Courtesy of KDW Photography
This is part of our weekly series titled “Columbus’ Own,” where we profile a local band every Thursday.
Most bands have a fixed response when asked what kind of music they play, but for Columbus-based Matthew Sullivan and the Black River Gypsies, coming up with an answer isn’t so simple.
“You know the thing for Matthew Sullivan and the Black River Gypsies is, in part, we started because we wanted to have a pretty diverse sound,” lead singer and guitarist Matthew Sullivan said. “We want to spend time doing original artwork.” The band takes pride in incorporating an array of music genres into each of its sets.
“We are all fans of American music,” said drummer Mark Sims, “so when we play, we really try to incorporate traditional blues, folk and country. We certainly want to be very dynamic if we can help it.”
Like its peculiar sound, the band also got its name from an interesting place.
Sullivan said the band is titled after a river, named Black River, located in upstate New York.
“The river is an archetype of creepiness and weirdness,” Sullivan said, and added he likes to think of the river when writing music.
Sullivan got a late start in the music industry after pursuing a career far-fetched from that of a musician.
After graduating from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, Sullivan started working at his family’s construction business, which he said required him to travel around tearing down and rebuilding houses for months at a time.
“I moved around (building houses) a lot after college and then when I lived in down in Asheville, N.C., I learned that music was something I really wanted to do,” Sullivan said.
He also said finding his passion helped him on the business side in the long run on.
“I didn’t actually play music until my mid-20s. So I think that is maybe one of the reasons I could be more business-like about it,” Sullivan said. “My friends in North Carolina were musicians, and because I was a grown-up they could be very critical. No one was worried about fostering my interests. I covered more ground than other people because I sought out this guidance and help.”
Sullivan then moved back to Columbus where he teamed up with Sims, bassist Ryan Combs and guitarist Andy Frederick.
The group eventually sought out record companies to sign with, but after consulting with other artists, Sullivan decided to start his own.
“I had been reaching out to other artists and I would ask them what their label did for them. They all said, ‘Well nothing,’ and I thought, ‘Well I could do that myself,'” Sullivan said.
In 2010 Sullivan started his label named Singing Moon Records and searched for other talented local bands to join him.
“I reached out to a bunch of good Columbus acts that I knew weren’t signed and I said, ‘Hey, why don’t we get together and do this,'” Sullivan said. “At least we knew we would help each other. As far as I knew, that’s more than any other label can give us.”
Singing Moon Records now has 13 signed acts that play throughout Columbus as well as band based in Michigan that is also on the label, Sullivan said. The label features its Columbus acts every second Friday in a showcase called “Independent Spirits” at Hal & Al’s Tavern, located at 1297 Parsons Ave.
Matthew Sullivan and the Black River Gypsies recently finished a demo and is working toward releasing its first studio album. In the meantime, the band plans to continue playing shows in front of Columbus crowds, Combs said.
“It’s really nice (playing in Columbus),” he said. “We have a community of fellow musicians who are very supportive, and we try to maintain a beneficial level of support for the fans and artists that we work with.”