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Music |

Interview: The Demon Beat

Wednesday 21 November 2012

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Off stage, Adam Meisterhans, Jordan Hudkins and Tucker Riggleman are just three guys in their mid-twenties. On stage, they become a rock and roll powerhouse complete with arms flailing, legs kicking, and badass rock songs blasting out of a PA system. Hailing from Martinsburg, West Virginia in the eastern panhandle of the state, The Demon Beat are destined to show the world that their home isn’t just some punchline to jokes about Appalachia.

Have a short conversation with any of the guys from The Demon Beat and you’re apt to get a nearly encyclopedic trip through the annals of rock and roll history. Mention bands as diverse as Dinosaur Jr. or Drive-By Truckers and any one of its members will offer insightful analysis without sounding the least bit pretentious. Even their records are chock-full of homages to the canon of rock legends that came before them (take, for example, the band’s 2010 release 1956 – a concept album about Carl Perkins, a seminal artist on Sun Records along with Elvis Presley). No bullshit – you can tell that these guys really love rock music.

The Demon Beat doesn’t just talk the talk when it comes to rock and roll, though. They’ve consistently walked the walk on every release since the band’s inception in 2006. The band’s fantastic new album, Less is Less (released by Funny/Not Funny Records), is no exception. Mixing 90s garage and grunge with fuzzed out tones from the 60s and 70s, The Demon Beat know where they’re from while maintaining a distinctive sound that they can call their own. Just listen to the blistering tones on “Bored Forever” or “Fingers” on their new album and you’ll know exactly what we mean.

Spindle caught up with Adam Meisterhans from The Demon Beat to talk about what it’s like being from West Virginia, the merits of the band’s do-it-yourself work ethic, and what he was listening to when he was recording for Less is Less.

Your band is from West Virginia in the heart of Appalachia. Although many listeners abroad may not be familiar with that area, there’s a considerable amount of talented bands that are beginning to come from that region. AC30 from Huntington, West Virginia and The Phantom Six from Morgantown, West Virginia are just a few rock bands that are really starting to pick up steam from that area. Do you think that it’s harder to receive broader national and international attention because of a cultural bias against that region in the United States?

I think there are several reasons why it’s a bit hard to garner attention as a rock band from West Virginia. Mainly, I think it’s hard to garner attention being from anywhere. I hate to use market-speak, but the supply is just way larger than the demand in terms of musical artistry versus people that are willing to pay to take it in by some means. I’m not the first person to say this, but it’s so easy to release music these days and even small towns tend to have multiple venues, so it’s pretty easy to get shows as well. It seems like it’s pretty easy to take music for granted. To me, that is a bigger reason than any cultural bias that our region faces. One of the other major components is that, while there’s a hotbed of talented musicians and talented artists and talented bands in our state, there is not an overarching “scene” to help propel said artists, musicians and bands. For those people offended by that statement, I do not mean that there aren’t venues because there are at least five great venues throughout our state and region. I do not mean that there aren’t great efforts to connect musicians throughout the state. This year alone we played two in-state festivals, and were invited to two more, I believe. One of those festivals included the largest crowd we’ve ever played to. I’m merely saying that if there is an overarching “scene” it lacks two key facets that would push its members outward instead of inward – industry presence and a large number of people taking in the music from within and without this state. I love being from this state. I love playing in this state. I love the musicians we play with, record with, and interact with in this state. That being said, [West Virginia] gets overlooked by larger touring acts and booking agents all the time because they are not familiar with the great venues and artists within the state.  That’s where the lack of industry presence comes into play. Morgantown’s 123 Pleasant Street would be a way better connector for a band on a Thursday night than playing any club in DC or Baltimore on the same night. You’ll most certainly play with a better band that brings out more people, as well. But almost every band, road manager or booking agent that we talk to outside of our region has no idea that that place exists. The other key thing missing is having a large audience for people to play to. While Mountain Stage [the NPR-syndicated radio show produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting] gets a lot of attention and a great deal of the limelight – and deservedly so – the biggest venues in the state cannot house arena sized acts. While I don’t give two shits about that fact, it does keep West Virginia from being able to host large festivals and get attention from agents, promoters, and labels – basically all of the people that legitimize a music scene. There is a great music scene here, it just stands to be validated from the outside world. Cultural bias plays a small role, but if we had a decent sized indie label and larger bands trafficking our stellar venues a lot more people would give a shit about the great music being played here.

