There might be a little more volume and a bit more distortion in Dead Soldiers’ repertoire, but it isn’t too hard to hear the stripped-down sound of Johnny Cash, the careening wildness of Jerry Lee Lewis, and the acoustic thump of the Memphis Jug Band lurking beneath the band’s bluesy boogie. Hailing from Memphis the raucous, roadhouse-ready band blends raw rock ‘n’ roll with heartbreak-heavy country — with occasional forays into bluegrass and folk.
The Tennessee sextet is quick to admit that the history of that music-soaked city and its traditions has had an influence on their multifaceted sound. “Growing up inundated by the incredible talents of so many talented local musicians, coupled with the legacy of studios like Sun and Stax Records, let alone Ardent, Electrophonic, Royal, and later on Easley-McCain and High Low, it’s hard to shake that Memphis influence off,” says Dead Soldiers singer/guitarist Ben Aviotti. “Beale Street may not be what it once was, but the legacy of Memphis music is alive and well.”
The band formed in Aviotti’s living room in 2011, starting out as collaboration between Aviotti and singer/guitarist Michael Jasud. “Michael and I were both playing in metal and heavier rock acts at the time,” Aviotti says. “And this was an outlet for us to write songs that drew on influences we couldn’t possibly use in our other projects.” Later on, the two were joined by Clay Qualls (bassist and mandolin player), Paul Gilliam (drummer), Krista Wroten-Combest (violist and keyboardist), and Nathan Raab (multi-instrumentalist).
Dead Soldiers have released one full-length album (2013’s All The Things You Lose) and one EP (last year’s High Anxiety), and both are a mix of acoustic roots music, gritty, electric rock, and the occasional display of frenzied bluegrass-style instrumental prowess. Aviotti says that the band tries to feature those influences while creating their own unique style. “We’re not trying to be anything,” Aviotti says. “We love country, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, bluegrass, and blues, but the last thing I would do is try to fit into any one of those categories. We’re just trying to make music about ourselves and our city, and share it with the world.”
Onstage, the group seems like a band that was designed for bringing a crowd to its feet and perhaps a drunken tear to a few eyes. Their songs evolve into whirling-dervish stomps, with wailing violin and quicksilver mandolin weaving around one another, while the acoustic and electric guitars fuse with the rhythm section to form a locomotive juggernaut. The full-band vocal harmonies are both ragged and right, and it’s a testament to the ensemble’s road-tested mettle that the songs never seem to careen off the rails but don’t sound too controlled, either.
High Anxiety features a raw, immediate sound that resembles that live performance, and Aviotti says that Dead Soldiers try to strike a balance between the precision in their playing and retaining the spontaneity of a live show in their recordings, with a little help from their producer. “All credit to Toby Vest at High Low recordings (for the sound on the High Anxiety EP),” Aviotti says. “We’re recording our new album now, and we’re trying even harder to translate the energy of our stage performance to the studio. That’s always the struggle. We’re fairly structured in our compositions, so if something feels loose or raw, nine times out of 10, it was intended that way — and the 10th time was most likely us embracing a mistake. Everyone in the band participates heavily in the arrangements, and we spend a great deal of time making sure the song tells the story the way we want it told, lyrically and sonically.”
That lyrical viewpoint Aviotti mentions is indeed just as prominent on High Anxiety as the solos or ensemble playing. The band’s worldview is often pitch dark, with occasional gallows humor poking through the blackness. Hearkening back to their musical roots, the band’s lyrical touchstones draw from the Southern experience, as well. “We like talking about the things that nobody wants to talk about,” Aviotti says. “Institutionalized racism, sexism, religion, politics … you know, all the stuff you’re never supposed to bring up at a dinner party. Humor has always been a part of healing, and I think it’s important to remember that you can laugh about anything, no matter how terrible, as long as you’re honest about what’s really happening. ”