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Someone said to me, 'It seems that on an A-to-Z journey, you guys are on N right now,'" relates Fierce Bad Rabbit frontman Chris Anderson of the band's rapid trajectory thus far. "And I said, 'Well, M was a real bitch.'"
The members of Fierce Bad Rabbit have stuffed a lot of creative growth into a relatively short time frame. Over the past three years, the Fort Collins-based quartet has issued three releases and maintained a dense touring schedule, one that's included some high-profile slots on the national festival circuit. For Anderson, the first leg of the journey felt longer than three years. "It's weird to think back to those days," says Anderson. "It was only three years ago, but it feels like we were completely different people.... There were growing pains that we went through."
Those growing pains sound like a textbook guide to the pressures facing any new band: the strain of traveling to more than 100 cities within a single year; the juggling act of playing in a band and finding other sources of income; the shift from a single creative voice to a collaborative dynamic in terms of the group's songwriting. But while the story may include familiar plot points, Anderson insists that the weight of facing them within such a short time period forced the indie-rockers to evolve at a breakneck pace.
More important, the experience has given the band a compass, a kind of road map to use as it moves forward.
"There was the whole wear and tear of you're just kind of doing this and no one is making any money," he notes. "You're going out there and sharing your music, and that works really well for a while, but at some point, the reality sets in. You're like, I've got to go home and pay the bills. That was the point where the band reached deep inside.... We've been able to pay more attention to those realities in conjunction with the band."
Fierce Bad Rabbit began as an offshoot of several other Fort Collins bands in 2009. A sort of supergroup without the grandiose intention, it formed as the result of an impromptu meeting of some of the city's best musical minds with Chris Anderson, who, fresh off a departure from the Jimi Austin, had a batch of songs he'd written and had been unable to use.
To bring those tunes to life, Anderson enlisted singer and violist Alana Rolfe, a veteran of Slow Crash and Stella Luce; former Arliss Nancy bassist Dayton Hicks; and drummer Adam Pitner of Tickle Me Pink. The new outfit took its name from a Beatrix Potter story and soon started making music together. "There was no supergroup idea," Anderson clarifies. "I was just trying to find some musicians to work with me on some songs that I had written. It was really noncommittal. The band wrote around the songs I'd written."
The band's self-titled debut, an eight-track release, featured a hybrid of several styles, with cues pulled from Hicks's raucous country background mixed in with Rolfe's classically inspired viola lines. Songs like "Sink Like a Stone" and "Mon Amie" mixed forceful lead electric guitar lines with Anderson's measured singing style and meditative verses. "We released it," Anderson recalls, "and everybody started to get more committed."
That commitment translated into more songs, which translated into more recordings at a rapid pace. With attention and critical acclaim coming in for its debut release, the band headed to the studio for a followup in 2010, a fifteen-track full-length titled Spools of Thread, which drew from a creative process that was becoming ever more inclusive.
Songs like "Divided," "Gone Dear" and "Wishing Wells" expanded the early musical leanings: Paired vocals, elegant piano lines and more nuanced string lines supplemented the band's knack for fusing folk, country and classical ingredients. The tracks benefited from the more professional recording environment, and Anderson's musing verses took on increased weight with more streamlined and subtle instrumentation. "At the beginning, it was Chris's songs that he had in mind," Rolfe recalls. "He even orchestrated who would play what, where. Slowly but surely, during Spools of Thread, we brought in a producer, so there was even more collaboration."
This dynamic carried over to last year's Live and Learn, a three-track EP recorded at the Blasting Room in the band's home town. The trio of tunes — "YOU!," "Live and Learn" and "Rich Man" — showed further growth in terms of instrumentation and songwriting — growth that wasn't entirely organic, Anderson reveals. The input of producer Andrew Berlin helped shape the sound and direction of the songs and the final feel of the EP.
"He really, really helped facilitate the writing on that," declares Anderson. "It wasn't like he was writing lyrics, but it was more like, 'Let's go back to this part here' and 'Let's work on this a little bit more.' I feel like he was able to pull the voice out of everybody and let everybody come out that way."
For the band, the recording and the release of Live and Learn found a complement in a chaotic and often daunting touring schedule. The band played nearly 130 dates last year, and the off-and-on schedule included plenty of highs and lows. "I've traveled in bands before, but never that much," says Rolfe. "It was always fun, but it starts to take its toll, especially since we all still maintain other incomes and other jobs and other lives. Eventually, you start seeing the same thing over and over again.
"The bottom of the barrel," she adds, "is a show where you show up and they say, 'Who are you?' Then you end up sulking, not playing a show and not making any money."
While such a page could be taken straight from the travails of any new outfit, it didn't make the strain any less onerous. But it caused the band to focus on refining its sound, which led to more time playing in Fort Collins and, eventually, the arrival of a new drummer. Six months ago, former Dovekins drummer and CSU student Max Barcelow showed up at an informal audition. It was a game-changing moment for the band, Anderson insists, one that would help formalize its course in the coming year.
"He was the second or third drummer we tried out," Anderson remembers. "We called him up and he showed up to play. He was like, 'I haven't really listened to this song.' At that point, it was getting a little bit old, playing the same songs we've been playing for two or three years on tour. We played 'All I Have of You,' and we all looked at each other and said, 'Yeah, that's how that one goes.'"
The impact of rhythmic input — the distinct fills, the change-ups in percussion and voicing — was the first step in an even more collaborative approach to the band's songwriting, and the inclusion of Barcelow, who also plays guitar and writes songs, helped the quartet move beyond its growing pains. "I'm loving the way it is now," says Rolfe of the addition. "For some reason, the fact that he also plays guitar and also writes music — it's been really interesting to have another person's perspective."
And that perspective will certainly be instrumental when Fierce Bad Rabbit returns to the Blasting Room later this year to record The Maestro and the Elephant, its second full-length album, set for release at the end of the year. Maestro will comprise tunes that Anderson wrote in Nashville as well as new songs from the rest of the band, including one from Rolfe that she's especially excited about.
"There's one with a working title, 'Dust,' that I wrote," she concludes. "There's creative anticipation to see what becomes of it. I'm expecting a magic baby in the form of a song."
In this case, you can be certain the labor will be well worth it.