There are plenty of interesting topics on which to quiz The Rockwells: their fantastic experience playing Bonnaroo in 2006 or the fact that the Knoxville-based band is made up of two sets of brothers.
But the thing I absolutely needed to find out was how they developed their signature sound, an unlikely hybrid of The Everly Brothers and The Kinks filtered through modern Power Pop. The journey starts with Fred and Jonathan Kelly, the bassist and guitarist whose songwriting and close harmony vocals were the genesis of the band. They started playing as teens, but immersed in the pedestrian Rock of the late 1990s, they grew tired of writing and performing after a few years. The purchase of an 8-track cassette recorder sparked a musical rebirth.
“Everything we’d worked on in the past five years got thrown out the window,” Jonathan recalls. “It’s like we sent ourselves to songwriting boot camp. We set rules for ourselves like, ‘Songs should be around two minutes long,’ or ‘No distortion.’ ” “Those rules didn’t last that long, but they did the trick,” Fred says. “We wrote more prolifically than we ever had, and we learned a lot about songwriting and performance.
We’d never really had deep roots in the ‘basics’ of Rock. Nearly all the bands we were into had a knowledgeable background not only in the beginnings of Rock & Roll, but also in old standards.”
Their first two albums, 1999’s Raise the Radio and 2000’s Return of the Rockwells, sound as if the brothers stepped 40 years into the future to make them. Their recording methods replicated the sparse, trebly sound of the era, and even the riffs and vocals capture the spirit of those insanely catchy nuggets from yesteryear.
“We set out to blatantly rip off ’50s music,” Jonathan admits. “We weren’t trying to pay tribute, we were trying to learn from it. I think people who try to rip off The Beatles usually do it in the exact wrong way. They pick a Beatles song and build a band around it. If you want to know what made the Beatles tick, you have to look at the music they listened to: Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis.”
The next step in The Rockwells’ evolution was the addition of Tommy and Trace Bateman on lead guitar and drums to create a live unit. On the next two albums, this new half of the group began contributing to writing and arranging which coincided with adding a bit of distortion and keyboards and experimenting with song length and format. The songwriting remained tight, and the lyrical narratives continued to inspire you to care about whose heart was breaking in each tune. The next EP saw the band stray even further from the original formula. But as their sound got fuller and more nuanced, each song remained redolent of the era when Rock music was fresh and exciting.
2004’s Tear It Down was their biggest-sounding album yet (thanks to the production of Superdrag’s Don Coffey) and yet still managed to deliver variety and tenderness. Their latest effort, Place & Time, continues this trend.
Their output has slowed in recent years thanks to numerous musical and production side projects. Tommy Bateman and the Thunder Thieves allows the guitarist to explore orchestral Indie Rock, while Fred and Jonathan are cobbling together a bunch of their tunes that didn’t suit The Rockwells into a venture tentatively titled Zombies! A Rock Musical. They are also the proprietors of Migrant Records and Famous London Recording Studios, a full-service outfit with a focus on pre-production. They’re also working on releasing a compilation CD of artists they have recorded.
“It’ll be a good representation of what we’ve done,” Jonathan says of the forthcoming sampler. “And a good indicator of what we can do in the future, so when we’re yammering on at someone about how the success or failure of their song depends on this one little thing, they’ll hopefully know we aren’t talking out of our collective ass.” “We don’t want to get all Phil Spector on a brother,” Fred reassures, “but there’s something to be said about having a bona fide producer behind the desk.”
THE ROCKWELLS (rockwells.com) play the MidPoint Music Festival Thursday at 10:30 p.m.at New Stage Collective.