In a lot of ways, being in a band is like being in a marriage. There is an ebb and flow to bands that stay together for long periods of time — the members grow apart and come back together, finding ways to compromise over ever-evolving influences and ideas. And sometimes, like in a marriage, the best way to keep things going is to spend a little time apart.
After their 2008 release of the sludgy blues-rock album Moon is the New Earth, the members of Boulder’s Rose Hill Drive were beginning to feel burned out. They had, after all, been together for almost 10 years, since drummer Nate Barnes was 16 and guitarist Daniel Sproul was in eighth grade. So, like many lasting relationships, the group decided to take some time off to re-evaluate the band.
“We got to the point where it wasn’t as fun for us, and it just didn’t feel right,” Barnes says. “We felt like it was futile to keep forcing it. … We decided to step away for a bit, and it made us realize how much the group meant to us and gave us a new appreciation of what we were doing.”
The group spent 17 months out of the public eye, and Barnes says the band didn’t do anything Rose Hill Drive-related for about half of that time. Barnes played in the Denver band The Dualistics, eventually recruiting bassist Jimmy Stofer from that group into Rose Hill Drive. When the band resurfaced in July 2010, it was with a new vision, new creative input, a new member (Stofer) and a new direction for their sound.
“I think bringing a new member into the band really changed the whole creative process,” Barnes says. “We didn’t want to just plug [Stofer] into our current formula. We wanted him to be equally involved creatively, and put his own stamp on the sound.”
The result of this creative rebirth is Americana, a garagey, blues-influenced album released earlier this year that keeps some of Moon is the New Earth’s grime while showing an impressive willingness to branch out on tracks like “Baby Doncha Know Your Man” and “Pictures of You.” It’s a huge jump forward for the band, showing polish and maturity underneath the wall-of-sound, guitar-driven, testosterone-fueled rock that defined the group’s first two albums.
In a lot of ways, you can figure out the direction of Rose Hill Drive by which band they decide to cover during their epic New Year’s Eve shows. During the pre-hiatus years, the group made a national name by doing spot-on tribute shows of Led Zeppelin. Their sound matched the bravado of Zeppelin — the goal, it seemed, was to melt faces with an unrelenting onslaught of full-speed rock ’n’ roll. This year, however, the band chose the White Stripes’ Elephant, and the influence is evident on their new album.
“I think learning those songs definitely took us in a new direction that was a product of doing that record,” Barnes says. “We have some of those bluesy elements on this record. Any time you spend a lot of time with playing a certain album, it’s bound to shape you a little bit.”
In Elephant, Rose Hill Drive found a great template for their new sound. Perhaps the most rewarding, and surprising, element of Americana is how the group takes some of that White Stripes weirdness in their own direction. On the album closer “Birthdays and Breakups,” for example, the band sabotages a radio-ready hit by turning the catchiest hook they’ve ever written into an epic nine-minute medley that incorporates the twinkly synths of bright-eyed indie-pop, ’90s grunge hooks, machine-gun drumming and a three-minute coda that wouldn’t sound out of place on the Almost Famous soundtrack.
It’s a fascinating ending, showcasing how versatile Rose Hill Drive can be. Even better, it shows how well that versatility can fit together in one surprisingly cohesive curveball of a song. These curveballs probably wouldn’t have been possible before the group’s self-imposed hiatus, when they were stuck in a rut.
“When you’ve been doing the same thing for as long as I have,” Barnes says, “it’s really refreshing to get out of the box and see some different sides.”
Rose Hill Drive is currently having a banner year, with a well-received album and an opening spot touring with the Stone Temple Pilots. But if “Birthdays and Breakups” is any indication, they still have their masterpiece in them. Americana is a great step for the band, a self-assured record that rewards the group for branching out and taking chances. Something tells me, however, that their next record will be one they are remembered for. Like the best marriages, Rose Hill Drive keeps getting better with age.
On the Bill
Rose Hill Drive plays the Fox Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 15. Doors at 8:30 p.m. Dax Riggs, Mercuria and the Gem Stars open. Tickets are $15 in advance, $17 day of show, with a $2 fee for being under 21. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.