May 3, 2014 11:05:00 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Max Hartleroad tries to step his long, lanky legs into what appears to be a cast-off space suit for a photo shoot. The legs prove too lanky; the silvery suit is abandoned. Which doesn't deter Max and the other guys in the band Hartle Road from nosing around for other random inspiration that can push the photo outside the proverbial box.
No surprise, really. That's where their music is, outside the box.
Brothers Toby and Max, and their cousin, Miles Jordan, all of Columbus, unknowingly formed the nucleus of what would become Hartle Road when they were mere kids getting guitars for Christmas.
"I was probably like 12," Max says. "Miles was 11, Toby was 15 or 16."
"Mine and Max's mom is a little bit more liberal than your run-of-the-mill Columbus mother, so we were listening to Marvin Gaye, Tom Petty and The Beach Boys when we were really, really young," says lead vocalist Toby, at 24 the group's elder.
They practiced in a grandmother's garage in New Hope. ("We mildly knew how to play instruments -- really mildly; we were not good," smiles Toby.)
Miles moved away at an early age, moved back later. Toby's and Max's grandfather took them to concerts before they were old enough to take themselves.
The brothers squirreled away lunch money from dad to spend at the music store in Leigh Mall. It always went toward something good, like a deluxe edition of Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" album. Precocious and talented, the boys soon got much better than "mildly." They began writing songs and booking shows, originally calling themselves The Motions -- all while getting an education in Columbus public schools and later Heritage Academy.
It's a story not unlike a thousand other kids in bands in garages across the country. And for most of them, growing up, graduations, jobs or new relationships usually bring a natural end to what soon becomes just a good memory. Or, the decision is made to stick with it, to see where things go.
Hartle Road made the decision a while back. They're still young, mind you -- 19 to 24 -- but most of them have been playing gigs since before they had drivers' licenses.
So what makes a young band push for the next level? What compels them to rehearse and collaboratively write at night after getting home from a job, or taking care of a 10-month-old son, in Toby's case?
"What do we attribute it to? I don't know -- probably, like, being too stubborn to quit," grins Max.
Hartle Road's music has been called psychedelic rock, space rock, head-bobbing rock and roll, The Beatles meet Muscle Shoals. There's melody, washed in reverb and jangling guitars reminiscent of groups like Big Star, with Pink Floyd and Sgt. Pepper's thrown in. And just when the listener thinks he's got them pegged, he doesn't.
The sound evolved when Toby "got real heavy into all the Phil Spector stuff." What he saw, though, was that the often layered, dense production didn't always translate to the stage.
"I wanted to somehow do that sound and still harness it live," said the frontman.
Today, Miles Smith on guitar and Tyler Carter on keyboards and guitar round out the group as it plays throughout the region -- from Nashville, Tennessee, to Athens, Georgia, New Orleans to San Antonio, Texas. (It's a paradox that Golden Triangle audiences don't get many opportunities to see them live, thanks in part to limited venues, especially for original music. When they do play locally, it's most often at the Elbow Room, Dave's Dark Horse or Princess Theater.)
Things are happening. In late February, the band released a self-titled EP produced by Matt Patton for Big Legal Mess Records, a subsidiary of the Oxford-based Fat Possum Records, says Toby. Patton is probably best known for his bass playing with the Drive By Truckers and Dexateens, and his work with Fat Possum. A full-length album, the brothers say, is already in the wings.
This summer marks another first. The band will hit the road for their most extensive tour to date, to Chicago and New York City, to the East coast and Mid-West.
They are ready, "pumped," one might say.
"We just need a van. If someone would be willing to donate a van, that would be awesome!" says Max, only half-jokingly. His energy visibly thrums beneath the surface. He's the driving force, Toby contends. "And every band needs a driving force." It's not so easy, nurturing a signature sound, growing a following, booking shows, traveling, dealing with real life.
"It's such a hard thing to do, to make music and make money," says Toby realistically. "We're only just getting to where we can do that."
You have to pay your dues for a while, Max concurs.
"But the tour should be fun, and I'm really excited about it ... a bunch of kids from Columbus going up to play in New York -- that cracks me up."
When they go, they'll take their inspirations with them, all the Springsteen, Beach Boys, AC/DC, Costello and other artists who have influenced them. They'll take their Southern roots, too.
"We're proud to be from Mississippi, and it took us a long time for me to say that," Toby told an interviewer in a YouTube video, acknowledging a music scene that doesn't always immediately embrace pathfinders doing their own thing.
Their hopes for the future, at least according to Max, aren't so far-fetched: for people to listen, to feel like someone is out there, to have a connection through music.
"I think it would be cool if people listen and it liberates them, if some kid is really affected, if someone thinks, 'Wow, this is incredible,'" he says.
What's the most important thing to know about Hartle Road, some of the band members are asked.
"We care," says Max, a bit self-consciously. "We're all in. We're trying hard ... and a van, a van would be nice."
Editor's note: Get Hartle Road's EP in digital format at hartleroad.bandcamp.com or in CD form at their shows. Listen to them on YouTube or biglegalmessrecords.com. Or contact them at 256-318-4152.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.