Based in Eau Claire, Wis., Americana band Them Coulee Boys have toured with such celebrated acts as Los Lobos and Trampled by Turtles, won the Wisconsin Area Music Industry’s Bluegrass/Americana Band of the Year Award and been named a “band to watch” by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But before all that, the members bonded through ELCA camps and congregations.
Beau Janke (banjo, piano, backing vocals) met Soren Staff (songwriting, lead vocals, guitar) when both were counselors at Luther Park Bible Camp in Chetek, Wis., in 2011. Two years later they formed Them Coulee Boys with Soren’s brother Jens (mandolin); the brothers had grown up attending West Koshkonong Lutheran Church in Stoughton, Wis. The lineup was completed by Neil Krause (bass) and Stas Hable (drums).
Living Lutheran spoke with Janke—who, with his wife, is a member of Central Lutheran Church in Chippewa Falls, Wis.—about his ELCA formation, the band’s history, and the approach he and his partners took to their latest album, Namesake, produced by Grammy Award winner Brian Joseph.
Living Lutheran: Them Coulee Boys’ sound blends folk, bluegrass, punk and rock. For people unfamiliar with your music, how do you describe it?
Janke: I usually just describe it as fun. But if I had to use musical terms, I usually say folk rock. What makes us unique is all five of us have these very different musical backgrounds and tastes. We let those influences dictate a lot of what we’re individually adding to our records. Our live shows are kind of what we’re known for—we try to be as entertaining as possible. We want you to never forget the time you saw Them Coulee Boys.
How was serving as counselors at Luther Park Bible Camp (LPBC) a meaningful experience and place for you and Soren growing up?
I went to camp for the first time in seventh grade—it was a requirement for confirmation. I had such a good time that I went back the next summer. And the next summer. Eventually I became a camp counselor at LPBC, and on the first day working there I met Soren, and we became thick as thieves in about 15 minutes of meeting one another. I also met my wife that day, alongside a lot of people that I would call family now. We all worked there each summer from 2011 to 2015.
I still like to go and mow the lawn at camp, and I do everything that I can to keep it around. I owe a lot to that place.
Our harmonies are definitely a product of growing up in Lutheran churches.
Your band name also came from your and Soren’s experiences at camp. Could you tell us about that?
My best friend Kai Ashland went to camp with me when we were in the eighth grade. He also kept going back and eventually became a counselor. He and I and Soren and Jens all grew up in the same region of Wisconsin called the Coulee Region. A coulee is a valley with a river at the bottom of it, and we have a lot of these where we grew up.
Whenever the four of us were messing around at camp, Kai would throw a thick Wisconsin accent on his voice and say, “Them coulee boys are at it again.” Years later, Soren and I were doing our first open mic, and he quickly wrote that down as a placeholder name.
How has the Lutheran foundation you had from church and camp been formative for you or shaped your music?
I can’t speak for the other members of the band, but I would say that my Lutheran foundation formed a lot of who I am in a positive way. It made me a more humble individual and helped me to be respectful of my neighbors. My friend Kai [is] the son of a Lutheran pastor, John Ashland [of Hardies Creek and South Beaver Creek Lutheran churches, Ettrick, Wis.], and he and his wife always encouraged us to show love to all, which is something that I still try to live by.
Soren will use a lot of biblical imagery in an odd point of view. … Our harmonies are definitely a product of growing up in Lutheran churches.
The band has described Namesake, its fourth full-length release, as “songs detailing the legacy of our mistakes and the grace that follows.” How did you decide to approach this album?
As a band we wanted to just make another record that we liked, using some new instruments and working with new people. One of our main focuses for this record was legacy and what that means to us individually. It was a lot about the family that came before us and will continue after us and all of its nostalgia.
Them Coulee Boys are on tour this summer.