|Photo by: Provided|
You'll be hard-pressed to find a group of Athens musicians more excited about their music than Victor Rasgaitis, Talor Smith and Johnny Barton.
The three musicians make up Athens orchestral folk rock trio The Ridges, a band that officially began in April 2010. One year later, they are proudly flaunting their self-titled debut EP, which drops today (May 21) and will be celebrated with a CD release show tonight at Donkey Coffee.
After steadily building a fanbase in the Athens area, the band retreated inside this past winter to record their debut release. The location? Where else but the band's namesake, the looming Victorian structure on a hill across the Hocking River from the Ohio University campus? This area, known as The Ridges, formerly the Athens Lunatic Asylum, was the perfect place, according to the band.
"A big thing with us, and something I think lends itself to why we chose the name The Ridges, is that I think we think of the music and our sound as a collision between folk rock influences and classical influences," said Rasgaitis, a 2009 OU graduate with a degree in Advertising. "The Ridges, it’s this large, Victorian structure, it’s got this old-worldly feel to it, in the middle of Appalachia. So it’s this weird collision of all those different influences, and that’s part of what really drew us to it, as well as the kind of folklore."
So the band--consisting of Rasgaitis on lead vocals, guitar and harmonica; Smith on vocals and cello; and Barton on vocals and percussion--holed up inside the former asylum's hallowed (and supposedly haunted) walls for a period of five weekends with producer Matt Vollet and a slew of auxiliary musicians.
"I think it comes down to a dark romanticism, and this idea that it’s like this beautiful, beautiful building that’s a little bit eerie, and there’s a lot of stories around it that... some of them are true, some of them are not, and it’s so blurred and you don’t know what to believe and what not to believe," said Rasgaitis.
The paranormal aside, the combined force of The Ridges, Vollet and the trio's many friends that play with the band as part of a sort-of revolving door, recorded the album within a wing of The Ridges in which the university's art graduate students' studios reside. According to Rasgaitis, one room was much larger and open, while another was "entirely covered in tile." (The band believes the room was used in electroshock therapy.)
It was here that the magic was made. The trio recorded with a slew of auxiliary musicians, all of whom wrote their own parts and included instruments from violin and accordion to a double bass made from a washtub. The washtub bass emits a sound not unlike a french horn on opener "The Insomniac's Song"--something the frontman considers to be one of his favorite aspects of the album. The other?
"The vocal harmonies in that song where it cuts out to essentially a cappella. We didn’t write those out," said Rasgaitis. "Thinking back on it, the more efficient way to have done that would have been to write each line, play it into the headphones what that line is and sing along with it so we can match those because it’s a pretty intricate harmony and it’s a little weird..."
"But we’d rather be difficult," laughed Smith.
"I think there’s a benefit to doing things the hard way and letting things be a struggle, and I think that can help to pull out a little more emotion and meaning when you’re doing it," Rasgaitis continued.
At the end of winter, the band emerged with five polished, finished songs that, according to Rasgaitis, prescribe to an "overarching theme of coping."
"The first three songs, we almost always play them in order and together because we think of them as a suite, as three songs that are essentially three movements of a bigger piece," Rasgaitis said. "In the first song, we sing, ‘I can’t sleep alone’ repeatedly. It’s very much obsessive over one specific thing. And that kind of idea that if you repeat a word enough it changes meaning, and that’s kind of the thinking behind that song."
Smith, a sophomore studying International Studies, went on to explain second track, nautical "Overboard," which she called "overwhelming" and said deals with "extreme grief."
Other songs on the band's record include the "Was it even real?" questioning of "Invented Love," rejection on "Not a Ghost," and the "final resolution" that takes place on final track "War Bonds."
Of course, not all went completely according to plan with the band recording in what is considered to be one of the most notoriously haunted buildings in Athens.
"We finished recording, and I go over to our producer’s house to listen to the final mixes," said Rasgaitis. "We get to 'War Bonds' [and] at the very, very end, right before the big finish where the trumpets kick in and the group vocals come in..."
"The lyrics are, ‘And I’ll love you until I die / and I’ll love you until the day I die / Because we’ll all be dead in the end / We’ll all be just like all my dead friends,'" Smith added.
"...Right as we’re going into this buildup, there’s this weird sound. We hear it, and we say, 'Matt, what is that?'" recalled Rasgaitis. "He said, ‘I thought you guys might ask about that,’ and he cuts it out, and there’s this weird part on the group vocal track where there’s this girl laughing hysterically. It doesn’t sound like that on the record, it’s sounds very low."
"You have to pay attention to hear it," added Allie Levin, a cellist who acts as one of the trio's auxiliary musicians in a live setting.
Otherwise, the band emerged unscathed from its namesake, and with a five-song EP to show for it. Now with a true recorded example of the trio's capabilities, the band is hopeful (and seemingly confident) that the community at-large will be more than receptive.
"There’s a certain hunger in this town for things that are new and a desire to claim things as our own, that it’s Athens'," said Rasgaitis. Adds Smith: "They’re committed here."
The band's new record is sure to only further a phenomenon that the trio has been experiencing up to this point--that rarely can anyone truly pinpoint the band's sound. "One of the things we get a lot is that people don’t know what to describe us as," said Rasgaitis. "They’re like, ‘I want to tell people to listen to you, and then they ask me what you sound like, and I can’t tell.’" That said, Smith, Rasgaitis and Levin each said that they have heard comparisons to bands such as Fleet Foxes, The Decemberists and Ra Ra Riot in the past.
To find out for oneself, one need not look further than tonight at 9 p.m. Columbus's Indigo Wild opens the show, which will require a $3 cover. The band's new release will also be available for $5.
But comparisons and genres aside, there's an overwhelming sense of optimism surrounding the band with this release. Most bands are undeniably excited at the cusp of a new release--and understandably so. But with The Ridges, optimism seems to have increased tenfold. This is a band truly excited by a truly great record.
"We all feel personally to us that we’ve hit on something unique and it feels really special to us," Rasgaitis said. "It makes us feel like... God, there’s no way I could reproduce this with other people. This is the one time we’re going to do this kind of music. Sometimes you get into a band... I think there’s a distinction between being in a band and being a band.
"I think, finally, I feel like I’m a band."
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