When local retro-pop act the Explorers Club called it quits back in 2013, it was announced that bandleader Jason Brewer, along with Kyle Polk, would form a new project together while Dave Ellis, Justin James, and Michael Rodgers would be forming a Delta-blues band with drummer Jake Oleksak.
While the latter group of musicians' abilities were well-documented in the exacting arrangements of their old band, there seemed to be something casual about their island-inflected take on traditional blues. Dubbed HoneySmoke, their first recording was a playful, largely acoustic set of tunes that shuffled and swaggered with a back-porch vibe that felt miles away from the studio polish of the Explorers Club, even as the band peppered their intentionally down-home style with finely wrought solos and sly musical ornamentation.
"We made that record right when we started the band," explains Ellis. "It was that kind of island-blues sort of thing, doing the blues with island instrumentation, like lap steel and ukulele. That's where we started as a band, but we hadn't really nailed down what we were going for or trying to do."
While there are traces of the same carefree, laid-back nature of their debut, the group's new full-length, Songs for the Sun & the Rain, makes it clear the band has settled into a far more formidable creative force than originally envisioned. The amiable, lived-in quality of the band's sound is still apparent, but in place of tentative stabs at a musical identity and whimsical covers is an 11-song set of originals that wanders from rollicking Southern blues jams a la the Allman Brothers to wide-eyed Americana in the tradition of the Band and the indie-tinged folk-rock of groups like Band of Horses and Gomez.
"Just through us becoming a little more electric in the songs we were writing, it just kind of morphed into the thing it is now," Ellis says.
He credits some of the evolution to the collaborative songwriting process he and James have developed. Although Ellis had written some before, he and James weren't part of the composing process for the Explorers Club.
"It's kind of a new thing for both of us," he notes. "As we played more as a band, Justin just started in a fury writing all kinds of stuff, and that encouraged me to write more."
James says something similar. "I had always come up with ideas, but I wasn't very good at completing them," he admits. "So when we started coming up with original material, it was a little bit of me realizing Dave was going to sing all of the songs he writes, so if I wanted to sing anything I'd have to come up with my own material."
James got one original on the group's first EP, and that small success sparked something in him. "Everything opened up," he says. "Ideas would just come to me, and I would be really excited about hearing them with this group, because I really liked playing with this group.
Reveling in their creative energy, the band was primed to enter the studio with NeedToBreathe bassist Seth Bolt when he offered up the use of his well-equipped home studio to the group.
"If it wasn't for him I don't think this record would have happened," says Ellis. "He essentially gave us the keys to the studio and said, 'Here you go, guys. Have fun.'"
The band went into the studio determined to track as much of the music live, but they also brought in a bevy of friends to augment their sound, chief among them Ransom White and Whitt Algar, who add prominent flourishes of piano and organ into the mix, and Jump, Little Children bassist Jonathan Gray standing in for Rodgers. James and Ellis also made use of their studio talents, each piling on instruments to create full, fleshed out arrangements with deceptive poise.
Despite that similarity with their former band, which has since reformed without them, it's clear that much of their current excitement comes from a fresh place.
"The Explorers Club was Jason Brewer's vision. He was the primary songwriter," James points out. "He would bring stuff to the band. It was almost like — without it sounding bad — he would sort of use us as tools for his creative vision. We would have contribution to how some of the songs went live and things like that, but for the most part there wasn't an open space to contribute songs. It was about bringing our abilities as musicians to it, but there was nothing about bringing our abilities as songwriters or arrangers."
Ellis echoes this sentiment. "Explorers Club definitely has a thing that it's going for, and this is more like, 'We don't really know what's gonna happen, but let's try this,'" he says. "That's kind of the biggest thing with this record — we had no idea how it was going come together. We just wanted to create a good vibe and try to capture that."