Cold weather

Snowshoe Thompson

Storytellers: Brandon Robbins, Shawn Neff and Harrison Proulx are Snowshoe Thompson.

Storytellers: Brandon Robbins, Shawn Neff and Harrison Proulx are Snowshoe Thompson.

Photo/Kent Irwin

For more information, visit

The Norwegian lived and died in the snow. Soon, snow will fall over his grave in Genoa. He had made his name in winter weather, to the point where his legend parted from the reality of his life. They called him Snowshoe Thompson, even though he never wore a snowshoe. Instead, the early settler of Sierra Nevada named John Albert Thompson rode on skis like his ancestors had for generations.

None of the members of the band Snowshoe Thompson like to ski, nor are they substantially Norwegian in descent. Instead, singer and guitarist Brandon Robbins has idolized the man’s life story since he was a kid living in the Virginia City foothills. Robbins’ life shaped his love and respect for the Great Basin’s natural beauty.

“We weren’t exactly roughing it,” Robbins recalled. “But it was the kind of place where we had to cut wood every winter to stay warm.”

Snowshoe Thompson’s bassist Harrison Proulx—who shares a distant relationship to author Annie Proulx—has experience in both urban and rural settings. A particular moment of saturation came when he was working a job making deliveries around Lake Tahoe. On one particular morning, he came across Emerald Bay just as the sun was rising.

“It was the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen,” said Proulx.

“Growing up here, you don’t really know that it’s famous around the world,” offered guitarist Shawn Neff. “I told a guy from Italy that I was from Reno, and he said, ’That’s close to Lake Tahoe, right?’”

“Everyone knows Tahoe,” agreed Proulx.

Snowshoe Thompson is inspired by, but not fixated upon the beauty of the Sierra Nevada. Many of their lyrics deal with a different sort of cold—the kind that settles into relationships over time. In “Casual,” Harrison laments the lack of sincerity in modern relationships. He says the song was inspired by a girl who called him looking for momentary release, when he wanted to get to know her.

“Sometimes people are just looking for a warm bed,” said Proulx.

Another song, titled “How Do I Love?” was inspired by an experience with the band Future Islands. Fans of that band might know that, during their live set, they deliberately look audience members in the eyes and ask, “Do you believe in love?” This happened to Proulx, who says that the lead singer even bothered to track him down after the show to ask again. He wrote the song as a response to this question, which, at the time, he felt too on the spot to answer.

Snowshoe Thompson has already worked up an impressive catalog, considering the band formed in May. The two demo songs on their Bandcamp page, “Casual” and “See Green,” were posted mainly to help the band booked shows. Now that they’ve played live, the members agree that they’d like to hone their craft before taking it out again.

“Hopefully, people won’t get tired of us,” said Robbins.

Snowshoe Thompson, the man, created a legacy that people haven’t yet tired of retelling. Robbins excitedly tells how the man fought in the Pyramid Lake Indian War, rescued people in the mountains, and may have crossed paths with Samuel Clemens. What does Snowshoe Thompson, the band, hope their legacy will be?

“Hopefully we’ll show up on VH1, and people will say, ’Snowshoe Thompson, they were pretty cool,’” said Neff.

“Yeah, then they’ll say, ’What else is on?’” laughed Proulx.

With any luck, Snowshoe Thompson will inspire people to tell their story, the way others have inspired them. Maybe they won’t even have to die painfully to get there.