No doubt about it, the new album by Atlas Road Crew is going to surprise people. The just-out LP, Chasing Fire, comes three long years after the Charleston band's debut, Halfway to Hopkins, and it represents a clear change in direction for them. Halfway to Hopkins was about as straightforward rock 'n' roll as modern music gets; it was like the Stones or the Black Crowes reborn, with perhaps a dash of late-period Allman Brothers thrown in for good measure. There was little pop polish on the album (which featured tracks produced by Jump, Little Children's Jay Clifford, the Grammy-winning Rick Beato, and Columbia producer/engineer Cory Plaugh), just twin guitars, rollicking piano and Hammond B-3, and a tight rhythm section laying down some old-school rock.
Chasing Fire is another matter entirely. Produced by Charleston's own Wolfgang Zimmerman, this album is nine tracks of urgent soul-rock, heavy on pulsing, funky grooves. The guitars are still prominent, but they're a lot less ragged than the first time around, and they share equal space with a more expansive palette of keyboards and singer/guitarist Taylor Nicholson's passionate, sweet-n-sour vocals.
It's a startling shift at first, especially for those who fell in love with the balls-out, anthemic rock of Halfway to Hopkins, but the songs are so well-constructed and melodic (and Zimmerman's production is so warm and immediate) that it's hard to resist.
"The second we started writing for this new record, we noticed it was going in a different direction," Nicholson says. "I'm not sure we knew exactly where it was going to go, but I think the album shows our growth and maturity as artists and human beings."
Nicholson says that part of the reason for the shift in sound is that, on the recommendation of their manager, Atlas Road Crew (Nicholson, lead guitarist Dave Beddingfield, bassist Max Becker, and drummer Justice Jones) collaborated on the bulk of the album with North Carolina singer/songwriter Steven Fiore (a.k.a. Young Mister), whose own music leans toward atmospheric indie-pop.
"We did some writing sessions with Steven in Asheville before we'd even started thinking about a new record," Nicholson says, "just to get some experience as far as writing in different styles and seeing how people approached songwriting."
The initial results of those songwriting sessions were so promising that the band decided to collaborate with Fiore on the whole Chasing Fire project. "We kept him on board to keep everything cohesive," Nicholson says.
While they were writing these songs, Atlas Road Crew also enjoyed the work Zimmerman did with groups like SUSTO and Band of Horses. The band knew they wanted a different producer for their second album, and they also knew they wanted to record in one place, at their own pace; on both counts, Zimmerman seemed the perfect fit.
"When we got into the studio with Wolfgang, it was a completely different approach than our first album," Nicholson says. "Back then, we were fresh out of college and still trying to find and develop our sound. We worked with three different producers on that album, and all of them were from a different generation. Wolfgang is about the same age as us, and he'd been working with SUSTO and a lot of other bands that we really admire. We wanted to see what he could do with this batch of songs, and we wanted to do something we could take our time on, where we didn't feel the pressure of being out of town in a studio and having a certain number of days to get things done. And we wanted to be a part of the scene here and create something in our own hometown."
Making their music more streamlined and accessible might not sound like a brave artistic move, but it was pretty ballsy considering that Halfway to Hopkins brought Atlas Road Crew a devoted following around the world and a ton of critical praise. In fact, the band was able to launch a three-month European tour in the wake of Hopkins, playing in Germany, Spain, Belgium, and France to packed houses.
"Being 24, 25 years old, just out of college, it was definitely an adventure," Nicholson says of the last three years. "It was crazy for us to start out as a college party band and then put out a record, and then watch it grow and take us to that next level."
So it would've made a lot of sense if the band had simply made Halfway to Hopkins Vol. 2, but that wasn't in the cards, even when original drummer Patrick Drohan left amicably midway through the sessions for Chasing Fire.
"We could've made the songs more Southern rock 'n' roll, but we pushed ourselves to move past that and get different sounds and a different vibe," Nicholson says. "We believed in the writing and liked the message in the songs. It's night and day compared to the last album, but we were excited to try this new sound and see where it took us."
In fact, Nicholson says the band feels reinvigorated by their new direction.
"It feels like a fresh start for us between having a new drummer, a new album, and a different sound," he says. "It feels like Atlas Road Crew Version 2.0."