Dirt Buyer is a three-piece band based in Brooklyn, NY, specializing in hauntingly beautiful, off-kilter folk that fills the music genre void you never knew you had. I had the opportunity of chatting with Joseph Sutkowski (lead vocals, guitar) about the importance of voice memos, pen-pals, methods of self-care, and of course–music!
MACK: How did Dirt Buyer come to be? What influenced the name?
JOE: Dirt Buyer technically started out as three different bands that I was doing with Ruben [Radlauer]. After I graduated from college, I moved home, and then I moved back [to Boston] a few months later. When I moved in, all of my friends were leaving, and Ruben was one of the only friends I had left there. We were playing a lot of music together and we had a couple of different projects. His band Model/Actriz was broken up during this time, so he had a Model/Actriz shaped hole in his heart, and initially, we were trying to fill that by making a two-piece noise-pop band called Fender. We had about six songs but then reached our limitation of what we could do with just a guitar[ist] and a drummer. One day, I accidentally wrote the riff to our song “Josephine” during a practice that we were having and I was just going to disregard it, but [Ruben] was like “No, we should record that.” So we recorded it and then I brought it home and finished it, and that was the start of the emo band that we had. The ultimate goal was to have a fake record label where we put out all of our different projects, but Dirt Buyer was the only one that lived. It was a complete accident… Kind of. The name was something [Ruben] came up with. He was trying to think of the most generic name for an east-coast Exploding In Sound emo band, and Dirt Buyer is the name he came up with and because all we had was an emo song, we were like, “Yeah whatever, let’s use that.”
How would you describe Dirt Buyer in three words to someone who’s never heard your music?
Weird folk music. It sort of started as emo-folk, but now it’s just weird folk. I would call it folk music… but I don’t really fully know where it lives.
Describe the creative process behind your debut album. Is there anything special you’re adamant about doing when recording?
Ruben and I would sit in a practice room at school for two hours at a time, and we would just write as many songs as we possibly could. We’d record them to a voice memo, just the guitar and drums. Voice memos are most useful thing ever. If I didn’t have voice memos, I probably wouldn’t be in New York! I’d be somewhere else, I don’t know where… Maybe L.A.? Anyways, I would take the [songs] that were potential hitters back home and I would workshop them. The ones that I finished were those that I liked, and the ones that made it to the album. It was a whole convoluted process where we had guitar and drums on one voice memo track, and then I would record D.I. bass and vocals in my room and send the session to Ruben. Then, he would double the guitars somehow and do this intelligent drum replacement where he would match the kick and the snare in the voice memo and replace them with samples and clean it all up.
Would you use this voice-memo process in the future?
Something like it, definitely. It was really wild and limiting and put us in a box we had to work within.
You guys have toured around quite a bit this year! Which city was the most memorable for you?
I also played guitar in this band Sloppy Jane, and Haley [Dahl], the front person, is a really good friend of mine. The second date of the tour was in Reno, and Reno is… So weird, but in the coolest way. The way I describe it is that it looks like a movie set that was built up, used for shooting a movie, and then just left to be abandoned forever. The Surf Curse show was sold out because they’re from Reno, and I made a post on Instagram and said, “I don’t know anyone here but if you follow us and live here and you need a guest spot, let me know,” and the only person that hit me up was Haley. She told me she had a pen-pal [of] five years from Reno and he’d been writing her really pretty letters, but she couldn’t vouch for him personally because they’d never met in person. I was like, “Fuck it! Give me his phone number, I’d love to meet him.” I texted him and told him I was in Sloppy Jane, that Haley told me to hit him up, and he should come to the show. He ended up coming, and [after] we played, I was walking offstage and there was this person. Their outline was just so significant that I just knew [by] looking at him that this was the kid. We talked the whole night, and now he’s one of my really good friends.
If you could choose any three people to attend one of your gigs, who would you pick?
Leonard Cohen, Sibylle Baier, and Elliott Smith. They’re my favorite songwriters ever. I’d love to have them see me, and maybe even enjoy it…
What outside influences play a part in the vision of Dirt Buyer?
