Quiet Light, the debut EP from Roadkill Ghost Choir, captures a band in flux.
The DeLand, Fla., band recorded 18 songs in two separate sessions, jettisoning older tunes and writing new ones along the way as the band fought to capture its quickly shifting sound.
The result manages to incorporate twangy banjo picking alongside some explosive, atmospheric rock, earning the band comparisons to Gram Parsons on one end of the spectrum and Radiohead on the other.
A spring run of shows in support of Band of Horses and some early summer festival performances prepared the band for its first proper headlining tour of the United States.
Speaking from a tour stop in Boise, Idaho, singer-songwriter-guitarist Andy Shepard talks of the band's origins in a town too boring to build a local following, how playing in a sextet helped improve his songwriting and how a new guitarist came with the perfect band name.
"I started writing songs in 2010 and I got a show offer and I realized it would be kind of boring to play by myself, so that's when the earliest version of Roadkill started and from there we kept rolling," Shepard says.
That first version included his brothers Maxx (drums) and Zach (bass), as well as, Kiffy Meyers (pedal steel, banjo, guitar). Despite not coming from a particularly musical family ("Our dad sings and he used to play accordion pretty good, but he stopped doing that when he realized it wasn't too cool," Shepard says), the three brothers have developed a strong musical connection.
"DeLand doesn't have much of a music scene at all," Shepard says. "Even us being from there, we rarely ever play there because there's no real audience. It's a boring town so you find ways to entertain yourself, so that's helped musically. We grew up having nothing to do and just playing or listening to music."
Making electronic music as a teen—"really bad stuff"—got Shepard hooked on creating music, and picking up the guitar at 20 led him into songwriting that took inspiration from Parsons, Bob Dylan and Fleetwood Mac.
Though Roadkill Ghost Choir started by following that vein, the addition of Joey Davoli (keys, trumpet) and Stephen Garza (lead guitar) has stretched the band's sound.
"It just gave us the capability to go with more atmospheric stuff and textural stuff, which is always great live, being able to add more sonically," Shepard says. "Our earlier stuff is completely different from what we are now. It was a lot twangier."
Garza also brought the band name, perhaps reluctantly.
"When we first started, it was usually under my name or some awful thing we came up with. But it was different every time for the first three or four shows," Shepard says. Garza "had the name Roadkill Ghost Choir for a project he wanted to do, but we made him give it us."
The band members began working on their debut in summer 2011, intending to release a full-length album. But in evaluating the results of their first recording session, they found the music at odds with the direction they were heading. So the band booked another session with producer Dave Plakon and engineer Mark Mason at North Avenue Studio in Orlando.
The second session matched the vision for Roadkill Ghost Choir that the band had developed.
"The first session was our earlier work, the first songs we were doing together, and they came out pretty weak. We sat down and wrote some more songs that were more in the direction we felt like we were going," Shepard says. "The second session gave us better songs and we realized to put all of them together on an album didn't make any sense.
"It's a process of evolving the sound. It's rockier, spacier, at times more aggressive. It's moving more in the direction we wanted to originally."
Quiet Light, which was re-released on Wolfbomb Productions, is a record steeped in both the Southern folk-rock tradition and the sort of indie-art rock that draws on a much larger palette of sound. Shepard's vocals, haunting and forceful, recall Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses and even Tucson's Brian Lopez.
Opener "Beggars Guild" begins with rolling banjo notes, a feint toward rustic, rural folk, before the rest of the band piles on, the song gathering momentum on its way to a sonic climax. "Drifter" makes use of the same driving energy, but instead of building steadily, it takes a sharp pivot midway through and finishes with an atmospheric jam.
Lyrically, the opening two songs are two sides of one coin, exploring feelings of being lost in struggles, with dark imagery and fleeting religious overtones. "Devout" follows with distinctly religious overtones, framing spiritual questions in the context of family and heritage.
"There are definitely those themes in the songs, just trying to find a place. I grew up pretty religious, so the lyrical content is pretty reflective of that," Shepard says. "For me, (songwriting) is a strange process. I just write in these waves of inspiration that come and go. Some of them just kind of happened, pretty quickly."
After self-releasing Quiet Light, Roadkill Ghost Choir gained enough radio attention on places like SiriusXM's The Loft, KCSN in Los Angeles and WXPN in Philadelphia to support a series of shows for Band of Horses, including one in April in Tucson. Since then, the band has made appearances at the Shaky Knees, Mountain Jam and Governor's Ball festivals.
"The festival opportunities are so great, just playing in front of a lot of people that don't know you and might not listen to that style of music," Shepard says. "You're hitting a lot of different ears that wouldn't know you outside of that experience."
After this tour, Shepard looks forward to getting back to songwriting, making the most of quiet hours he doesn't get on the road.
"After this next run, we're going to take a break and do some writing and demo-ing and hopefully by the end of this year start recording a new album. We love recording and that whole process."