As is customary in West Philly, I drunkenly stumbled into a house party last winter. About 30 people were packed into the cozy living room, forming a tight semicircle around a large band. Some musicians stood on the floor, and, due to the cramped space, a few played from the staircase.
The music was warm and earnest, temporarily rescuing me from whiskey oblivion. I couldn’t see the singer, but above the fiddle, accordion and clanking percussion, I heard a gravelly, Tom Waits-y voice howling about running loose on the streets and raising all sorts of drunken hell. The songs — a combination of rowdy sing-alongs and intimate ballads — reminded me of two other Philadelphia bands, Man Man and Dr. Dog (another West Philly group that started out in very similar living rooms).
The band was On the Water, an eight-piece folk collective led by 25-year-old songwriter Fletcher VanVliet (formerly of Da Comrade!). He’s played under the name On the Water (a loose translation of the Dutch name VanVliet) for about four years with a steadily growing lineup of musicians, mostly at DIY house and basement shows. But recently, On the Water has started performing at bigger local venues, like Johnny Brenda’s, where this Wednesday they’ll open for the folk/bluegrass group Frontier Ruckus.
“We love being right in people’s faces, with no microphones, surrounded by wild friends,” says VanVliet, talking on the phone the day after a gig in Kalamazoo, Mich., last night’s stop on On the Water’s 30-day “On the Motorcycle Castle” tour. “I hope that if we keep playing more legit venues we can still play house shows — I’d really miss them if we stopped. Living rooms are more fun, but I guess momentum’s building since we’re being offered bigger gigs.”
Until settling in Philadelphia seven years ago, VanVliet led a wandering life. “I was born in California, then I moved around a lot, so I don’t really know where I’m from,” he says. “I was born into an existential crisis, I guess. My dad loved to travel around and go on adventures, so we did a lot of road-tripping together. Philadelphia is, by far, the place I’ve lived the longest.”
This feeling of perpetual drifting thrives on Anchor, the EP On the Water self-released last November. Like the debut full-length they’ll release early next year, Anchor was recorded at Northwest Philly’s Sex Dungeon Studios. The band had already been playing the EP’s five songs for years when they started to record, so they banged it out in two days. “I wish everything in life was as easy as Anchor,” says VanVliet.
After a convulsion of acoustic instruments on “Goldfish,” twangy banjo, toy piano and soft strings cuddle up to VanVliet’s haunted growls. “Some unseen torrent is punishing me/ I’ve grown to love this burden/ the thrill of drowning in the change,” he sings. Next comes “Elephant’s Memory,” a tune about losing at love, aimlessly traveling and the death of a good friend. Despite the bleak themes, VanVliet’s songwriting never wallows in trite ennui, but celebrates the beauty hidden within miserable experiences. “Sign me up, I’ll be the fool who keeps on digging,” confirm the gang vocals of the chorus, jubilantly searching for that ever-elusive object.
Anchor’s final song, “Farmhouse,” starts with the band members cracking jokes for a full minute. (“The anticipation’s fucking killing me,” says banjoist Sean Cox.) And then comes a slow-building, melancholic song about the nagging desire to return to that mythic time right before everything went to shit. “So why can’t we let ourselves begin again?” VanVliet asks as the music fades.
“It’s impossible, that’s why not,” laughs VanVliet. “I think I’m only happy in retrospect. I can’t live backwards — I can only write backwards. I keep trying, though. I’m a stubborn man.”
: Wed., Sept. 19, 9 p.m., $10, with Frontier Ruckus and Chamberlin, Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 N. Frankford Ave., 215-739-9684, johnnybrendas.com.