Spirit Family Reunion’s Nick Panken says the rootsy troupe from Brooklyn “basically sort of decided to quit” after touring to support its last studio album, 2015’s Hands Together. That makes the upcoming Ride Free — whose “Ease My Mind” is premiering exclusively below — a real, well, reunion.
“We hit it pretty hard for several years,” Panken tells Billboard. “We started doing homemade, DIY tours 10 years ago and it steadily increased to the point where we got pretty burnt out on piling into the van. Some time around 2016 we were like, ‘Let’s just stop doing it. It’s taking the fun out of the music, and it’s really exhausting.’
“Then shortly after that we went into the studio and started making this record,” Panken adds with a laugh. “It’s like we were so used to being a band that new songs were coming concurrent with deciding to break up. So we booked time in our friend’s studio and said, ‘Let’s see what happens…’ There’s always been a lot of strange contradictions in this band.”
What happened was a nine-song set, SFR’s third studio album overall, that had an old-timey, lively feel fortified by a more extensive use of drums and electric instruments alongside banjo, fiddle, washboard, mandolin and SFR’s trademark harmonies. “It was always a struggle to capture the live band energy we have on a record,” Panken notes. “That’s something we always wrestled with but feel like we really got on (Ride Free).” In fact, the singer and guitarist says the decision to split up, no matter how unrealized, took a certain pressure off SFR and allowed the group — working without a set schedule or deadline, according to Panken — to “really understand what we can do in a recording studio” for the first time, working in the now-closed Room 17 in Brooklyn.
“I think the record has a more full-bodied sensibility to it,” Panken explains, “a wider spectrum of sounds, and to me it feels a little bit more reflective of what I imagined we could do on a record, but never did. I think it’s probably the record that we’re most proud of.” And, he adds, “Ease My Mind” is indicative of that ambition for the group in the studio. “It sort of represents the full spectrum of our sound,” Panken says. “It has a little bit of country feel to it, but it’s pretty driving and pretty loud, and I also think it feels pretty open. It feels pretty natural to me.”
SFR will celebrate Ride Free‘s Aug. 9 release with a concert in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, and then has a handful of east coast dates in August. Panken and company are conscious of avoiding the burn-out that drove them “apart” three years ago, though he says the group is certainly opening to touring in some form later in the year.
“I think it’s definitely a new era for Spirit Family Reunion,” Panken says. “We never planned to be a professional band; It just kind of happened for a few years, so this kind of feels like coming full circle, kind of coming back to the starting point of ‘Let’s just make music together ’cause it’s fun.’ So it totally feels like a new era, but at the same time getting back in touch with the joys of making music together that originated our band.”
8/9 Spiegeltent, Fisher Center at Bard, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
8/10 Union Pool, Brooklyn, NY
8/14 Earth Sky Time Farm, Manchester, VT
8/15 The Press Room, Portsmouth, NH
8/16 Columbus Theatre, Providence, RI
8/17 Newport Folk Presents Great Scott, Allston, MA
8/24 Hawks & Reed, Greenfield, MA
10/4 Two Roads Brewing, Stratford, CT