There probably aren't going to be too many debut EPs released anytime soon that sound as polished, well-constructed, and tight as the new self-titled one by Columbia's Real Work. The sound is defined by a thick, shimmering guitar tone that puts a mirage-like gleam on the propulsive rhythms along with seamless vocal harmonies that create melodies and counter melodies on top of one another.
It's too massive-sounding to really be called indie rock, and there's enough grit to rule out the word "pop." The band themselves claim the National, Bon Iver, and Radiohead as influences, and the atmospheric production reflects some of those bands, but regardless of the genre labels you could put on Real Work's music, the main word that comes to mind is "accomplished."
Of course, it helps that even though this is a debut EP, the band is hardly a group of rookies. The drums are courtesy of Needtobreathe's Joe Stillwell, the bass and harmony vocals are provided by Baumer's Chad Rochester, and the singer/guitarist is perhaps the group's biggest weapon: Kenny McWilliams, whose day job is producing and/or engineering great-sounding albums by bands like All Get Out and Valley Maker at Columbia's Archer Avenue Studios.
Though McWilliams (who played in Baumer with Rochester) serves as the lyricist for Real Work, the project formed around the nucleus of him and Rochester around three years ago while both men were looking for new music to work on.
"Chad and I had both been thinking about starting a new project without actually talking to one another," McWilliams says. "And we kind of accidentally found out that we were both doing that. Chad suggested that we toss around the idea of doing something together, and that's how we started writing songs."
The partnership bore fruit quickly, and the duo produced an album's worth of songs in about two months. The only decision left to make was whether or not they were actually a working band, or simply a studio project.
"I think we knew we wanted it to sound like a full band, but we didn't know at that point if we actually wanted to do anything with it," McWilliams says. "It was still in the early stages, and we were busy with other areas in our lives. In the back of our minds, we knew if we were ever going to play live it was going to have to be a full band, but we weren't sure what kind of timeline that would happen in."
Rochester and McWilliams recruited Stillwell, whose playing they both admired, to play on the EP because they didn't want programmed beats underneath the songs, and neither of them was good enough behind the kit to handle it (though they did play everything else on the EP).
"I really didn't want to use samples, and I wanted to get great sounds," McWilliams says. "Joe's such a killer drummer we were able to style the songs the way we really wanted thanks to his drum sounds."
By the time the songs they chose for the EP were recorded, Rochester and McWilliams decided they wanted to play some shows as well, and they recruited lead guitarist Christian Tyler and keyboard player Brewer Eberly to help them fill out the songs live.
Being onstage meant that McWilliams would have to go from behind the boards to fronting the band, a prospect he was intimidated by at first.
"I'd done the band thing a good bit, and I'd gotten used to switching from producer to producer/member, but as a role player," he says. "This time around being the singer and primary lyric writer, it really was very different."
In fact, McWilliams says that without Rochester, Real Work's music probably would've never seen the light of day.
"I don't know if I would have ever completed these songs if it weren't for Chad," he says. "I had to have someone like Chad to make sure I wasn't too much in my own head and didn't overthink things. One of the things I would normally tell a singer, Chad had to tell me: Don't obsess over the wrong things."
Now that Real Work has an EP out, about another EP's worth of songs written and tour dates scheduled, it's worth wondering how much time the band, all of whom have other commitments, will be able to devote to it. And it definitely seems like McWilliams is thinking about things strategically, rather than mounting a full-on touring and recording schedule, even though he's excited about the band's immediate future.
"We're busy with our families," he says. "Everyone in our band has kids. Real Work needs to be fulfilling, and we need to be able to do it the best that we can. I think that it's more important for us to be able to do high-quality, regional shows, than for us to play some huge quantity shows in small rooms with nobody there. That being said, all of us are mutually sacrificing to be here because it's worth it and it's fun and we all get along; there's no drama. We've been sitting on these songs for a long time and playing live shows has been a breath of fresh air for us. We're excited for people to finally hear the whole thing."