In a scene filled with nice guys, Ryan Malott might be their king. He's young, massively talented, tirelessly inspired and self-deprecating to a fault, as evidenced by the title of his latest foray with his astonishingly versatile outfit, 500 Miles to Memphis. But there’s a point behind calling the new disc We’ve Built Up to Nothing.
“It’s just about how underwhelming life can be and how you need to take everything in stride and realize you’re not going to get the world,” Malott says over beers at the Northside Tavern. “With this band, I’m not expecting the world, I’m expecting my world, and that’s playing music every night. And that’s it.”
And yet, We’ve Built Up to Nothing is nothing short of amazing. Between Malott’s focused sonic vision and the wealth of talent he has assembled — keyboardist/vocalist and newest member Elaina Brown, bass dynamo Jeff Snyder, guitarist/vocalist Noah Sugarman (a terrific solo artist in his own right), former Moth beatkeeper supreme Kevin Hogle and ex-Warsaw Falcons guitarist/Garageabilly superstar David Rhodes Brown on lap steel — 500MTM is a powder-keg waiting to blow.
The band's first disc was essentially a somewhat expanded Malott solo album, and the second, 2007’s Sunshine in a Shotglass, was a reflection of the hard-partying Roots Rock aggregation they'd become. The album got them tons of acclaim and exposure (TV placement on MTV, AMC and YouTube and a slot in the Rock Band video game) but, as great as it was, it didn’t quite peak the needle of the band’s potential.
“Sunshine was more ‘singer/songwriter with a guitar, add a band,’ ” Malott says. “That’s pretty much what that album is. You’ve got to progress beyond the drunken party band. It’s a good time, I’m proud of that album, but you’ve got to move on.”
With We’ve Built Up to Nothing, Malott and the band have blended evolution and revolution, creating a combustible sonic mixture that explodes with a blistering twang and Punk energy. After the disc’s poppily orchestral introduction, “It’s Alright” screams off the line like Wilco if Jeff Tweedy was using a cattle prod for a slide, continuing with “Let It Go,” which imagines Ben Folds fronting Rank & File, and “Six Foot Hole” with its melodic Social Distortion vibe.
With Nothing’s wild variety, Beatlesque touches and vibrant maturity, it seems logical to ask: Is this 500 Miles to Memphis’ Sgt. Pepper?
“It’s a fair comparison,” Snyder says. “It shows that we’re growing. The influence from the earlier album is still tangible.”
“We wanted to do something different and outdo the last album,” Malott says humbly. “We added more instruments and put more thought into it. With this one it was a natural progression to start orchestrating things a little more intelligently. But we haven’t hit our climax. I wouldn’t say it’s Sgt. Pepper yet.”
Clearly the last three years have seen 500MTM coalesce into a band that's more than ready for the next level, and Nothing is the undeniable proof. The tandem guitars of Malott and Sugarman are viscerally powerful, Rhodes Brown’s lap steel shreds, shrieks and weeps and Brown’s harmonies and keyboards are subtly sweet. Snyder and Hogle might comprise the best rhythm section in the city, combining the bassist’s penchant for frenetically muscular runs and Hogle’s adrenalized syncopation, giving 500MTM a living pulse rather than mere beats.
Just as importantly, Malott’s songwriting has progressed exponentially since Shotglass.
“Three years have passed, and that’s a good amount of time playing every single day. You’re going to get better,” Malott says. “It’s hard enough to define our genre; it’s Country/Punk but we wanted to make it harder, so we took a lot of influence from The Beatles, from Ben Folds in songwriting. Together, we listen to everything from Slayer to Django Reinhardt and we take that in and put out the music we want to hear.”
500MTM has suffered its share of struggles over the past three years, which has forged an intuitive bond that shows on every note of Nothing. They all credit Hogle for laying down a tight beat at the front end (Rhodes Brown: “The drumming is tight, there can’t be any slop after that. There’s no room.” And Snyder: “It makes the bass a cinch.”) and producer Erwin Musper for providing them with a professional and creative atmosphere.
As the entire band crowds around the table (save for Sugarman, who was stranded out of town), the passion that they all have for 500 Miles to Memphis is a palpable presence. They’ve been down the “work hard, play hard” path and now prefer to “play smart” to assure their personal and professional longevity. They have a thousand in-jokes and an internal band language that only they understand. And they’re working with dogged determination in a single direction to make 500 Miles to Memphis an uncompromised success.
“None of us ever wants to be the weakest link,” Snyder says. “If I’m perfect, then they’re going to be even better.”
“All the stuff that we’ve been through, individually and as band members, the past two years has really made this band,” Hogle says. “That’s what’s making this band better and better and better.”
“The difference between us and a lot of bands is that you see how much we love each other,” Rhodes Brown says. “Come out (to the release show) on Feb. 26th, you’ll see it live.”
“If there’s one thing about this band, it’s DIY hard work,” Malott says. “I know everyone at this table inside out. We can read each other’s mail. Everyone has worked their ass off to get where we are now and it shows in this album. Basically, we want everything.”
Order in for 500 Miles to Memphis: one everything, coming up.
500 MILES TO MEMPHIS’ new album, We’ve Built Up to Nothing, is available now. The band’s local release party is Feb. 26 at the Southgate House; get show and venue details here.