Ah, the South, the region that has always boasted the best alt- and indie-rock bands, from Big Star in Memphis, Tenn., to R.E.M. in Athens, Ga., to the late and great Sparklehorse (R.I.P., Mark Linkous) in Richmond, Va.
Indeed, there's a long tradition of eclectic rock 'n' roll, especially in a town like Knoxville, Tenn., home base of avant-electro trio the Royal Bangs. So it's a surprise that the band's guitarist, Sam Stratton, confesses that his band doesn't feel much of an affinity for the Sweet Tea Belt.
"There are some awesome bands from the South, for sure," he says in the tour van while en route to a show in Boise, Idaho. "In high school, we all loved listening to Elephant 6 Collective bands like Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel. But we've never met them, and we're not interested in participating in 'musical regionalism.'"
Take, for instance, a band like Georgia's Maserati, insists Stratton. They're a really great band that could have originated anywhere—the American South, South England, South of the Border, South Berlin.
"We don't want to sound like we exist in a certain area of the country," he adds.
The Royal Bangs' recently released third album, Flux Outside, is a 12-tune collection that's relentless in its spirited attack. From the post-punk guitar miasma of "Grass Helmet" to the bruising bass keyboard lines of "Fireball," Flux Outside is about change. Sure, frontman Ryan Schaefer's voice is consistent, a grainy, fevered yawp suited for cutting through drummer Chris Rusk's crashing cymbals and Stratton's unusual chord structures. Otherwise, the band takes a different tack on nearly every song. The Royal Bangs aren't about being unusual for its own sake, though.
"As a band, we strive to be heavy and complex, yet accessible, all at once," says Stratton.
Once you put aside the issue of geography, there's the question of time. If you've been wondering where all those cool, nearly flying-off-the-rails drum rhythms (think Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" and Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town") disappeared to, well, let me tell you, many of them can be found on Flux Outside.
"Yeah, Chris really knows how to lay down a swinging drum part," agrees Stratton. "The '70s are definitely our favorite decade, as far as rock drumming goes. But that's not to say we're intentionally trying to mimic Thin Lizzy or something."
It is true that Rusk is often the one who gets the songwriting ball rolling. While Schaefer typically introduces a song's basic chords and lyrics, the piece typically doesn't begin to take shape until the Bangs' skin-banger, Chris, grabs the sonic reins.
"With Chris, things get changed and rearranged quite often for each song. He spends a great deal of time crafting those parts; that's why the quality is so evident," Stratton says.
As a three-piece combo, though, there's no margin for error. If someone makes a mistake, it's noticed. But since suffering from some lineup shrinkage (from five members down to three) this time last year, the Bangs have mastered the power-trio format.
"It was only strange right at first," says Stratton. "But we've been playing live, like, for more than a year now, and we like it a lot more. It's easier to work with this arrangement, and it comes out better live. We've all been best friends for 10 years now, and this is a much better way to do it."
Even though he says he enjoys driving into "the exotic corners of Idaho," Tucson is very much on Stratton's mind these days. It turns out the Bangs' performance here last year is indelibly etched in his and his bandmates' memories.
"Club Congress is a very cool place. After the show, I ended up shaving my beard off and karaoke-singing Queen's 'Don't Stop Me Now.' Our drummer did his patented one-man crowd-surfing, which is, like, when Ryan picks up Chris and carries him around the room. Now Tucson—that's a cool musical region."