Playing in a band means steeling yourself to judgment. At some point, your group is bound to get noticed, prompting all kinds of horrifically unqualified people to make snap decisions about your sound, categorizing in the simplest, lamest, laziest terms the art for which you've sacrificed, the music that you have wrung from your very soul. And these philistines, regardless of their respective roles in the music industry, all have something in common: They will always, always compare you to someone else. In the case of New York-based power trio Earl Greyhound, the touchstone that comes up most often is Led Zeppelin.
There. It just happened again.
Bassist Kamara Thomas, however, says she and her bandmates -- drummer Ricc Sheridan and guitarist Matt Whyte -- have no problem with such a line being drawn. It could certainly be worse.
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"We're down with that," she says from a van somewhere between Detroit and Toronto. "Led Zeppelin is one of our influences, so we don't shy away from that by any means. We're happy to be referencing a band that really brought power and energy into their performances. That's something we believe in as well. But we also think we're trying to do something unique."
Although an unmistakable zing of Nixon-era classic rock permeates Greyhound's tunes like spilled bong water in the fibers of a shag carpet (references to T. Rex, Big Star, Faces and even Ziggy-era Bowie are built into the transitions and off-kilter rhythm breaks in which the trio occasionally indulges), the group has somehow managed to transform a musical style whose heyday has long since passed into something new and vibrant. That, says Thomas, is the result of eschewing the bitterness and the all-too-knowing smirk in which many modern players cloak themselves for protection. For Greyhound, going back to the balls-out sincerity of the '70s was the only way to play with any sort of heart.
"There was no irony, no cynicism," Thomas declares. "It was all genuine; everybody was trying to shine their light as brightly as they could. I know for myself, my first rock and roll was all filtered through the eyes of childhood. Children can just feel energy more purely. I think we all connected at a young age with the energy of the bands at that time. For me, that's kind of where the through-line comes from."
Thomas and Whyte met in New York in 2002. Each singer-songwriters in their own right, they hit it off immediately. And after playing together for a while, Whyte asked Thomas if she would be into learning to play the bass for a rock band he wanted to form. She dove into the project with her usual aplomb and enthusiasm.
"I'm always looking for a challenge," she explains. "So that was kind of our first incarnation. Matt had some of his basic songs, so we started rehearsing. But that whole first year for me was about learning how to play bass and trying to get the songs up and running. And Matt and me in the meantime would perform our singer-songwriter thing out at different places in the city, performing and singing together, our own stuff and different covers. We were kind of doing weird classic-rock covers; we were doing Bowie covers and Queen covers. It was fun."
After working out their own rock songs and playing several months' worth of shows, the band's original drummer quit. Undeterred, Whyte and Thomas enlisted another timekeeper, Christopher Bear, to play on their debut full-length, the curiously named Soft Targets. (Curiously named because there's nothing soft about it: The record is packed with eleven tracks of explosive guitar riffs and complex but comprehendible rhythms and chord changes.)
Although Greyhound clearly borrows from the '70s, Targets is infused with a healthy dose of originality. An undeniably powerful and mature debut, the album bursts out of the gate with "S.O.S.," which belies Pete Townshend's lament about rock's demise. And just when you think the trio might have peaked on track one, "All Better Now" kicks in with cheeky, harmonious, ascending vocals that sounds like something the Who might have done on A Quick One (Happy Jack). The song then evolves into a massive, face-melting guitar-and-vocal onslaught that would make any classic-rocker weep tears of joy while waiting for his meds in the day room at the old folks' home.
As good as the recording sounds now, though, the sessions were nearly hamstrung by the departure of Bear, who parted ways with the band just after the basic tracking was done. Undaunted, Whyte and Thomas decided to complete the album while searching for a replacement.
"Despite our frustrations at not being able to land a drummer, we just went ahead and finished all the vocal tracks for the record," Thomas says. "We started playing with fill-in drummers whenever we could, just playing constantly, because we wanted to attract a drummer who would be right for us rather than doing the Craigslist thing. So we just decided we would play out, kind of like, 'If we play it, he will come.'"
And he did. Ricc Sheridan was no Shoeless Joe Jackson, but as far as what Whyte and Thomas were looking for, he was much, much better. The brawny skins-pounder was a little scary at first -- he circled them for a time, checking them out before he approached them about playing. But once the three sat down together, it was magic.
"One of Ricc's friends showed up at one of our shows randomly, saw our set and decided to bring Ricc," Thomas recounts. "Ricc is kind of a strong, silent type, and he stalked us for a little while, then, you know, 'made his move.' He kind of stared us down, and we were like, 'Man, this dude's intense!' And he told us he was a drummer and that he wanted to play with us. The first time we played with him, it was a pretty awesome moment. We were like, 'This is the way it's supposed to be.'"
The timekeeper has already begun to influence the band's new material, which it's been writing while on tour. Additionally, the old songs have evolved with Sheridan on drums behind them.
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"Playing with Ricc is really awesome; it's really changing our sound a lot," Thomas points out. "We're writing a lot on the road, and Ricc has this deep kind of 'soul pocket,' so it's really neat. On a lot of our newer songs, all this soul stuff is coming out. Every song is different and the process is always changing, and I think it's a good thing to stay open to that, because it keeps you away from blocking yourself."
At the end of the day, it's the openness with which Earl Greyhound plays that wins people over, even among jaded music fans. A simple delight in being alive and playing good music informs, and is reflected in, everything the band does these days.
"I actually went through my own snarky, cynical phase," Taylor confesses, "and I found that it just sucked the joy out of everything.
"It just wasn't serving me in my life to be that way," she goes on. "I may have sounded clever and made people laugh, but I wasn't actually feeling the joy that I was after. So I kind of decided at some point that it was time to leave that viewpoint behind, because it wasn't serving any real purpose other than to make me look cool or whatever. I really believe we create our own reality, so when we put all our focus on all the shit, that's all we end up seeing and that's all we end up kind of living in. You've gotta believe."