Ten Years of Drowning Men

Local troubadours the Drowning Men settle in to celebrate a decade together

Hensley’s Flying Elephant Pub & Grill in Carlsbad died long ago, and with it, the restaurateur dreams of pro-skater and Flogging Molly accordionist Matt Hensley. But from the ashes of the Elephant graveyard, a band played on -- taking its sound to bigger stages across the country and, eventually, across the world.

Okay, so maybe the Drowning Men didn’t get their start at Hensley’s, per se (they played their first show way before the accordionist even bought the pub). But that’s how I’ll always think of the Oceanside band -- the guys who would pack the house with lifelong locals because they were locals themselves; who’d shake the stage with their energy because it simply poured from them, too big to contain; who’d get a whole lotta tip money into my pockets because people turn up for good music, especially in North County and especially in straight-laced Carlsbad, where there wasn’t a lot else going on.

When the Drowning Men played, that’s the shift you wanted. And if you couldn’t get it, you’d come in anyway, just to be a part of it all -- mostly because it was hard to stay away.

That’s still how it feels when the Drowning Men play a local show, like the one at Belly Up on Thursday, July 16, celebrating their 10-year anniversary [get tickets here]. “I didn’t even know that we’d been this band for 10 years until someone suggested we have an anniversary party,” says Nato Bardeen, the band’s lead vocalist, who also takes on keys, guitar and mandolin in turn. “I definitely feel blessed. I grew up with Todd and Rory since we were kids. We were in and out of bands back in the high school days. We’re all from the same area, so it’s pretty sweet.”

Until recently, the guys hadn’t been around much because they were traversing the planet, skipping from stage to stage for what seemed like three straight years -- which is why we haven’t had a new record from them since 2012’s “All of the Unknown.”

But that’s about to change.

“We were off a couple of weeks here and there, but always going, going, going,” says Bardeen. “And you know, I always play. I always have a guitar or mandolin or keyboard around. But I did notice I wasn’t able to [write] as much, because you have to play a set or you have a show. But I’ve also learned I had to, you know? Put the beer down and pick up a guitar and just jam out a bit.”

They’re home for awhile, treating North County to some of those old-school local shows while they hit the studio to record -- when Bardeen and I talked, they were all set to start their first session later that week. “You know, now that we’ve been home, we’ve been writing a lot," he tells me.

Bardeen says that they’re swimming into some psychedelic territory on this record. “Gabe [Messer, the keyboardist] is huge in that," he says. "He’s always trying to get us to let go for a bit. I want to capture both worlds, you know? I want to let things breathe without any lyrics, just let the music go out on its journey, but I also want to tell a story with words and voice. I’m caught in like two different worlds.”

How those worlds are reckoned -- just check the show on Thursday. “We’re playing some old songs -- we’re actually playing some songs from each album, from our EP to newer stuff, even stuff we haven’t tracked down yet. We’re going to make it a good, long set. Maybe some special guests might join us up there for a few songs,” Bardeen adds.

It’s time to welcome back one of our own, San Diego. This is one of those special evenings that’s not to be missed, like back in 2013 when KPBS filmed the Drowning Men at Belly Up and Matt Hensley himself got on stage to join them. It was a sea of friendly faces then, as it’s sure to be again on Thursday, when Trouble in the Wind and the Bulls join the show. Drowning Men? No. These guys -- they’re floating on.

The Drowning Men play their 10-year anniversary show at Belly Up on Thursday, July 16. The Bulls and Trouble in the Wind open. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are available here

Hannah Lott-Schwartz, a San Diego native, moved back to the area after working the magazine-publishing scene in Boston. Now she’s straight trolling SD for all the music she missed while away. Want to help? Hit her up with just about anything at all over on Twitter, where -- though not always work-appropriate -- she means well.

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