Bands form regularly as a result of thriving music communities. But the opposite? Community growing from a single band? It’s rare, but it’s what Warren Campbell has been able to achieve with his continuously evolving rock group, Dead Billionaires.
The Richmond-based singer and guitarist has been writing songs and wrangling various lineups since 2016.“We have a lot of magic with the trio we have right now,” Campbell said on a recent call in which he praised his current bandmates — bassist Nick Trbovich and drummer Hunter Rhodes — described a recording project that’s on the horizon, and looked back on the handful of years he’s spent fronting a group that’s been in a state of regular reinvention.
The band’s name is among the changes he’s overseen. His project was initially called Little River Creek Police, but the murder of George Floyd and ensuing protests motivated him to make a change. “It’s crass for me to pretend that it’s just a name,” he says, “when there are huge portions of this country [who] hear the word ‘police’ and it’s automatically a negative reaction. And I don’t think that’s unfounded in any way.”
You won’t find the recorded material he released as Little River Creek Police on streaming services; it was taken down in conjunction with the name change. But you will find a red-hot self-titled Dead Billionaires EP from 2021 — a quick, three-song listen that manages to stick with you as a result of tight songwriting and memorable choruses with the kind of backing vocals that make you feel like you’re singing along just by listening.
Those looking to sing along in person will have to wait awhile — the next local gig they’ve announced is at Dominion Riverrock on Saturday, May 21. In the meantime, Campbell is setting out on an unofficial South by Southwest tour, swinging through North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas en route to Texas. The change in location will come with a similarly transitory lineup; the out-of-town shows will be performed by an ad hoc duo lineup made up of Campbell and Asheville-based multi-instrumentalist Troy Crossley.
What inspired the lineup change for the upcoming tour?
I’d been planning on doing South by [Southwest] for a while, and wanted to approach it as either an official artist or an unofficial artist. I started booking the rest of the tour dates and pretty soon found out that Nick wouldn’t be able to go, due to some personal things going on with him. So I called up Troy and asked him, “Would you mind filling in on bass?” And he was like, “Yeah, absolutely.” I was like, “This is the farthest we’ve gone out, not a lot of guarantees along the way, I’m booking the whole tour on my own, not using any agency, [and] we didn’t get officially accepted to South by Southwest.” He was like, “Still in.” Then I found out a couple weeks later that Hunter wouldn’t be able to do it for some financial reasons, and I was like, “Acutally, Troy, would you mind learning these songs on drums instead of on bass?” And he was like, “Yup, absolutely.”
I’ve known him since I was 14 years old. We used to play in a band in high school, so we’ve got a real good connection. He came up to rehearse with me a couple weeks ago. He’s fresh off of doing Rocky Horror Music Show [in Asheville]. He played the role of Dr. Frank N. Furter and also played drums… I think they’re going to do it some other places this fall, but that’s his most recent claim to fame. He’s done a million other things – a lot of stuff in the Asheville scene. A bunch of different bands.
What was going on in your life around the time you started Little River Creek Police?
I had been at Stetson University in Florida, and I had just graduated college and moved back home to Berryville, Virginia. I was playing with my buddy Brian Marquis there. I was trying to find my footing personally but also financially. Both of us were living with our parents, and we saw this big opportunity. We were honestly really inspired by the People’s Blues of Richmond at the time, because they were touring so much and would come up to the area and we’d see them in Winchester. We’d see them wherever. So we thought, “Hey, there’s no reason we can’t do this,” so the two of us moved down to Richmond together.
That was the original synthesis of the band: two guitar players, both vocalists, both songwriters. Eventually Brian left the group. It was briefly a four-piece when he was still in the band, then it became a three-piece after that, and then we were a three-piece for a long time with a whole bunch of different lineups. It’s just ever-evolving… It’s been a really fun dynamic to be able to play these songs with so many different people. It’s never exactly the same between all of these lineups. Me being the sole constant member, I’m never telling anyone else, “Can you play it more like the last person that played this?” It’s always a little bit different.
There are so many lessons to be learned as a result of lineup changes, and not all of them are purely musical. What lessons have you picked up over these last few years?
I think the biggest thing that I’ve picked up is that you can’t ever be mad at anybody for quitting the band. It’s a ridiculous ask, honestly, for most reasonable people. “Hey, what we’re going to do is we’re spend a lot of time making this stuff, and it’s going to be kind of expensive to make, and then we’re going to start playing a whole lot, and there’s not really any guarantee we’re going to make a lot of money doing that. But hey, would you want to stick with this forever?” is kind of a crazy notion…
Nick Trbovich has played bass in the band three separate times. And he’s such a valuable member of the band. He’s been on a ton of these recordings we’ve done with the old name, and he popped on at the last second to be on the recording for the new EP. We’ve played a ton of shows together, and it’s always been really delightful. And I have a drummer who moved away, Riley Kerns, who had a baby. He’s in the Winchester area now, and I know that if I ever am touring north and need a drummer – it’s more or less developed into a roster I can pull from if need be, and I trust everybody on that list.
It’s a type of community-building.
That’s more or less the way I would like to approach music in all sorts of ways. It’s all about building good relationships with the other bands you play with, and the venues that you play, and your audience. There are ways to achieve flash-in-the-pan success that are going to be more fleeting than that. If you can have a slow build while taking some calculated risks, that’s the way it makes sense to me.
Where did you record last year’s EP?
