They perform in their Sunday best, often slotted into bills featuring Los Angeles's finest screamo, rock, and noise acts. Their defense? Lush folk harmonies and crystalline male/female vocals, set against a wash of banjo, guitar, piano, violin, and the occasional suitcase-based percussion kit. Meet The Well Pennies, husband and wife team Bryan and Sarah Vanderpool, who—for the record—enjoy their position as musical outsiders.
"We get great responses from the most random places," laughs Sarah. "When you bring the banjo out, or the mandolin or something, they'll literally cheer when you take it out of the case. I have had that with the accordion. Really? You're cheering for the accordion? Okay! I like it!"
We recently joined The Well Pennies for a meal at their favorite cheese shop. Over sandwiches, they told us about discovering that they were musical soulmates, trading life in Massachusetts for the West Coast, and why their self-titled debut EP proves that they'll always be a pop band at heart. They also provided us with the premiere of their video for Coldplay cover "Viva La Vida."
HOMETOWN: Northborough, MA
CURRENT CITY: Pasadena, CA
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT?: Bryan Vanderpool: Sarah was working at a coffee shop in Northborough, Massachusetts that I would frequent every day. Frequent? I basically lived there.
Sarah Vanderpool: It was like a bookstore coffee shop. We would do different events and things there. I tried to plan the events. So I was helping with some event; I don't remember what. I was supposed to do music for it. It was happening the next day, and I hurt my wrist, so I couldn't play guitar or piano. It was just going to be me. I could do a cappella, which would be weird. I was at the store, and I was telling the guy in charge that I didn't know what I was going to do. He asked, "Don't you know anybody?" and Bryan was standing down the hallway. I said, "Well, he plays stuff!" We played that day, and it was really good. We actually spent more time playing on each other's solo stuff for a while. It took us longer than it should have to realize that we should try writing music together. Our first song was written with accordion, and it was a lovely song. We realized it was really good.
Bryan: It clicked right away. We could write very easily together.
Sarah: The romantic relationship was always there. I mean, look at him! [laughs] I think we had an instant connection. I had known his family for a while. We're both the kind of people who are completely obsessed with music. I grew up in Iowa, and he grew up in Massachusetts. You don't always find people who understand that obsession. They treat you like you're weird. There's things beyond music, and we're like, "Really?" So when you meet someone who gets it, and it's in their veins the way it is with you, you instantly click. It's even better that we also play well together.
HEADING WEST TO SEEK THEIR FORTUNE: Bryan: We were playing New England, New York shows. As much as we loved it, it's a great environment, it's a supportive community, but there's really not the opportunities out there. The Boston folk scene is so encouraging and supportive. You need that. It's very much like playing for your parents.
Sarah: Where do you go from there? We were playing in Manhattan, but Manhattan is like LA—saturated. There's live music every single night from six to two in the morning. How do you stand out? We felt like if we're going to do it, let's go for it. Start in a brand-new place. We literally packed up the Honda Civic with some clothes and some instruments, and that was it. We didn't have jobs; we just came out here to see what happens.
IT'S INSTRUMENTAL: Sarah: We get great responses from the most random places. When you bring the banjo out, or the mandolin or something, they'll literally cheer when you take it out of the case. I have had that with the accordion. Really? You're cheering for the accordion? Okay! I like it! And the kazoo. We've gotten the biggest cheers for the kazoo. I think it's that appreciation of thinking outside the box.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?: Bryan: We're huge Tom Waits fans. So we were thinking about a Tom Waits-inspired name. Real Gone, he's got this song called "The Fall of Troy." It's a dreary song—as most Tom Waits songs are. In the last line he says, "My heart aches, my legs ache, my heart is sore and the well is full of pennies." It's kind of this sad but hopeful thing, of something dirty like an old penny being attached to all these dreams. That makes it beautiful somehow. We thought it was perfect; we have to be The Well Pennies. Even though it's a little twee.
