"There's no purist element to what we're doing," Ben Aviotti says about the development of Dead Soldiers' four-song EP High Anxiety, which marks their second release. Dead Soldiers evolved out of a songwriting side project between Aviotti, Michael Jasud, and Clay Qualls. The founders added Nathan Raab, Krista Wroten-Combest, and Paul Gilliam. All six of them will play a CD release show at the Hi-Tone on
August 23rd, with Birdcloud opening.
Dead Soldiers' march from its beginnings as a side project of metal heads to the music on High Anxiety shows an openness to ideas and an ability to execute them. The band is better focused on these four songs than on last year's full-length All the Things You Lose, a country record. But there is more to the Dead Soldiers' sound than meets the country label.
"It's a mix of acoustic and electric instruments, and we kind of like it that way," Aviotti says. "If it calls for violins or a rack of effects, so be it. I hate to say it. But I don't think we're a country band. That was sort of a thing in the beginning. We had to find a starting place, and that's what we did at first. Let's think in terms of classic folk rock and country and bluegrass. Those are things we all loved. But after playing together for a couple of years, this EP is where we've kind of found our own thing."
The title track to High Anxiety has a genetic sequence that's as much British-drinking-hall as country, particularly with the arrangement's ritardandos and accelerandos. It's what you do with a refrain, and it provides a rollicking, human contrast to music made on the grid. "Ironclad" works along a Kurt Weill-Tom Waits continuum. It's banjo staggers drunkenly down the street before shifting into a straight arpeggio while the rhythm section, notably the piano, rises like dough. The country-sounding "Nobody's Son" explores alienation amid a rise and fall of instruments and emotions captured in the mix by engineer Toby Vest.
"We wanted to do another record ,and realized it had been like a year since we put anything out," Aviotti says. "We were like, 'Let's put some songs out now.' Then worry about a record."
The band was comparatively tentative in earlier material, which makes sense given the guiding sensibility and the fact that there are six people involved. "When we started off, we were three guys who came from playing in metal bands for a long time," Aviotti says. "We had musical catalogs beyond that, but if you look through what we have done locally, that's what you're going to see with our bands (Cremains, Beheld, Galaxicon). When we started writing, it was a side project for us. We wanted to write something that wasn't crazy aggressive and heavy music, which we love still. But we wanted to try our hands at something a little more musical."
Getting all of those players in place is challenging, both in arrangements and scheduling. "We've had to do shows as a four-piece...and as a 10-piece," Aviotti says. "We've just now built up some folks we have as back up. When Krista gets super busy with the Dawls, we still have a violin player, even though she's our violin player."
"Yes. No," Aviotti replies when asked if there is someone driving the songwriting bus. "Mike writes most of the songs, followed by me, Clay and everybody else. [Jasud's] writing is a lot more influenced by Waits and John Prine. I hate thinking about my own thing. I grew up on jazz, classic country, and classic rock. My stuff leans a little to a traditional approach to songwriting. His is a little more left of center. Everybody has artistic input on everything, from the lyrics to the arrangement. If I write a song, it's got to pass through everybody. The changes are not as instrumentally driven. Everybody has found their place. Of all the bands I've ever been in, this is the most fluid, team-work process. There's no ego involved. If someone doesn't like something, we want to know why. In doing so, we're writing for ourselves. There is no wondering if everybody else will think this is awesome. If everybody in the band likes it, it goes."
Both the full-length and the EP were self-released by the band. "I don't know what labels do anymore," Aviotti says. "I've run into all sort of booking and PR stuff, where I wish someone would do this for me. We've got a booking agent now, through Bucket City."