Athens, Georgia has long been home to a hotbed of emerging musicians from a wide range of genres. Over the past couple years, few bands have shown as much promise as that of alt-country rock group Dead Confederate. Falling somewhere between fellow Athens veterans the Drive-By Truckers and longtime legends Dinosaur Jr, Dead Confederate showcase a heavy, hanging and dark sound, matched only by their sprawling guitars.
After playing together for about ten years in different variations of the band, they formed as Dead Confederate in 2006 and released their debut album Wrecking Ball two years later. With their sophomore album Sugar scheduled to be released later this month (August 24th via TAO/Old Flame), the Athens quintet have started to gear up for several months of extensive touring in support of the record.
One Thirty BPM caught up with co-songwriter/bassist Brantley Senn for a phone interview during their two week tour with their good friends Deer Tick. During our conversation, we spent time discussing Sugar, misconceptions surrounding their name, working with J. Mascis and Senn’s musical influences.
Let’s start off with a quick update as to how the Dead Confederate’s summer has been going—between touring and a new album Sugar on the horizon?
Brantley Senn: The tour’s just starting off—so far, so well—it’s pretty awesome. We’re on the road with Deer Tick right now—those guys are good buddies and we really dig their band.
How did you end up touring with Deer Tick? Did you know them before?
BS: I guess we’re mutual friends, fans of each other’s bands. That’s kind of how this tour happened. John [McCauley, of Deer Tick] came down to Athens and we hung out once or twice. We hit it off pretty well—it just kind of made sense.
How long is the tour with Deer Tick going for?
BS: We just played our second show with them—this is a two-week tour with them. We get two weeks off before we go out for a month and a half with Alberta Cross and a local band from Athens—Futurebirds—will be on the road with us. Heavy touring starts in a little bit.
As the album comes out I’m sure.
BS: Yeah, exactly, we’ll be touring all for Sugar.
So tell me about Sugar—why the name first off, and also what the album is about as a whole.
BS: It’s a title track—and we like to do title tracks because we hate naming stuff. It’s weird because New Jersey [where we recorded] was covered in snow the whole time we were up there. We got up there, and it started snowing until we left. That led to the name Sugar I guess.
We wrote all the songs prior to going up there. We already had all the tunes done before we got up there. But we didn’t learn them really until the week before going up to the studio. We’re kind of scatterbrained when it comes to writing—we just write whatever comes to mind. So it’s pretty varied on that record, probably more so than Wrecking Ball.
It’s a title track—and we like to do title tracks because we hate naming stuff.
What ways do you think Sugar remains most similar to Wrecking Ball? Where does it depart the most?
BS: There’s still some really heavy rockin’ stuff in there. There’s a friend of mine in front of me, I told him we were making a pop record just to mess around. It’s still pretty heavy and rockin’ like the old album, but there are upbeat songs on this record where there really wasn’t any on the last one. It’s a lot more upbeat, the songs are a lot thinner, we shortened a lot of the tunes.
So there’s definitely no more 12-minute tracks on Sugar?
Since Wrecking Ball, has your songwriting process changed as a whole? Are you and Hardy [Morris] still the main songwriters or has it opened up to the whole band?
BS: No, It’s still me and Hardy—we make it a partnership. The songwriting process for Hardy is pretty much the same, but for me it’s a lot different. I started using my laptop to record stuff and really create more complete tracks before giving them to the band. I kind of record like I was recording my own album, and then let them do what they wanted with it. At first, it was usually like an acoustic guitar—this time around it’s more completed I guess.
In terms of your name Dead Confederate—how did you decide on that name?
BS: Hardy came up with it, we just wanted something that sounded like our band and didn’t carry too much meaning—that would grasp people’s attentions. We felt like the combination of those words was probably about the perfect combination.
I find it interesting that, since you didn’t want any connotation with your name, many critics still ended up associating you with a Confederate theme or with the Old South. Was that something you intended to do in the likes of the Drive-By Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera or do you think that people just misinterpret the meaning of your name.
BS: It’s just attention grabbing. Sometimes…[people] kind of question it, but I think it says that you’re a band and all of their songs are just out of their head. They can see pretty quickly that we’re normal people, and not all about the South or anything like that. I think most of us are all pretty liberal dudes, quite opposite of anyone about the Confederacy.
