What started out as a backing band now has taken on a life of its own, thanks to the determination by The Common Creatures to persevere.
The band originally was the backing group for solo rocker Albert Murrian, who put The Common Creatures together to build out his complex brand of pop-rock. For Matt Montgomery, an East Tennessee guitarist who’s also part of the band Southern Cities, it was a nice change of pace.
“I had been playing more progressive rock in Southern Cities, and I really enjoyed some of these throwback, more sunshine sort of pop tunes that we were playing with Albert,” he told me recently. “It was more traditional rock ’n’ roll. The great thing about Albert is that he’s got this singular artist vision, and he knows what he wants to be, and it doesn’t always jive with what a group wants.
“We were sort of having differing opinions and problems with our practice schedules, and then out of the blue one day, he sent us a group text telling us our services were no longer needed. After a couple of days, I sent a couple of texts to the rest of the band, asking if they wanted to keep playing and writing songs, and so we just became The Common Creatures from there.”
There is no bad blood between themselves and Murrian, he emphasized; both parties are mutual fans of one another, even if they’re not collaborating musically any longer. And building off the bedrock established as Murrian’s musical co-conspirators, Montgomery added, gave The Common Creatures a solid start in a scene that’s brimming with talented musicians.
Alex Trammell, who had been playing bass in The Common Creatures, moved over to keyboards; Emily Tinsley, who had provided backup vocals, stepped up to the mic and took up lead. Her husband, Andrew Tinsley, stayed in the drummer’s chair, and bass-playing journeyman Jon Augustus joined the group to make it a five-piece.
“We started writing in the summer of 2018, and we reached out to John (Harvey) and Mary (Podio) of Top Hat Recording,” Montgomery said. “We tracked the whole album there, and the great thing about John and Mary is that they’re so accomplished, yet so comfortable and easy to work with. I’ve worked with a lot of great engineers in this town, but they’re probably the easiest, because they really listen and talk to you on your level. They’re a big believer in getting the right group of people in the right space to see what happens. Well, we had the right people and the right space to cut this record, and it let us really get in the groove.”
The band’s self-titled EP is a kaleidoscope of sumptuous pop that’s truly a teamwork effort. Emily Tinsley’s vocals wrap around bluesy keys, languid guitar and her husband’s tasteful licks on the lead-off track, “Calm Before the Storm,” which segues into a bouncy piano-pop piece called “Do You” that’s a homage to late ’60s psychedelic pop. No instrument overpowers the other, and no player is given a weightier role in the songs: It truly is a team effort, and for Montgomery, it unlocks a whole different part of his artistic brain.
“Southern Cities is a great band, and we still play together and have fun; as a guitar player, I love all the (progressive) stuff and trying to connect chords that I don’t think go together and just getting songs out of interesting ideas,” he said. “But I also love old school soul and R&B music, stuff that just has a great feel. Maybe the chords don’t have a lot of tension, but it just has that feel that hits you in your gut.
“With this band, we wanted to try to write songs that make people want to dance. In Southern Cities, we’re trying to push the limits of what you think will really work, but with Common Creatures, we’re focusing on what’s going to get to someone’s core and really get them feeling these songs.”
The interplay between his guitar work and Trammell’s keys opens up new avenues of sonic exploration, allowing the pair to build rich, sustained notes that are ideal for layering in the studio or establishing a smoother framework than traditional two-guitar rock bands.
“From a guitar standpoint, I’m thinking, ‘Where can I lock in on some smooth chords tonally and go for that less-aggressive sound that still has some grit to it but is really melodic and interesting?’” he said. “As the rhythm section, Andrew and Jon just bring all this to life in this wonderful way. Both those guys just have the groove inside of them, and they’re keenly aware of what serves the song well.”
The local reception, so far, has been a positive one: The band has performed at venues as diverse as Barley’s Maryville to The Open Chord to Barley’s Knoxville, and has gotten airplay on local stations WUTK-FM and WDVX-FM. One peer, he added with a laugh, compared their sound to the “Muppets” house band, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, and to Montgomery.
“We just love sharing our tunes, and people seem to really be grooving on the harmonies we’ve got going on,” he said.