Western North Carolina is home to thriving scenes for most every music genre and subgenre. There’s a seemingly endless supply of Americana artists, bluegrass pickers, jam-band noodlers, rhyming rappers, jazz musos and synthesizer wizards. But the Stump Mutts aren’t having any of that: The four-man group from Asheville unapologetically calls itself a rock band. The band celebrates the release of its fourth studio album, Love Hate, with a Friday, Sept. 1, show at The Grey Eagle.
And while the Stump Mutts — a collective that grew out of guitarist and songwriter Neal Ward‘s one-man musical project — appreciates the advantages of local world-class recording studios like Sound Temple and Echo Mountain, Love Hate was recorded in Ward’s basement. “I started recording probably about 15 years ago,” he says. “Just learning, reading up on it, [watching] videos … all that stuff. And every time I’ve done it, it gets a little better.”
That no-frills approach — one that aims simply to document what the Stump Mutts sound like when they sing and play — is the guiding aesthetic of the 13-song Love Hate. “A lot of times in the past, when I was recording, I would hide some of my vocals with effects,” Ward admits. “I might add a little more reverb on the mix; it was a self-conscious, hearing-your-own-voice thing.”
Thanks to encouragement from his bandmates — guitarist Derek Allen, bassist John Lindsey and drummer Patrick Wells — Ward quit hiding. “We were going for a really ‘live’ sound,” he says. “I’ve seen plenty of bands where I’ve caught them live and then found that their album sucks because it’s overproduced.” Moving away from the solo nature of the first two albums he released as the Stump Mutts, both 2014’s We Can All Relate and the new Love Hate benefit from the presence of a real band.
Ward’s musical path is one familiar to many musicians of his generation. “I’ve been in a band since I was 15 years old, high school bands,” he says. “Went off to college, had a couple college bands.” One of those toured for seven years, playing House of Blues dates and other high-profile venues. But one by one, Ward and his bandmates got married and had kids. “It was time to dial back” the music, he recalls.
Eventually, Ward and his family moved to Asheville. And though he and his wife had a toddler at home, he decided, “I still need to do music; it’s kind of my therapy.” That’s when he started, on his own, to record the Stump Mutts’ 2011 self-titled debut, while putting together the home studio he calls Dolphin Rage.
Ward first came to work with Wells through another band’s recording project at Dolphin Rage; when that group fell apart, Ward asked Wells to become part of a “real” Stump Mutts lineup, one with new songs. Meanwhile, Ward and Allen had been meeting and swapping musical ideas.
Lindsey was the last to join. Wells begins, “It’s hard to find a really cool bass player who doesn’t have an ego …”
And Allen finishes his band mate’s sentence: “And who only wants to be a bass player.”
The Stump Mutts’ music isn’t completely frivolous and party-themed, though some of the song titles might lead one to suspect otherwise. Led by Lindsey’s thundering bass, the lyrics of “Hot Mess” have more in common with Cheap Trick or Van Halen. And the jangling alt-rock of opening track “All the Kids Are Out Tonight” suggests a more melodic take on the shaggy, flannel-shirted grunge of 1990s Pacific Northwest bands.
The band may have missed out on a potential cross-marketing tie-in — or even an endorsement deal — with the song “Cardinal Gin.” Titling a song after a product made in North Carolina seems like a good strategy for an Asheville-based band, but the distillery in Kings Mountain would probably have some issues with the lyric “killer weed, Cardinal Gin.”
“They haven’t approached us or anything,” says Allen.
But “Cardinal Gin” isn’t really a stoner anthem, says Ward. Instead he describes it as “a dichotomy of the guy who wants to just kinda live life and get out there and enjoy the weekend, but who has this terrible job with a terrible workweek and stuff like that.”
Aware that his and Ward’s employers might read this story, Allen quickly adds, “Not that we have terrible jobs and terrible workweeks.”
WHO: The Stump Mutts with Mike L!VE and Hard Rocket
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave. thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Friday, Sept. 1, at 8 p.m. $8 advance/$10 day of show