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Locals Paper Route land in the catbird seat

Locals Paper Route land in the catbird seat

Chad Howat's ship has come in, and he sounds like a sailor on shore leave. The keyboardist for local electro-atmospheric pop group Paper Route is preparing for their "first full-blown, gonna-have-to-do-laundry-on-the-road tour," a seven-week stint in support of their third EP, Are We All Forgotten, backed by Universal Motown. Next year, they'll release Paper Route's full-length debut, but meanwhile, the band is reveling in their redemption from a budget.

"It's still a little shoestring," protests Howat from his Eighth Avenue home studio. "There's a lot more money going out from the band, just to do what we want to do. But if I were in music for the money, I probably would've quit a long time ago."

Signing with Universal Motown in April immediately fulfilled at least a quarter of their musical wish list, which, for a band that loads the stage with gear, must have been like Christmas for Guitar Center. But if you've heard Paper Route—they packed some 600 folks into Mercy Lounge for last year's Next Big Nashville festival, the club's biggest draw that week—you know they're into the epic. And that affection for grandness forms the basis of the quartet's sound—odd percussive samples looped into unusual melodies, Andy Smith's figural snatches of guitar, JT Daly's wavering emo-dramatic croon. Add their ghostly piano and synth, which suggests Spacemen 3 taking Galaxie 500's drugs while covering new-wave chestnuts by Yaz, and it's a pretty, hazy cinematic sound that musician friends doubted they could pull off live.

"When we played people a CD of our songs, they'd say, 'Yeah, but how are you going to play a show?' " Howat says. "We started getting really serious about the band and figuring out how to execute shows live, which was kind of a nightmare because there is so much going on [in the songs]."

Paper Route began modestly, after an earlier band Howat, Daly and Smith were in imploded. They'd moved to Nashville in 2002 after graduating together from Greenville College, a Christian liberal arts school in Southern Illinois. As the band fell apart, each abandoned music. "We came here wide-eyed, ready to take over the world, then reality set in, and you're making sandwiches at the Bread & Company at 4 a.m.," Howat laments. But they found their way back together when Howat bought a laptop and began recording in the space below his bed, humorously dubbed Bottom Bunk Studios.

Howat eventually cornered Daly and Smith at Berry Hill coffee shop Sam & Zoe's one morning, persuading them to give it one last shot. They recorded a four-song Christmas EP, whose positive response emboldened them. They added drummer Gavin McDonald and began to translate the music into a live show last year. In February Universal got in touch with them, caught them at SXSW in March, then flew them up to New York in April for a show at Pianos.

While he enjoyed the alcohol-addled major label courtship, Howat's under no illusions. "You don't normally eat and drink like that, so when the opportunity is there, you want to take it. Then the next morning, you're, 'There goes another $2,000 in album sales we have to recoup,' " he laughs.

Are We All Forgotten builds on their shapely, quirky, electronically enhanced epics. It ranges from the haunted, new wave-tinged title track, to the spacey "American Clouds," which Howat penned on an ancient Yamaha V-50, to the ebullient, clattering shimmer of "Empty House," built around a sample Howat cadged from a little late-night guitar goofing with his friends.

"The term happy accident, we probably say it once a day because that's really what we do, find a few happy accidents and run with it," he says. "A lot of times we have to be adaptable, because if we stumble into something, halfway into working on a song, that might be better than the rest of the song, we'll scrap the rest of the song, and start from that one sound. That happens all the time. 'Are We All Forgotten' went through 30 versions."

While the band has until now lacked financially, they took advantage of the limitless studio time available in Howat's bedroom. The album benefits from that attention, with a wide field of sounds. But Howat's even more excited about next year's album, which he estimates is 70 percent finished. The songs are already making their way into the set list.

"I think it's more dynamic," Howat says. "It's quieter, it's louder, it's slower. It's faster. The EP is more of an appetizer—hopefully the record will be a seven-course meal. We've always been really melodramatic, so we'll shoot for the stars and see where we land." n

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