by Robin Umbley
They’re alt-country. They’re traditional country. They’re punk. They’re bluegrass. They’re rock ‘n’ roll. They’re Celtic. They’re drinking a lot of beer. They’re Three Day Threshold, a four-piece that’s a crazy amalgam of all those styles with beer seemingly the glue that holds them all together.
Yes, these guys like to have a good time; they recently held a CD release party (for their latest disc, Against the Grain) and went all out with a Western party theme, complete with sheriff’s badges, burlesque dancers, and a mechanical bull. Kier Byrnes himself, frontman and banjo-playing ringleader of this band of partyers, sports a bad boy Hank Williams, Jr. look, complete with black Western shirt, boot cut jeans, cowboy hat, and aviator sunglasses. But strip away the party and we’re left with a really fantastic and fun band that gets to the root of all those styles, grafts them together, and comes out with hybrid all their own. Kier has even taken this new musical offshoot around the U.S. and to Europe, but these days, they’re playing closer to home.
I saw them recently at The Plough & Stars in Cambridge, where they turned this Central Square pub and music venue into a honky tonk for a night. Along with their originals, they covered songs by Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline. They also played their own country/punk interpretation of the traditional sea chantey “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?” Kier, a hockey-playing New Hampshire native and current Cambridge resident, explains that his interest in traditional country music began during a stint in the South a bunch of years back while on tour in a punk band: “I just really kinda got into listening to local country stations when I was down there.” Besides, he has family in the South. He adds that much of this type of music has qualities lacking in other styles: “It’s something about honesty and sincerity and timelessness.” In terms of country music itself, Kier says that there’s a renewed interest in it, even in New England: “There’s been a resurgence of country music, especially the old country—new country, too, is getting big in Boston—there’s a country radio station that’s very popular, all the traditional country acts, or modern country acts, are selling out the major venues… Rounder Records found a home here and they’re one of the biggest purveyors of Americana.” Even Harvard’s radio station, WHRB (95.3 FM) has a traditional country radio show on Saturday mornings called Hillbillys at Harvard.
Country music is one thing but what about sea chanteys involving inebriated men on ships? Kier explains that they like to put their own spin on traditional songs: “One of the things we like to do is take traditional tunes and customize them. The whole concept was what Led Zeppelin did with the blues, we wanted to do with Celtic and bluegrass music.” Apparently seafaring music falls into this category. Guitarist Colt Thompson says about the drunken sailor song, “I think that’s one of my favorite songs. It goes over really well whenever we play it.” Besides, Kier emphasizes, “Drinking beer has a lot to do with our music. Drinking music is sort of what we play.”
Three Day Threshold has had an interesting, and successful history by any account. Over the past 10 years or so, they’ve been signed to a record contract, won Boston Music Awards, and have been in the Rumble. They even somehow, without even trying, have music licensing agreements with MTV, Oxygen, Lifetime, and Fox. I’m sure the fact that they have a large percentage of very attractive female fans can be added to this list. Despite this, Kier was at an impasse with the band until guitarist Colt Thompson joined the posse. He relates that he was unsure how to proceed: “When I started the band, I wanted to get into the WBCN Rumble. The other goal was to win a Boston Music Award. My last goal was to get signed to a record label. This is what happened: first I got signed to Pig Pile, then I won a Boston Music Award, and then I got into the ‘BCN Rumble. It went backwards. We didn’t know what to do. Behind the Barn was our last album and it did really well and we were able to get a ton of great shows off that. We were invited to do special occasions, like playing on the Warped tour and stuff like that, playing in front of 30 thousand people for a show. We got exposure on TV shows. Every Thursday when Real World came out, I’d get a half a dozen phone calls from people telling me that they heard my song. So for me, I really didn’t know what to do, like what to do with the band.”
Fortunately for Kier and Three Day Threshold, guitarist Colt Thompson came along. Kier recalls, “He was just right out of college. He was just 22 with a lust for life kind of thing, and really energized me.” With his Les Paul, Colt, a South Hadley, Mass. native, brings a more rock-oriented sound to the band. He explains that his father was instrumental in developing his sound when he was just a kid: “My dad is a music freak. He’s an audiophile. He probably has the most impressive collection of vinyl and CD of anybody I know. He really got me into old classic rock at a really early age. I was listening to Pink Floyd at four or five years old. So I have these really strong classic rock roots. Also, he’s very big into blues. So that’s kind of where I’m coming from. I have an eclectic music collection, but that’s where my roots are. I wouldn’t say I’m your typical bluegrass guitar player. Definitely a blues influence. A little more rock than one might expect to come out of a country band. But I think it helped to mold what we did on this CD [Against the Grain].”
Kier, most notably a banjo player, had more to overcome as an aspiring musician growing up. He recalls that it was a bit stressful in his house to learn how to play guitar: “Actually, I was never allowed to play guitar. My parents were very anti-rock ’n’ roll. Every year, I asked for a dirtbike and an electric guitar for my birthday and Christmas. I never got either one. My first job in junior high, I went out and secretly bought a guitar for like 200 bucks. Problem was that I worked that job for about a year and my parents said, ‘Kier, where’s all the money that you’ve saved over the year?’ And I couldn’t account for it. I didn’t know I was going to be quizzed. I kept the guitar hidden because I knew they’d crucify me so I’d practice at my friend’s house or when they were out.” Despite an ugly scene when his parents discovered his secret, Kier never gave up.
Today, he and Colt collaborate on songwriting. Although Colt wrote “Right Outside the Door” on their latest CD, Against the Grain, he says that on most songs “the skeleton is Kier’s work. He’ll have the road map and general chord changes, the chorus, and the solos, I kind of hear it and play my parts to make every tune a little different. There’s a lot of the same chords played in this kind of music so I just put a dash of flavor on top. Kier’s cake, my frosting.” Kier, however, says Colt makes the music interesting: “Without Colt, you’d have a boring pancake.”
Although Three Day Threshold has played in Nashville, Memphis (where Kier would never, ever discuss being from New Hampshire), Ireland, France, and Italy, Kier emphasizes that that was the past and doesn’t elaborate. These days, he’s concentrating on playing in New England: “We’ve kind of adopted a new business model, and we play wherever we’re invited to play. If some place wants us to come out, we’ll go there. That way, we’re at least well-known enough there so that wherever we go, we’ll have a built in crowd. We’ve been doing really well. We’re playing Maine this weekend, Vermont on Thursday, we just played in New Hampshire. We have a pretty good New England following. I’m very happy doing that. It’s still a lot of driving but I can come home in a couple days.”
Kier says that response to Three Day Threshold has been growing: “We’ve just been fortunate that we caught a little bit of a trend or that we’ve been playing out for such a long period of time that people just got used to the idea of an alt-country/Celtic/bluegrass/punk band booked on a bill with metal bands, indie rock bands, pop bands, that it’s a little easier for us now than it was 10 years ago.” But Kier stresses that the band isn’t perfect, but concedes that flaws are more fun: “Sometimes we get tied up in knots about not hitting the right note, remembering every word to a song, and it doesn’t matter. Most people in the crowd don’t even know it.” But in his wry, deadpan voice he continues, “As a result, one out of every three shows is a complete train wreck but those are more fun. Hey, it might be three out of three.” He shouldn’t sell himself so short.
You can go drinking with Three Day Threshold yourself on Sept. 22 at the Bullfinch Yacht Club. Or if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, they’re bringing their New England brand of Southern culture to the Chicken Box on Nantucket Sept. 28 and 29.