Last fall's closure of the federal government for more than two weeks might have been a frustrating time for some, but five local men used it to make a record.
The members of BoxCartel saw the 16-day closure, during which time they were expressly forbidden from working, as an opportunity to put together their new 11-track album, aptly titled "Shutdown," a process that otherwise would've taken up to a month or longer.
Lead singer and songwriter Ken Feldman and bassist Pat Kehs have played in bands together for several years, but it's only been the past two-and-a-half years that BoxCartel has been around, Kehs said. Joined by lead guitarist Jeff Blakeman, guitarist Paul Kluetz and percussionist and saxophonist Doug McKalip, the band gets together at least once a week to practice their sound, an eclectic mix of bluesy Southern rock, alternative country, Americana and roots.
"Ken and I were doing a neighborhood party together, and we both live in Arlington," Kehs said. "Originally we just did covers, but as Ken started writing great songs, I wanted to include some friends of mine — Doug, Jeff and I have been playing together since the ’90s."
It's an easy friendship and musical collaboration among the five of them, which translates into a freewheeling stage presence that's both carefree and precise, as solos are easily transitioned back into a song's main structure.
When asked for inspiration, McKalip, who also served as engineer, recorder and mixer for the band's debut album, cited "everything from The Police to The Band to all kinds of [other styles]." Their sound is fitting for an area like the greater Washington, D.C. region, he said.
"D.C. is such a crossroads for types of music and cultures," and that's seeped into BoxCartel's sounds, he said. "American Rockabilly, rock and roll, alt country," all are welcome.
Blakeman, who mastered the album, said one of his favorite albums growing up was the Allman Brother's "Live at the Fillmore East," an iconic record. "That's how I started up," he said. "I said, 'I want to make that sound.'"
Kluetz said his own musical background includes bands that had "a lot of funk influence."
IT TOOK MOST of the band's first two years to put together their sound, but now they're ready to unleash it.
"We all trust each other enough to do what they think is best for a song," Blakeman said. "Everybody has a really good musical ear."
As the primary songwriter, Feldman has learned a little bit of wisdom for a new creation.
"When you come in with a new song, you have to let it go," he said. "These guys are so talented. Doug has a great ear for what a song should be."
That's why McKalip took the lead on preparing the new album last fall. He recorded his drum tracks first, then sent the files to the other members of the group to have them record their pieces independently. Given the government closure, they had time on their hands. The record came together more quickly than expected.
So how do they juggle careers and wives and kids with being in a band?
"For me, this is the smelling the roses part of life," Kehs said. "It's what I do for fun. We get together for practice about once a week, but we're flexible. Every day there's just so much," so if things need to be rescheduled or shifted around, everyone understands.
"It's so different from any other band I've been in," Kluetz said. "We don't need to practice as much because we all get along musically."
The name of the band was inspired in part by one Kehs and Feldman were in previously, called Boxcar. They wanted something similar but different enough to distinguish the new group from the previous one.
"I grew up in northwest Pennsylvania, and at night I could hear trains going by," McKalip added. Now that he lives in northwest D.C., there are times he can hear train whistles. "They're bringing in people, which are the raw materials that make policy in this town."
The band describes the new album as "real music for real life," Kehs said. "You can play it live. There are no samples [mixed in electronically that can't be reproduced easily on stage]. You can step onto a stage and just play."
The upcoming gig at Rhodeside Grill on May 24th will serve as a CD release party.
"That was one of the first places we played," Kehs said. "Hopefully we can get beyond our own friends and family [in the audience]. We're just trying to get into people's heads."