Resident acoustic duo hit roads of Montana w/ down-home originals at the ready
After years of casual strumming and a shared devotion to the musical form, local acoustic rock n’ roll musicians Jeff Peterson and Justin Ringsak have coalesced their talents as a groove-heavy storytelling duo who front regular live performances around Southwest Montana and beyond. The Road Agents, as they’re affectionately known, recently put out their debut EP as a unit, Dreams of Stingrays, Roadrunners, and Hangovers. The Rolling Zone got together with Jeff and Justin ahead of their upcoming shows for a spirited conversation about their original tunes and diverse influences.
RZ: Hey fellas. To start off, just who are you guys and what prompted the formation of “The Road Agents”?
JP: Yeah – who are we? I don’t know how you answer that. Well I’m Jeff Peterson, guitar and singin’. [pauses] Yeah, that’s all there is to me.
JR: That’s pretty much it.
JP: And that’s Justin, he plays the mandolin and sings.
JR: A lot of mandolin, a little singing. We played music like 20 years ago when we both lived in Missoula, in this blues/rock band called PunchTruck. [Then] we’d both been living out of state, until I moved back here about 4 or 5 years ago. Jeff moved back 3 years ago. We both played music wherever we’ve been, so that’s how we connected back up. In intervening years, Jeff had started writing all these songs, good songs. He asked me to come play with him, to bring some accompaniment. It seemed to go pretty well, and people seemed to be enjoying it, so we kept doing it. We play mostly originals with a few covers now and then. And we’ve been playing all over the place, wherever Jeff can get us in.
JP: We’ve been playing a lot. I played for 3 years by myself and rarely twice in the same spot. No one liked me until Justin started playing with me – and now we get asked back. [laughs]
RZ: For those unfamiliar, what do your shows look like?
JR: We’re usually a duo. Fortunately, we’ve got a bunch of friends and musicians all around the state, so every once in a while, we try to talk other buddies of ours to come out and join us. We have fiddle sometimes, upright bass, lead guitar, depending on who’s around. But most of the time it’s just us [performing] singer/songwriter stuff people are used to hearing in breweries and distilleries, the real folksy Neil Young, Bob Dylan sort of “story songs.” Jeff’s songs are definitely story songs but end up being a little more upbeat, something nice for folks to listen to.
JP: A lot more tapping feet than you might expect, I think, from a brewery gig.
JR: It’s definitely Americana/folksy but has a little more oomph to it. Although we can be all introspective and sad sometimes. Jeff makes ‘em cry every once in a while.
RZ: You guys recently released the 6-song EP, Dreams of Stingrays, Roadrunners, and Hangovers. Tell me about the decision to finally hunker down and record some originals together.
JP: Well, first we needed a good EP that showed what we really sound like. From the bookers’ perspective –
JR: – You can only have so many cell phone YouTube clips.
JP: Yeah, and we wanted to have something to give away at shows. A lot of times people don’t realize that these are our songs, and when you tell them that they say, ‘Oh my God,’ and they’ve suddenly become interested. People see value in that a lot more than you might expect. When you play your own original music, it’s a whole different market. We’re trying to prove ourselves in that market of original music. And if you’re not there with a CD, maybe people don’t know you’re in that market and think you’re just playing songs they’ve never heard before.
JR: I just like the songs. Jeff’s the songwriter really, and I sprinkle some sauce on top. They’re good songs and we wanted to at least get some of them out there. We’ll probably enlist some folks and do a lengthier, more ambitious album in the next year. But this one is just the two of us – it sounds like we sound when we’re playing in a brewery, bar or whatnot. It was fun to record and share with folks.
RZ: I really enjoyed the song “Fire.” Obviously there’s a lot of flame-based imagery, but is there supposed to a deeper message?
JP: There’s subtext with most of these, but that one was basically just a song about firewood. [laughs]
JR: I really like a line he’s got in there that goes, ‘If my band breaks up and my dog runs away and I lose one or both of my legs,’ everything’s still ok if you’ve got some fire. Jeff writes a lot of these lyrics, I think for him, that are really personal, specific images – references to places he’s lived or been or has a connection to. Those details paint a really colorful story. And it’s always relatable, universal stuff like missing a place you used to live or just wanting to be warm. I think that’s why I like his songwriting so much.
RZ: Do you have a particular favorite among the tracks? What’s the story behind it?
JP: My favorite song is called “Border Story.” That’s where the ‘Stingrays, Roadrunners, Hangovers’ lyric comes from. The song is loosely based on a year I spent teaching English on the Mexican border in Arizona. It’s retrospective, looking back on that experience and being home in Montana. I like the way it’s written, but also the groove of it.
JR: I like that one, too. It kind of fell together. When we first started playing it Jeff didn’t really like it, but after a couple times it just clicked. Sometimes you do something over and over, put a lot of work into polishing something up, and then other times everything just works. That was one that just worked mysteriously. And I get to bang on the mandolin a whole bunch.
RZ: What are your thoughts on our local music scene here in Southwest Montana?
JR: There’s this real brewery/distillery 5-to-8 scene now with a lot of smaller rooms where people are like 5 feet away from you. Sometimes you’re background music and they’re not paying attention, but other times it’s like you’re sitting in somebody’s kitchen with a bunch of strangers getting to know each other.
JP: It’s created an ecosystem that was never here before. When we played together in Missoula, you had to have a rock n’ roll band, you had to play for 4 hours, and you had to be awake until 3 in the morning. And now you can have little kids and put them to bed at night. There’s like 18 breweries within 50 miles – you can play all those places and then be home in your own bed. This is a fantastic time to be alive.