I remember this one time we were in Statesboro, Georgia, and this lady with an organization called the ‘Sons of the Confederacy’—she had a rebel flag windbreaker on. She visited with us and was like, “I just wanted to come and meet you all, and make sure y’all weren’t going to be doing injustice to the Confederacy.” And we were all like “What are you talking about? You’ve already done yourself a disservice.”
I think most of us are all pretty liberal dudes, quite opposite of anyone about the Confederacy.
One of your new tracks “Giving It All Away” features Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis. How did you come about working with him? What was it like to work with such a legendary musician like J. Mascis?
BS: We did a couple tours with him. We toured with Dinosaur Jr. in America, overseas in England and in Europe, and we went back over there with J. Mascis too. He’s been really good to us getting us out on the road and giving us good opportunities.
When we were going into record the album, it was actually our producer John Agnello —he’s recorded a bunch of Dinosaur Jr. albums. It was his idea. He was like, “Man, we have to get J. [Mascis] on this track, he’d be perfect.” He called [Mascis] and sent the reels up to Boston where he lives and he just did it in his studio up there, and sent us back what he did. And we were like “Hell yeah!” J. [Mascis] really can’t do no wrong.
The similarities between Dinosaur Jr. and Dead Confederate are definitely present. And I know many have pegged you guys as anything including Pink Floyd to My Morning Jacket to Nirvana and so on. But just out of curiosity, how do you all self-identity in terms of influences? Do you and the rest of the Dead Confederate agree with these comparisons, or see the band in a different light.
BS: I see us a lot differently. As a songwriter, I don’t sit down and start off thinking one of our songs sound like this person or this genre—everything kind of flows naturally. I think a lot of songwriting is subconscious, it just leaks out of you. Sometimes you don’t write the song, the song writes you.
Sometimes you don’t write the song, the song writes you.
For you then, what musicians would you say are embedded within your subconscious that has been that influential for you growing up and currently as a songwriter?
BS: I don’t know, I listen to everything. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of The Replacements. Sonic Youth is a band that has always inspired me. It’s really a game changing thing for me, it really extended my outlook on music—the way they can use noise and chords that don’t really sound right to good effect. I took a lot from them on that. My Morning Jacket—their first couple albums At Dawn and Tennessee Fire are incredible. I just love the way they can have the Southern folk song at the heart of this huge big rock. It may not be the case anymore though—they’ve changed their style a lot.
At Dawn is no Evil Urges, to say the least.
BS: No, no—totally different. That’s good though, I appreciate bands that aren’t afraid to change things up. If you keep making the same album over and over again, you’re going to get bored. People have to realize it’s not always about them; sometimes it’s about the artist.
Sonic Youth is a band that has always inspired me. It’s really a game changing thing for me, it really extended my outlook on music—the way they can use noise and chords that don’t really sound right to good effect.
Define your band’s sound in 1-2 phrases.
BS: Definitely loud. A lot of a slide guitar. Pretty Southern and pretty crazy and pretty heavy.
What’s your favorite venue that you have played at?
BS: Internationally, it would probably Paradiso in Amsterdam—it’s a really old church that they’ve redone and it’s absolutely beautiful. In America, I’d have to say the 40 Watt—it’s for all my homeboys, we know nearly everyone who works there.
How do you define the group as a live band? What’s your favorite song to play live?
BS: As a live band I’ve always thought of us as keeping things pretty loose and ruckus-ey. We used to destroy shit all the time—break the drum kit, all that kind of stuff. It’s settled down now, I guess we’re getting old or something, I don’t know. At the same time, we’re very focused and in tune with each onstage, probably more than a lot of other bands are. It’s probably because we have been together now for over 10 years in different variations of the band. We started off with improvisation and just making stuff up on the spot. And that really helped us grow as a band.
As far as favorite song to play live, right now it’s basically any new song we have since we played the songs on Wrecking Ball for four years—two years before the album and two years after. These are really fresh, and it’s fun playing these shorter rockers—I’ve really been enjoying it. I still love playing the old stuff too, but it’s nice to be able to mix it up, give the crowd more variety.