Hailed by critics and fans as one of the neo-Southern rock heroes in the Athens, Ga., scene, Dead Confederate recently emerged as champions of classic, guitar-driven, pysch-tinged pop/rock with distinctively Southern flavor. Armed with a lively, riff-filled studio album titled Sugar, it's a sweet time for the group.
Sugar hit the street last August on the TAO Recordings/Old Flame imprint. Loaded with tingling guitar atmospherics, upbeat anthems, and moody instrumental flamboyance, it shares similar strengths with their 2009 debut Wrecking Ball.
"We were on the road so much following Wrecking Ball that the formula was completely different," says lead singer/guitarist Hardy Morris of the Sugar sessions. "In the past, we're at home, practicing all the time, and touring a lot before hitting the studio. With Sugar, the songs were written, but they hadn't been played on the road. We wanted to keep them in that state and do it a little differently. We wanted to really create them in the studio."
From the demolition drumbeats and power chords of lead-off track "In the Dark" and the dramatic, gothy murkiness of the head-banging title track to the spaced-out Bowie-esque eloquence of the slower ballads "Run From the Gun" and "By Design," there's an eerie mix of tones throughout Sugar. Morris and his bandmates — bassist and co-songwriter Brantley Senn, guitarist Walker Howle, drummer Jason Scarboro, and keyboardist John Watkins — sound very together.
"The musical chemistry is really good, and we're all real tight, whether we're traveling in the van or playing on stage," says Morris. "We've known each other for so long, so all of that is still groovy."
With various levels of distortion and effects, the electric guitars and Morris' nasally croon are at the forefront of the din on Sugar. The mix closely resembles the live sound of the band: rowdy but tight, spacious but locked-down.
"I think we're still doing our thing in regard to live shows," says Morris. "We take the stage with the same approach as before. We put as much into it as we can. But every tour we've gone on, the songs start to take different shapes, and there are flavors of that on Sugar."
Morris and his colleagues first started playing together in the late '90s in their hometown of Augusta, Ga. They initially played under the moniker of Redbelly and delivered more of a conventional guitar-rock style. After they relocated to Athens in 2005, they switched the band name to Dead Confederate. Their sound eventually became more sprawling, bleeping, and echo-filled.
The band worked steadily over the last three years on numerous regional and national tours and various studio sessions. They shared stages with R.E.M. and Widspread Panic, and they've wowed nightclub and festival audiences from Texas to London.
In recent years, Morris and the guys have concentrated on documenting and developing new songs with big, atmospheric sounds.
"We've been doing a lot of demos lately, and I still notice that songs never really sound like what we wrote previously," says Morris. "I don't know if we just get bored or what, but it seems like every new song is a little different from the last. The new music doesn't sound like either of the previous albums, although there's a touch of both in there.
"You kind of don't want to be region or genre specific, although some of the new stuff has been on a Southern rock kick lately," he adds.
One way to balance Southern leanings is to aim for something very un-Southern, like a Neil Young album, which is what the band did a few months ago.
"Last winter, we were looking for something festive and fun to do around New Year's Eve," says Morris. "Athens is so full of great musicians that we wanted to invite a few friends to help us tackle Neil Young's classic album Tonight's the Night. It wound up being really fun and comfortable to do. People caught wind of it, and we got asked to do it in Nashville and a few other cities. We figured it would be fun to throw it into the mix in Charleston, too."
Morris and his mates plan to perform a regular Dead Confederate set followed by the special tribute set. Young released the collection in 1975. It's ranked on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Morris says they'll invite special guests on stage for the Tonight's the Night set, including members of opening acts Bloodkin, a longtime Athens-based roots-rock band, and Shovels and Rope, anchored by Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent.
The band already has major plans to track another collection of songs this summer. Unlike the last few sessions, they'll stay in their hometown this time around.
"Athens has been really kind to us," says Morris. "It's a good music town. It's so small, but it works."
Time has already been booked at the acclaimed Chase Park Transduction Studios in Athens with engineer David Barbe (known for his work with Drive-By Truckers, Bloodkin, and Jucifer) at the mixing desk.
"We've recorded albums in Texas and New Jersey before, which was cool, but we're really excited to work at home with David this time around," says Morris. "We prefer to record stuff as live as possible, and he captures that kind of thing really well. If we try to jazz it up and layer everything, it doesn't work so well for us, studio-wise. It sounds strange. We have to play it all together for it to sound right."