RZ: We’ve got a lot of independent musicians in Bozeman and it seems as though it’s becoming easier for them to go out on their own without, say, a cushy record deal. Can folks maintain, or at least start, a career in music from here?
JR: I think you can. Back when I was playing at least semi-professionally around ’99-2000, you could make some decent money playing in the bars, but very few people did that exclusively. There are a ton of musicians in Montana and a lot still have side jobs, but I do know some singer/songwriters that this is their career. They’re writing their own songs and performing as much as they can. That’s a function of both the fact there’s more venues now with the breweries, and with the recording technology having gone digital, you can record an album on your own or you can find a local studio that’s affordable. It’s a much more accessible medium now. And in terms of distribution, it’s a simple matter to get on iTunes and Spotify to get your music out there. It’s been really good for music in general, but it’s also created this big pot of different music [where] it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. So, it’s important to keep playing, meeting people and making connections.
JP: I do think there’s a huge misunderstanding amongst non-musicians, or maybe musicians starting out, that music could exist as a profession. Is that something you can even expect to be real? Historically, being a musician hasn’t been “a job.” People do have to work. If you can get paid to perform, yeah. Brilliant. It’s a dream. But I don’t think people should think any less of 9-to-5ers that do it on the weekends.
JR: There are more “middle-class” musicians that can make a living now, but they’re not getting rich. Before you had the internet, digital recording and distribution, it was kind of all or nothing. You were either Mick Jagger or you were me and Jeff. There’s more of a middle ground now.
JP: Mick will outlive us all. [laughs]
RZ: Speaking of. Who are some of your personal heroes, music-wise? Maybe a few whose music you might try to emulate in your own?
JP: Anders Osborne is the guy I most look up to. He’s just one of these dudes who can sit up there with his acoustic guitar and sing a really catchy song that also has a super depth to it. Or he can get up there with a three-piece power trio blues band and play six songs over the course of two hours. And his voice is really great. I’m also a really big fan of Jason Isbell. I know that’s a trendy pick, and I don’t like to get too influenced by anyone because so many people want to sound like him or Ryan Adams or John Prine. I’m trying to write stories about people committing crimes because they have to feed their families and shit like that, and I don’t want to touch cliché topics, but that’s a dude I’ve been watching for a long time.
RZ: And yourself? Mick Jagger maybe?
JR: Oh, for sure. Probably more Keith Richards
in terms of this band. I started out being facetious, but I do love the dirty Stones records, middle period like Exile on Main St. stuff. If you listen to how they recorded that album, for a lot of it, they might’ve thrown up one or two microphones in a living room in some giant mansion in France, just yelling, doing stuff off the top of their heads. We try to capture that energy and approach in a lot of what we’re doing, being two guys going around and flying by the seat of our pants.
RZ: You’ve surely got a few more influences.
JR: The question of influence is tough. I had the opportunity to see the Punch Brothers a month or two ago [with] Chris Thile from Nickel Street and the Live from Here show. He’s just a fantastic mandolin player. It’s not really my favorite style of music, but I like to listen to him play because it makes me go, ‘Oh man, I need to practice more,’ and gives me ideas for different things I could be doing with the instrument. Along those lines, Tom Waits is another guy whose approach has influenced me a lot. Thinking about our EP, it’s a pretty simple recording and sounds like we’re playing live. There’s not a lot of production. Some of Bob Dylan’s older stuff was only him and a guitar and a bass player. And there’s one album I absolutely love by these two guys from Brazil in the ‘70s, Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben. They both had their own bands at the time, but got together in a room for like two or three days and took turns playing each other’s songs. It’s just this raw sound of two really good musicians listening to and bouncing off each other. We try to capture that sort of energy, too.
RZ: You guys just released this EP and have quite a few shows on the horizon. What’s next for the Road Agents?
JP: We’ve been talking about picking up a rhythm section, not to completely suffocate what we’re doing now –
JR: – we’d like to keep doing duo stuff but have a full Road Agents band that could do those longer bar shows, just to mix it up a little bit more.
JP: We’ll try to get on some stages and maybe get a full band going with a drummer and a bass player, that sort of thing.
JR: That’s our goal for next spring, Winter’s a good time to woodshed and work on stuff like that, recruit other musicians, and probably do some more recording. Maybe another duo EP, or longer album. And we probably should go play a little bit outside of Montana.
The Road Agents bring a show to Downtown’s Bozeman Spirits Distilliery on Tuesday, October 2nd from 5:30–8pm. Jeff and Justin head over the pass to the Murray Bar in Livingston on Tuesday, October 16th from 7–10pm, before hitting I-90 and journeying west for a Norris Hot Springs set on Friday, October 26th from 7–9pm. Back in Bozeman next month, stop by Bridger Brewing for Music & Mussels on Wednesday, November 7th from 5–8pm. Also check out the Road Agents’ recent episode of Montana Homegrown Radio with host Dirk Alan, now streaming at www.montanahomegrownradio.com.
The Road Agents are Jeff Peterson and Justin Ringsak. Learn more about the fellas at www.montanaroadagents.com or find them on Facebook for updated show details and band announcements, @suspiciouslesions. Their new EP, Dreams of Stingrays, Roadrunners, and Hangovers, is available on all digital platforms, as well as every brick-and-mortar live performance. •