After years of hard graft and staying true to their retro musical vision, has Rival Sons’ time finally come with their major-label debut?
After years of hard graft and staying true to their retro musical vision, has their time finally come?
Rival Sons’ ‘piss or get off the pot’ moment came early in their career. Scott Holiday isn’t sure precisely when, but he can remember where. “The lovely city of Cleveland, Ohio,” the guitarist says without any discernible rancour.
Rival Sons had been booked into a venue that could hold a couple of thousand people, but the combination of a group with zero profile in the US and a support act that bailed at the eleventh hour meant the audience barely reached double figures. The band had already spent months driving around in splitter vans, living below the breadline, convincing themselves that they were doing the right thing. But this was an almighty kick in the nuts.
“We had to face up what was going on,” says Holiday. “We had a long talk with each other. Like, ‘Why the fuck are we doing this? Is this what we really want?’ And we went out and played this show and it was just exceptional. People were rolling on the ground, freaking the fuck out, losing their minds. We were the best we could be. It was, like, [gleefully] ‘Oh, shit!’”
As the band pulled away after the show, they knew what their future held. “Something happened that night. It was cathartic. It reaffirmed why we wanted to do this. Everyone believed in the group and in each other and in the mission of playing rock’n’roll.”
However many years down the line, Rival Sons have stayed true to that mission, resolute to the point of fundamentalism in the power and authenticity of their music.
That determination has paid off. The band’s new album, Feral Roots, is simultaneously their most direct, most nuanced and most urgent yet – the kind of record that bands 10 years into their career shouldn’t make.
There’s another reason why it’s significant. After almost a decade in the trenches with British indie label Earache, Feral Roots marks Rival Sons’ majorlabel debut. The band signed to Atlantic Records last year. This record might officially be on long-time producer Dave Cobb’s Low Country Sound imprint, but it’s the label that launched Led Zeppelin that’s providing the muscle.
It’s an impressive reversal of the downward, major-to-indie arc that most bands this far into their career follow. And that’s not even factoring in Greta Van Fleet, 2018’s biggest success story and a band who are mining a seam of rock’n’roll gold that Holiday and his bandmates uncovered years ago. It’s starting to look like the world is finally catching up with Rival Sons. And Rival Sons know it.
“We’re watching a tidal wave about to unleash,” says singer Jay Buchanan. “People have been predicting this imminent return to form for the last couple of years. These things come in cycles, and it’s absolutely natural that it’s going to happen. I see it happening now. And I absolutely feel part of it.”
Somewhere within the vast expanse of a suburban Orange County, 40 miles from downtown Los Angeles and 10 minutes’ drive from the Pacific Ocean, is the faceless rehearsal studio where Rival Sons are preparing for the most important chapter of their career so far.
Right now, Jay Buchanan is reclining on a low sofa in the studio’s kitchen-come-green room as the stop-start thump of the rest of the band reacquainting themselves with songs they last played in a studio several months ago drifts in from down the corridor. The singer apologises for not letting me sit in while they practice. “This is only our second day here,” he says. “We’re still trying to get these songs under our hands.”
Buchanan carries himself exactly like you want a rock star to carry
himself. He looks the part: at least 75 per cent leather, fake fur and Native American jewellery (he’s of Creek Indian heritage). He certainly talks the part: intense and charismatic, sometimes elliptical, occasionally blunt.
It’s ironic, given that Buchanan never wanted to be a rock star. He’s talked in the past about finding rock’n’roll “adolescent… predictable”. When he spoke to Classic Rock in 2014, he freely admitted that there were aspects of Rival Sons that were “complete bullshit – I look around and a lot of it is about lifestyle. So little of it is about music.”
Today he seems more comfortable with the idea of being the singer in a rock’n’roll band – and in Rival Sons specifically. “It’s just like any other situation, like a marriage or whatever,” he says. “You have to fertilise it and nourish it. And it ends up taking its own shape. Does it always retain my interest? Not always. It’s like anything else: sometimes you get bored, or you fall out of love. So you have to continually seek out new stimuli.”
In the case of Feral Roots, that new stimuli came right at the start of the process. The singer moved to Nashville almost three years ago, while Holiday remained in California. Rather than exchange ideas long-distance, the pair opted to hole up in a remote shack owned by a friend on a spit of land between two man-made lakes near the small town of Hohenwald in Northern Tennessee.
“It’s pretty threadbare in terms of amenities,” Buchanan says. “But when you induce a severe lack of distractions it allows you to be present. It was the spirit of nutrition we needed.”
The two of them stayed in the shack for a week, “talking, lightning candles and coming up with some far-out ideas.” In a decade of being in a band together, they had never worked this closely.
