I had not met anyone in Free Dirt before linking up with them this week at Vitense Golfland. But we’re friends now, I think?
The Madison-based rock trio — who play Mickey’s Tavern on June 22 — has a way of making you feel as if you’re a part of their world, no matter how tangentially connected. And I didn’t merely meet Free Dirt. I met their friends and partners, too.
“We just moved our group chat into a public place,” says singer and guitarist Robby “King Dirt” Schiller.
It’s obvious that the band has been friends for some time. Schiller and baritone guitarist Joe Copeland — aka “Pal ‘Yung Earth’ Jones” — played together in Little Legend, another Madison band with an irreverent streak. Drummer Chris “Durt Russell” Sasman is a longtime friend and, get this, a former drum tech for N.E.R.D. Watching them whack golf balls and shoot the shit at Vitense, there’s an obvious familiarity. The entire reason they came together in the first place was that Schiller was sick of playing solo and recruited his buddies to back him.
“Rob would write a lot of songs, and this is a way to play them with more options,” Copeland says, adding that “it’s a lot easier to decide things” as a trio.
“Remember, guys, we’re not making Pink Floyd on ice.”
So far, Free Dirt has released two songs: the tongue-in-cheek “I Miss Smoking” and “Weather in a Storm,” a spiraling, swampy rocker that seems indicative of a band masking musical ambition with goofiness. And that seems to be the M.O. on their debut full-length.
Schiller says Free Dirt has finished tracking Pink Floyd on Ice, a 14-track album that expanded from a six-song EP. Its title was an inside joke for keeping things simple: “Remember, guys, we’re not making Pink Floyd on ice.”
Until, Schiller says, that’s exactly what they ended up doing. “We just kept adding shit until it actually became Pink Floyd on Ice.”Keeping things simple may never have been an option. They’re tinkerers by definition. Sasman says he’ll spend half an hour “in the office” fiddling with knobs before they ever play a note. And Copeland says Schiller would push the album to completion, like “LeBron dragging them to the one-yard line.”
That comparison in itself is pretty funny, as Copeland and Sasman spent much of our time together talking about the NBA. Basketball is a constant topic amongst two-thirds of Free Dirt.
“Usually I can get them to talk about music for about an hour,” Schiller jokes. “Then it’s back to basketball.”
In fact, our conversation would usually only circle back to music when one of us would remember, “Oh, right. This is an interview.” Really, it was more of a free-flowing hangout, which may be more important to understanding Free Dirt than anything musical. Schiller called it a “shithead dynamic,” but there’s more to it than that. Yes, these guys are friends. But rarely is a group of friends so musically talented.And their familiarity leads to great music — it’s uncommon for a band’s first two songs to sound as assured as Free Dirt’s do. Usually with a group’s early work, there’s a sense of forced urgency or anxiety present in the music, like hearing a band learn to play together in real time. That’s not the case with Free Dirt, whose comfort around each other shines through in the songs.
But that’s not to say they don’t rehearse. Since they practice at Sasman’s home, his partner Randi has heard their music enough that she can shout down the stairs to tell Copeland when he’s missing accents.
It’s hard to tell where the friend group ends and Free Dirt begins, but perhaps that’s the point. However you want to label it, King Dirt, Yung Earth and Durt Russell have a sense of fun that’s sometimes missing in the self-serious world of indie rock. It’s in their interactions with each other, their friends and their music.