sophomore piece shows their journey and growth over the five years they have been playing together.
“The first album you were kind of just thrown into,” Merikoski said. “This album we felt a lot more comfortable in the studio and all of us were more trusting of each other and of the awesome producer, David Schiffman. This was just an album where we weren’t afraid to try things and just see where the song ends up.”
Schiffman was the sound engineer for The Way Down Wanderers’ current album and has historically produced music for artists like Adele and Johnny Cash. Krause described him as an easygoing, laidback and award-winning studio engineer. Schiffman steered them in a direction to find their own unique sound.
“I don’t know a whole lot of bands with a spoons player,” Merikoski said. “The music is eclectic, but we always just try to play with all of the energy we can and leave it all on stage.”
The Way Down Wanderers described their show as family-oriented. They said that their crowd ranges from toddlers to senior citizens.
“When there’s standing room there’s lots of dancing,” Merikoski said. “Definitely feels like a family and a community. There’s a whole lot of love and support.”
The band members themselves are a close-knit, big, happy family. Krause said each band member’s family is extremely supportive. Over the course of the years of the band playing together, two members even became brothers-in-law when Thompson married Krause’s sister.
Thompson formed The Way Down Wanderers with Krause right around the same time he formed a relationship with Krause’s sister. He said the group’s creation happened just as seamlessly and they soon began playing together and making music. Showing the other band members new music or ideas is a bit more of a worrisome process for Thompson.
“It’s kind of nerve-racking at times to bring certain songs to a group of people you might feel super vulnerable about or just like exposed with,” Thompson said. “I think the band has grown a lot stronger having multiple writers in one group.”
Thompson needs to be in an isolated space to write music where he doesn’t have to worry about how his music may be perceived before it is finished.
“Always have fun,” Thompson said. “I guess music doesn’t have to be fun, music can be very passionate. But never forget why you want to do it or why you love doing it and try to find someone who loves it in the same way you do.”
Krause explained what he believes makes the band special and why performing is special to him and the other band members.
“What makes the band special just kind of goes down to the roots of the band,” Krause said. “We just love what we’re doing. Every moment that we’re onstage and we share the music that we create with other people is a special thing and we cherish getting to do that.”