American Minor may have found a nurturing scene in its adopted hometown of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, but as vocalist Rob McCutcheon explains, the band still fights routine pigeonholing.
You think you know a band. You think you know them inside-out until they surprise you, and at that point you realize you've only been half-trying to like them all along. American Minor is such a band. It moved to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where I've been stationed for several years, in 2002 and immediately proved to be a band that worked and played equally hard. Beforehand, the group represented five young music lovers growing up in Huntington, West Virginia, with family hardships and classic rock radio as one of its only coping mechanisms. Now, listening to the band's full-length debut, released on August 2, and talking with vocalist Rob McCutcheon, the band is, once again, new to me as well.
"The radio really had an effect on us in West Virginia," McCutcheon says. "Classic rock radio was huge. And even though a lot of us were super into indie rock and the different strands of it, classic rock was kind of where we had common ground, where we could all agree there was something really good."
The band's sound, though it often gets written in with the wave of Southern rock throwbacks of late, evokes '60s blues-rock melded with the strengths of the Black Crowes topped with a dash of modernity. Guitarist Bud Carroll plays a huge lead guitar that is responsible for many Lynyrd Skynyrd comparisons, but more accurately bands like Gov't Mule and the aforementioned Crowes come to mind, if the band's sound must be described in a way that implies such derivation.
"When Bud joined the band -- that was April 2003 or so -- was when the band's sound started to evolve," McCutcheon says. "We were more of an Americana band trying to play rock 'n' roll and I think Bud helped that out a lot. He's been playing in bands since he was like 12, touring around the area. He makes up his parts every night, pretty much. I don't know how he does that. He just knows his guitar, I guess. Once we picked up Bud we started to hook things up pretty fast. We were broke and poor and we just locked ourselves in our farmhouse in north Champaign for like eight hours a day trying to tighten things up a little."
The result was a series of demo recordings that represented the band's promotional tools when luring labels in. Eventually Jive Records was the breadwinner, embracing American Minor's charmingly rough-edged sound. The result of this partnership is the band's new self-titled debut long-player. McCutcheon hopes that, with the release of the album, people will begin to embrace not only the band's sound but also its lyrics, which often get lost in the loud and muddy live environment.
"A lot of people don't get what we're saying," McCutcheon says. "At all. They don't get it. I hope the record will change that. People think we're Southern and we've got guitar solos, so I must be badass and singing about how I want to get some pussy or whatever. Sometimes we get the label 'They're just another '70s rock band'. I think the way we write music has something to do with where we're from and the bands we choose to influence us, but I think what we say is very rooted in the present and in our lives now. We're not just regurgitating lyrics from the '70s in our ''70s-sounding' songs, you know? But it's hard for people to get that on first listen. Maybe when the record comes out it'll change that. Maybe not, though.
"On a personal level, I think vocally I have a lot of John Lennon influence on the record," he continues. "But we always get Lynyrd Skynyrd, which is once again a way that our guitar sound dictates basically what we're saying in our songs and how I'm singing. I find it amusing so far, but I don't know if I'll continue to. I mean, I guess I can cop whatever and nobody will call me on it. They'll just say we sound like Skynyrd. No matter what. I mean, I like Skynyrd, but I don't think we completely sound like them at all."
McCutcheon seems to place a separation between the band's growth in Huntington and its growth in Champaign. While the American Minor sound is largely rooted in its West Virginia roots, being taken into Champaign's music community helped it to fine-tune into the band Jive sought after in the first place.
"In Champaign you have this really nurturing kind of garage rock community, where you have bands like the Living Blue, and then you have the Whip [WWHP-FM 98.3, a Central Illinois Americana radio station] people," McCutcheon says. "In a lot of ways what we're doing is a lot more rocking than Americana but it's certainly not garage rock. It's somewhere in between. So we've kind of found an audience in the reach of those people. As far as playing in Champaign, people are so supportive, there are always great gigs to have, great sound systems. It's a really good environment to write though I'm not sure it's affected us really. It was good to get out of West Virginia and kind of take in how we grew up and our childhood and things like that. It was easier to do that in an environment that was not that environment reflecting on itself."
Since signing to Jive, American Minor has shared the bill in one capacity or another with Tom Petty, Ben Folds, the Soundtrack of Our Lives, the Dears, the Redwalls, and, in the not-so distant past, David Lee Roth as well. But back in Huntington, American Minor began as one of the bar bands many call comparisons to, though in reality it has outgrown that narrow scope.
"We had a lot of people who would come see us back home but it wasn't a large scene," McCutcheon said. "We'd play the same bar every three or four weeks in West Virginia, and then we'd have to leave -- we'd go to Tennessee a lot to try to feel like we're part of a scene. It's really not a scene. People were supportive but it's more of a regular crowd.
