"You get, you get, you get what you put in." Those are the impassioned first words that pour out of vocalist Keeley Davis's mouth on "Rogue," leading off Engine Down's upcoming self-titled disc -- the Richmond, Virginia quartet's fourth full-length since forming in 1996 -- and neatly epitomizing the group's change in attitude over the past year.
Things sure looked pretty shaky for Engine Down around this time last year. Their entire catalog had sold a mere 15,000 copies combined; hardly enough to sustain a living, much less their discouraged psyches. Meanwhile the side projects in which all four members had been moonlighting between tours seemed to be taking priority. Davis and fellow singer-guitarist Jonathan Fuller were off playing bass and drums, respectively, with Davis's sister (and frontwoman) Maura in the fast-rising, Portishead-esque Denali. Bassist Jason Andrew Wood was jamming with space-rock outfit Gregor Samsa. Drummer Cornbread Compton was manning the keyboards for indie popsters Delegate.
"When we first started Engine Down it was the only music we were doing, and then over time we all sorta split off and found ourselves doing our own things," Fuller admits. "I guess for me, for a minute there, being in Denali full-time was a real temptation -- they had done really well almost right from the start, whereas Engine Down has been this slow-building thing."
Still, he says, putting Engine Down out to pasture was an idea none of the members could ultimately fathom, since they felt that they hadn't tapped into the band's full potential yet. So they all turned in their walking papers to their one-time side bands and, by the end of 2003, had returned to writing new Engine Down material in earnest.
"We're all best friends and we've always followed our hearts as far as making music is concerned, so I think having all that other stuff going on reminded us how easy and fun it is for us to work with each other and how completely natural it feels," says Fuller. "It really served to strengthen things when we came back together and decided to really focus everything we had on this record. It was like, we had fooled around and we knew we were ready to get married. We had the bachelor party and it wasn't all it was cracked up to be!"
That newfound sense of purpose has translated into what is by far the best album of the band's career. Due in late August from Lookout Records, the venerable Berkeley, California indie label that they recently signed with after turning down offers from a handful of majors, Engine Down is emphatic and dynamic; the sound of a band going for it. On such standouts as "101," "Cover," and "Too Much of a Good Thing," glutinous guitars, galvanic rhythms, smooth yet fervent vocals, and the occasional piano or cello merge inside full, smoldering arrangements that are similar in mood to Sunny Day Real Estate, Jimmy Eat World, and Juno. At least some of that added depth comes courtesy of producer Brian McTernan -- known for manning albums by Snapcase, Thrice, the Movielife, and many other emo and hardcore acts -- who's adept at helping bands craft rich, nuanced songs that aren't forced or overglossed.
Such a lush, layered approach rarely factored into the band's earlier output because it used to try and re-create the raw immediacy of a live performance in the studio -- a pursuit that Fuller now says was essentially in vain.
"We had so many people say stuff like, öYour records don't do you justice,' and I guess with any band you hope their live show exceeds the recorded stuff. So with our third record [2002's Demure] we tried to capture what we do in concert," he explains. "But then we realized that those two experiences are just completely different and you're never gonna capture the energy and vibe of actually being there. So with this record we added different sounds, put in overdubs and things that you can't do live, but stuff that people probably won't miss when you play it live because there's that other energy present.
"There was a bit of fear that the more strings or atmospherics we added, when it was done the songs would be so far away from the original spark that they wouldn't reflect how much passion went into it, but I think they do," Fuller adds. His wish, naturally, is that fans old and new will agree with his assessment of the new album. And after nearly a decade of struggling under the radar, he's even more hopeful that Engine Down's big breakthrough is right around the corner.
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