The liner notes to Batter the Drag's self-released debut EP, unfathomable depths, give an ominous first impression. There are no song lyrics, no names or faces of musicians -- really, no real notes to speak of, aside from a list of people thanked by the band, a spare, black-and-white splatter design, and two mysterious sentences: "This recording was made possible by the Higley Ranch 'incident' of May 2003. Our hearts go out to those who were injured during the event."
Remarks like that spark the imagination. Was it a bizarre desert massacre? A farm machinery mishap? A cattle stampede?
Turns out the Higley Ranch incident was more like a riot, something better suited to a band that rocks like Batter the Drag. It was upsetting when it happened, but now, sitting around a patio table and drinking beers at Tempe's Four Peaks Brewery on a damp, chilly, post-Christmas evening, the Mesa-based group can manage to laugh about it -- albeit with an air of disbelief.
Batter the Drag's Tour Kickoff Show
Clubhouse in Tempe
Featuring Ember Coast, the Kite Eating Tree, January Taxi, and Weapons of Mass Destruction, will be held on Friday, January 14.
"We threw a huge party on this seven-acre ranch near Baseline, and about 2,000 people showed up," says Ryan Richardson, Batter the Drag's 24-year-old vocalist and guitarist. "People started to park on the street, and then the Gilbert cops, the Mesa cops, and the sheriff came and started shooting our friends with bean bags."
"They had a Mace cannon, too," says guitarist Jeffrey Ruoss, 25. "And people were getting pissed, so they started throwing beer bottles."
Bassist Wes Volkman, 26, explains the swarm of law enforcement agents. "It was mainly a jurisdiction issue because it was county land," he says.
Chad Martin, 33, formerly the drummer for Fivespeed, was at Higley Ranch on the day of the party, but he hadn't yet joined Batter the Drag. "I left before it got bad," he says. Even the news of what happened later didn't freak him out too much. "Around that time, I got an e-mail from Ryan asking me to join the band, and I was like, 'Fuck yeah!' I was totally blown away."
That was June 2003. Batter the Drag had gone through some changes since it formed late in 2002, but after the Higley Ranch incident, the current foursome finally got together. Some bands are dominated by one or two personalities, but this one clearly has an equal division of labor. On the subject of songwriting, all four musicians jump in on a rapid-fire conversation that's much like their music -- half serious, half playfully clever.
Ruoss says, "I'm the theme, Wes is the mood, Chad's the structure, and Ryan's the story." He pauses to consider his off-the-cuff declaration while the others grin in agreement.
"I'm just good-looking, okay?" quips Volkman.
Martin elaborates on the group dynamic. "When I was in Fivespeed, we were on a label [Virgin], so everything had structure. But Jeff's [Ruoss] last band was wacky and super-creative, with no structure. So at first we just kind of pushed and pulled."
"Yeah, one of the most interesting things I found in working with Jeff is that I try to put more pop sensibility into songs with different time signatures," Richardson adds.
Batter the Drag's main ambition is making solid rock songs without following a rock formula, writing music that stretches boundaries and the guys' creative talents but doesn't get pretentiously abstract. While each member brings his own influences to the table, all four of them agree that bands such as Hum, Shiner, and Houston -- known as much for conceptual prowess as for raw guitar intensity -- have challenged them musically. Or, as Ruoss puts it, "We look for creative experimentation from bands that still rock hard." Apparently, coming up with original material that fits that bill is easier said than done.
"We're slow!" says Ruoss.
"Chad hates everything we play," says Richardson, laughing.
Chad Martin replies, "I'm the shit filter."
"Well, everyone adds their own layer," says Richardson. "The songs are the end result of a huge struggle for us."
"I get emotional," adds Volkman.
"It's hard not to because you get attached to it," Martin says.
But the drawn-out effort is worth it, Richardson concludes. "I like being in a band where everyone has an equal part in writing the songs."
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With a batch of new material worked out, the guys are considering recording a full-length with Jamie Woolford from the Stereo sometime in early 2005. But in the meantime, they're about to head out on their first tour of the West Coast, and unfathomable depths continues to get airplay on the Edge's "Local Frequency" show.
"Post-Rock," Batter the Drag's self-designated profile description on MySpace Music, only hints at the sound of the EP's six tracks, which were recorded a year ago at Flying Blanket Studios and produced by the band and Bob Hoag. Unlike most of Hoag's work, unfathomable depths has a crisp, hard feel instead of smooth pop production.
Richardson sings in a rich, commanding tenor -- his lyrics mingle cryptic word play and surreal, poetic imagery -- but sometimes he unleashes a sharp roar to match moments of feverish guitar. Song structures flow unpredictably, alternating between a full, heavy guitar sound and unadorned but complex guitar melodies, as in "Firewater Allergy" and "Remorse Code." In some instances, such as "Counting Backwards From One," both guitars play on their own while the animated bass flits around with an independent melody. And all throughout, drums assert the songs' character by building emotional climaxes or breaking away with cheeky improvisations.
For Batter the Drag's newer work, "We're using different time signatures and abnormal structures. It's easy to do. The hard part is making it sound natural," says Ruoss. "Our fans come up and say, 'That new song was . . . weird.' I love that. If everyone likes it, there's something wrong with it. But some people like it by the third listen. We're a third-listen-to-enjoy band."