"If we'd grown up somewhere else, it might have affected us some. [In Champaign] you have alternative radio and we didn't have that. I mean, we branched out to all different kinds of music. Maybe if we'd grown up in Champaign it would sound different, but you still have classic rock everywhere. And based on people's strengths in the band, like Bud's guitar playing and the way my voice sounds, it seems like we started moving in that direction subconsciously. Maybe it had something to do with the radio, though. It seems like there's an audience for us pretty much everywhere we go, though, and in the South it's been pretty easy. What we're doing fits in with the rock movement now, I think, but it also fits in with the classic rock thing that seems to be given a 'timeless' status, for better or worse [laughs]."
The band's forthcoming record is its first full-length, and after years of demo and EP recordings, McCutcheon expresses a certain freedom associated with the ability to finally spread out the band's huge sound. Whereas the band's short-form releases, such as last summer's Buffalo Creek EP, displayed perhaps the most notable facet of the band -- the energetic riffage and big guitars, the powerful song structure -- the four-song format reduced the band to one dimension of many that are not represented on the full-length.
"When we went in to do our [Buffalo Creek] EP, we had some of the songs from the record done," he says. "We had 'Mr. Queen' done and we wanted to put that on there, and we had slower stuff we wanted to put on there. We wanted to show range but we only had four songs. I think the EP turned out really one-dimensional and it's hard to get beyond that in that format. We were happy to spread it out. We wanted to make a record that sounded cohesive but we didn't want to be doing the same thing in every song. I think we showed somewhat of a range. We did the ballad thing, some spacey songs, the riff rockers, the really straightforward songs. 'Change' is pretty dancey. It was just great to finally be able to record an album."
One of the aforementioned facets of American Minor that is easy to overlook, especially while taking the band in an already too-loud venue after knocking back a few Pabst Blue Ribbons as many are prone to do, is its lyrical depth. Throughout the record the band takes on topical songs such as the death penalty, war and redemption, romance and fidelity, all this coming from, according to the band's press release, "working-class boys from rural West Virginia who write songs about real life instead of their record collections".
"People don't listen to records closely at all," McCutcheon laments. "Even critics. I think fans will, eventually. I mean, I'm really aware of this now that I write lyrics all the time, but before it would take me 20 listens of a Pavement song to say, 'Is he singing about tennis?' or something, you know? But we're all guilty of not listening as closely as we could. And what's being said doesn't always stand out, unless the band just makes it so obvious that the listener feels stupid. I mean, you hope the listener isn't stupid [laughs]. I got a review today that was talking about our album cover. I mean, are we being reviewed by an art critic? I don't care that much, though. I think it's funny. I'm just down with being exposed. You never know what you're going to get."
McCutcheon, however, seems aware of the repercussions of political preaching within songs. He appears willing to tone down, but not because any higher being has asked him to; more because of the intended balance within American Minor's songs.
"I don't want to be preaching or soapboxing too much," McCutcheon says. "Some of my favorite bands are really political, though. Like Fugazi, for instance. I want our music to be a representation of the thoughts that go through your head on a day to day basis. Sometimes those are political, but they're also about relationships and sometimes you've got a story to tell about something you saw. This album is kind of a mix of that. But it's not a political concept album or anything. Maybe in the future... who knows?"
The band will embark on a record release tour of the West Coast in August and have received a number of offers for September, none of which have been accepted of late. In October and November the band will accompany two other bands on a 21-date "New School of Rock" tour of the UK and Scotland.
And even through all this, possibly the most endearing story to come in the conversation with McCutcheon involved the fact that he was never confident that he could be a professional musician in the first place.
"I had gotten into law school at the University of Illinois in December 2001 so it was really before we started practicing," he says. "I was going to Champaign, regardless. We had been playing out in Huntington and getting some great response, and granted there's no other bands in Huntington, which is an aftersight, but we played a show in Nashville and all these Nashville musicians were freaking out about us. One guy said, 'You guys are like the southern Strokes!' and of course this was before the Kings of Leon, who ended up getting that tag, I guess. But I was moving to Champaign and Knox was just getting an insurance settlement from his wreck. I don't know how serious anyone would have been.
"I came back from Champaign to play a show in Huntington with this band called Laura Minor who's on HighTone records. They just happened to be in town and they passed on our demo to their attorney and then major labels heard it and started flying to shows. So at that point it started to seem a little more 'professional' but it started out as a hobby, like always. My wife Jessica started going to grad school and I decided to defer my admission. Worse came to worse, I'd get in-state tuition the next year. We just kept going with the band. I'm glad I did. I'd be graduating law school and trying to pass the bar right now. Instead we're putting out a record."