Lots of rock bands move to the big city with stadium-sized dreams and a van full of gear, nipping at the heels of the bands they idolize. It’s the lucky few that turn those rock dreams into reality, and for Nashville’s Music Band, the Cinderella story is real. In five short years, three best friends grew from fish out of water into local heroes, proving that rock dreams still do come true. And they’re just getting started.
Music Band’s debut LP, Wake Up Laughing, dropped on April Fools’ Day on the erstwhile Nashville label Infinity Cat Recordings. It’s an 11-track jaunt through your dad’s rock record collection, filtered through 2016 Nashville DIY. One of the loudest three-pieces you’ll ever hear, they harmonize over classic rock riffs and screaming solos, carrying the torch for rock and roll into the 21st century. It’s their breakout moment, the culmination of half a decade of grinding it out together, starting from scratch in a new town, rising to the top of an underground rock scene with a refreshing sincerity.
Harry Kagan, Lee Putney, and Duncan Shea were best bros in college; all three attended Ithaca College in upstate New York. In the summer of 2010, just before their senior year, Kagan started writing songs and roped in Putney to play drums. Shea was already doing his own thing with other bands, but would hang out while they practiced. He soon decided they needed a bass player, and despite not actually knowing how to play bass, he ordered one off eBay, with the intention that once they found a proper bass player he could step back. But as they lived together, and played together, “Duncan got really good at bass, and he just… stayed,” Kagan explains.
As the trio planned their post-graduation move, they considered for a moment the clichéd hajj to Brooklyn. But it was Kagan’s mom who suggested they check out Nashville. “I was like, ‘Shut up, Mom, you’re ruining my life! Butt out,” Kagan recalls. But on the way to play SXSW 2011, they made a tour stop in Nashville; they caught the Those Darlins’ Screws Get Loose release party, and loved it so much they stopped by again on the way back home to Ithaca. “Leaving college is a sort of symbolic step of going into the real world,” Kagan says. “By moving to Nashville together it was like, well, music is gonna be our focus, and we’re gonna try to make this a thing.” By October, they were there. It made sense; it was where a bunch of their favorite bands lived: JEFF The Brotherhood, Those Darlins, Natural Child, and Pujol, just to name a few. In a few short years, they could call those bands contemporaries, but that fall, they were nobodies. “We basically started over,” Putney says.
But they stayed on their grind, immersing themselves in Nashville’s burgeoning DIY scene. They played house shows and clubs, even playing a monthly gig at the Stone Fox for a spell. They did some regional touring, and felt the Nashville effect every time they left town. Whenever people found out where they were from, it immediately triggered associations with the bands that drew them to the city in the first place. “There was definitely a Nashville presence everywhere we went that people would relay to us,” Kagan says.
(L-R) Music Band’s Lee Putney, Harry Kagan, and Duncan Shea recording a ‘Jam In The Van’ session in Austin, Texas, March 17, 2016. Photo by Matthew Ismael Ruiz.
They put out most of their music for free on Bandcamp, but after a few years, they were invited to put out a 7″ single (“I Was Like”) and a seven-song cassette (Can I Live) on Infinity Cat. But there’s a significance to Wake Up Laughing, the band’s first LP, that they don’t take lightly. They still see the album as the ultimate product for a rock band, an acknowledgment of where they’ve been and the legitimacy of what they’ve been working towards. “To experience what it’s like to really be nobody is important,” Kagan says. “And that kinda coincides with this being a debut album, on a label, with a cover. You can hold it in your hands. That’s a really important thing.”
“We have been writing songs and recording them ourselves and with friends for a really long time,” Shea says. “The only difference is, now, somebody asked us if we would put out a record on their label.”
Up until Wake Up Laughing, Shea had engineered and recorded much of their output. They had planned to record the LP at home, but caught a break when one of their favorite producers Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff) called them up to say he had a last-minute cancellation for October, right around the time they were ready to record. Tokic is famous in town for his analog tape recording studio, the Bomb Shelter, and the boys wasted no time taking advantage of the new opportunity.
“One of coolest things about recording to tape is when you mix it, on tape, it’s a performance in itself,” Shea says. “Because every mix you hear is him moving sliders up and down the whole time; it’s not just automation on computer screen. It’s a performance, and we’ll talk about if we liked it… we’re critiquing him in a way, it’s a role reversal. It’s really cool. Recording on tape is badass.”
Despite living the dream of seeing how all their favorite records from 40 and 50 years ago were actually recorded, the band insists they still would have wanted to record with Tokic, even if it was on a digital setup like Pro Tools. Beyond his skill and personality, a quick look at the rate tab on the Bomb Shelter web site might offer a clue; not unlike a Nashville Steve Albini, his reputation and equipment far surpass his rates.
“He’s not only a great engineer, but stands for something that I can get behind in the world of recording,” Shea says. “He’s providing access, to people with limited resources, to world-class recording gear.”
Shea originally found it difficult to relinquish control over the production, but Tokic’s intuition and mad scientist vibes in the studio made it easy to trust him. It also didn’t hurt to watch him do bizarre things in the studio that sounded incredible. “He would do crazy shit like just flip the tape over and record the vocals backwards, then re-record the backwards vocals with the tape delay,” Shea says. “He’s a crazy wizard,” Kagan adds, helpfully.
You’d need either a vintage or high-powered analog rig to hear all the analog nuance of Wake Up Laughing‘s recording process, but even on SoundCloud or Spotify, you can still hear the faint electrical hum at the start of each track, and the guitar tones feel warm and three-dimensional. It mostly rocks, but even at its loudest and most brash, it’s sincere; you’d be hard pressed to find a shred of irony amongst its 11 songs. They’re proud of who they are, what they’ve made, and who they made it with. Nashville’s their new home, and that they’ve embraced them makes them ready to take their music across the country.
“It’s important to us that we can put a piece of what we’re doing into the Infinity Cat catalog, and [help] build it” Putney says. “It feels really good.”
Music Band might not be Big Time yet, but they’re certainly on their way. As they start to worry less and less about part-time jobs and focus more of their energy on the band, they now have something to hang their hat on — no matter what happens from here on out, they’ve still got that record. “This record that we just made was sort of the catalyst for all of us saying, ‘OK, we’re gonna do it for real.'” And it’s real good.