“We were really trying to graft our individual energies together, as opposed to it being two separate people doing things in tandem,” he explains. “It was really the pairing of the preacher and the gunslinger.”
Asked who’s who, he laughs. “Scott’s obviously the gunslinger,” he says, “I’m the one who’s given to long lectures and monologues.”
This much is true. One of Feral Roots’ stand-out tracks is Look Away, a song that Buchanan describes as “a discourse on the inherent confusion with the body politic and the rapidly changing social norms and the entitlement through the anonymity that comes with social media and everything. I see these as very exciting times, but it’s easy to retreat and become complacent. Making the decision not to look away is important.”
“There’s no Zeppelin without Robert Plant. There’s no Rolling Stones without Mick. Without Jay we don’t have this band.”
There’s an equally layered meaning behind the album title. Buchanan equates the term ‘feral roots’ to “a return to form” – not getting back on top, he says, but a return to who you are.
“We live in a technologically sophisticated global community, everyone clamouring for your attention. And the further you get into this Logan’s Run world, the more attractive the jungle is going to seem to you. ‘Feral roots’ is really about keeping one hand in the mystic. About keeping a link to the past as you move into the future.”
The grounded outlook has shaped his view of the major-label machine. He’s had his own unfavourable experiences of the music industry mincer as a young solo artist, when a big record company tried (unsuccessfully) to mould him into something he wasn’t. He says he went into this deal with his eyes open.
“I was very much: ‘This is who you’re dealing with, this is the way I look at things, don’t expect me to be something I don’t want to be,’” he says. “But then it’s just too clichéd to have an adversarial relationship with them: [surly teenager voice] ‘Yeah, whatever, you’re not my real dad.’ They’re a business, there are financial and commercial expectations. Their bottom line is to make money out of our intellectual property. And I understand that. And I hope that they make as much money as possible, because it means we’re doing something right. But we’re never going to let that damage our credibility, because that credibility has been earned.”
Scott Holiday drives like you expect a rock’n’roll guitarist to drive: fast, loops and with only cursory regard for anyone else in his orbit. We’re sitting in his black sports car, driving the 20 miles to Long Beach for a photo session.
As he drives, jumping from lane to lane, we talk. He points out the street he lives on in Huntington Beach, a couple of blocks from the ocean. Is he ever tempted to move up to Los Angeles.
“Move to LA? Why?” he asks, laughing. “LA sucks. It’s the Kiss of cities. Nah, I love it here. I live at the beach. I like to look at the ocean. I get in that flow. Why would I move?”
The week-long woodshedding session in the wilds of Tennessee wasn’t just a creative escape for Holiday, it was practical necessity too. “I’m a single dad with two kids,” he says. “I don’t get a lot of help because I’m really buried when I’m home. We needed to leave and get our heads totally cleared out. So that’s what we did.”
The process of making Feral Roots took the best part of a year. It wasn’t one long solid chunk, although it’s still the longest Rival Sons have ever spent making an album, by several months, which is a luxury that major-label money brings.
“We’re not paying attention to that,” says Holiday, sharply and a touch defensively. “That’s just business. They’re the people who are going to work the record and give us financial support and the rest, but it’s not like they’re dictating what we’re doing. We did it like this because we had the chance to take our time.”
Like Buchanan, he’s been burned by a major label before. In the late 90s he was a member of a band named HumanLab, who recorded an album for – incoming irony grenade! – Atlantic, only for it be shelved before it could get released.
“Ah, I got over that a long time ago,” he says, as we dart between cars. “I’m not bitter. Things happen. The climate has changed drastically, it’s like we’re in a different world. And we’re different people too. It’s less likely to get fumbled, because of who were are now and the work we’ve all put in.”
Anyway, he says, he’s invested too much in Rivals Sons over the years to let someone else screw things up. That show in Cleveland might have been a tipping point for Rival Sons, but it wasn’t a one-off. The band’s early years were spent slogging around North America and Europe with little to show for it.
“I was married, we’d just had two kids, I’d moved in with the in-laws cos we were making no money, playing to big empty rooms,” he says. They frequently questioned why they were doing it: “‘Are we doing this to be famous? Are we doing this to be rich?’ And the answer to both was, and is, wholeheartedly ‘No.’” A laugh. “Definitely not to be rich.”
So why are you doing it?
“Because I’m this animal. I play music, it’s what I do. It makes me feel good, it completes me as a human being, it’s why I am. And I can look at the guys I’m partnered up with and go: ‘I know that’s why they’re here too.’”
