Charleston quartet Hearts On Fire hits the ground running on their debut EP, Whiteknuckle Weekend, opening at top speed with "Hourglass" — a song that's all streamlined and skintight riffs, with a pounding rhythm section and singer/songwriter/guitarist Josh Marson's gravelly Lemmy-meets-Dicky-Barrett growl. The band's music is close to Social Distortion's blend of roots-rock song structures and classic punk noise, with perhaps a bit more emphasis on full-blown anthemic choruses. In short, the EP is five loud, hard, melodic slices of tight guitar rock with attitude.
It's an impressive accomplishment for a band that's been together less than a year. Marson moved to Charleston about four years ago and met guitarist Taylor Jenkins, who recruited Marson for a Jawbreaker cover-band show at Tin Roof. At the time, Marson had essentially retired from playing in bands after more than a decade of plugging away in the music business.
"I had played in bands for 15 years back in California, and I was taking a break," Marson says. "I'd done the touring thing back-and-forth across the country, then got married and had a couple of kids. So I was definitely a little reluctant to be in a band again. But we played that show and had a great time. It took a year of hemming and hawing about it, but we decided to go ahead and put something together."
Bands that trade in high-velocity punk like Hearts On Fire often take a negative lyrical approach, but Marson does the opposite on Whiteknuckle Weekend. Other than the withering, don't-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out kiss-off "Don't Forget To Tip," his lyrics tend to be more about appreciating what you have and staying strong than hating everything in sight. "Let's stop staring at our shoes/ Let's just breathe the passive bullshit from the bottom of our lungs," he sings on "A Thousand Suns," closing out with a repeated "Heads up, chins out, hearts on fire," gang-vocal chant.
"I think when I was younger, I was jaded," he says. "Everything was shitty. I didn't have a lot of positive things to say. I was young and thought I was being put upon. But I have kids and I have a wonderful girlfriend, my bandmates are my best friends, and at this point in my life, I'd much rather be positive and talk about taking responsibility for who we are and what we do and not trying to put that on anybody else. You need that negativity as a release sometimes, but I'm having so much more fun getting on stage and yelling out positive things and having people yell along."
The band, which also includes bassist Chad Pressley and drummer Jason Fuller, recorded at the Jam Room in Columbia, with owner Jay Matheson behind the boards. Marson is still buzzing from the experience. "I can't say enough good things about Jay, the Jam Room, his staff, and his facilities," he says. "First of all, the guy is a professor. He's literally a professor of sound engineering. He's so knowledgeable and so helpful without being bossy about it. He's just got a way about him, and it was a great experience. I've recorded several albums over the years in different places and never had an experience like that. His process is efficient. He gets it done."
In fact, Matheson was so efficient that the EP was essentially done in less than two days. "We were done tracking in the first four or five hours that we were there," Marson says. "And that's all because Jay had the drums dialed in. He knew what we were looking for before we got there. He had everything set up and ready to go. After that first night, all we had left were backing vocals and mixing."
But Marson is just as quick to credit his bandmates for the speedy completion of the record. "Jason Fuller is, I think, the best drummer in Charleston," he says. "When he decides how he's going to play a song, he never deviates and he never makes mistakes. He one-taked all of our stuff. And the rest of the boys just needed some corrections here and there."
From forming the band to their first album in less than a year, it's all been a bit of a blur for Marson, who says he's still surprised at how quickly things have come together. "It's happened really fast," he says. "Being an older guy and getting out of the music scene when I did, coming back in, I had no idea what to do. Do you make a CD? Do people still listen to those? Do you just put it on the internet? I'm not a big social-media person, and I didn't realize how big a role that played. But our community is amazing. They were willing to give us a chance right away. It's been fast and it amazes me, but I'm happy about it."