There was a point in my life when I was living in Boston where I didn’t know what to do with my body. I wasn’t sure what to do with the physical space I was taking up, and I was really uncomfortable. I booked an Airbnb in a treehouse, in Vermont, in the middle of the woods on a whim. It was the most fucked up experience I’ve ever had; this is a ghost story and it is my worst fear ever, actualized.(NOTE: If you want to read snippets of that story, you can find it HERE!) So, my headspace then was really woodsy. I grew up in the woods in New Jersey and they’ve always been really special [to me], so I kind of just channeled the woods. I don’t know if that sounds stupid, but I think that’s the box. The woods, scenically. My musical influence is all the jazz I forced myself to learn at music school because I thought I had to do that to be good, so it’s sorta just in me now. Also, 60s and 70s Brazilian music, singer-songwriters like Elliott Smith and Leonard Cohen who I wasn’t into at the time, and 90s guitar bands like Duster and Death Cab for Cutie and general indie-rock. And, living alone in a town I didn’t like, where most of my friends had left or were going crazy with still being there; and obviously, things I was dealing with at the time.
If you could make everyone on earth listen to one album, what would you choose?
Right now, I’ve been begging everyone to listen to Colour Green by Sybille Baier, because I just discovered it. She’s a German actress who wrote this amazing album in the 70s because she wanted to try songwriting. She wrote this incredible album, Colour Green, and it just sat for years until her son basically told her, “You have to put this out because it’s just the best thing ever” and in 2006 it was released. I posted about it on Instagram one day and a songwriter who follows us messaged me and said “Yo, Sybille Baier, I chain-smoked cigs with her in her kitchen in western [Massachusetts]” and then told me that she doesn’t even remember how to play her own songs. I find that really cool because they’re some of the best singer-songwriter songs I’ve ever heard. Just her being like, “Ah, fuck it, I don’t care”– it’s a power move! I think everyone should hear it because it’s so beautiful and special.
What film do you think Dirt Buyer would be the perfect soundtrack for? It’s a pretty cohesive album, so I feel like it’d fit well with a movie.
Yeah, that was an accident. When we were making it, I didn’t think I could do anything cohesively and I went through the whole thing kind of blind. Then at the end when I finally came back out, it was somehow cohesive. There’s a documentary called Peter and the Farm and it’s about this farmer who’s run a farm for something like 30 years, and his wife and kids left him, and he’s just miserable. He’s a shithead alcoholic who thinks he’s way smarter than he is, but he’s also such a sad character to watch because he doesn’t want to be that way but just is. It’s shot so beautifully, and the farm is so pretty. So, maybe that? I don’t know. Or Palo Alto with Jack Kilmer. It’s a bad movie.
What song off of Dirt Buyer is the most personal to you and why?
I think “Gift” or “Josephine.” “Josephine” because it’s very specific in what it means to me, but I’ve been told by a lot of friends that they like that song because I guess it’s been written in a way that’s specific but also very ambiguous, and you can take what you want from it. Also, I just think it’s the best song I’ll ever write. It’s the most cohesive and it’s like a pop song. “Gift” is a Cliff Notes version of my experience living in Boston for a year by myself. It’s very personal to me.
In addition to releasing more music, what other goals do you have for Dirt Buyer in 2020?
Definitely learning how to get better at touring! I need to be less dramatic when I’m a bummer. So definitely getting better at not being a diva. And getting better at writing songs because that’s the only thing that I can do. Also getting better at self-care.
So what tips for self-care have you taught yourself?
Run. Every day, if you can. If you like running… Or just some form of exercise that gets those endorphins goin’. Face masks are nice, or an Epsom salt bath. Going to therapy. Or not being afraid to talk to your friends about things that you’re having a hard time with because most of the time they’re down too. I’m just learning every day.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Sometimes my Instagram presence is a lot and I just say stupid shit. Like today, I was advertising [a] show and one of the captions on my story was “Dirt Buyer is the most famous so we play last” and sometimes I’ll just say stuff like that. It does not reflect how I feel about myself at all. Just understand that like, I’m gonna do that because I think it’s funny. This is a disclaimer. I’m a fucker, that’s the disclaimer—I’m a complete fucker.
Photo by Julien Kelly