The Bindle Stiffs
Friday night at 11 p.m. might not seem like the best time to go to work. Unless you’re me, and “work,” in this case, means cruising over to the Bindle Stiffs’ practice space, conducting a very informal interview and hearing a few songs. Then it’s a lucky break. There aren’t too many things going on a typical Friday night in Reno that are half as much fun as listening to the Bindle Stiffs.
It’s casual, good-times, living-room music. It’s folk music in the best sense of the term. “Folk” can be a misleading word, so let me be specific: It’s music made for the immediate pleasure of making music. Friends and family gather in a room, maybe have a drink or two, and play some tunes just because making music is fun. Having some witty original songs to play makes it all the more enjoyable.
A bindle stiff is a person who carries his clothes in a bindle, and a bindle is, of course, a bag on a stick. In other words, bindle stiffs are hoboes. The rockin’ and ramblin’ hobo lifestyle gets a romantic treatment in the music of the Bindle Stiffs, and the basic sound of the songs isn’t too different from what you might’ve heard around a campfire back in the 1930s. But the music feels authentic; it’s not some nostalgic pose.
“I enjoy being homeless as often as possible, and sleeping in the bushes whenever I can,” says vocalist and bassist Mike “Mechanic” Hafey, flashing a cheeky grin. He’s a charismatic guy, with a big red beard and a booming baritone. He’s the Reno anchor of Bindle Stiffs. (Not that a band celebrating hoboes has any use for an anchor.)
He and songwriting partner Matt Minjares started Bindle Stiffs about seven years ago, in Phoenix, Ariz. Minjares still lives in Arizona, but he blows into Reno whenever the band has a local gig, like the one on Sat., Feb. 13, at Rainshadow Charter High School. Guitarist Minjares sings with a crisp, clear tenor, a nice complement to Hafey’s deep rumble.
Minjares and Hafey are the core of Bindle Stiffs, a band with a large rotating cast. The songs are so simple but well-crafted that they sound good with a 50-person, everything-in-the-house-including-the-kitchen-sink percussion ensemble or with just one dude and an acoustic guitar. At the recent Friday night practice I attended, the band consisted of Hafey, Levi Watson on drums, Mike Burke on washboard, Kyle Kozar on spoons, and Connor Stava and Neil Bertrando on harmonicas.
Some of the key players were missing, most notably Minjares, who’s in Arizona. Hafey attempted to call him and get him on speaker phone during our interview, but to no avail. Keyboardist Valerie Bischoff recently headed back to New York, where she attends film school, and lead percussionist Spencer Benavidas was at his regular Friday night engagement DJing at Chapel Tavern.
The fact that the songs are casual, simple and immediate helps sustain the revolving door band membership.
“Simple music is the best music,” says Hafey.
The band originally featured electric instrumentation but shifted toward acoustic instruments because, as Hafey says, “Campgrounds don’t have electricity.”
The band often plays covers—traditionals and songs by people like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, the Carter Family and Hank Williams. The original songs have titles like “Hard Times,” “Quit Bothering Me” and “395,” a rollicking tribute to everybody’s favorite highway.
“They’re fun,” says Watson, of the Bindle Stiffs’ songs. “You don’t have to have a lot of range to sing them, and you can sing them in any octave, and they sound good.”