June 29, 2009

Rising from the Sludge, Spiraling into Space: Dead Confederate
Shawn M. Haney

Be aware with watchful eyes and trained ears. The year 2009 will be a powerful one for the bands of Athens. Yet perhaps one band stands alone above the rest. It has been a welcome wakeup call for those mindful listeners who have terribly forgotten how it feels to witness genius through music that catapults the soul. Over the years, we’ve heard an over-saturated market of blanketed, commercial pop-rock that has defined most stations raiding the airwaves throughout the states.

Yet with the support of their hometown, and their touring mates The Whigs and Trances Arc, Dead Confederate is eagerly ready to storm through cities, winning over new fans and listeners with their brewing brand of grunge-rock.

It’s been quite a memorable period of nearly 18 months since Dead Confederate released their first EP in late 2007 featuring the heavily raved “The Rat,” a song of intensity and passion that carries over perfectly into live shows. It’s a perfect example of how a band can come together, grab listeners’ attention, and evolve into something of a tidal wave of amazing potential about to explode from city to city.

Dead Confederate is a five-piece group from Athens, who recently released the monster LP Wrecking Ball on ATO Records, the first artist signed by A&R legend and label founder Gary Gersh. With some support from their fans and radio stations across the U.S. in cities like Sacramento, Portland, Albany and the famed scene of Seattle, Dead Confederate garnered immediate attention, soon finding themselves playing with the likes of R.E.M. and The Black Lips at the SXSW festival in Austin.

Dead Confederate’s music on Wrecking Ball is dark, abrasive and riveting, yet the guys in the band are simple, pure and laid back, being honest and true to themselves.

Lead singer and frontman Hardy Morris, 28, feels the band is as rich as the most alluring of the world’s art. “We’re kind of like a Jackson Pollock painting,” he says.

Through absorbing their music and coming to their shows (they’re on a major tour this summer), listeners become loyal fans dissecting their music, seeing their spirit and personality leap through the amps, carried off the stage like a massive ocean wave. This “wall of sound” and emotional connection has gripped hundreds of thousands, as their songs continue to get spins on their homepage and MySpace.

Morris, bassist Brantley Senn, guitarist Walker Howle, keyboardist John Watkins and drummer Jason Scarboro are a closeknit group, letting the media and their fanbase know how much their brand of music means to them. They wish to be honest. Distinctly honest. “There isn’t some big twist or turn, it just lays it all out there,” says Morris. “Immediate, no frills, primal, emotional.”

The guys all found themselves grooving to tunes of Sabbath and Pink Floyd together in high school in Augusta. They continued to stay together, jamming throughout college between classes and on weekends Feeling they had something there, something special, they put their heads together and threw the dice, agreeing that perhaps they could pursue music full-time. They moved to Atlanta, then to Athens.

They knew they had to find a sense of responsibility, and with the frightening thought of job-searching and finances, they discovered the true meaning of hard work, perseverance and dedication that has kept them together in an amiable, success-filled way since.

Searching for themselves, searching for their trademark sound and unique identity, they got a huge boost from going all the way to the finish line, sweeping the Open Mic Madness competition at Smith’s Olde Bar in Decatur in August 2006. A chance to get their break and be heard, the support of Madness guru Josh Rifkind, manager of The Whigs and a huge promoter of the Atlanta scene, gave them a lift that created a hurricane-like response from listeners and A&R reps.

“Winning the Open Mic Madness contest really gave us a sense of confidence,” says bassist Brantley Senn. “We won studio time from that contest and that was used to record our first EP. When we won I think we realized that we were gonna be successful as long as we did things our way and did what made us happiest. We learned to follow our instincts, to do what feels right, and to never be afraid to take risks. After all, what could be a bigger risk than trying to make a career out of music?”

After meeting ATO Records’ Gersh, the band was invited to record Wrecking Ball in Austin with producer Mike McCarthy. The result was a powerful collaboration and immediate connection of sound and production, delivering a marvelous record of 10 energy-laden tracks.

Asked if they enjoyed their stay in the studio with McCarthy, Senn remembers, “Mike is kind of crazy, like all producers. I mean that in the best way possible. It takes an eccentric person to work with all the egos and opinions of the band in the studio. His style of production was a lot like Steve Albini, in that he doesn’t try to change what already works. He’s really serious about the small details. He also did everything he could to make sure we had no reason to redo a take if we got ‘the one.’ It was a slow process and very demanding, but ultimately I feel it paid off.”

It’s here you’ll find space-rock, grunge-rock and heavy epics that surge and flow like a wave, building and building, soon releasing raw fury and power at its crest. This album is creepy, in that it takes 30-somethings back to their teen days and a monumental time for rock, as band’s like Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr. flooded early 1990s radio.
How did these songs come about?

“The songs for Wrecking Ball came about naturally,” says Senn. “Each song was written about personal issues and only came about as Hardy and I felt a need to write it. None of the songs were forced. We toured on those songs for a year or so and they naturally evolved into the form you hear today.”

It’s here you’ll find gripping tunes of soft verses, leaping to the boiling point in choruses that ride like a runaway train, which find control as Morris croons, snarls and whispers through each grungy Southern rock jam.

After releasing Wrecking Ball, videos continue to spawn from their performances, both on YouTube and MTV2’s Subterranean. One standout is the distinct and stunning, “Start Me Laughing.”

Their shows prove to be unforgettable, their audience forever growing. Yet the guys just really seem to want to make a point on stage and leave the partying to the listeners. As the show ends, they celebrate with a small drink and satisfaction with their performance.

“Touring keeps getting better for us,” says Senn. “The little things matter to us, like getting a free bottle of Jack and some snacks backstage. That used to seem so out-of-reach. The fanbase has grown exponentially in the last year. Most of our shows sell out now, which still hasn’t really sunk in. It’s a huge relief to see that because this is really what we want to do with our lives. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

With these efforts, and the help of a memorable appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Wrecking Ball has climbed up the Top 200 CMJ charts in soaring fashion.

“We’re really happy with Wrecking Ball. I feel it was a perfect example of honesty,” says Senn. “There were no tricks to the recording. It was very old school and raw. It fit the honest emotions of the songs very well. I feel that we’ve reached a comfort zone now that will allow us to venture into more creative areas. I look forward to shaking things up in the next year with some experimentation and bringing the unexpected.”

Undeniable in their sound, and appealing in their catchy riffs and deep poetic lyrics, Dead Confederate’s ship won’t be sinking anytime soon. Instead, its hull will hover over the surface of magical waters.

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