If you're a boxer or something," says Strange Americans frontman Matt Hoffman, "you box because that's what you do. You go in and you fight every day, and sometimes you get your butt kicked, and sometimes you win."
Being a musician is often like getting in the ring, except sometimes the fight you face is internal. That's especially true for Hoffman, which is why his band's new album is called A Royal Battle. The title was pulled from a line in the song "Engine," and it's also a theme that runs through most of the tunes on the record.
"I feel like part of that whole battle thing is that I believe you can do whatever you want," Hoffman elaborates. "And I believe I'm going to keep trying to do this as much as I can. I love it enough to where if I'm doing it at the level I'm doing it now for the rest of my life, I'm going to be very happy, and I'm going to keep trying to push it and do more.
"It's kind of like a fight," he goes on. "It's kind of like an awesome fight, too. We're up there on stage with axes and stuff, kicking ass. It's a pretty cool thing. I would say that you can find something in every song that's dealing with that whole dynamic."
Another theme that plays in the album is summed up in "Rebuild the Radio," one of the first songs the guys — Hoffman, guitarist Trent Nelson, drummer Scott Gunshore, bassist Trevor Sinnard and keyboardist Murry Mercier — played as a band. "It's not in the sense of 'Oh, we're going to rebuild music and put something completely different out there,'" Mercier clarifies. "For me, it's like rebuilding my musical ability, and then the battle and the struggle to get through that to create something that I'm really proud of."
A Royal Battle is certainly a release in which the members of Strange Americans can take pride. It also shows that while they have their roots firmly planted in Americana, a fair amount of rock can be found in more than half of their songs, which often end up sounding as much like something from Lucero or Gaslight Anthem as they do something from, say, Ryan Adams, who also happens to be one of Hoffman's influences. Like Adams, Hoffman tends to avoid flashy chord progressions, relying instead on tasteful instrumentation and arrangements to bolster his words. "Sometimes finding a nice melody on an instrument is easier than trying to fit the English language into it and how that all lines up," he points out. "So, to me, I tend to try to start with the words as much as I can and build around that, because it drives me nuts when people crowbar words into melodies and their accents don't line up and stuff — but that's just an aesthetic preference."
While writing the songs is obviously very important, Hoffman says, what the guys do with those songs is another key part of the process. Trying to bring the tunes to life and capturing the same sort of energy that comes across on stage can be challenging. So when the act began sessions for A Royal Battle with John Macy at Silo Sound Studios, they ended up recording a lot of the songs live. "I still feel like our live show is kind of our identity," says Hoffman. "It's very important to us. I feel like the energy we feel at every show, no matter who's there or how many people are there, we're just pretty much behind the whole mission, the whole music thing. So we wanted that on the record — the meat and potatoes of every song, where we're all mostly in the same room, but everything is isolated. We did 90 percent of it like that with quite a few overdubs. That was the vibe we wanted."
And that's the vibe that was captured: The group succeeded in injecting a lot of fervor of the live shows into the more rocking cuts. But it also had little difficulty reeling things in on slower tunes like "That Kind of Weather" and "Station," which starts off unhurried and gradually picks up steam about halfway through until guitarist Trent Nelson rips into a solo near the end, with his guitar run through a Leslie rotating speaker.
A Royal Battle also documents a band that's grown since it started with its current lineup two years ago. Before finding Nelson through a Craigslist ad in 2009, Hoffman says, he was just trying to write songs and figure out what the hell he was doing. For close to a year after that, he and Nelson wrote together until bringing in Mercier, whom Nelson had played with in the alt-rock band Wide Right Turn.
For his part, Mercier says he had to get out of some bad habits when he switched gears from alt-rock to Americana, mainly changing his licks and style. "I'm still working through that, two years later," Mercier admits. "I like it more. I think from my standpoint, it was fun to make a lot of noise and to be loud and to have some pretty cool licks in there. But to actually delve into a tune and figure out a three-note run that we're so picky about — that really makes a song. You get that chance a lot more in Americana."
Maybe even more so here. After all, this isn't exactly your everyday, standard brand of Americana. It's a little stranger — at least that was the idea when the guys came up with the name. After considering a list of hundreds of band names that they'd been compiling for several months, the gents settled on Strange Americans. "I think just having the word 'American' in there and the fact that we consider..." Hoffman says, trailing off for a beat before adding, "If you ask and we have to tell you one word for our music, we always lump into Americana. And also having it not be your standard, traditional Americana. It's got a lot of different flavors to it."
Nelson, who is originally from Rockford, Illinois, says it's also a nod to the fact that they all came together from completely different backgrounds and from completely different parts of the country. Mercier's from Baltimore, Gunshore moved from Phoenix, Sinnard's from Iowa, and Hoffman grew up in Fort Collins.
"We didn't really have it together when we first formed," Nelson confesses. "It took us a while to click, and so it was kind of this thing where there's all these influences and roots pulled from different areas of the country. I guess that the name fit the best at the end of the day."
Sometimes you have to pick your battles.