Nearly fifteen years after its first EP and countless opening gigs for the likes of Kings of Leon, My Morning Jacket, the Whigs and Manchester Orchestra, the Features should have a spotlight.
"We're trying to start booking more of our own shows, which I'm really glad to see," says vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Matthew Pelham. And yet the band is still playing support, this time for Kevin Devine. "I really like opening for other bands, but I feel like we need to start doing [our own shows]. Even if there's only ten or twenty people there, I think we need to be out, playing in front of the people who are there specifically to see us," he says with a laugh, a soft Tennessee drawl that's far more gentle than his frantic, howling songs indicate.
Pelham, along with childhood friend Roger Dabbs, started the band when they were in middle school to pass the time in tiny Sparta, Tennessee. While attending college in nearby Murfreesboro, they became a part of the local music scene, adding musicians to their roster and moving to Nashville when music became a higher priority than school. The band recorded an LP in 1998 that was never released, but it kept plugging away.
It paid off. In 2004 Universal Records re-released the Features 2001 EP, The Beginning, followed a few months later by its major-label album debut, Exhibit A. By then the band had developed a unique sound that was all rock but with poppy keyboard twists, sing-along melodies mixed with Pelham's anguished wails, and searing guitars that betrayed its members' Tennessee roots. Lyrical topics range from impending childbirth to a grownup music-lovers version of "If You're Happy and You Know It."
The Features toured with pals Kings of Leon and seemed to be on the way to major-label success, but the record deal didn't last, and it left the band stalled. "[After Exhibit A] we were going crazy because so much was happening on the Universal side of things, and it was taking so long to get into the studio to get another record out. We almost didn't make it through that period. It was pretty rough."
Enough time passed for many fans to give up on getting any new material from the band, but eventually there was another EP. In 2009, Kings of Leon selected the Features — now consisting of Pelham, bassist Dabbs, Rollum Haas on drums, and keyboardist Mark Bond — for its Serpents and Snakes record label. They released Some Kind of Salvation that summer.
This summer's Wilderness brought an influx of interest in the band, with a spot on Billboard's Heatseekers chart, a great review in Spin and a blurb in Time that simply stated that the Features rocks.
Still, Pelham remains cautious. "I guess I don't get too excited about it because things like that have happened in the past. It kind of seems like an overnight thing," he says, chuckling. "But it's good, and people do see it, so it helps. I don't know how I feel about it in any way, but I'm always glad, with every record, for the press we get."
Wilderness merits the attention. Without straying too far from the fuzzed-out guitars, hard beats, wails and smart lyrics of its previous works, the new album sounds a bit darker and more mature. Songs are longer and more complex, structurally and thematically. Pelham's pleased with it.
"I think once I step away from an album for a little while, once it's recorded and I don't have to listen to it with the work involved, once I get my head space clear and go back to it, I'm usually pretty happy with it. And I was in this case, with Wilderness. I thought it came out pretty nice. It's a different record from Some Kind of Salvation and Exhibit A, but I think the songs are pretty strong, and I feel like we enjoyed ourselves when we recorded the album, and that kind of comes through."
He also credits the band's ability to gain some distance from music for its longevity and creativity. "We all really enjoy what we're doing, but I do feel like if we've been on tour, played several shows or have been doing a lot of writing, and we step away from music, we really step away from it. There will be periods where we'll go three months, and I bet none of us even touch an instrument. That way when we come back to it, it's fresh and exciting.
"We never practice," he laughs. "As far as, like, rehearsing songs that we've already worked up and recorded? We don't do that as a band. I feel like that's kind of weird, but at the same time it keeps us from getting burned out."
Pelham takes a similar approach with his songwriting. "Most of the time I won't pick up a guitar at all when I'm writing. I'll just hum stuff and record it. I'll wait until there's a whole lot of it compiled before I pick up a guitar. Then I'll just throw back and listen to the recordings and say, 'OK, I kind of like that,' and then I'll pick up the guitar and sort it out. But yeah, I try not to even play guitar until I really feel like doing it."
This laissez-faire attitude often yields the band's best songwriting results. "I think 'Big Mama Gonna Whip Us Good' is one of those where I got the chorus line and went from that and wrote the song around that," says Pelham.
"And the same thing with 'Fats Domino.' I don't really know where those lines come from, but most of the time those end up being my favorite songs. There's not a lot of thinking involved. They just kind of came out, and I didn't have to think about it too much. Some songs are like that. They're really weird. I'll get the main chorus line or the main idea, and everything else unfolds. When we're writing lyrics, I feel like most things I write are very pedestrian, but I just leave them like that because I feel like if I start over-thinking it and trying too hard, it wouldn't be what it should be."
With two albums in two years, the Features doesn't intend to lose momentum again. "We finished recording another record a week before Wilderness was released," Pelham says. "We wanted to go ahead and record one, have one in the wings so when we're finished with Wilderness we can immediately release another record. I feel like, as a band, we've been a little bit slow about getting stuff out. It really sucks because I feel like we're quick about writing and having material, and it's more the cycle of the music business and not being a high-priority band. I think it always ends up taking us longer than it should, but this time around I think we're going to try to make an effort to get material out much quicker."