The members of Boulder trio i.O. Underground each have a background in different bands that mostly did the classic take on rock-and-roll music. But the bandmates wanted to move away from run-of-the-mill guitar/bass/drums rock when they began playing together in Boulder a couple of years ago.
You'll hear the unique sound for yourself when the trio drops The Underside EP — its followup to The Wonderside EP — on Friday, July 22. Stylistically, the band mixes elements of Coldplay, the Beatles and Muse, and many of the songs possess an urgent quality similar to an Ennio Morricone composition at the climax of a spaghetti Western.
“We started adding a lot more sounds in place to give an interesting shine,” says lead vocalist and guitarist Grayson, who performs mononymously. “We all really dug what we were coming up with, so we just went with it. It’s like a bunch of architects that can design a lot of different houses, but we all chose a more modern house to design.”
I.O. Underground consists of lead vocalist Grayson, Casey Kannenberg and Beau Harding. All three have impressive résumés: Grayson cut his teeth playing guitar and playing in New York clubs before heading west several years ago, while Kannenberg was involved in Chicago’s music scene and played with bands such as Whitsend, Them vs. Them and Junk in the Trunk. Harding, a Boulder native, has played and toured with artists including Jeff Brinkman, Lee Nestor and Ash Ganley.
“There’s this great music spot called Roots Music Project in Boulder,” Kannenberg says. “We rent a stall here and we practice here. We consider it our home base.”
When the band began writing music, Grayson says, he was listening to everything from music on the Disney Channel to late-’60s English blues rockers Free to Creed before launching into a Paul Rodgers impression, then his best (or worst, depending on how you feel about Creed) Scott Stapp voice.
Kannenberg adds that the three were listening to all kinds of different music when they started working together in 2018. “We were really into Muse, X, Ambassadors, Coldplay, the Fray,” he says. “We continue to kind of dig those kinds of sounds.”
Although he doesn’t hear a Beatles influence in the band’s final sound, Kannenberg says he does hear a Paul McCartney quality in some of the melodies that Grayson comes up with. A classically trained pianist who was a singing major in college, Kannenberg folds some of his background into his own songwriting.
Harding draws influences from ’80s and ’90s hard rock, but he's worked to get up to speed on modern drumming. He’s switched to using an electronic drum set to further that goal. He likes to play as simply as he can, to drive the song but also stay out of the way.
“This is the first project where I’m doing 100 percent electronic drums,” he says. “They're using a fair amount of modern sounds, and the electronic drums are a lot easier to work with; they're starting to sound better and better. It seems to work with the sound, for sure.”
Grayson is the primary lyricist, and while he prefers listeners to decide what a song means to them, he says he wrote “Once in a Lifetime” about a friend whose husband died, and who had to decide whether she should move back to her hometown.
“And she did,” he says. “She just loaded up the truck and left, and [the song] was about her finding her way back to a part of her life she gave up to move to California for a guy and have kids and all of that.”
A heavy topic, for sure, but Grayson doesn’t shy away from darker subject matter. The song “What U Do,” for example, concerns a “super abusive relationship.” The chorus is, “I keep waiting for the other shoe to fall, and it’s always waiting right above my head,” he says.
“You come home, and your spouse just attacks you verbally,” Grayson says. “You're just sort of like, 'What?' You can’t do anything right. I don't know if you’ve been in that situation, but I certainly was. Thank God that’s over.”
“Wall” is also a relationship song — a broken-relationship song — and the band warns that listeners probably won’t hear too many love songs coming out of Grayson.
“You’ve had it with the person you’ve dealt with,” he says. “It can be a lifelong friend, but you want to move on. You want to get on with your life. You know [when] it’s over.”
Happy songs are overdone, according to Grayson. (He does argue that “Once in a Lifetime” is, at its core, a positive song, even if it’s based on the death of a spouse.)
“If you're a singer studying songs on the radio, there’s so much positivity,” he says. “It’s not that [my songs are] negative; it’s just showing a side of life we all go through. I don’t hear enough of that when I listen to music. It’s always ‘Shut up and dance with me.’ I’m like ‘Oh, my God, please.’”
i.O. Underground EP release party, 7 p.m. Friday, July 22, Roots Music Project, 4747 Pearl, Suite V3A, Boulder. Tickets are $10. For more information, visit iounderground.com.
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