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Let's get something out of the way: Sean Wheeler and Zander Schloss were both in influential punk bands—Throwrag and Circle Jerks/Joe Strummer's band, respectively. That's how you'd know them, but they've been playing around the U.S. and Europe shedding those skins as an acoustic duo for half a decade. Wheeler's rasp and Schloss' masterful 12-string guitar playing fuse to create a rootsy, spiritual sound with a perfect balance: Wheeler has the charisma; Schloss is the introverted contemplator. They've played with Flogging Molly and the Pogues, are touring with X, and recently had a song on Dexter.
OC Weekly: Last time you spoke with us in early 2009, you said it was a challenge to shake that punk image. Is that still true?
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Zander Schloss: It's not for me. I didn't grow up playing punk rock; it just happened that I moved to LA and people were into it. I'm a very open-minded lover of music. Punk can be rigid. People will label things "not punk rock." If people are that closed-minded, I'm not interested in what they think anyway.
Sean Wheeler: It's a quality problem—if a problem at all. When we were in Czechoslovakia, a 50-year-old-man came up to us, crying, because when the walls went up, there was one cassette in this Russian-occupied village, and they would all share it, it meant so much to them in the '80s. That's the thing you should be taking away from it. If you can realize that what you did really helped someone, they're not really bothering you. Appreciate you did something that was a big part of their lives.
Many artists who got their start in punk rock eventually create country albums. What's the tie between the genres?
Schloss: When I worked as Joe Strummer's guitarist, I listened to Joe's lyrics, and it occurred to me that punk is just folk with more aggression and speed. Go back to the days of Woody Guthrie—it's all about political criticism and dissatisfaction with the way things are run. Anyone with a bit of intelligence will eventually want to stop singing about skating and beer. I like to call it growing old with grace.
What's your favorite part of this project?
Schloss: No. 1, the music. No. 2, our chemistry together is undeniable. What I enjoy beyond that is the economy of it. We can do what other bands can't do with a trailer full of equipment. You can make a living by playing more gigs with less money, but you come out on top at the end.
What can people expect to see at your shows?
Wheeler: A variety show—there's laughter and real heavy, serious ballads. People cry when we play. It's weird to see people crying while you're playing. It goes back to the spirit being bigger than the human thought.
Schloss: They can expect to laugh; we have a pretty funny rapport. They can expect to have their spirits lifted, too. I often grapple to describe our sound. The closest thing I can think of is "spirit music."
Wheeler: Zander is such a beautiful songwriter. He's showing me how to play timeless songs. It's been a real privilege.
Where do you think he draws from when he's teaching you these timeless songs?
Wheeler: He's very naturally gifted. When he got into punk, he was already a real songwriter, a musician. I got into punk because it was something you could do at entry level. You could just start a band, and it didn't have to sound that good because it was a punk band. That was the freedom of punk for me.
[Zander] will write one or two songs a day and not even record 'em. They'll just run off into space. Can you imagine having that kind of talent? He's 50 years old, and whenever I'm with him—which is often—he's playing his guitar for hours every day. It's not to look pretty or to pick up chicks. I mean, the guy loves playing guitar.
Schloss: Do what you love to do and do it enough. Find why you were put on Earth. I don't do anything for any reason other than the sheer joy of playing for people.
This column appeared in print as "Punk-Rock Spirit Music."