Debut album, tour fueling Rocketboys
>‘ Party’ tonight part of busy trajectory for rising band
Special to The Commercial Appeal
Mitch Holt and Brandon Kinder, the two Memphians in the now Austin, Texas-based rock band the Rocketboys, never played much together when they were students together at Harding Academy.
“Brandon was in a relatively successful band locally called Dora, and I was in a couple of bands, none of which are worth mentioning,” says guitarist Holt. “We had jammed or whatever, but we had never played in a band together or anything.”
But when they coincidentally found themselves attending the same college in tiny Abilene, Texas, the pair struck up a musical partnership that has resulted in the fast-rising Rocketboys. The five-piece band returns to the Bluff City tonight to play at the Young Avenue Deli, a show that is being billed as a local release party for the group’s full-length debut, 20,000 Ghosts. The stop is just the third in a 30-city tour the band has launched to promote the self-released 20,000 Ghosts, a run that also includes highly coveted slots at the new music festival Next Big Nashville and at the Paste magazine party at the CMJ Music Marathon & Film Festival in New York City.
When Holt and Kinder first started the Rocketboys at Abilene Christian College in 2005, the group packed a very different sonic punch from the tight, epic, densely layered sound it offers today. What began as a two-man songwriting project, with Kinder playing keyboards and singing vocals, slowly expanded to include another guitar and a cellist. The writing itself also grew as the band members learned more and more about the craft and the compromises of collaboration.
“When you first start off, you write a song just because it sounds cool and it doesn’t often have structure or the other
qualities that make it a good song,” says Holt. “But we’ve developed the ability to work together to make songs make sense structurally as well as just sound good.”
The band made its debut at an Abilene battle of the bands. At the time they did not have a official name, so on the contest application form Kinder quickly wrote down one he had been harboring since high school, Homer Hiccolm & the Rocketboys, inspired by the movie “October Sky,” itself based on the memoirs of former NASA engineer Homer Hickam.
“I was watching that movie in high school, and they showed a newspaper headline that said something like ‘Homer Hickam and his Rocketboys,’ and I thought then, ‘If I’m ever in another band — I don’t care what kind of music we play — I’m going to name it that,’ ” says Kinder. “It just sounded like a band name, and I though I better grab it before someone else did.”
From their base in Abilene, the group recorded a pair of EPs and two live albums while band members — including fellow Abilene Christian College students Daniel Wheeler (guitar), Justin Wiseman (keyboards), and Josh Campbell (bass) — finished their degrees. (While considering a permanent drummer, the band tours with Texas percussionist Alex Bhore.) In January, the band — including significant others such as Holt’s soon-to-be bride — moved to Austin.
“Abilene is a great town, but it’s a very small, West Texas town,” says Kinder. “There’s just lot more to do here, a lot more opportunity, especially on the music and professional levels.”
The new location also occasioned a new name, with the band dropping the Homer Hiccolm moniker to become simply the Rocketboys. “It worked for a long time, but it was time to change,” says Kinder, who despite his affection for the name for years had to endure people calling him Homer. “With all these new changes — the move, making our first full-length, we kind of decided it was a now or never kind of deal.”
All these life changes are reflected in 20,000 Ghosts, an album of Coldplay-style pop anthems that Kinder, the chief lyricist, describes as a contemplative, reflective effort. The title comes from a quote attributed to reformed slave trader and “Amazing Grace” composer John Newton, who said he was haunted by the ghosts of the thousands of Africans he helped put in chains.
“That idea of 20,000 ghost was really interesting to us because a lot of the songs we were already writing were about the past,” says Kinder. “Not necessarily in a haunting manner in every song, but in the sense that the past makes us who we are today. We just thought that was a powerful idea for the album.”
The Austin, Texas-based Rocketboys are flying high with Justin Wiseman, Daniel Wheeler, Memphians Mitch Holt and Brandon Kinder, and Josh Campbell.