Dead and back again

Hard work eventually pays off—that’s a mantra in the world of independent music. Bands that have been around for years still struggle just to get a few pairs of feet through a club’s doors, and a night’s hard work can often result in barely enough cash to gas up the van and trudge on to the next unknown. For Dead Confederate, though, years of toil with little payoff are finally starting to see returns for the Athens, Ga.,-based band.

Stripped-down sounds: Over the past decade, Dead Confederate has gone from jam band to garage band.

Dead Confederate got its start in Augusta in the mid-‘90s, when its five members were still in their teens. Back then, the band was called Redbelly, and focused more on open-ended guitar jams and loosely structured improv. The band moved to Athens for a while and played fairly regularly. Some people liked ‘em; most people ignored ‘em.

But a move last year to Atlanta allowed the band to refine its sound and develop a tighter, more focused aesthetic, and resettling in Athens has continued that trend. Over the past year, Dead Confederate opened for Dinosaur Jr., was hand-picked by fellow Athenians R.E.M. to prep that band’s South by Southwest audience and signed a record deal thanks to a recommendation from Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools. Currently on tour with the Drive-By Truckers, the band is also hitting several big summer festivals and has a European jaunt planned for the fall, when its full-length album comes out as the first release from T.A.O. Records, the new management/label project started by ex-Capitol Records president Gary Gersh.

“I think the whole band just at one point decided we needed to move in a different direction,” says bassist/songwriter Brantley Senn. “We said, ‘We’re not going to break up, we don’t like the old band anymore.’ So, we just said, ‘Let’s come up with a new name, new songs. It’ll be a new band, just with the same members.’ We’re all best friends—we couldn’t ever not play with each other.”

Senn and guitarist/songwriter Hardy Morris took to writing new songs, approaching the tracks with specific results in mind rather than having the rest of the band—keyboardist John Watkins, drummer Jason Scarboro and guitarist Walker Howle—jam things out during the writing process.

The resulting sounds are killer layered guitar-rock tracks, heavy and lumbering thanks to Dead Confederate’s foundational rhythm section. Yet Morris’ drawl—slowed down, stretched out and turned way up—keeps them scorchingly Southern. The tunes call to mind the noisier moments in Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., with a heavy Nirvana influence on many of the breakdowns.

“I think our tastes changed,” says Senn. “We did shift gears. We graduated from college, are hanging out with different friends, listening to new music, and our tastes changed.”

Morris adds, “We were fortunate that when we made the leap to something new, everyone in the band was on board and wanted to do something new. And even now, I see the next chapter of what we do as something new and different than what we’re doing now.”

The band recently wrapped recording sessions for what’s intended as its “coming-out” full-length. (The band released an album called Petition to the Queen in 2006, a more Built to Spill-ish, My Morning Jacket-y Southern rock album, but have put much of the material behind them). Earlier this year, the group went down to Texas to work with producer Mike McCarthy, who has notably engineered albums by Spoon and … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead.

After touring the Southeast and visiting several swank recording studios, Senn says the band was taken aback by McCarthy’s stripped-down style, if only at first.

“It was just a warehouse shed, with amps pointing in all the wrong directions according to studio norms,” Senn recalls. “He basically just told us, ‘OK, go!’ It was like a practice, basically.”

But the Senn’s initial concern over recording conditions soon gave way to confidence, as it quickly became apparent that McCarthy knew exactly what he was doing.

“His gear is really cool—it’s all vintage stuff,” Senn says. “The first couple days of preproduction he didn’t really change much [with our songs], so we thought he’d whip us into shape, but he just let us do what we were doing. And we’d just spent all this time scouting these nice studios with TVs and bedrooms and minibars etc. His studio is his own gear; he just takes it around to different places.”

Morris, too, was initially reluctant upon seeing McCarthy’s ramshackle setup. “One of the things I said when we were first a little hesitant,” he says, “was, ‘Well, won’t it be cool if we can make a good record out of that place?’”

[Chris Hassiotis is a freelance writer based in Athens, Ga.]

who:  Dead Confederate with Arizona and Sleepy Horses
what:  Psychedelic-tinged Southern rock
where:  Rocket Club
when:  Thursday, June 5. 10 p.m. (www.therocketclub.net or 505-2494)

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