The Demon Beat has done a good deal of touring all over the Midwest and Southern states in the US lately. The band certainly isn’t doing the standard weekend tour within your own region. How do you sustain any semblance of normalcy with your day jobs when you’re out on the road traveling so far away from home? 

We normally do one or two tours a year plus several three-day and four-day weekends a fair distance from home. We each have our ways of dealing with time away from jobs and maintaining some level of “normalcy.” I am able to take time off at will due to the nature of my job. I work as a substitute teacher in the Loudoun County Public School system and I have been lucky enough to have developed a really strong relationship with one specific school. There’s a high level of respect between the administration and myself and we are able to schedule based around our respective needs. Luckily, I love that job and want to be there as much as possible, so that makes it easier to not have that anxiety of returning to a dreaded workplace. Jordan works as a graphic designer for a ticket company alongside additional freelance design work. He has been able to obtain a leave of absence any time he’s exhausted his vacation days. They seem to have been really understanding with him mainly due to his strong work ethic and great work while he’s there. Tucker works as a manager at The Blue Moon Café [in Shepherdstown, West Virginia] and the touring is probably hardest on him in terms of returning to normalcy. In order to get his shifts covered while we’re out, he has to cover other manager’s shifts both before and after we leave on a trip. Therefore, his tours are generally bookended by doubles and more shifts than his normal workload, which is already pretty packed to the brim. Luckily, our jobs have been understanding about our absences. I think that is largely due to our individual work ethics. I feel like we all appreciate our jobs even when we have the normal “I hate working” type days. We definitely all work our asses off to continue to make the music we want to make and also to retain a high enough amount of respect at our jobs that we can be gone for 16 days at a time.

You recorded your album Bullshit Walks in a community center just down the road from where you’re originally from in Washington, West Virginia. It seems like quite a challenge to record in places that aren’t exactly built to be studios. Was recording in a community center a matter of financial necessity or did you record there as a challenge to see if the band could pull it off?

To be quite honest, I find it more challenging to record in studios that were built to be studios. Whether a place was built to be a studio or not, you have to navigate certain pros and cons regardless of the design of the place in which you are recording. To me it’s harder to develop a working relationship with some studio personnel, understand the restrictions of the space you are in, understand how to use a-level equipment towards exploiting the means of your aesthetic end, and to afford that shit. Most of the places we’ve recorded – places we’re renting, community buildings, Dave Klug’s studio in Pittsburgh – are not spaces that were designed to be studios and therefore inherently require a sense of ingenuity to even begin a recording session. That means you’re on your toes from the get-go and you have to assess each situation that you run into. That sense of awareness tends to lead to making a better recording in my opinion.  On our most recent tour, we had the pleasure of touring the Stax museum in Memphis, TN and the Motown museum in Detroit, MI. Neither of those studios – both of which are responsible for some of the most heard and most beloved recordings of the 20th century – were built to be studios. Stax was in an old movie theatre and Motown was a garage. Both required certain levels of ingenuity to be functional studios. Motown had mic lines run through the ceiling and then dropped down through the ceiling tiles. They also cut a hole in the second floor ceiling and put a microphone and speaker in the attic and that functioned as their “reverb chamber.” Stax’s “echo chamber” was the bathroom of the theatre with a speaker on the floor and a microphone on the ceiling. I just admire that attitude and that ingenuity. Our old house had a shower in it that was really reverberant and there were multiple occasions where I recorded a person standing in that shower. It sounded pretty convincing. Also, we recorded in that community building because it’s concrete with a tile floor. It’s wildly reverberant and also only $50 a day to rent out. There’s no reverb on the drums on Bullshit Walks. It’s all just that natural room sound. To me, that’s more exciting than going into a place that has everything laid out already and you just do the same shit that everyone else does there. It just seems less sterile to me.

The Demon Beat has quite a few releases under their belt after just six years of playing together. Do you see the band taking some time off before the next release or is there something already in the queue ready to record?

