No one's comparing Birmingham, Ala., to a Third World country, but to a young kid in love with underground rock, such as Warm in the Wake frontman Chris Rowell, it must've seemed like Darfur.
"I would come to visit my friends in Atlanta, and was like 'Wow, there's a radio station,' and there's not just one, there's two to three radio stations that play really cool stuff," says Rowell, recalling his teens in the '90s, before Internet radio. "When I would go down to Auburn to football games, I would take cassettes and record the radio station down there because it was a helluva lot better than anything we had."
Yet what Birmingham lacked in scene trappings – venues, promoters, radio stations, etc. – it made up for with great local bands. Rowell and drummer James Taylor Jr., who's a couple years younger, met shortly after Rowell graduated from high school and began playing together in bands. Taylor had played with Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley's old band, Adam's Housecat, and Cooley jammed with Taylor and Rowell a couple times as well, though nothing came of it. Rowell also played for a while with Verbena drummer Les Nuby.
Fueled by these experiences and seeking new possibilities, Rowell decamped to Atlanta and, after arriving in '97, started King Lear Jet with Methane Studios artist Robert Lee. It was fun at first, but Rowell's enthusiasm flagged. He moved to Asheville, N.C., for a year in 2001, and they continued to record. They hadn't played live in almost two years when Lee left the band.
But they continued to record.
"We were just recording and didn't know what we were recording. We were doing it just to record," Rowell recalls. The sound was already beginning to change when Lee quit the band. "The new stuff we were writing had a lot more acoustic guitars and kind of your basic song-structure stuff instead of 14 electric-guitar tracks recorded at once."
Changing their name to Warm in the Wake, the quartet started playing out in 2003, and last year signed to Livewire, which culled through those final KLJ recording sessions and more recent material for the seven-song EP, Gold Dust Trail.
The release, by Rowell's own admission, is something of a hodgepodge, recorded in five different studios, and with a couple tracks old enough to feature Robert Lee on guitar. Yet despite the disparate origins, the songs hang together well and provide a fine appetizer for the even better forthcoming LP, American Prehistoric.
Due out Aug. 28, the album's chiming guitars amble through bright folk-pop pastorals swathed in the dulcet shimmer of Dan Barker's organ fills. Rowell's tenor flutters over, abetted by rich backing harmonies in the tradition of the Byrds, while lightly echoing the sun-kissed cosmic country-folk of Beachwood Sparks and Kingsbury Manx. The lyrics reflect some of turmoil surrounding Rowell in the past year, as well as in the world.
"I had grandparents that passed away. I had people that were very, very close to me get divorced, and that seemed to happen in droves," Rowell says. "I think a larger part of the lyrics are trying to relate what we are as a country or people living in this country at this time and thinking about what people are going to think about us thousands and thousands of years from now when we're all fossilized."
One of the album highlights is the loping slow-burn "Joseph Campbell," which finds Rowell searching for a "religious North Star" to lead him from his troubles. It reiterates many of the album's searching themes.
"My grandmother, a couple times used to say, 'That boy needs to get some religion.' And I think it was partially that, and partially it came from arguments everyone has had at one time or another about what the role of religion is," Rowell says. "It's a combination of that argument and then some personal things that maybe wanted me to get some religion, although I'm not a religious person, really."
Not only did Livewire Recordings' owner Colin Cobb make American Prehistoric possible, he produced the album in his home studio. Cobb's father was a big part of Stax Records and, according to Rowell, grew up around recording equipment. But his help went beyond his label and production expertise; he also has a prime stash of vintage keyboards and synthesizers.
"Dan [Barker] was able to kind of capitalize on that, and when we knew we wanted a particular sound, texture or noise at a place in a song, we had a sort of buffet of synths that we could go through," Rowell says. "I probably recorded as many synthesizers on the songs on our EP, but you can't hear them. You can on this record, and that has a lot to do with how well it was recorded."
Building on this momentum is talk of an expanded release of American Prehistoric next year with a handful of bonus tracks. Evidently, Rowell still hasn't exhausted his cache of songs, but he swears it's not filler.
"We like the songs a lot," he says. "It was just like, I didn't think anyone wanted a ridiculously long record, and these seemed to fit together the best."
But with 22 songs already out this year, Rowell really doesn't have to worry about Warm in the Wake making a splash.
Warm in the Wake performs at an in-store album-release show at 7 p.m. Tues., Aug. 28, at Criminal Records.