Keon Masters, frontman of local indie rock band Brave Baby, was walking on Bogard Street near the Crosstown one winter night when he stumbled on a bonfire in the middle of the road. It took a moment for his mind to process the burst of light and heat in the darkness.
"There's these 10 wooden pallets set up in the middle of the intersection just ablaze, and we pull up on Bogard like, 'What is that?'" Masters says. "And it was crazy, it was wild. There weren't any cops. We were the first ones there." This was 2011, when a string of apparent arsons destroyed several homes around the Crosstown, and bandmate Wolfgang Zimmerman remembers the scene as "kind of foreboding."
The mysterious blaze became the spark for "Lakeside Trust," a standout track from Brave Baby's debut album Forty Bells. "There was a fire/ At the corner of Coming and Bogard/ Get down to the wire/ Little baby's finding cover in the car," Masters sings over layers of chiming guitars, shifting the actual address of the fire for aesthetic purposes. The album, released in January 2013 on local record label Hearts & Plugs, is freighted with personal narratives and sober reflections on growing up, but somehow it never stops being fun, harnessing the anthemic power of Arcade Fire and the pop sensibility of the Killers. Masters doesn't wax too philosophical about "Lakeside Trust," preferring to say that it's simply about "how shit pops off, I guess."
Masters has a self-deprecation habit, dismissing some of his tenderest songwriting moments as "emo bullshit." And there's no need to critique his choice of a name for the band. "It's a hilarious band name. It's a terrible band name," Masters says. But he compares the moniker to other objectively awful ones that have nonetheless stood the test of time, like My Morning Jacket. "Once you are capable of deleting any connotation that listeners have with what the name means and making it more about the band, then it can be cool."
The band was initially formed by longtime friends who had worked together on a variety of emo and indie-rock projects, most notably Florence-based heart-melter band Sequoyah Prep School (other former members went on to start Susto and Elim Bolt). The current Brave Baby lineup consists of Masters (guitar and vocals), Zimmerman (drums and vocals), Jordan Hicks (bass), Christian Chidester (guitar), and Steven Walker (keys). Their original band name was Wylie, until a fan pointed out that a rapper named Wylie was making it big in the U.K. Masters made a unilateral decision one night and renamed the band after the working title of "Lakeside Trust."
For four years, Brave Baby has done most of its rehearsing and recording in a storage unit on a little-used stretch of Line Street, just far enough north of downtown develop ment so they don't have to worry about pissing off the neighbors. The title of their debut album, in fact, comes from a bell that until recently would ring 20 times every time someone opened or closed the door to the storage facility. Zimmerman, who doubles as the band's producer, had to scrub several recordings of those infernal bells, memorialized in the title track with the lyric "Forty bells/ Forty bells/ I hear them coming."
As a producer, Zimmerman has placed his stamp on numerous Holy City indie acts, but none more deftly than Brave Baby. From the guitar twang and jangle of the track "Grandad" (which Zimmerman himself penned as an ode to his grandfather) to the synth-driven eeriness of "Living in a Country," he applies a healthy dose of reverb and piles on vocal layers for stadium-worthy choruses. He certainly doesn't mind the Arcade Fire comparisons, although he says the band has been trying to distance itself from them on more recent recordings. "As soon as The Suburbs came out in August 2010, it was like, 'OK, this is what we're into,'" Zimmerman says. "And then we spent like six months trying to delete all that from it. So there's still relics somewhere, and it's hard not to be influenced."
The band recently recorded 10 new demos, all of which were written before Forty Bells was released, and they hope to put out a second album in 2014. For a change of scenery, they recorded at a family beach house in Ocean Isle, N.C., instead of the trusty old storage unit. Some of the songwriting duties have shifted onto Zimmerman's shoulders, and the thematic focus has shifted too. "It's not talking about our childhood anymore," Masters says. "It was something we had to do. You know, you get to college — and not just college, but that age — and everything up to that point was cool, or it seemed like it was good, and all of a sudden you realize, 'Shit's not good.' All of it, family issues, all that shit, you take a step back and just realize, 'Things are not healthy.' "
Brave Baby will play a few of the new songs at the Music Hall show Friday, so listeners can be the judges of the new songwriting direction. Zimmerman prefers to talk about their evolution as a group in terms of a critique from a former band member. "Forty Bells always reminded him of a young, teenage girl who was real impressed with herself, thought she was real hot or whatever," Zimmerman says. "I think where we are right now, we've kind of gotten over ourselves."
"That's such a hilarious thing to say," Masters says. "He's such an asshole, but he always nails it."