Outside of Alone at 3am’s core fan base, it’s natural to consider the Northern Kentucky quintet as one of the local scene’s newest shining lights. The band’s acclaimed 2008 debut album, City Out of Luck, and the about-to-be-released and even better sophomore disc, Cut Your Gills, suggests a band with just over a couple of years of history.
But day jobs and responsibilities stretched that initial A@3 disc across three years, and recording began five years after the debut. The overnight sensationalism of Alone at 3am goes back to the 1990s, when high school pals Max Fender, Joey Beck and Clay Cason decided to band up.
“We’ve been playing for 10 years and for nine years had no idea what the hell we were doing,” guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Fender says over beers at the future Dayton, Ky., home of local engineer Mike Montgomery’s Candyland studio. “We played the Warped Tour but we didn’t know who to talk to about it, so we thought, ‘We’ll just Rock out hard; everything will fall into place.’ I thought we should give away our CD in two pieces of bread, like a sandwich, but I got talked down. We had motivation, just not in any direction.”
Alone at 3am has also been hampered by a Spinal Tappish turnover behind the drum kit. Beck was A@3’s first timekeeper, moving to bass with the addition of an experienced skinsman; the members cite three actual drummers over their 10-year history but count a half dozen more who filled the gaps.
The band grew exponentially with the 2008 addition of keyboardist/vocalist Sarah Davis, whose contributions gave A@3’s sound a distinctly dynamic edge. Surprisingly, she had never touched a musical instrument.
“I was a fan of the band before I joined,” Davis says with a laugh. “I told my parents I was in a band and they said, ‘You don’t play anything.’”
“We met at a show and she showed me a book of lyrics and said, ‘Let’s get together,’ and I said, ‘It would be cool if you could play keyboards,’” Fender says. “So she learned. She started off with just one finger at a time.”
“When people find out Sarah’s only been playing a couple of years, they’re completely blown away,” new drummer Chris Mueller says.
Still, A@3’s progress was hampered by the band’s aforementioned promotional naiveté.
“There was no business,” guitarist Cason says. “We just rocked.”
“From what everyone tells me, the band couldn’t have handled something happening (business-wise),” Mueller says. “It would have been difficult for them to stay focused on being professional and work oriented. It’s almost better that it didn’t go into a whirlwind of craziness.”
Mueller’s arrival last year resolved A@3’s issues. A veteran of several local outfits (most recently Heroes and Madmen), Mueller provided much needed business expertise and a Rock solid beat.
“When Chris played drums, he said, ‘We need to set on a steady bass drum kick so Joey can play along,’” Fender says. “We’d never done that ever.”
“The songs were rewritten,” Davis says. “My parts all changed and Joey rewrote his and the songs are that much better because of it.”
The band gives much credit to producer Montgomery for guiding them to its current state. He’s advised the band through both albums and introduced Mueller to A@3.
“Mike said, ‘This band has really got a lot of potential, but they cannot get it together. When they find consistency, they’re going to be amazing,’” Mueller says. “Watching everything grow in the last year has been unreal. Everybody’s found a comfort level with each other; we’ve tweaked the songs and got them exactly how we want them. Now we can write and record and perform more effectively and that opens us up to be able to do more projects, take more opportunities and still have fun.”
City Out of Luck opened doors for A@3, but Cut Your Gills might knock those doors completely off their hinges. Combining the members’ early Punk influences with their latter-day Tom Petty/Bruce Springsteen adoration, A@3 pump out an irresistible heartland, Roots Rock vibe that crackles with Punk intensity.
“I look up to guys who have stuck around for 30 years and are varied in their songwriting,” Fender says. “I never want music to have any barriers. I want to play as far as I can reach.”
“We don’t play one thing,” Cason says. “We play an acoustic song and turn around and play a super-rocking song, and it doesn’t feel weird. There was a time we couldn’t put it all together, but we broke down the wall.”
After A@3’s upcoming release show (featuring the debut of R. Ring, Montgomery’s project with The Breeders’ Kelley Deal), the band will continue developing its local presence and expand its regional touring (the group has opened for the similarly themed Gaslight Anthem, Lucero and Murder by Death, to name a few) to the extent that employment and commitments will allow. The band is already anticipating a new 7-inch vinyl release next spring — reworkings of a trio of old songs — and the members are writing material for a third full-length, slated for next year.
“On a weekly basis, Max sends me a new song, which is one of 30 songs he wrote in a week,” Beck says. “We have so much material to come up with in the future. We’re very excited about always having something new to work on.”
ALONE AT 3AM hosts a release party for Cut Your Gills Saturday at the Southgate House’s Parlour with guests R. Ring, The Garrison and Frontier Folk Nebraska. Get show and club details here.