The Apache Relay might've been on their way to becoming Nashville's answer to The Avett Brothers or Mumford and Sons, all amped up and unplugged — except for one small matter. "[The Avetts and the Mumfords] are acoustic bands with elements of rock," points out Apache Relay fiddler Kellen Wenrich. "I have the feeling that we're a rock band with elements of acoustic [music]."
He's talking about The Apache Relay of 2011 — the band responsible for a brand-new, exuberantly tuneful, irresistibly idealistic indie-rock album called American Nomad, as opposed to the group known as Michael Ford Jr. and the Apache Relay, which debuted two years ago with 1988, a singer-songwriter set supported by a thoroughly modern and newly hired string band.
Both albums feature the same core lineup: Besides Wenrich and animated frontman Ford, there's lead guitarist Mike Harris, plus Brett Moore on mandolin and keyboards. But in the time since they made the first one, they've turned into a bona fide, likeminded, egalitarian band of buddies. They've even locked in a regular rhythm section in bassist Adam Schafer and drummer Aaron Early.
The consensus among the quartet is that anthemic elements — more than picking — reflect their true musical identity. "It's funny," says Moore, "because I feel like most bands, seven albums into their career, that's when they make their special project. A kind of departure from their normal sound. Bruce Springsteen did The Seeger Sessions a while back, which is like his folk record, and hired a totally different band to do that. I feel like 1988 was that, but for some reason we did that first."
Ford may have been inspired at the time to write a batch of acoustic songs, but he'd also led an indie-rock band called The Hollywood Ten with his brother Ben. "I grew up playing in rock bands since I was, like, 13 years old," he says. "We all listen to that music a lot. For me it was returning to what's natural."
The four discovered that their listening habits very definitely transcended folk, bluegrass and folk-rock when they climbed in the car to tour and chose CDs for the ride. Moore says the conversations went a little like this: "'You're not putting The Seldom Scene record in? You're putting in In Rainbows by Radiohead?'"
So they ended up stocking their own album with taut, energetic grooves and big, bright walls of reverb-drenched electric guitar, keys and strings — plus a cover of Springsteen's "State Trooper" and a tentative step toward Motown ("Watering Hole"). Moore describes what they're doing as reinterpreting the American Songbook for their generation. (For the record, The Great American Songbook they have in mind is a little different from the one Rod Stewart has been cherry-picking for the past decade.)
"I wonder sometimes if our generation is just focused so much on trying to recreate the exact sounds of the '60s and stuff," says Moore, "what is the music of our generation going to sound like 40 years form now? Not that we're consciously doing this, but I'm kind of excited about making the music exist for now. I'm not saying that our songs are what defines our generation. We're just one of a billion artists out there. But I think we're just trying to be in the now and be completely honest."
That big-picture sensibility comes through in their songs. Ford sings of freedom and belonging with youthful conviction, and his melodies feel tailor-made for lung-bursting sing-a-longs. "A huge part of playing live for me," he says, "is meeting people afterwards and feeling like there's no barriers, because you just played a show and you feel like you can communicate on this level that, if you hadn't just played music, you would never be able to."
And on that front — if not instrumentally — The Apache Relay can already rival the Avetts or Mumfords. "Those guys earned their fans one at a time," says Harris. "We're willing to do that too."
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