Holiday isn’t oblivious to Greta Van Fleet’s success, and he genuinely doesn’t seem bitter that it’s happened in a tenth of the time his own band have spent slogging around the gig circuit and getting a fraction of the attention.
“Me and Jay met them. They seem like the nicest guys and I’m really happy for them,” he says. “I think it’s gonna be tough, because they’ve got to parade
around in their underwear a little bit with everyone watching. But they’re handling it well.”
Does it feel like they’ve stolen your thunder? “Nah,” he says, taking his eyes off the road for a moment and swiveling his head. “We all need to make good records right now. You can’t half-ass that shit, man.” He pauses. “I don’t think some people have put out their best work. People are still finding their feet. People, find your fucking feet right now. It’s time for everyone to step up.”
“We all need to make good records. It’s time to step up.”
Does that include Rival Sons?
“Dude,” he says. “We stepped up a long time ago.”
Rival Sons’ biggest fan is two beers and several mouthfuls of deep-fried cauliflower into a conversation about his favourite group. “I always say I have the best seat in the house,” says their drummer Michael Miley,
“because I sit behind everybody and I get to see up-close how great this band is.”
We’re sitting in a bar somewhere in Long Beach. The late afternoon stragglers are drifting out, driven out by the loud music that forces Miley to lean into the recording device on the table in front of him to make himself heard.
Holiday, Buchanan and bassist Dave Beste have gone their separate ways after the photo session. Miley is staying in a hotel close by because it’s too far to drive home (he splits his time between Ventura County, north of Los Angeles, and Estonia, where he lives with his Estonian wife).
If Buchanan is the preacher and Holiday the gunslinger, then Miley is the sheriff with the tin star and righteous attitude. He’s as good a pitch man for his band as he is a drummer – and he’s a tremendous drummer.
“This was the first time we let Scott and Jay properly exchange ideas all the way through,” he says of Feral Roots. “It’s the peanut butter and jelly sandwich; they’re both brilliant in their own right.”
We’re a stone’s throw from the bar where Miley first saw Jay Buchanan sing back in the 00s, on the recommendation of friends. “It was just Jay and a guitar and a microphone,“he says. “There were, like, five people there watching this guy sing his fucking ass off.” Miley was blown away. At the end of the set, he walked up to Buchanan and handed him his card. “I said: ‘Dude, if your drummer ever calls in sick I’d love to play with you.’”
Miley did end up playing in one incarnation of the singer’s solo band, and was the one who recommended him when Rival Sons were getting off the ground. He’s watched Buchanan wrestle with the idea of being a ‘rock’n’roll’ singer and all the baggage that comes with it. Is he surprised Buchanan is still in the band?
“Yeah, sometimes, because I think he’s still reticent. When I hear him sing, I hear zero reticence. But when it comes to business stuff and photo-shoots and things like that, he doesn’t want to fully embrace it. He doesn’t want to be a cliché. But he’s never going to be a cliché. When Jay walks on stage he’s a fucking alien. He’s superhuman. As great as Scott is – or as great as any one of us is – you need a frontman who represents the voice of the band. There’s no Zeppelin without Robert Plant. There’s no
Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger. Without Jay we don’t have this band.”
Feral Roots feels like as much of a tipping point for Rival Sons as that show in Cleveland where no one showed up. It’s not the sound of a band finding their place in the bigger scheme of things so much as the point where the bigger scheme of things might come around to what’s been happening under its nose for the last few years.
“Right!” Miley exclaims. “The old guard are laying down their swords. Black Sabbath have done their farewell tour, we’ll never see Led Zeppelin again. There’s gonna be a big hole opening up in the market, and we’re in the perfect place to step in. We’ve worked our asses off, we’ve played with a lot of those guys – the Sabbaths, the Deep Purples. It’s almost like they’re endorsing us.”
Miley says he heard that Atlantic wanted to sign an honest-to-God rock band after seeing a string of fringe artists win Best Rock Act-type awards at the Grammys. “They signed us because they wanted to bring rock’n’roll back. And they think that we’re the ones to wave that flag.”
There are still factors that can conspire against them, not least the mainstream’s reluctance to embrace hard rock. If it does, Rival Sons are in prime position to reap the fruit of their long, sometimes lonely labours. And if for some reason it doesn’t? The mission of playing rock’n’roll goes on all the same.
“Scott’s obviously the gunslinger. I’m the one who’s given
to long lectures and monologues.”
Giving it everything: Jay Buchanan singshis heart out.
Looking at a bright future: (l-r) Jay Buchanan, Scott Holiday, Dave Beste, Michael Miley.
Feral Roots is out on January 25 via Low Country Sound/Atlantic.