Songs From My Couch: The Cold Stares

The very first lick of The Cold Stares is gonna' turn your head. It's a muscular riff, the sort you might have heard barking out of the analog Alpine speakers in a '78 Trans Am.
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If you haven't yet seen the Cold Stares live, here's how it's likely to go down: You'll probably be headed to a Nashville venue like 3rd and Lindsley, or 12th and Porter, or The Basement, and you'll probably be going to see another band. You'll get to the show early enough to see the opening act--this is Nashville after all--and you'll grab a table or a good spot at the bar, and you'll order your drink. I like bourbon.

As you grab your seat, if you're paying attention, you'll probably notice a guy in a short-cropped beard, glasses, and a blazer fidgeting with the sound gear on-stage. That's Chris Tapp, one half of the Cold Stares, and he's putting his guitar rig together. It's a jerry-rigged contraption that incorporates several amps, I was once told involved some MacBook program and--I'm pretty sure--some duct tape and chewing gum. Hang on for just a few minutes, and you'll hear why he's so damned fussy about the thing.

You probably won't be able to pick Tapp and drummer Brian Mullins--the other half of the band--out of the crowd. They don't have band look. No skinny jeans, no hipster facial hair, no iron-ons of cartoon cereal mascots. They dress up for rock 'n' roll as they might for church. Suits, sweaters, and blazers--more Men's Wearhouse than Goodwill. There will be no irony on stage tonight. These guys crush irony like a runt piglet. You're about to hear some rock 'n' roll verisimilitude.

When Tapp and Mullins take the stage, you'll probably be chatting with friends, and like everyone else in the bar you likely won't be paying much attention. Let's say they kick off the set with "John," a burly, bluesy tune about a boatman who loses his woman to a gravedigger--and then kills them both.

Thing is, the very first lick is gonna' turn your head. It's a muscular riff, the sort you might have heard barking out of the analog Alpine speakers in a '78 Trans Am. Tapp will belt out the song's first line, and it'll go like this: Had me a job on a boat, sailed on the deep blue sea. And this is probably the point where you'll decide the conversation you were having can wait. And every time I come home, Tapp will sing on, she was waitin' on the docks for me. And then Mullins will bring in the drums.

By now other heads will have turned, too. And other conversations will have stopped. Damn, you'll think. This is authentic. This is bad-ass blues. By now, Tapp will be repeating the line, John, won't you dig that grave, John, won't you dig that grave, and each time time he'll bend it around a single, lingering strum of a guitar string that feels as if it's about to beckon a hellstorm.

And then he'll drop out the bottom. A deep, monstrous riff will send a warm gust of speaker breath swarming across the room. I've seen it move a napkin.

By now other heads will have turned, too. And other conversations will have stopped. Damn, you'll think. This is authentic. This is bad-ass blues. And now Tapp will be repeating the line, John, won't you dig that grave, John, won't you dig that grave, and each time time he'll bend it around a single, lingering strum of a guitar string that feels as if it's about to beckon a hellstorm.

And then he'll drop out the bottom. He'll conjure a deep, monstrous riff that'll send a warm gust of speaker breath racing across the room. I've seen it move a napkin.

Heads will bob, now. Mullins will have already broken a sweat. The floor will shake; you'll notice ice cubes quivering in your bourbon. At some point, Tapp will bend back at the knees and make a righteous guitar face as his fingers fly around the fretboard like a scurry of squirrels whisking around a poplar tree.

This will go on for an hour. Between songs, people will whisper. They're asking one another if anyone knows who the hell this is. And it's here that you and everyone in the room will have the same realization just about everyone else has the first time they see they hear the Cold Stares live:

These guys are better than the band you came to see.

"The first time I saw them," says Nashville radio personality Dan Buckley, "I thought they had at least two other musicians secretly behind the curtain. There's just no way that sound comes from the two of them."

Thing is, it does. It's big and brawny and ballsy. It grabs you by the shoulders, shakes you until you're converted.

If the Cold Stares' catalog of songs were an actual catalog, it'd be tattered and faded--like your grandmother's hymnal. Probably stained with some blood and whiskey, too. It includes tales of regicide ("Kings," which also includes a nifty little riff Jimmy Page could have written), a valiant attempt to rhyme John Lee Hooker with short-order cook-er ("Cannonball"), and a song that would be at home on an early '90s Lynch Mob CD ("Release You").

The band's typical show-closer ("Red Letter Blues") starts off like some song you've heard Jack White sing, then shifts into something sinister, beginning with a wicked little bridge in which Tapp and Mullins engage in a bit of synchronized noodling. Next comes a thunderous collision of drum and guitar, then the refrain, then a colossal wave of sound that could serve as the soundtrack to a supercell ripping up the Delta countryside.

Tapp and Mullins live in Hendersonville, Kentucky, but as a band, the Cold Stares call Nashville home. They've released two EPs, one self-titled, the other Hot Like Waco, with another on the way. In 2010 they took first in the Nashville region of the Hard Rock Cafe's Ambassadors of Rock competition, and finished second internationally.

Earlier this year, the guys played a four-song acoustic set in my living room. Tapp was nursing a sore throat with some sweet tea--naturally spiked with rye.