We already have some things ready to go for a new record. We’re taking most of December and some of January to write and demo and then do some actual sessions for a new record. I’m really excited to get to work on it. I’ve learned to keep things fairly open when we go in to record. I try not to smother it by over-demoing shit and having everything ready to go before we start. I like to have several ideas lying around and then let that guide the rest of the session.  We’ve managed to do enough records that we feel comfortable working together and letting things happen in the studio.

Every member of The Demon Beat handles some part of the band’s operation. You, for example, handle all of the band’s recording while Tucker takes care of the band’s management. Jordan, your drummer, works on the cover art and design for your albums. Does having the DIY ethic put more pressure on the band or does it relieve you of any anxiety?

I feel like it’s more of a relief than anything else.  It’s nice to take things into your own hands for several reasons. I think you take more pride in something that you are actively taking part in and helping push forward. It also keeps things pretty simple as we all live in the same house and able to confer on almost all aspects of what’s going on. It’s more work, I suppose, but all the blame is in house. If there is an issue with something that’s going on, it comes down to one of us and we can generally sort it out pretty quickly.

The new record has an obvious grunge sound to it compared to your earlier records. “Fingers,” for example, sounds straight out of the Nevermind-era Nirvana. How much of it was a conscious decision by the band to explore these directions?

There honestly aren’t very many decisions that are “conscious” in this band.  Besides where we play and when, we generally just kind of let things happen, especially in terms of the sonics of an album. Personally, I had been listening to a lot of things from that era and I feel like that may have seeped its way into the subconscious while we made this record. There was a pretty large Dinosaur Jr. influence on my end, but that was combined with my love for early 70’s power pop – the Beatles and their solo albums, Big Star, Badfinger. I feel like the record sounds like it falls in line with a lot of our previous work, but it has a bit more distortion involved. I think that the perfect record, in my opinion, would be a combination of the Beatles and [Dinosaur Jr.’s]You’re Living All Over Me. I just want to take mid-60’s power pop songwriting and running it through a Big Muff, basically. That’s my goal.

I’ve always thought that the band was the perfect blend of Sabbath-esque hard rock and bluesy work from bands like Joe Walsh-era James Gang. Maybe those two bands don’t the band’s sound for you, but what bands or guitar players are you trying to mimic when you’re searching for the perfect guitar tone?

I don’t think that you’re far off with the Sabbath-James Gang combo. I love both of those bands and bands that sound like those bands. I feel like the three of us in the band have a fairly voracious appetite for music and we listen to a ton of different things which helps me to compartmentalize different sonics and genres. When it comes to guitar sounds, I’ve got a ton of artists and albums in mind as reference points. I guess it really just depends on the songs. I remember Audley Freed [Cry of Love, Black Crowes, the Dixie Chicks] saying that, tonally, he tried to take a bit of Pete Townshend and Malcolm Young with him to any gig. That’s probably a pretty fair description of my aims as well. I like to have a good, basic 60’s guitar tone and then add some fuzzes on top of it. For the Demon Beat specifically, [The Who’s] Live at Leeds and [The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s] Are You Experienced? are the two main cornerstones for what I would like it to sound like. Any time I’m playing with a band or doing a session, I try to have some cornerstones in mind as reference points for what’s going on. That tends to really keep me in the right headspace.

A good number of the songs on Less is Less are references to iconic rock and roll records released over the past several decades. [“Teenage Wasteland” references The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly,” “Song 2 Part 2” tips its hat to Blur, and so on].  The song titles seem like homages and yet there is a playful attitude running through many of those songs. Is it fair to say that poking fun at something you love is a great way to preserve it?

I basically just think that it’s really funny. I thought it was a good idea to have songs called “The Wall,” “Off the Wall,” and “Wonderwall.” I don’t know why I think it’s funny, but I think it is. I think you’re probably right that it’s a great way to preserve it, but the initial reason for it happening is because I think it’s funny.

For all the latest on happenings with The Demon Beat, you can check them out on Facebook, Twitter and their Bandcamp page. You can also find out more information about the band at Funny/Not Funny Records.