Sept. 3 2013 07:58 PM

Gypsy-punk rockers crowd surf the waves of musical innovation

From left: Dallin Bulkley, Jeshua Marshall, Andrew Carew, Jamin Marshall and Ian Cook
Photo by Karen Seifert

After graduating from high school about a decade ago, Jamin Marshall worked as a janitor in his hometown of Redmond, Ore., while playing punk music with his younger brother Jeshua in their spare time. At first, they didn't have a formal band. As teenage misfits, some cathartic weekends of strumming power chords did the trick. But quickly, their friends joined in, forming something of a musical mob.

"I went to this Halloween party right after work, and I didn't have a costume," Jamin recalls. "All that I had was this scally cap on and my flask. I was just trying to think of a character to be, so I was, like, 'I'm Larry the janitor—the creepy older dude that pours whiskey in his coffee in the morning.'"

In a fitting moment of booze-tinged revelry in 2003, Larry and His Flask—who'll play at The Casbah on Saturday, Sept. 7, with Murder by Death and The 4OntheFloor—sprang to life as rowdy band of aspiring musicians.

Growing up lower-middle class, practicing music provided meaning and stability, Jeshua says, noting that drugs and run-ins with the law plagued his childhood.

"We grew up poor in the country and migrated into the slums," says the 26-year-old, who plays the upright bass. "Music pulled me out of a negative path, a dark path. It pulled me off the road to prison."

Today, their hard work is starting to pay off. Having just released their second full-length album, By the Lamplight, in June, Larry and His Flask have paraded their unique folk-punk style all over the United States, Canada and Europe, performing on the streets of New York, in rowdy bars and inside penitentiaries.

However, the hard-fought road to obscure-cult-band status wasn't exactly a straight line. In the early days, Jamin says, band members fluctuated, as the nascent punk act regularly drove to nearby Bend, Ore., to play for weekend crowds, wherever they could find them.

"We pretty much sucked," the 29-year-old drummer says. "We just booked this tour, and basically only half of it was booked, so we did a lot of playing on the street."

Sidewalk performances, or busking, quickly became a trademark for the band, which overcame musical inexperience with live-show exuberance.

"It took a few years to refine the sound down to what it's become today," says lead vocalist Ian Cook, 27. "At first, it was really haphazard and ridiculous and a bunch of drunk dudes screaming at the top of their lungs on the street corner."

Around 2008, when the great recession hit, the group, somewhat obliviously, got pulled in by the riptide of Americana and roots revival sweeping the indie-music scene. Their sound started including elements of folk, barbershop quartet, bluegrass and blues.

"Whether we realized it or not, and I don't think we really did at the time, it just kind of made sense, because the idea of the acoustic stuff was that we can do this anywhere," Cook says. 

The quintet—which also includes Andrew Carew on banjo and Dallin Bulkley on acoustic guitar—started exposing themselves to different types of music.

"We were listening to a lot of Woody Guthrie, actually, and Leadbelly, and just finding out about all these wonderful old-school musicians really changed our lives," Jamin says.

Aesthetically, it made perfect sense. The members of Larry and His Flask were making a name for themselves as old-timey-type street performers. The stripped-down acoustic sound, which required little extra equipment, provided mobility, and their Depression-era aesthetic dovetailed perfectly with their actual lives.

"We've been dirt-poor since we started the band, and we still are," Jamin says. "Whenever we're home, we're washing dishes or delivering pizzas or whatever. But maybe things are starting to change now."

Making the financial sacrifice to tour full-time, the band retained its punk roots. Members routinely jump off stage, crowd surf and whip the audience into a sweat-drenched frenzy that would make Dionysus proud. The theme of the show is come-one, come-all, hobos and working stiffs alike. And the band's lyrics wrestle with the existential anger caused by being a socially aware participant in a modern economy.

On their single "Call it What You Will," they take jabs at Western culture while recognizing a complicity that keeps the message humble: "Put your faith in the plastic my friend / Your dreams are a swipe away... Recession, depression, call it what you will/ We're the victims of our own greed / With cheaters for leaders our own empty dreams will come back nightmares indeed."

Write to or follow him on twitter at @jemersonsmith.