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Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2008

New South

Dead Confederate rebuffs Southern-rock conventions

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   Though his band's name seems pretty self-explanatory to him, Dead Confederate bassist Brantley Senn is amazed at how often it's misinterpreted.

  "We're supposed to play this show sponsored by a cigarette company that rhymes with 'mammal,' and they refused to even put our name on the tickets," Senn says with a sigh. "They had a writer that refused to even write about us, because he said the name was racist. How dumb is that? We're Dead Confederate. It's not like we're Alive and Well and Retired in Florida Confederate."

  Despite its debt to the supportive Athens, Ga., music scene-and, in particular, to fellow Athenians R.E.M., whose endorsements sparked early interest in the band-the group has a conflicted relationship with its Southern heritage. The band's incendiary name makes clear its disdain for conservative Southern values, and the scathing debut single "The Rat" specifically calls out evangelical hypocrisy. But although its songs' unhurried pace and ghostly, implied twang nod to country-rock, the band's dominant influences aren't remotely Southern. The band looks toward the North, mining '90s rainy-day alt-rock, with a particular emphasis on Seattle grunge and Nirvana.

  Singer and guitarist Hardy Morris admits somewhat sheepishly that he still has videos of himself at age 13 playing his favorite Nirvana songs. The Nirvana influence is so deeply ingrained that he even sings with Kurt Cobain's unmistakable tics, reproducing both Cobain's harrowed growl and his pinched whimper.

  Senn, who tag-teams songwriting duties with Morris, is more outspoken about his debt to Nirvana than his band mate, probably because he's not subjected to the lofty Cobain comparisons that Morris' voice invites.

  "These days a lot of people just hate the '90s, the same way they used to hate the '80s, but I don't have a problem with that era-these are my jams, these are what I grew up with," he says. "We all have a shared bond over Nirvana, though I'm not a fan of Nevermind. I remember my parents were supposed to get me Nevermind for Christmas, and they got me Bleach instead because the clerk said that's the one I needed. He was damn right."

  Like Nirvana, Dead Confederate's songs are charged and direct, drawing from deeply personal experiences but trimmed of autobiographical specifics. The band assumed that …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead/Spoon producer Mike McCarthy would help dress up its naked songs during the recording sessions for its debut album, Wrecking Ball, but McCarthy had other ideas. He kept the songs as stripped-down as possible, capturing as much as he could live to tape.

  "The album is actually even rawer than it sounds," Morris says. "We did a bunch of the songs in just one take, and I did the vocals in a day and a half. With Mike's gear, though, everything ended up sounding very good."

  McCarthy's gear was just about the only amenity afforded by his makeshift Austin, Texas, studio, a small concrete room that Trail of Dead uses as its practice space. The band nicknamed it "the dump."

  "I've been in tons of studios-many of my friends even have their own-and this was by far the crappiest one I've ever been in," Senn says. "I mean, many studios now have amenities like TVs and PlayStations. Some have big kitchens, and you can even sleep in them, but this place was just a box. It had just one couch and one chair-so one of us literally had to be standing whenever we were in the studio. I'm claustrophobic, so it's tough enough living in a hotel room side by side with four other guys nonstop, but this was even smaller than the hotel."

  Because of its bare-bones origins, Morris and Senn say that Wrecking Ball is about as honest a representation of the band as possible, at least for now. Senn promises a drastically different direction for their follow-up album.

"I think people will be surprised to see how we've evolved when they hear our next record," Senn says. "We definitely need to be one of those bands that shakes things up every album, so the next album won't just be another Wrecking Ball. If it is, I'm not doing it."

  Dead Confederate and Catfish Haven play a free, 11:30 p.m. after-show at Mo's Irish Pub following the Oct. 3 My Morning Jacket concert at the neighboring Riverside Theater.