Musician jokes have made the rounds for the years, but none are quite as deliciously nasty and largely undeserved as those aimed at drummers. (Q: What did the drummer get on his IQ test? A: Drool.)
That’s why it’s particularly satisfying when a drummer’s arrival elevates a band, which happened with Alone at 3AM.
When Chris Mueller assumed A@3’s drum duties in 2009 (a full decade after the group originally formed), he was the Cincinnati band’s 10th drummer after a succession of full- and part-time beatkeepers. A veteran of several local outfits, Mueller became a rhythmic stabilizer and a much-needed business advisor, the two-pronged attack the band so desperately required to reach the next level.
Alone at 3AM’s progress in the past three years has been impressive. Its sophomore album, 2010’s Cut Your Gills, garnered significant positive press; the group then recorded an EP of older material, expanded its local and regional presence and signed with the local Counter Rhythm Group for music marketing/tour management. The band’s new album, the just-released Midwest Mess, is just the latest evidence of A@3’s growth and potential.
“We got to record a lot and release a lot; in 2-1/2 years, we’ve had three releases,” Mueller says. “We got to keep moving with that, so we’ve been working.”
Part of that work has involved venturing well out of the local/regional radius. Starting late last year, Alone at 3AM established a fascinating pocket of support in Colorado — in Fort Collins, Denver and Colorado Springs — which the band has continued to nurture in the subsequent months.
Last summer, Alone at 3AM performed at the big UMS festival in Denver where the members met Virgil Dickerson, founder of Suburban Home Records, a well-respected Denver imprint that started out releasing Pop Punk but shifted focus to more Roots-oriented young bands over the years.
The band worked out a deal with Suburban Home to co-release Midwest Mess in conjunction with Mueller’s Sofa Burn Records. “Then we just continually kept going out to Colorado,” says vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Max Fender. “We got to play at Open Air, the biggest NPR station in Colorado, which was very cool.
Just going was really fun, because I’ve never been out there.”
In addition to a rootsy Drive-By Truckers/Indie Rock vibe, the most striking musical element on Midwest Mess is the cohesion of Alone at 3AM as a unit. Keyboardist/vocalist Sarah Davis, who learned to play keys in order to join the band in 2008, has become a formidable melodic weapon, bassist Joey Beck has formed an intuitive and powerful alliance with Mueller and the interplay between Fender and Clay Cason has morphed into a stellar guitar tango.
The band’s constant studio and live work over the past two years has molded the quintet into a stronger, more confident musical entity.
“We’ve really honed in on the sound that we want, because we’ve gotten to work on the recordings so much,” Davis says. “We spend so much time together. We practice all the time, we have shows and the trips have definitely solidified it.”
“The gelling process has been really neat,” Mueller adds. “These trips to Colorado are like 4,000 miles in six or seven days. You definitely learn what works and doesn’t work personally, as far as how far you can push each other, even with humor. It’s gotten easier; we haven’t had any blow-ups, nobody’s quit — it’s been really good.”
Alone at 3AM’s Rocky Mountain road trips are a marvel of logistics. The band has to schedule around each of the musician’s day jobs, except for Fender’s.
“He has a dogfighting ring,” jokes Beck. (In fact, Fender has absorbed all of the duties not handled by their management.)
Fender is truly hitting his songwriting stride in terms of volume and quality. Once he establishes a skeletal song, he brings it into the band to flesh it out.
“I’ll dredge stuff out of the pot and play them, and if they start hitting, they’re like, ‘Okay, these are good, we like this,’ ” Fender says. “Then we whittle it down and see what the album is.”
“Max makes it easy because he’s always writing,” Davis says. “We can work on a song and if it’s not working, we can go to another song.”
“And that’s the expectation,” Fender says with a laugh. “Hit song, right away. ‘What else you got?’ ”
As the band is quick to point out, it’s tough to draw conclusions about how the songs on Midwest Mess reflect their recent experiences because at least some of the material predates A@3’s current lineup.
“Some of these we wrote before the last album,” Cason says. “We’ve been playing ‘Another Round’ for the last five years. That was the first song we wrote after (2008’s) City Out of Luck.”
“This album is the struggle of being in a band in the Midwest,” Fender says. “It’s heartbreaking and this is what my life has been because of it. People take it for granted. I’ve seen in other cities — bands have support and it’s very encouraging, but that’s not the norm.
“There’s no industry (in Cincinnati), no A&R. In a major city, a band can play maybe two shows and get signed. We’ve been here 12 years and we still get, ‘Oh, you guys are from here?’ It’s like, ‘Kill me now.’ ”
Even as the members motor headlong into their next album, Alone at 3AM is completely engaged in the creative success of Midwest Mess.
“As a drummer, I’ve never paid attention to lyrics,” Mueller says. “This record, I feel like we all knew what was going on and that was the first time I’ve ever experienced that in a band, where I knew what we were saying and I was a part of and believed in what we were saying. That drove us all a lot.
“We’re on the same page and we love to
play. We’re past trying to do anything crazy; we’re tired and we just
want to play because this is fun for us. Once we let go, really good
things started happening for us.”
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