We recorded that at my house. My roommate, Ian Atchison, was the engineer, and it was a very pandemic-style recording experience. We gathered gear from Ian’s gear. Ian’s been working with Rich Stine – we borrowed a couple of microphones from him. We did it over the course of a couple of months, all at home.
There were a couple of recording days when we were getting scratch tracks in. We had everybody over, and Ian was being the engineer role, and I knew that my vocal and guitar parts were coming later in the process, so I was like, “Okay, let me be the hospitality guy.” I live in Carver, pretty close to the Dunkin’ Donuts. I was like, “Breakfast. What do we all need? What do we all want? I’m going to go get it.” Like, “How much can we simulate being a real studio while we’re doing this over those couple days we had everyone in?”
Ian and I [recorded] a lot of stuff later on in our own time. Those songs are kind of a mishmash. The first track, “Engines” – the reason why we wanted to lead with that one is it’s one of the handful of pandemic anxiety songs that I had written during the time, and it was a synthesis of thinking about the ideas of how we can succeed together, and how failure is all relative, and uncertainty is guaranteed.
It does feel like the songs have a participatory, anthemic feel. Was that something you were aiming for?
It was a very communal process in everything that went down. We had our good friend Colleen Christman do backup vocals. Her band’s called Margox. My other roommate, Neal Friedman, in Super Doppler, he did some of the backup vocals that you hear on “Plans.” We got Chip Hale to mix it, and that was one of those things were it was like, “I want my buddies on this thing. I want to make sure we’ve got the team…”
I remember when I was sending it to him to be mixed, I gave him [music by] this really good band from Toronto called Zeus. They just have that old school warmth to it, and I wish I could tell you more about what gear Chip ran it through when he mixed it, but I’m not sure. Me and Nick and Hunter are all huge Dr. Dog fans, and it was just like, “How do you make it feel like a song that everyone might already know? Something that sounds like it’s always existed?”
How did you get to know Chip?
Chip and I have known each other for a while. We met at Cary St. open mic, and I became close with him and Tyler [Meacham] in, maybe, winter 2019. Those are my buddies. We just kind of got up at the same time. We were figuring out what we wanted to do as songwriters and musicians by going to open mic every week at Cary St. Cafe. It’s a cool environment.
I’m hosting the open mic at the Camel these days, the last Wednesday of every month… It’s been going great. We had a surprise appearance: [Jonathan] Russell of The Head and the Heart came through. I was like, “Oh shit!” It was mid-January and we got through the list pretty quickly, and Jon played six or seven songs because nobody else had signed up for the rest of the night. It was good. Last month we had 17 signups. Next one is March 30. After the tour, that’ll be the first thing back in Richmond.
Do you enjoy the flexibility of the trio format?
It is nice. I try and think about it this way: I’m going to keep track of all the vocal parts and all the guitar parts, but what the rhythm section is doing is up to them. Nick and Hunter have been really great at that. Nick is a powerhouse on bass, and I always joke that we don’t need a lead guitar player because Nick’s got it covered. And Hunter is the most punk, laid back drummer I’ve ever heard. He’s got a Ringo Starr vibe but it’s still really aggressive and really precise…
The nimbleness is important. I sold my car in 2019 and I bought a Toyota Sienna, and the three-piece on tour works great. We don’t have enough equipment to need a trailer, somebody can lay down in the back seat while we’re driving and there’s still another person awake. It is nimble, and it’s helped us do a lot of different stuff.
As the person who does the booking, does that type of planning provide its own sense of satisfaction?
The process can be super-rewarding. Part of what I’ve really enjoyed is getting to know another band really well. Nathan Tersteeg in Richmond had done our old art for the band, and he had also done art with this band called The Dreaded Laramie in Nashville. I saw this poster he had made — it was like a pug/octopus — for one of their shows, and that’s how I found them… I listened to their sound and was like, “These guys are really great.” I hit them up kind of randomly, because I was like, “Well, they’re from Nashville, and we’re from Richmond, and I’m trying to get to Texas, so maybe they know a little bit more about that area.”
I’ve been talking to [Dreaded Laramie singer and guitarist] MC [Cunningham] a whole lot, and she was super-helpful. She was like, “Okay, so we can’t do these days, but we can do Nashville, Memphis, and a Saturday somewhere. Do you need me to do anything right now?” I was like, “Hey, yeah, could you get cracking on the Nashville show?” and I swear like two days later, she was like, “We’re booked in Nashville. The whole bill’s figured out…” Meeting people on the internet who are kind and willing to do work like that has been so rewarding. I feel like we’re really good friends even though we’ve never met in person. But we’re about to.
Where are you planning to record your upcoming album?
We’re going to do it at Chip Hale’s studio, actually… I’ve just been really impressed with how thorough he is in communication about what you’re looking for and how we can achieve it. We haven’t gotten into any of those sessions yet, but we’re going to try to do it as live as possible. It’s funny because I don’t really consider us to be much of a studio kind of band. I really love playing live, and to be completely honest, my comfort zone isn’t in the studio, so it’s sort of like, “Let’s try to make this as live as possible.” We’ve got between six and 10 songs that we might do. We’ll see what we get and how we’re feeling about it. Hopefully that can come out before the end of the year.
For more information about Dead Billionaires’ current tour, visit deadbillionaires.com.
Top Photo: Dead Billionaires at The HofGarden. Photo courtesy Dead Billionaires.