Photograph by Joe Del Tufo
New Sweden has received growing critical notice.
Early in a show last winter, New Sweden guitarist James Dukenfield announced from the stage that the band was looking for a bass player. It was the kind of thing that could happen at Philadelphia’s Bourbon & Branch Restaurant and Bar at the start of a Friday-night three-band showcase, when the $3 Hamm’s and Natty Bohs were in full effect. And it was an indication that even as New Sweden gains a larger following—not to mention growing critical notice—it is still evolving as a musical force.
The announcement’s necessity was born of a recent defection and had transformed the band’s show into a revolving door of instrument changes, as guitarists Dan Weirauch, William Dobies and Dukenfield took turns playing lead, rhythm and bass, along with the banjo. The rotating axes didn’t harm the show’s energy at all, especially since drummer Zac Dukenfield kept the beat, no matter who else was playing what else. The 12-song set lasted an hour and featured a collection of strong songs blending Americana, folk rock and a little bit of harder stuff that was instantly accessible, thanks to the generous melodies, relatable lyrics and undeniable energy. The band smiled a lot and encountered few hurdles in the smooth set, save for the moment in one of the later numbers when the thick strings on one of Weirauch’s guitars slipped from their delicate moorings and forced him to employ fancy finger work to keep things together.
The band didn’t spend too much time speaking directly to the audience, save the plea for a bassist and occasional brief tune introductions, such as Dobies’ declaration that the set’s penultimate song, “87,” was “about drugs.” The show was about the music, and that was a good thing, since the music was good. For a band in transition, it was a worthy effort and demonstration of its powers. “We’re taking it slow,” Dobies said before the set. “We’re trying to recalculate the band.”
Named for a colony along the Delaware River that lasted from 1638-55 and originated in Wilmington (then Fort Christina) before spreading to parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the band was formed in late 2009 after Dobies and James Dukenfield connected by trading music back and forth on Myspace. They played together in a showcase and, about four months later, started comparing songs they had written. James and Zac are brothers, so that connection was easy to establish. Weirauch came courtesy of Craigslist. Even though the members’ previous musical incarnations were a little divergent—Dobies played in an alt-punk band at one point—they meshed well once they came together.
Speaking of various musical personalities, Weirauch reports that New Sweden didn’t even employ an electric guitar until about two years ago. “We used to have a pump organ,” he says, while lounging on a couch in Bourbon & Branch’s olive “green room.” It’s a drab space, except for the elegant chandelier hanging from the 12-foot ceiling. It may not provide much light, but it classes up the joint a bit.
New Sweden, based in Wilmington, has had an interesting year. Its “Fabric Room” CD and vinyl EP dropped in 2014, and it captured its third consecutive “Best Band in Delaware” honor at the Tri State Indie Music Awards. But the biggest news came last summer, when it earned a spot in the Firefly Music Festival in Dover. New Sweden didn’t exactly share the main stage with Foo Fighters, Outkast and Jack Johnson, but it did get to experience the big-time outdoor scene and introduce its music to legions of new people. “It was exciting,” Dobies says. “There was a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, and I think a lot of good came of it for us. I had so much fun, and I didn’t even watch any other band play.”
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For the band, playing Firefly was a strange and wonderful experience. Organizers set up a camping area for them, but none of the members knew about it, so they found a spot with everyone else. After their set, Weirauch went back home and broke up with his girlfriend and then returned to the grounds. The late-night jam sessions were as important to the band as the stint on stage was, and time spent in the Dogfish Head Brewery tent was fun for all involved.
It was a loose atmosphere, and that characteristic has definitely described New Sweden’s first five-plus years. By this past April, however, things had started to come together a little more, and it seemed as if the unsettled vibe that pervaded Bourbon & Branch’s green room was becoming more cohesive. While the band has not yet found the right bass player, the members are already thinking about how integrating a new member will involve a general reassessing of their roles. “We are all going to be doing a fair amount of shuffling in order to figure out what best suits each song,” James Dukenfield wrote in an email. “It’s also important for each member to fall into a spot they are comfortable with as well. We won’t be reinventing the wheel, but some adjustment is necessary anytime the lineup is altered.”
The core remains intact, and the goal is to make sure the trade-off of instruments on stage isn’t a continuous process. It can’t be easy to figure out, especially since all of the members work full time. Weirauch, who received a master’s degree in oceanography at the University of Delaware, works with Zac, maintaining marine weather stations along the Atlantic Coast. James provides communications for an interior design firm, and Dobies works with a construction firm, when he isn’t trying to keep up with his 10-year old daughter and 5-year old son.
It’s an interesting group. Dobies, 35, is long and angular with an unkempt light-brown beard. He has a laid-back approach on stage that belies his serious commitment to music. James, 33, is more intense, and if the band has a leader, he is it. Since Weirauch, 32, has the most formal education of the bunch, it’s natural to consider his approach to life more cerebral, but he is the closest thing to a prankster in the band. He has a propensity for silly pranks, like ordering sandwiches under assumed names. “We were out to get lunch, and they called out, ‘Sandwich for Geno,’ and Dan goes to get it,” Zac says. “I said, ‘What?’” It’s easy to dismiss Zac as the little brother, but his steady play is vital as the guitar shuffle moves on. The 29-year old bought his first drum set at 17 and played the same Jack Johnson album—“On and On”—for “like three months.” He is a clear part of the future, and that future looks good.
Sure, it’s going to take some time to set the lineup and decide who plays what when, but New Sweden hasn’t gained the positive notice and produced some highly accessible music without talent and potential. The key now is to make it happen, to become a force in the studio and on the stage, and to possess a clear vision about what’s next. There are projects in the works and new songs to perfect. “We’ve got to find a balance,” says James Dukenfield, as the sound check approaches at Bourbon & Branch. “If we’re not playing enough live shows, people forget about you, and I start to get antsy. If you play too much, people get tired of you.”
Weirauch agrees. “If we play too much, we can’t perfect our craft.” And Zac? “You can’t do too much.” The goal is to get it just right. And New Sweden has made good progress in that direction.