Sarah: We had a different band name before. We were Portico, from an Anna Kamieńska poem. But a bunch of landscaping companies have that name.
Bryan: We didn't have the domain name; the online presence is all landscaping. We moved to LA, so we figured the project deserved a new name.
Sarah: But then we had another name. Everyone hated it! They were very verbal about how much they hated it.
Bryan: We were Nortic Portic. I love it!
Sarah: Everyone hated it! We loved it. So to stick it to everybody, that's our publishing company.
TELLING THEIR STORY IN SONG: Sarah: Some of [the EP] is really autobiographical.
Bryan: "Feels Like Home" is about us moving to Los Angeles in the car. "I Hope You Notice Me" is the feeling we had back when we first met each other.
Sarah: It's like when you don't have the guts to go walk over to the person, but you hope that they notice you instead. We feel like everybody has probably had that moment. Sometimes you're inspired by someone else's life. "Nothing to Do" was inspired by Shel Silverstein. We could never do it justice. But it's that thought that if you take something simple and childlike, there's something so beautiful underneath it. I feel like he was always trying to give hope and inspiration to these little kids. The poem that I love is "Listen to the mustn'ts child, listen to the don'ts." I love that poem so much. It's a simple idea. Get up and embrace life. Go out your door and explore. Get off Facebook! It's important to us. Life's short.
OF MARRIAGE AND MUSIC: Sarah: You're essentially working with this person like a job.
Bryan: I don't play well with others when writing music. I have a very hard writing with other people. I'm very opinionated. It's my way or the highway kind of thing. It's this melody, or this way that the song wants to go, or I have a hard time focusing on it. [To Sarah] You're the first person to help guide. It was a shock that we wrote so well together.
Sarah: It was to me too. I've actually tried to write with other people before. Usually one dominates over the other. Half the time, if it's the other person dominating, you're not happy with it. You're like, "This is crappy, but okay I'll just keep writing it or whatever." This is totally a weird, equal collaboration. It's very yin and yang.
THE NAMING OF THINGS: Bryan: We name all our instruments. They're like children to us. We have a 1979 Gibson J-50 named Knuckles O'Tool.
Sarah: That was my Dad's guitar. He bought it when I was a month old. I was there in the guitar shop. He learned on it, and then I learned on it.
Bryan: And then the bread-and-butter guitar that I use for everything is a Gibson J-35 that's a little tweaked. She named it Debbie, after Debbie Gibson, because she hates '80s music. It just stuck after awhile! And then we just got endorsed by Deering banjos. Steve Martin is endorsed by them, and Punch Brothers. They're getting us a banjo. I already have a name picked out: Sir Kensington.
Sarah: And the accordion is Tallulah. One day I woke up and said, "I have to have an accordion. I just have to." So I researched accordions on Craigslist and I found one. It had a picture. It was cream-colored and sparkly. I was like, "I want this one, and her name is going to be Pearl!" I went with my friend to go pick it up. I think this woman might have been a drug addict. I was feeling strange about that. I talked her way down. She gave it to me and ran off. Pearl didn't work with her. She's had a tough life. I need the name of someone who has been in a brothel or something. Tallulah!
Bryan: We name everything, even our car, who is named after George Costanza. Georgie Porgie.
NEXT UP: Bryan: We're writing new material as we speak. Right now.
Sarah: It's in our brains. Telepathically. Part of this conversation is in it. There's music. And songs involved. There are two participants.
Bryan: There may or may not be instruments.
Sarah: We could do a cappella.
Bryan: [Sings] "This little light of mine!" No. We were almost there with this EP with our style.
Sarah: How rootsy we go, I'm not sure. We'll have to see. But the pop stuff will still be there.
Bryan: We love writing pop music. It sounds goofy. Maybe that's a bad thing to say. I love pop music.
THE WELL PENNIES IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON THE WELL PENNIES, VISIT THEIR FACEBOOK PAGE.
Slideshow photo credits
Photography: David Studarus
Grooming: Angie Peek