Down By Avalon :: UM-117

Down By Avalon

“It’s all about the melody, baby. And it’s melody that is the common thread that binds us together and informs our creative process. Initially it was a simple love of the perfect pop song, and a longing for a return to the energy and feeling of a distant era—an era of pop music reminiscent of the sixties and seventies and English pop bands in particular —that inspired us to start a band and create new music.”

Some bands form with the intention of becoming big rock stars. Some exist simply to play covers over a few beers with their friends. Some want to look “hot” onstage or get “rad” tatoos and sell t-shirts with “cool” designs of their band logo. Some bands come complete with a great artistic statement or political agenda in hand, with slogans to shout and manifestos to sell.

While they didn’t quite realize it at first, Down By Avalon’s aim is comparatively simple — to combine an honest, unpretentiously good-times vibe with a serious penchant for great pop hooks and melodies. In the process, three unique personalities stumbled upon something new, a sound made up of many influences, bound into one expressive whole: their self-titled Urban Myth debut Down By Avalon.

Lead singer Alan Martin is the band’s primary songwriter. Born of English parents living in the western mountains of North Carolina, Alan’s laid back, “aw-shucks” demeanor masks a sharp intellect that is always watching, listening — silently taking note. A steady diet of The Beatles, a dash of Jethro Tull and the eventual discovery of the wiry, infectious sounds of XTC inspired him to pick up a guitar and start making his own music. Alan’s songs are an honest and pure reflection of the pop music he grew up hearing as a kid, filtered through a very grown-up, dry wit and and a good-natured vibe of pessimistic optimism. At the same time, on the eastern coast of North Carolina in the long historical shadow of the lost colony, bassist Dempsey Elks was consuming a constant AM radio buffet of Motown, Blues Rock and English Pop Groups.

Meanwhile, drummer David Needham was playing football, percussion and horns in school orchestras, military bands and brass bands in his native Manchester, England. After relocating to Durham, NC for an immersion in American roots music, blues, rock, country and some music of the nineties – “the eighteen nineties”, he quips – he was soon introduced to Alan and Dempsey. Over drinks Alan confessed he “had a couple of songs written.” Dempsey had a few of his own. They resolved to start a band. Dempsey heard Van Morrison sing “Won’t you meet me/down by Avalon” and they had a band name.

After a few years of woodshedding and local gigs, they recorded an EP’s worth of songs with Dempsey’s friend (and ex-Ben Folds Five bassist) Robert Sledge, but felt they still weren’t quite ready to properly release. Robert soon introduced them to his friend Dan Bryk, who had recently relocated to NC from Toronto. Dempsey dropped by Sledge’s studio while Bryk was producing Canadian indie popsters The Bicycles there, and liked what he heard. A lot. They all went for sushi after rehearsal, and soon Bryk had not only offered to produce, but started to join the band on keys onstage. Alan: “Our album is really a collaboration between us and Dan. We were already fans when he offered to play with us and help produce the record. We all agreed that it was important to record and mix old school, on an analog studio desk using vintage microphones.”

Recorded and mixed at Chapel Hill’s Rubber Room Studio (known for pristine bluegrass recordings of the likes of Doc Watson and The Steep Canyon Rangers) with meticulous overdubs at Bryk’s Flabby Road Studio, the result is a masterful blend of analog and digital, old and new, borrowed and blue. The combination of arranging and production skills lift the songs and sound to a new level, creating a framework for the songs to reveal (sometimes even wink at) their influences, and yet still grow into something fresh and original. Dempsey: “Dan’s piano playing added dimension and depth to our songs, and his organ and orchestral parts add texture that allows the vocal and melody to stand out.” Joined by a handful of Chapel Hill friends, Down By Avalon puts the songs front and center, with earthy, immediate playing and deep emotional commitment.

David: “If there is one thing that this record is about, it is the song. Each song has its own character and was recorded to reveal that character. Alan’s voice is strong and can stand alone, and with the addition of backing vocals it stands even taller.” Martin’s vibrato-laden, high-lonesome voice bears traces of many influences—Bryan Ferry, Cat Stevens, Michael Stipe, and Burton Cummings come to mind—and his wise, intelligent lyrics and persistent ear for melody hint that he might be joining that kind of exalted company in time.

Dempsey (as usual) gets the last word: “The most surprising comments about the record have been in the “your-music-reminds-me-of” vein. Everyone seems to have a completely different idea of what the record sounds like to them. And that’s kind of the point. We hope that everyone comes away from our shows with something to think about, whether it’s something from the lyrics, or even just that they really tapped their toes a lot. As long as they’re humming one of our songs on their way home.”

Street Date: July 1, 2008

Track Listing:

1. yes she said
2. losing ground
3. sometimes mondays
4. canterbury road
5. everything i’ll ever need
6. at ease in the electric chair
7. i am not
8. stand me down
9. all the crazy things
10. i believe

Produced by Dan Bryk and Down By Avalon.

Recorded and mixed by Dan Bryk and Dempsey Elks at The Rubber Room, Chapel Hill, and Flabby Road, Raleigh. Additional engineering assistance from Jerry Brown, Tod Stilley and Robert Sledge at the Rubber Room. Ryan Pickett’s guitar was recorded at Pick’s Gym. Mastered by Jeff Carroll at Bluefield Mastering, Raleigh.

All songs written by Alan Martin (ASCAP) except I Am Not and Stand Me Down by Alan Martin and Dempsey Elks (ASCAP), and All The Crazy Things by Dempsey Elks and Christian Enajado. ©2007 All Rights Reserved.