Tony Cummings reports on the impossible-to-pigeonhole band from Nashville, PAPER ROUTE
Indie rock band from Nashville, Paper Route, have become favourites with the rock critics despite having only released three full-length albums since their formation in 2004 and being a band all-but-impossible to pigeonhole. "Synthpop", "post-punk revival" and "shoegaze" have all been used by journos trying to describe the band's eclectic sound. When reviewing Paper Route's latest album 'Real Emotion' (released on 23rd September by Kemosabe Records, an offshoot of Sony Music Entertainment), Huffington Post singled out the band's "Writing On The Wall" describing it as "fascinating in its genre-ambiguous construction, having components from so many types of songs blended into one." The same critic wrote, "Where 'Real Emotion' stands apart from its peers is in its understanding of aural palette-cleansers. Bigger anthemic swells are often preceded and succeeded by atmospheric, ethereal lulls."
Despite, or possibly because, of Paper Route's determination to avoid pop rock formula, large-scale success has avoided the band despite their three albums being on major labels. They have however built up a loyal clique of supporters and the release of 'Real Emotion' has been received by fans with genuine excitement. Reviewer Christopher Smith wrote, "'Real Emotion' shows a band that pushes boundaries and engages you in a way that actually leaves an impact on you rather than being another record for quick consumption. The music industry needs more artists like Paper Route."
The original lineup of Paper Route consisted of Chad Howat, JT Daly and Andy Smith who met while attending Greenville College in Greenville, Illinois. By 2006 the trio had recorded a self-titled independent EP and later the same year a Christmas EP, 'A Thrill Of Hope'. The latter was issued through Universal Music and a track from the project "The Music" was later to be featured in the 2009 film (500) Days Of Summer. By 2007 the band were being noticed and were featured on Paste magazine's website as artists to watch and the following year their music was featured in the TV show One Tree Hill.
The band's full-length album debut 'Absence' was released on Universal Motown in April 2009. It was favourably reviewed by Cross Rhythms who wrote about the band "crafting haunting melodies reminiscent of those by Thom Yorke of Radiohead [that] are placed over sparse keyboard-based electronic soundscapes." It was to be three years before the band's second album emerged by which time Andy Smith had left. The project 'The Peace Of Wild Things' reached 164 on Billboard's Hot 200 and was recently described by JesusFreakHideout as "magnificent". Singles and tours followed but after losing drummer Gavin McDonald plans were put on hold for the third album. Finally, Nick Aranda joined Paper Route. As Chad Howell at explained to JesusFreakHideout this kickstated the band into fresh creative activity. "We brought him in and it was just effortless. He fit perfectly and I'd say from that point on, the writing and recording was pretty amazing. The only other hangup you have after that is, it just takes a while to release an album, like, the business side of things. I don't know if a lot of people know that. You know, you turn in an album, and a label sometimes takes six months just to press for something. So, it was a lot of hurry up and wait, but we made it."
Chad continued "We wrote, probably 150 snippets of ideas, or full blown songs. We just had a threshold of what's fitting all of us and making us feel something, and that we're not retreading anything. So in order to get to the quality we have to sometimes, at least so far, it's always been through a lot of quantity, a lot of really cool ideas that just may never get heard, because for whatever reason, it's just not easy to write songs. You know, good, "great" songs I think. We kind of hold ourselves to a high standard. So, it just took us awhile. [When] we have to get in a van and tour, we have to believe in every single note of every single song".
One reviewer has suggested that 'Real Emotion' is "an old school concept album that tells the story of the stages of a relationship that, alas, has run its course" while in an interview the band suggested the album "is about mental health and healing." Chad commented, "I think that maybe the healthier you get the more you're able to create and dig deeper and even go darker, because you can - you're able to ask a whole new set of questions that you were never able to ask before. And it was a process, I mean, we all went through some stuff, and me specifically, I got off some medication while we were making this album and then went back on medication while making this album. I was engaged at the time and it was a very real thing for me to see this woman that was signing up to be with me for the rest of my life see a completely different version of me."
Chad spoke about the song "Untitled". "Right before we moved into the North House, we had been stringing demos for a little bit but we knew we needed to shake things up, which is why we decided to move out to that house in the hills of Tennessee. So I kind of had a last minute burst of inspiration and I wrote a bunch of songs, and I finally felt like I was on a roll - I [had] felt like I had writer's block for a long time. And that was one of them - all the music for 'Untitled' was for the most part, I kind of had sketched out. The night after we set up everything I played JT two tracks, one was the track that became 'Balconies' and the other was the track that became 'Untitled'. He asked me to send them both to him via email so he could work on it on his computer. And then I think it was the next morning he came up [from] the basement where his station was set up and essentially had the whole song, all the lyrics and melodies just completely outlined. It was shockingly one of the easiest -I mean, those two songs especially are probably the two easiest songs we've ever written."
JT added his thoughts about "Untitled". "I was engaged and just finished a season of my life where I was devouring all of these books on human sexuality, and just the studies of fidelity and infidelity, and what it's like to choose one person, and how that sort of collides with religious perspective and the way that I was raised and just what my sort of moral compass sort of gravitates towards. This was, I think, the first song on the album that I tried to tackle some of that. It's pretty much a hymn, like I wanted to approach it the way that hymns are just repeated over and over again. I grew up in the church, we all in Paper Route grew up in the church, and you can't really ever undo that from your DNA. I think that we tried when we were younger because it's not 'cool,' you know, because people [could make us an] easy target, especially in the press. But now I just don't really care at all anymore about that, because it's just such a part of the way that I approach music. To think about when I was a kid, I was just always around people that were standing and singing together, unified. That's a really powerful thing that I can't really get out of my brain. That just seems natural to me - people come together, they sing in unison for something. And it's usually these very easy phrases and sometimes it repeats, and repeats, and repeats, and it builds, and it drops, and then it gets big at the end. This was our spin on that, just with universal lyrics about fighting for the one you've chosen. And it stuck."
One of the best tracks on the album, "Zhivago", was released as a single in 2015. JT spoke about the song. "Dr Zhivago, my mom always told me, was the first movie I ever saw, because while she was pregnant [with me] she would watch it multiple times and then when I was born, she would just have it on. That kind of led to me as a kid, like when I was five or six, just loving the soundtrack. I remember watching it some years later and just realising how heavy and ridiculous a story that was, like the most epically intense romance movie of all time - I mean, it's almost laughably dramatic - but it's just this gorgeous, very, very long film, and I don't remember how exactly I was talking to Chad about this, but it came up and I remember him telling me, 'Man, I wrote this song, (*Chad laughs*) and it has this awesome melody in it,' and I just started singing 'Zhivago'. For the album we totally changed the words. . . All the chords and the melodies stayed the same but we didn't have like a good musical bit for it. The drum beat was the hardest thing in the world to figure out. I remember we spent days trying to come up with the drum beat and we realised the stupidest, dumbest beat was what the song needed."
Chad was asked what he wanted listeners to take away from 'Real Emotion'. He responded, "We're basically like architects of a park or something. So we created this park, there's a playground, there's benches, there's a lake, there's a path around it, there's gardens, and our job now is done. So, you could have little kids going on the slides, you could have a couple falling in love or proposing, you could have a 75-year-old man scattering his wife's ashes in the lake. It's for the people. It's for everyone. We've done our job, and now people can get out of it what they're supposed to get out of it. But I don't think we'd ever be like 'We need to get this out of that.' I guess the collective hope is that people get something out of it."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.