Whatever genre label you slap on the Dunder Chiefs’ folksy, strummy new album Kicking Rocks, it’s catchy as all get out.
The band features the banjo prominently, but if the recent ascendancy of folk instruments in pop music has taught us anything, it’s that a banjo does not a bluegrass band make. Banjoist Michael “Nog” Linog totally understands that.
“We try not to say we’re bluegrass, because there are some sick players out there,” he says. He’s not too big on calling the band “Americana” either, saying he doesn’t want to share a pretentious label with the Decemberists. His brother and lead vocalist Tony Linog pipes up with a suggestion.
“We had a fella write about us, and he called our genre soulgrass,” Linog says. “I really want that to be something, because I like it. I think it describes us pretty damn good.”
Sure, why not. The band — Nog, Linog, and guitarist-vocalist Will Thompson — is all over the place stylistically on Kicking Rocks. You’ll hear distorted mandolin, an occasional drum machine, and lots of foot-stomping, shout-it-out choruses. The sixth song, “Let Me Off,” has all the gorgeous male vocal harmonies of a Ben Folds track, and “God, Wife, Family” features a driving kick drum and a guest cellist.
Two of the band’s members, Nog and Thompson, started out playing together in Rock Hill with the indie-rock outfit Polar War, which was heavily influenced by angsty acts like Brand New and Manchester Orchestra. The band won the 2010 Next Big Thing reader’s poll on the music blog SceneSC, but after a few years with limited success, they split up. “We just weren’t seeing the fruit of it,” Thompson says. “We just weren’t going anywhere, and we were frustrated because we liked what we were doing.”
At the time, Thompson says he had written several songs for a full-length Polar War album, and he hadn’t given up on performing them yet. So he and Nog set the lyrics to acoustic instruments, added a little Avett Brothers twang, and set off on a new musical venture, eventually convincing Nog’s brother to join in on lead vocals. They took their name from a misunderstanding of an AC/DC chorus (“Dirty deeds and the Dunder Chiefs”), and they relocated the band from reggae-friendly Rock Hill to the folk-loving coastal climes of Charleston.
The band’s first show was at a house party they threw themselves in the summer of 2012. “The only reason why people came over was we had a keg,” Thompson says. It was a loud party, and they didn’t have any amplification, but they felt like they were on to something — and they were making a little cash.
One of the holdover songs from Polar War, the Thompson-penned “Black Top Calling,” made its way onto Kicking Rocks. In its new incarnation, it sounds downright country, with slow harmonica whines and Thompson’s baritone vocals taking the lead. In the song, Thompson waxes nostalgic for his home state of Alabama, longs for the open road, and vents a little about the twilight days of his old band: “The black top’s calling, and Lord, it’s screaming out loud/ Carolina, oh, it’s time to go.”
Two EPs and a long string of bar shows later, the Dunder Chiefs say they’ve found a sound and a market that work well for them in Charleston. In addition to playing original songs, they also work as a gigging band, playing three-hour sets of wide-ranging cover songs. A typical set list could include Justin Timberlake, Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye, Modest Mouse, Lorde, and Maroon 5.
“I think, as the Dunder Chiefs, we’ve found a real niche here in South Carolina,” Thompson says. “We like it, and we feel like South Carolina has been really accepting of us.”
The plainest statement of the Dunder Chiefs ethos might be on the new track “The Fix,” a fast-talking crowd-pleaser with crunchy electric guitar licks and ever-present banjo picking: “Music is our job, and that’s the reason we ain’t wakin’ up at six/ Ain’t no job out there that’s gonna satisfy our soul like playin’ gigs/ Maybe this night has got away from us, but damn it all to hell, we found the fix.”