It took a handful of lo-fi recording sessions, three years of road work, and a stack of amplifiers for singer/guitarist Scott Low to land firmly on the raw-power side of rock 'n' roll. As the main man in Athens, Ga.-based Americana band Efren, Low currently stands out as one of the Peach State's potentially great up-and-coming songwriters.
Low kicked things off with Efren a few years ago as a folk-rock project. He was jazz-trained folkie, a veteran sideman, and a rookie arranger. This year, with a solid collection of riffy, gritty originals titled Write a New Song in hand, Low and Efren are several staggering steps away from their mild-mannered beginnings. Low's debut, Songs of the South, and the almost immediate follow-up, Thunder and Moan, established him in the Athens scene as a capable songsmith.
A native of North Carolina, Low was interested in studying jazz guitar and music theory before landing in the college town of Athens in 2002. There, Low and guitarist Jonathan Brill planted the seeds that grew into Efren. They played together in various improv/jazz combos before recording the first Efren demos. Low also served in Athens songwriter Betsy Franck's band for a few years, an experience that pulled him away from the jammy gigs and into a more rock-oriented setting.
"I was in a lead guitarist bubble for a while," Low says. "I'd quit singing when I moved to Georgia, and I was just concentrating on guitar. Then I started writing my own songs."
Efren eventually grew into a full-sized band with the addition of drummer Jamie Derevere and bassist Darrin Cook, two Athens vets with great chops.
"Jamie and Darrin were cousins, and they'd played together in all sorts of crazy jazz and prog bands," Low remembers. "There was great chemistry when we got together. The first eight months were spent body-slamming Athens. Then we took it on the road hard. I really found my voice on those road trips."
Despite the jazz and prog background of all four members, Efren veered away from funky improvisation and jams and aimed for a more condensed rock style. It took a while to get there.
"With jazz, there's so much swing, laying back, and leaning on the backside of the beat," Low says. "The melodies pull the rhythm. With this Americana-rock we're doing, it's the other way around, and the rhythm section really has to push the music. There's more pushing than pulling in rock."
Write a New Song represents the first time they decided to get involved with genuinely full-on production. The band tracked it last winter at Watkinsville, Ga.'s Full Moon Studios, just up the road from Athens. Engineer Jay Rodgers was at the board.
"I used to be a lot more reserved and sweeter on the recordings," Low says. "I figured that no one wanted to hear me growling and grunting on a folk album, but once the electric instruments came in, we figured out what we were doing. I was able to open up my voice and let out a few demons."
Low admits that he's a bit of a spastic guitar player, so collaborating with jazz cats within a rock setting proved to be tricky. Their loose sense of rhythmic and melodic freedom inevitably led to chaos from time to time.
"The biggest challenge has been to get the music on top of the beat," he says. "We figured out how to let it be free, flowing, eerie, and weird with the folk stuff, but when we went electric, we learned how to push it. Now, we can handle the whiskey-drenched, punch-you-hard kind of rock."