yan Malott, founder, vocalist and guitarist of Cincinnati’s 500 Miles to Memphis, places his order at a local Waffle House after working his day job and then attending night classes at the University of Cincinnati. He’s famished, as the three separate entr
es he’s ordered (in addition to an entire pot of coffee) can attest. A meal like that is generally reserved for a hard workin’ man and if the work ethic that Malott and the rest of the 500 boys have exhibited on their newest release, Stand There and Bleed, is any indication, Waffle House will have some consistent business from them for some time.
“I’m a really slow writer,” Malott says, in between bites of biscuits and gravy. “I’m not one of those writers who can sit down and knock out a song a day. If I had to I could, but when it comes to 500 Miles to Memphis, I put in every ounce of thought and energy and I try to write better music than I can actually play. And with every album I write I become a better musician because I really push myself.”
This musical progression from the band’s earliest years (Malott started the group in the early ’00s) is evident to any fan who has stuck with Malott and his bandmates — currently bassist Noah Sugarman, drummer Kevin Hogle, guitarist Aaron Whalen and lap steel player David Rhodes Brown. But this year’s Stand There and Bleed dials back some of the more eccentric elements of 2011’s We’ve Built Up to Nothing album. Gone are the orchestral elements and quirky arrangements; the focus is back on the guitar, the bass, the drums, the steel and the voice. The 500 guys dove back into their Country and Punk roots to craft songs that are more inviting to their fans, old and new, and more in line with their original inspirations.
Malott first discovered Punk Rock in high school. The ease and accessibility of the songs drew him in and inspired him to pick up a guitar. After graduation and a move to Dallas, he found the same elements in old-school Country music and the marriage of the two set the direction of 500 ever since, culminating in Bleed.
Malott had big goals for the new album. “I wanted to do the best Country Punk album that I could do,” he says. “And not even Country Punk, but the best album from things that I’m influenced by.”
Always a personal writer and lyricist, Malott has taken several major steps down his life’s journey in the years between albums. He’s now sober, happily married and has a reignited fire to push 500 as far as it can go. He’s also cognizant of how much he’s grown in such a short amount of time, both as a person and a musician.
“This album is more my original vision of what 500 was supposed to be. Sunshine [in a Shot Glass] is more of a ‘rookie, getting lucky’ sort of thing. I can just hear in the lyrics how young I was and how immature,” Malott says.
The result is an album that is more lyrically diverse than previous releases. The Malott who wrote (and lived) “Let it Rain” has had several years and several tours between now and then and it’s hard to complete a midterm while living the Rock & Roll lifestyle at the same time. It’s not to say that Stand There and Bleed is merely preaching the virtues of sobriety; Malott is simply sharing observations and stories of a man who’s been to the party and dealt with cleaning up the mess it can leave behind. Malott’s lyrics also expand into other aspects of his life, including his Punk Rock days in small-town Ohio, the trials of tour life, the joys of finding true love and the fear of being alone at the end.
And Malott’s not alone in his life transitions; the rest of the band is awash with new relationships, new marriages, new kids and more. The entire band has seen movement that undeniably helped shape 500’s more recent musical output.
“I try to challenge myself and my bandmates challenge me too. Noah is a great musician and he’s challenged me in ways that help me push the envelope. And Kevin’s a great drummer and he’s helped me think rhythmically different. Dave’s Dave — I hope I can be as awesome as him someday,” Malott says.
When aiming to write a more authentic album, it helps to have a cadre of veterans standing around you and that’s exactly what Malott has in 500’s current lineup. Whalen, the newest member, has proven that he can hang with the big boys with confident and driving guitar work. A guitar player and solo artist in his own right, Sugarman’s bass buzzes with power that flows through the entire album. Rounding out the rhythm is Hogle and his ability to draw out a multitude of complex and rich melodies out of a modest kit. And Brown is just Brown. If you haven’t seen the scene veteran (he’s now officially been playing music for a half century) play lap steel, pick up a guitar or stand in front of a mic, you’re missing out on one of Cincinnati’s musical treasures.
500’s success has always been a group effort and the group pushed itself harder than ever on Bleed. Partnering with producer Ashley Shepherd at Newport’s Audiogrotto studio, the band was forced to rethink their individual status quos to craft a Country Punk album that connects with fans and critics alike. In many ways, the band had to break down old ways of thinking, writing, recording and performing to build something stronger.
The album’s title is a reference to the seminal Western film Tombstone. When the line is uttered, Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp is standing up to a ruffian who doesn’t know his place, doing so with no hint of doubt or hesitation. In many ways, the album title correlates to 500 themselves: Each member has seen changes in the last three years. They’ve all grown, matured and learned and they’re ready to take on the world.
You can just stand there, or you can hop on board. ©
500 MILES TO MEMPHIS celebrates its new album release Friday at Southgate House Revival. Tickets/more info: southgatehouse.com.