Photo by Genta Tamashiro

The Way Down Wanderers Examine Love, Friendship and More on ‘illusions’ (album stream + interview)

Smart songwriting and gorgeous harmonies dominate on the Way Down Wanderers' illusions. The primary songwriters discuss their place in the musical and landscape and reveal just who a certain love song its about.

illusions is the latest release from Illinois-based Americana outfit the Way Down Wanderers. The album, which arrives on February on February 22, may be pre-ordered. The collective blends elements of traditional American music, including folk and bluegrass while adding doses of contemporary music, culminating in a sound that drives the music forward into new territories that will leave listeners hopeful for the future of roots-based sounds.

With songwriters Austin Krause-Thompson (vocals, guitar) and Collin Krause (vocals, mandolin, violin, electric guitar) leading the charge with topnotch material, the quintet delivers a high-powered collection of material, including the blistering “Frozen Through”, the meditative, traditional country of “Crooked Pines”, and the jazz-like titular tune. Rounded out by John Williams (vocals, upright bass), John Merikoski (drums, percussion), and Travis Kowalsky (banjo, fiddle), the group demonstrates that it’s arrived with firm mastery of its own vision.

Produced, engineered and mixed by Grammy winner David Schiffman (Johnny Cash, HAIM, System of a Down), the album is a testament to deep and sometimes tenuous, sometimes seemingly unbreakable bonds of friends and family, including that of the two main songwriters, who are now brothers-in-law.

“I was probably 14 when we met and I think Austin was 19 at the time,” Krause recalls. “That band broke up and we remained friends, continued playing music together. Last year he married my sister. It’s more than being in a band together now.”

“We both have a lot of the same influences, so it kind of feels like it was meant to be,” adds Krause-Thompson.

The pair recently spoke with PopMatters about the new album, their partnership and more.

“Principles of Salt” leads off the record. Did you know that would be the opener all along or did it take that spot after everything else was done?

Collin Krause: That song was written by a dear friend of mine, Joshua Powell. He’s from Indianapolis. I had fallen in love with that song, from the first time I heard it, about five years ago. Joshua hadn’t done much with the song and was moving on to newer music. We asked him if we could record it. He said yes and we felt like it had a great place as the first song on the album.

I really love “All My Words.” It’s one of the more adventurous pieces on the record.

Austin Krause-Thompson: I started writing that one piano rather than guitar. I’d actually come up with the progression years ago. It has almost a poppy sound. Then Collin threw in some awesome fiddle parts, some banjo, to make it super eclectic. There are so many different parts to that song: It’s groovy and there’s also the riff-y outro. It kind of sums up the record as a whole, sonically. I think that’s why we released it first. We’ve been playing it live and can see people singing along. It’s great to get these new songs on the stage.

“Patient Pretender” is a really beautiful song.

AKT: My wife had found this puppy in Chicago, probably five-six weeks old in the winter. I was at a gig and came home to a new dog. Once we decided to keep him, he became this great grounding experience. I’ve definitely learned a lot from him. He’s a best friend. I tried to make it relatable to people and not necessarily have it sound like I’m singing to a dog. [Laughs.] The groove is a little different from what you hear on the rest of the record and the bridge moves into a reggae vibe, which is different for us as well.

What made “Old Ford” the right last song?

CK: It’s about losing someone close to you, a friendship, and holding on to the moments before they’re gone. There’s a little bit of bitterness in there. I think the last line of the song, “Get a good grip on the meantime/before you find that it was all that there ever was” is what made us want to close out the record with it.

Do you write away from the band or is this everyone working together in a room?

AKT: Typically, Collin and I will write on our own and then we’ll bring it to the rest of the band. Sometimes it’s half of a song, other times it’s most of a song. From there, we try to structure it and do as many things as we can. But Collin and I have been co-writing more, especially on this record.

It seems like there are a number of string bands that have come out of the Illinois and Michigan area over the last few years. Was there a network of bands or were you working in isolation?

CK: There isn’t much of a scene in Peoria in terms of folk and bluegrass. But after a few years we all moved up to Chicago. There’s much more of a scene there: Lots of newgrass and folk. We made a lot of great friends. Since then there’s been a jump in the number of musicians and bands in this genre.

You’re taking a style of music that has a lot of tradition but you’re not afraid to move it into new directions. When you do something like that, do you ever think, “This is probably going to irritate some people”?

CK: Maybe a little bit but we’re trying to make the music that we like. If we think it’s cool, then we don’t worry about what other people might think. We hope they like it but as long as we’re making music that makes us happy, I think we’re good.

What was it like when you first started singing harmonies in the same room? Did you have a sense that you were on to something special?

CK: I think the addition of a lot more harmony on this album was something we were excited about. We wanted to layer the album with as much three-part harmony as possible.

I would have to think that there’s a sense of accomplishment when you find the right vocal blend.

AKT: It can be frustrating or challenging if the singer is not hitting the melodic line you want but once it clicks it’s one of the best feelings.

You’ve been together about five years as a band. What’s kept it going?

CK: We have such a great time on the road. There’s definitely a family element between Austin and myself. It come down to being on stage in front of a supportive audience. At times like that you feel like anything is possible.

When you think about somebody listening to this album, is there an ideal frame of mind you hope they have?

illusions is just about life and your friendships and how they can change, what you gain and lose in a lifetime. Maybe it’s about sitting down and thinking about your life and relationships in a grander scheme.