The Features to ring in 2011 at Barley’s, look ahead to ‘Chapter Three’
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It’s the mark of a band with enough dedication to persevere and enough self-deprecation not to take itself too seriously that makes The Features one of Tennessee’s best-kept secrets.
The band, which rings in 2011 tonight at Barley’s Taproom in Knoxville, is gearing up for the release of a new album in the spring, it’s second for a label imprint started by mega-rockers (and fellow Tennesseans) Kings of Leon. The guys have modest expectations, but given their 15 years of experience together, including a go with a major label for one album, they don’t have unrealistic ones.
“We’ve been here forever,” singer Matt Pelham told The Daily Times this week. “We’ve been playing the same places and doing our thing because we like to do it — whether or not we’ve made any sort of impact or have left any sort of impression in this area, I don’t really know. We’re grateful that people will still come out to our shows and that there seems like there is an interest in what we’re doing; that’s really good for a band that’s been around for 15 years. It’s nice to be able to play this area and have support.”
That’s an attitude that’s served Pelham and his bandmates — bassist Roger Dabbs, keyboardist Mark Bond and drummer Rollum Haas — well so far. After all, when you grow up in a nondescript little Tennessee town like Sparta, where Friday night fun consists of cruising the town’s main drag and the urge to get out hits every teenage boy sooner or later, you never expect to go as far as The Features have done.
Pelham hooked up with Dabbs when they were 13, and the two started playing covers together. Over time, they graduated to barn parties and local talent contests, focusing more on New Wave and exploring their collective influences — diverse though they are. That diversity continues to be a driving force behind the musical creativity of the band, Pelham said.
“As a band, we have a bit of common ground, but I feel like we all have very different tastes in music, and that helps us a lot,” he said. “I enjoy listening to music from bands in particular that don’t have one niche they stick to. There are bands out there that do their thing and do it really well, but I’ve always been grateful to be one of those bands that isn’t tied down to a particular thing. I’m glad we’re able to branch out a little bit and go into different territory musically.”
Shortly after graduating high school, the guys packed up and moved to Murfreesboro, where they slowly began to take over the music scene of that slightly larger college town. An opening on the drumstool led to Haas joining the band, and before long, the guys had grown bigger than the ’Boro. Almost a decade ago, the UK label Fierce Panda signed the group, and 2003’s “The Beginning” EP was soon snatched up by Universal Records.
Being signed to a major label, however, wasn’t everything it might seem cracked up to be. The release of “Exhibit A” in 2004 was a high point for the band, and The Features made a bigger impact overseas than they did here in the States, but moving forward from that point caused a bit of a stir with the label, Pelham said.
“We had finished touring in support of ‘Exhibit A’ and were ready to start recording the next record, which we were supposed to do through Universal,” he said. “We started rehearsing and getting songs together, and we would give them to the label, because they wanted to hear what we were working on before we ran back to the studio. That process seemed to go on forever; it seemed they were a little reluctant to let us get into the studio and make the second record.
“Finally, two weeks before going in, they told us we needed to do this Chase credit card commercial and cover ‘All You Need Is Love’ by The Beatles. We weren’t too keen on that, but it was sort of laid down to us as an ultimatum — ‘Do this or you’re not going to be on Universal anymore.’ I think we just decided at that point that our best option was just to get out, to move along at our own pace and do what it is we want to do. I can’t complain — when we were on Universal, it was nice. We were able to tour and go to the UK, so it’s not like we’re bitter and jaded about the whole thing.
“It’s just that when it came down to do a second record, we lost a little bit of control, and that left a bad taste in our mouth,” he added.
The guys took their time recording a follow-up, an EP titled “Contrast,” before looking up their old recording comrades who did the original work on “The Beginning” all those years earlier. While not unhappy with the sound of “Exhibit A,” Pelham and his bandmates felt they could capture a more accurate representation of the band’s sound on its next full-length.
“To me, the way ‘Exhibit A’ was recorded and how it translated to those songs makes it seem really raw and in-your-face,” he said. “After that, I feel like all of us wanted to show that there was more to us, like it had left the wrong impression of the band. I think the songs on ‘Some Kind of Salvation’ (released in 2008) are very similar to the ‘Exhibit A’ stuff, but I think the difference is all in the approach to how it was recorded. Because of that, I think ‘Some Kind of Salvation’ is a better representation of what we are as a band.
“It’s not that we dislike ‘Exhibit A,’ but if I were able to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t make it quite as raw as it is. I think some of those songs got a little lost in that translation.”
The Kings of Leon came calling a year later. The Features and the Kings had toured together while the former band was out supporting “Exhibit A,” and being from Tennessee all of the guys hit it off and became friends. When the Kings of Leon started their own record imprint, they thought of their old buddies and wanted to help give “Some Kind of Salvation” a push.
“They were just being nice guys,” Pelham said.
A couple of months ago, The Features completed a new record, tentatively titled “Chapter Three.” It’s a continuation of the band’s punk-flavored indie-pop sound, and Pelham hopes to have it to fans by April or May.
“I feel like it’s a cross between ‘Exhibit A’ and ‘Some Kind of Salvation,’” he said. “I think people who have listened to us will be surprised by some of the stuff on it. I think it’s another step forward for the band.”