Die Happy

Them Coulee Boys level up big time for new record

Eric Christenson

Them boys at that bar.
Them boys at that bar.

There’s a proverbial sea of so-called bluegrass music out there in the world that all, for better or worse, sounds exactly the same. I get it, there’s subtleties to the formula, niches yet to be explored, and world class musicians that do it better than most. But for all the nooks and crannies of the genre, pickin’ and pluckin’ and fiddlin’ and whatnot can all kinda add up to the same thing. A similar vibe. Familiar chords. Standards.

But there’s something about Them Coulee Boys – the Driftless born, Chippewa Valley-raised Wisconsin boys – that tastes different. In fact, you might be out of pocket to even call it bluegrass. Sure, the project started as three childhood buddy camp counselors playing lightning-quick, acoustic-y foot-stompin’ songs. And yeah, there’s a banjo in there. They’ve got the long hair, the beards, the rural backstory … it all checks out.

“We’re trying to be the band that can do a bunch of different things. Be this loud rock band, this in-your-face thing, but also do this groovy thing, or be contemplative and quiet. We wanted to show all sides of the spectrum.” – Soren Staff, Them Coulee Boys

But Them Coulee Boys are different. Their songs are wide. For as many fun, upbeat bangers that there are in the setlist, there’s as many pivots to emotional depths traditional bluegrass rarely touches. And therein lies what makes this band a standout, that willingness to dive deep, and it’s what’s made these songs and these musicians resonate more and more to greater swaths of music fans worldwide.

When their first album dropped, they were gigging around Wisconsin bars and outdoor festivals here and there. Around the time of their second, it was around the Midwest, but never much past it. Now on the dawn of their third, titled Die Happy (out Aug. 23), they have the world to win. 

It’s pretty surreal to go from playing tunes to handfuls of people at open mics to the main stage at Blue Ox or in front of 3,000 people at the La Crosse Center, both of which happened earlier this year. They’ve built up a sturdy, multidimensional, full band sound for big stages, but they have the flexibility to dial back to four voices and a guitar, or play full sets of slow-burners. Day to day, they could charm a stadium or a back porch.

“We’re trying to be the band that can do a bunch of different things,” said singer/guitarist Soren Staff. “Be this loud rock band, this in-your-face thing, but also do this groovy thing, or be contemplative and quiet. We wanted to show all sides of the spectrum.”

Ahead of Die Happy, the band – having nailed down their signature sound with a breakneck schedule of live shows – signed to North Carolina label LoHi Records, secured a booking agent, a PR company, and worked with Dave Simonett of Trampled By Turtles at Pachyderm Studios in Minnesota. They even leveled up their touring van, which went from a cyclically broken down 2001 Dodge to a brand new spaceship-lookin’ thing on a good deal from a hometown family friend. In the year since they got the new van, the band said they put 50,000 miles on it.

All of that should give them a significant confidence boost, but for four humble Midwestern dudes, that didn’t come until they were in the studio working with Simonett, who was equal parts a guiding shepherd and a mother eagle who forces her young to learn to fly by shoving them out of the nest. At the studio – a musically sacred place where the likes of Nirvana, Soul Asylum, Superchunk, and PJ Harvey have all made records – the band found an assuredness in their methods they didn’t know was there.

“I didn’t really consider myself a professional musician before that session,” says banjo player Beau Janke. “He just convinced us that what we were doing was right. Now, talking to people, I just say I’m a musician. It’s not a hobby anymore.”

Adds Staff: “The biggest thing he did for us was giving us some agency to believe in ourselves.”

With Die Happy, you can hear it. There’s big-sounding drums, huge hooks, there’s even some flugelhorn in there. This is the band’s most outwardly massive project yet, and it pairs well with the lyrical concepts at play too: words of self-acceptance, of confidence. Twisting the big questions of love and fear and excitement and anxiety together in such a way that they work together in harmony.

Them Coulee Boys are ready to make their biggest splash yet, and take these tunes to new places, greater heights, and bigger adventures until it’s time to come home and do it all over again.

You can celebrate the release of Die Happy with Them Coulee Boys at their release show at the Pablo Center on Aug. 23, with opening act the Driftless Sisters. Tickets for the show are available at pablocenter.org. You can pre-order the record at www.themcouleeboys.com and The Local Store.