“Halfway to Hopkins,” the 2015 debut album by the Charleston band Atlas Road Crew, was a deep dive into classic rock ’n’ roll by a bunch of guys who were barely out of college.
The twin guitar attack was pure Stones (with a dash of The Black Crowes); the album’s opening track, “Voices,” had an instant-classic ascending chorus that sounded tailor-made for the car radio; and everything about the album, from Taylor Nicholson’s gritty howl of a voice to the riffs to the strictly analog keyboards, was a down-the-line dose of old-school Southern-tinged rock. And it caught on in a way the band hadn’t expected.
“Halfway to Hopkins” brought Atlas Road Crew a devoted following around the world and a ton of critical praise, from a four-star review in local publications like the South Carolina Music Guide to a rave from the national magazine Relix. The band played about 200 shows in that first year after the release of “Hopkins,” and they were able to gain enough momentum to launch a three-month European tour, playing in Germany, Spain, Belgium, and France to packed houses.
So the safe, and perhaps logical, thing for the band to do next was make “Halfway to Hopkins Vol. 2.” It’s something of a surprise, then, that their new album, “Chasing Fire,” is a fairly bold departure.
Instead of straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll, the band went for a darker, more atmospheric approach, weaving synthesizers and electronics into their guitar-heavy attack. There’s a pronounced, polished feel to the more modern-sounding songs on “Chasing Fire,” though the hooks and melodies are just as strong as the band’s first album. Working with indie-pop singer-songwriter Stephen Fiore (aka Young Mister) and noted Charleston producer Wolfgang Zimmerman, the band sounds decidedly more mature this time.
“The songs on the first album were very raw and innocent,” says Atlas Road Crew’s singer-guitarist Taylor Nicholson. “We’d have a song idea, throw some lyrics on it, and if it felt good, it worked. The second album had a lot more thought to it. We loved ‘Halfway to Hopkins’ and we were really pleased with the way it turned out, but I think this one is more of an experimental album where we were trying out different approaches to songwriting.”
Nicholson co-wrote an initial set of four songs with Fiore during occasional visits back to Charleston while touring, and he says they mostly had an “acoustic singer-songwriter vibe.” It was only after they went into the studio with Zimmerman, who’s produced albums by Susto, Brave Baby, and Heyrocco, that the true sound of “Chasing Fire” began to take shape.
“We showed the songs to [Zimmerman] and he’d say, ‘Maybe we’ll change these chords here, or change the speed here,’” Nicholson says, “but the lyrics and the melody, we stayed true to. It was kind of cool to turn a sappy love song into a weird rock ’n’ roll tune.”
“Chasing Fire” took about a year to make, and Nicholson says that being able to record at home in Charleston made them feel more comfortable with taking some chances.
“The pressure’s always there because you want to prove yourself and create something you’re proud of,” he says, “but it was easier in the bigger picture, because we were home, sleeping in our own beds, not in some hotel. We recorded ‘Halfway to Hopkins’ in Atlanta for a few days, then in Columbia for a few days, and then in Charleston, so if you were listening to something you weren’t crazy about, you couldn’t just stop by the studio and change the part.”
If you were a fan of the old “Halfway to Hopkins” rockers, though, Atlas Road Crew’s show at the Radio Room on Friday night will still scratch that itch.
“I think we have been able to put these songs into the set with the older songs and they sound pretty good,” Nicholson says. “On the album we have a lot more electronics and synths, but with the live show we don’t have those bells and whistles. I actually like some of those songs live more than on the actual record.”
If you go
What: Atlas Road Crew, with Rare Creatures
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9
Where: Radio Room, 110 Poinsett Highway, Greenville
Info: 864-609-4441; http://www.radioroomgreenville.com/