When you first hear The Hasslers, a Missoula quintet, you might have a hard time putting a finger on what type of music, exactly, you're hearing. Is it Americana folk rock? Sure, sort of. But those clever lyricsthey've got an indie flair to them, and there's a little bit of old-timey stomp band, some small-town garage band, a taste of the blues. The chords in their song "I Can't Go to Arizona with You but I Hope You'll Spend the Night" have a Latin sound, but the song itself builds on a hard-driving emo feel. Disparate though this all may seem, it works.
Works pretty darn well, actually, considering The Hasslers just won Sean Kelly's Top of the Mic competition this spring, besting more than 100 other local acts. But they seemed to appear out of the ether back in February. No one had ever heard of The Hasslers, and then, suddenly, here they were, tearing it up on stage.
Turns out there's good reason nobody knew them prior to Top of the Mic: They simply didn't exist before then. "I'd been doing a one-man-band thing, and decided I wanted to have a full band for this Top of the Mic contest," says Matt Hassler, band leader, guitar and banjo player and vocalist. "So I went onto Craigslist, and Matt [Bush] answered my ad for a guitar player. He knew Annalisa [Ingegno] and she played fiddle, so they formed the string duo." Ingegno just happened to know a bassist and a drummer with whom she had briefly played. With the contest as a catalyst, a band was born.
"It was really short notice," says Hassler. "We formed in January and about a month later we had to start playing these shows down at Sean Kelly's. People would say, 'Where have you been?' and we'd say, 'Well, we haven't been anywhere.'" They admit the time frame was a little stressful, but also exhilarating. "Since we had to learn songs so fast, the pressure really helped boost us into something bigger," Hassler says.
He leans forward when he talks, animated and earnest. Here in this basement practice room on a Saturday morning, the feeling is palpable among the three band members in attendance: giddy excitement, plus a little bit of awe at their recent accomplishment and at the subsequent outpouring of enthusiasm from the community. Ingegno says, "When we first started at Top of the Mic, there were a lot of good bands. We thought, 'We'll never make it compared to those guys!'"
Make it they did, though, and as the three of them talk, a portrait of the band becomes clearer, as do the origins of their eclectic and award-winning sound. It seems that when you find your band members on Craigslist and through the grapevine, there's no guarantee that you'll find musicians with the same tastes. Luckily, this turned out to be a good thing.
Hassler grew up in small-town Lewistown, Mont. "There's such a small music scene there that you just inevitably get into whatever they're into. There were two guys that lived there that played music, and they played opposite kinds of music. But then I came to Missoula, and I was like, 'Wow, there's more than two kinds of music in the world!' And it was pretty fantastic."
His tastes have since tended toward lyrically driven indie folk, and he mentions that players like Conor Oberst have been big influences. But he was willing to broaden his musical scope even further when he started the band.
"What's funny is that when we started, these guys were bluegrass players," Hassler says, gesturing to the other two. "I didn't know much about bluegrass, but they came and saw I play the banjo, so that was good. Except I play nothing like bluegrass banjo. I just hammer on the thing 'til it sounds like a chord. But the blending of their bluegrass and my folk rock really worked."
Ingegno, who has been playing classical violin since she was three and only recently discovered bluegrass fiddle, agrees. "We all like really different music. Matt likes all these indie bands that I've never even heard of, and I don't listen to that kind of music. I like Gillian Welch, stuff like that. But we all bring our different influences to the group, and I think that really makes it great."
Bush mentions that his recent favorites include dirty country like the Drive By Truckers and Lyle Lovett, but he also has a fondness for classic rock and blues. "I learned to play guitar when I was 15," he says. "Naturally, like everybody, I played things like Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton. But now I'm into bluegrass and some country, like that real fast chicken-pickin'."
The three of them affectionately refer to their bass player, Ben Haber, as a band nerd, but are quick to offer the qualification "a band nerd in the best possible way!" With a background in jazz and choir, he's brought yet another element of musicality to the group. As for the drummer, no one is quite sure about his tastes: "Hmm, Ben [Levine]. I don't think I know of a single band he likes. He just likes to play. He sits over there and watches the mesh happen between the four of us and stays in the pocket, and that's a perfect drummer," says Hassler.
While such varying backgrounds could spell disaster, for The Hasslers it's been a recipe for success. With 14 originals, they're well on their way to recording their first album. And they even seem to be winning over their toughest critics: themselves. "You know, I've come to really like our songs," says Ingegno, as though at first she wasn't convinced. "They've completely grown on me. I'll be walking in the woods and find myself humming them."
The Hasslers play the Palace Thu., July 19, at 9 PM with Portland's Left Coast Country. $5. They play Sean Kelly's Fri., July 20, at 10 PM.