All the Haymarket Squares cofounders Marc Oxborrow and Mark Sunman were trying to do seven years ago was start a band so that they could perform at local watering holes for their friends. Now, they are on the cusp of releasing their fourth full-length record, Light It Up, and playing the main stage at one of Arizona's biggest festivals, McDowell Mountain Music Festival.
They call their music "punkgrass," often falling in line with folk punk. But unlike the legion of guitar-strumming long-hairs out there, the Haymarket Squares bring their heavily political songs to the masses with precision and talent. They blend so effortlessly with one another that it's hard to pinpoint what's more impressive: the four-part harmonies or seamless playing.
"People say we will 'never get big because our music is too political' like it's a bad thing, or like that was one of our goals we won't reach," says Sunman, who has been known to rock mandolin, keyboard, accordion, and banjo on stage. "But getting huge is not one of our goals. We just want to make good music and see how far we can push this thing. We don't want greater popularity. We just want to do the thing we like to do, and we seem to be good at."
In fact, the group thinks the political nature of its tunes may be what resonates so strongly with its fan base. The Squares are successful because of their left-leaning politics, not despite them.
"The people who think our music is too political are probably people who disagree with us," rhythm guitarist John Luther says. "But they don't have to like it. It's not for everyone."
In the past, the Haymarket Squares turned heads with radical tracks like the anti-religion hymn "We'll Always Have Religion" from debut record Punkgrass for the People, the anti-military anthem "Bullet Catcher" from sophomore album Dancing in the Streets, and an ode to debauchery, "Let's Get Fucked Up," off Righteous Ruckus, the band's third release.
With Light It Up, the band goes even further left, with tracks like album opener "Heaven," a battle cry for unity with migrants "Horrible Inventions," and anarchist anti-work politics with "Let's Start a Riot," the album's first single.
"The political culture of Arizona and Phoenix is a good place to produce the kind of songs the Haymarket Squares write," Luther says. "The political climate makes the squares pissed off enough to write political songs."
Sunman adds: "In downtown Phoenix, you might be surrounded by a bunch of conservatives in any direction at any time, and you want to feel like you're not alone."
However, just because the music and harmonies go together doesn't mean that the individual members' political opinions are equally harmonious. Politics is one of the most important ingredients of the band's musical recipe, but, according to the band members, they don't always agree with the messages. Still, to the Squares, it's always music over politics.
"Our attitude has always been to serve a good song, and if it's a good song, we are willing to overlook a little bit of this and that in what we are saying and the way we do things," lead guitarist Mark Allred says.
He runs more conservative than comrades Sunman and Luther, but it's fiddle player Jayson James who is the true black sheep of the group and occasionally the voice of reason when it comes to when the Squares should spare audiences some of the band's more incendiary tracks.
Still, even James, who doesn't always agree with his bandmates' social and political commentary, cannot deny the astounding measure of flair and expertise that goes along with just about every Squares tune. The fiddler was actually so enamored of the band's musical prowess that even though he didn't agree with its politics, he still approached Oxborrow and Sunman after the Squares' November 2013 gig with Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band to offer his services on the fiddle.
It was nearly two years later that the conservative-leaning Christian actually would join the band. But despite the political differences, he knew he wanted to be part of one of the most talented groups playing in metro Phoenix.
"We never changed lyrics because it was something we disagree with," Allred says. "We are okay with little disagreements here and there . . . But no matter your views politically, you have to put up with disagreements just trying to get the ship to sail in the general course of action. If you get bogged down in disagreements, it just becomes not fun anymore."
Even their producer, Bob Hoag, who's made records with local bands ranging from the Ataris to the Gin Blossoms to the Format, couldn't deny the otherworldly musical abilities of the Valley's best protest band.
"Halfway through recording, I asked Bob if he considered himself a producer or an engineer," Sunman says. "He said, 'I consider myself a producer when I work with bands.' He takes an active role, so halfway through, I asked if he feels like he's producing the album . . . [He said,] 'You guys just haven't needed the kind of work and intervention that other bands have required.' The songs are good. The arrangements are good; he did contribute percussion. But the songs themselves were pretty well rehearsed and the arrangements were really solid. We both welcomed his input, but it was an ego boost to have him say we didn't need as much as some other folks he worked with."
When Oxborrow answered a Craigslist ad looking for a "punkgrass bass player," he didn't realize it would turn into a project as enduring as the Haymarket Squares.
"I didn't think it would go this far, but the longer we have done this, the farther I believed it can go," he says.
"I didn't think it would last this long, either. I didn't see it going seven-plus years. But here we are," Sunman says.
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