- Photo by Daniel Shular
Like a lot of young bands, Choir Vandals rose from the ashes of several even younger bands — groups such as Strangers Now, Best Friends and Forever Young that had shared bills at DIY basement shows and venues like the Firebird and Fubar. When singer and guitarist Austin McCutchen found himself without a band, he looked to some regulars from a few newly dissolved groups to form the tuneful and sturdy indie rock quartet.
"After Best Friends had stopped, I just kept writing to kill some time, so I had about five songs, the rough drafts of them. That's when I started reaching out to the guys. I started with Wil [McCarthy, drummer] — I didn't know of anyone else playing songs at the time," he says.
The pair eventually brought in fellow ex-Best Friend Josh Cameron on bass and McCutchen's boyhood friend Micah Kelleher on guitar. McCutchen's intentions at the time were clear: "I wanted to record and go on tour."
He has gotten his wish with the band's first full-length, Dark Glow, released last month on Animal Style Records. The band decamped to Nashville to record this LP, and celebrated the release by taking an opening slot on a two-week tour with British emo band Moose Blood. (The stint ends with a show at the Firebird on Sunday, August 6.)
For a band that dutifully released an EP or two every year (its first release was in the fall of 2013), the jump to committing to a twelve-song LP felt both logical and necessary. "I think we were all ready to do a full-length. EPs are cool and useful in the beginning of a band — it serves as a little teaser for the band," says McCutchen. "But we realized we had grown as musicians and we were ready to make the next step."
On Dark Glow, Choir Vandals channels a kind of laconic tunefulness with songs that feel tossed-off, yet motor along with precision. On "The Gardener," McCutchen's voice recalls the Strokes' Julian Casablancas at his most marble-mouthed, but the interplay between the guitars adds levity; dark-tinted downstrokes are matched by crystalline pings that wind their way through the song.
That two-headed guitar approach is the most compelling aspect of the band's sound. Its roots come from the long-standing relationship between McCutchen and Kelleher, who have been friends since they were twelve.
"Early on he caught onto the style I was writing in, and he took hold of that and would push me if I was straying too far out from that direction," McCutchen says of Kelleher. "Once I get the structure to its final stage, Micah and I will spend hours going over the guitars. He'll just jam to it 'til we find something we like. It's definitely more of a partnership, but at the same time we're pushing each other to make it better."
He adds, "Having ten other songs that sound the way they do, I had guidelines already set."
Some of those guidelines were influenced by McCutchen's listening habits; he found himself looking back to some late-'90s college rock staples — the stately, crisp production of Spoon's Girls Can Tell, the candy-coated weirdo-pop of the Apples in Stereo. If those elements are less overt on Dark Glow, they inform the aims of a band that can write dependable and memorable indie rock songs with the benefit of the genre's 30-year history.
But rather than rely on four-track demos or basement recordings, Choir Vandals took the opportunity to record this LP in Nashville with producer Tate Mercer. It was a step outside of McCutchen's home recordings, where he often tinkers with a song ad infinitum. "It was actually relaxed but also very nerve-wracking at the same time," he recalls. "By the last day everybody was so anxious to have it done and see how it turned out."
Choir Vandals released Dark Glow in the middle of July and immediately hit the road. Speaking a week before the tour launched, McCutchen cops to having some nerves about hitting the road after a long absence, but says he's looking forward playing larger club dates.
"It is a little intimidating since we haven't been on the road and waiting for the record to come out," he says. "So, I'm still excited, but it is nerve-wracking — the first show back will be in front of 1,000 people."