The Way Down Wanderers’ latest album More Like Tomorrow is a journey: The Peoria, Illinois, band blends string music with art-rock dramatics and boasts two lead singers in brothers-in-law Collin Krause and Austin Krause-Thompson. When they harmonize, it’s halfway to a religious experience.
But the five-piece — rounded out by drummer John Merikoski, bassist John Williams and banjoist Travis Kowalsky — aren’t out to proselytize. They just want to change your world, or at least provide optimism during demoralizing times.
“Hopefully what we’re doing is helping people open up and be there for one another,” says Austin, who married the older sister of longtime friend Collin and added Krause to his last name.
“Out on the road, we’re seeing people that are just craving some connection,” Collin says. “I think we’re fortunate to be musicians right now because we’re able to provide commonality at a time where we’ve really been missing that.”
A sense of community courses throughout More Like Tomorrow, the follow-up to 2019’s Illusions, the LP that first put the Way Down Wanderers on the map. While the group began as a loose bluegrass collective in Peoria, three hours southwest of Chicago, it evolved into a compelling Mumford & Sons/Arcade Fire hybrid. Simple boot stomps and handclaps mix with banjo and mandolin in songs like “Everything’s Made Out of Sand,” while a hypnotic rhythm builds to a cathartic gang-vocal chorus in “Hard Times.”
“The sound has definitely grown since the early years. It’s been a slow growth of branching out, while also maintaining what we have. Now we’re not just a string band or a bluegrass band,” Austin says.
But evolution came at a cost, especially for Collin. He wrestled with his drinking and ultimately made the decision to get sober. He also dealt with unexpected losses in his life, from the death of his wife’s uncle to the suicide of a neighbor. He started asking himself tough questions about what it means to be both available and accountable and channeled that into the band.
“Maybe I could have been nicer or been there for someone at a tough time?” he says. “I was reflecting on this idea of self-forgiveness as a way to improve and accept where we’ve made mistakes.”
That introspection birthed “Codeine Rest & Loneliness,” the most heart-rending recording on More Like Tomorrow. With a dual vocal by Austin and Collin, it’s a solemn song about those we leave behind that explodes into thunderous drums and a surprise banjo breakdown. The coda is both a nod to the Wanderers’ bluegrass roots and a way to ease the tension.
“It’s one of the more heavy songs on the album and we didn’t want it to be entirely negative,” Collin says. “We wanted to leave the listener with more of a celebratory sound in their mind.”
Austin and Collin have even grander visions for what they can accomplish with Way Down Wanderers. In their music video for their song “The Wire,” they imagine a communal outdoor utopia with their bandmates being stewards of the Earth.
“From a political standpoint, we want to see some action on the climate. We need to do something,” Collin says. “We’re working towards that with the platform we have.”
Despite the chaotic mess that is the planet, Austin says don’t give up. “There are so many things that need improvement,” he acknowledges, “but I don’t think it’s lost. There’s still hope.”