Sound engineering for the videos below by Mark Crozier. Camera work by Nashville photographer Dave Johnson. Video editing by both Crozier and Johnson. My thanks to both for their help.

So I guess the first question is for Chris. What's behind the enormous sound that comes out of your guitar?

CHRIS: I just kind of lucked into it. It actually took about six months of playing and working with it before to refine it to where it is now. It can move a lot of air. It's 560 watts live, 4 amp feeds, and very little effects. But it's not just about volume, it's about filling the room. When we first started jamming we were really digging a couple of the songs we were working on, but just thought they sounded horrible without the bottom end. I was dead against sequencing, so I just had to design a rig to do what I needed it to do live. We now have more bottom end live than most 4-5 piece bands. My formula for sound outside the drums with this band is really no different than AC/DC's "Highway to Hell", or The Cult's "Wildflower". Which means you just apply second guitar amps and bass where needed instead of saturating the whole song with it. It makes the song stronger, and more to the point. It makes you really want that bottom end, and then when I give it to you....well....

How did you come to the two-man setup?

CHRIS: We played in another band for a bit that dead ended after a big showcase, and we both just kind of said screw it. After a couple of months, we just wanted to jam. So we got together. We never actually decided we wanted a two-piece band. When this started, we didn't even want to have a band. We were just enjoying jamming without the pressures of trying to be something. "Jesus Brother James" came together one night, and we figured we had some other really good songs. People were wanting to see us play. So we thought we'd just play one gig, just to do a live show again. For that first gig I was actually sitting down in a chair. I still remember the look on people's faces when I kicked the rig in. It was pretty amazing. I had done some acoustic shows with material I poured my guts into, and you know it's the usual thing, people drinking and talking through the set.

So I told Brian after that first gig went over so well: If we were going to continue to do this, I wanted it to be so loud and powerful that no one could talk over it. Even if they're screaming, I don't want to hear them. Sound-wise, I don't think I would have ever tried this in the confines of a full band. I was experimenting with different ways the guitar could be used sonically. I'm running three octaves a lot of times through three amps, and using a unison line. It just has that Black Sabbath-type power, like in "Iron Man." We tried adding a bass player about a year ago, and it just didn't add anything to the songs. Keeping things the way they are gives us a formula and a parameter, and also keeps that ace in the sleeve when it comes to surprising folks at our live shows. A guy that has been following us for about a year told me that's still the best thing about seeing us in new venues: Watching people's reaction when it all kicks in.

I've noticed that, too. It's fun to see. As a two-man rock and blues band, you get the inevitable comparisons to the White Stripes and the Black Keys. Explain why that's wrong.

CHRIS- I don't think anyone that knows our material or has seen us live makes those comparisons. It's kind of like comparing Black Sabbath to Bad Company because they are both four piece bands with guitar players that build from the blues. They're nothing alike. And neither are we. All three bands have drummers that don't really dig the blues, and guitarists that do. I guess Dan Auerbach says the Black Keys don't play the blues. But they just did a Junior Kimbrough record minus Junior, so I don't quite get that. But whatever. Dan's a fantastic singer.

Jack White is a great ambassador for good roots music, and I have great admiration for a guy who pays homage to where it all comes from. Jacks' obviously a brilliant fellow with the marketing as well.

Both of those bands are platinum selling pop acts. We never looked at what we did and thought it would be marketed to the masses. We just wanted to do things that are real for us. Brian doesn't listen to either of those bands. I think we fall more in line with Clutch or The Black Crowes. All three bands now live around Nashville, but we've been here all our lives. I've been playing some of these riffs since I was 13-years-old.

Brian, do you have a philosophy or specific approach to drumming in a blues band?

BRIAN: I just try to play the best part for the songs. I hear different elements from what has influenced me coming out in our music--mostly jazz, rock, and soul records. I like a lot of different kinds of music so I don't really approach it like, "What would a blues player play?" I just try to be true to the song, play honest parts, and make sure that it feels genuine to me. With a new song, I generally like to jump in with something that just grooves, and then let the part evolve over the course of live shows.

Do you remember what made you first take up the drums?

BRIAN: My first drumming inspiration was my childhood neighbor. He had this huge, gold sparkle drum set at his house. I remember thinking it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. I remember hearing his son playing along with songs by the Police. That probably planted the seed. It was years later that I actually started playing, and it's just something I've always stuck with.

You guys are both from Kentucky, but you call Nashville your musical home. Why here? This is a blog about Nashville, so what makes Nashville different?

CHRIS: I've been playing in Nashville since 1997. I had a acoustic band that had a residency at the old Gibson Cafe. We played there for a couple years. We thought we had made it. We were kids driving into the big city, you know. We were playing folks blues stuff then, but not too far off in terms of songwriting from where we are now. So we've been around. It's a different scene now in Nashville. Back then, only a lucky few bands could get a deal. Dreams. The land before Napster. I was trying to get a deal with Sire, but we really had no clue what we were doing. Americana was just catching on. The only rock success stories I knew of were Matthew Ryan and Josh Rouse. Mindy Smith played slots before and after us at the Gibson, and there were other people I knew that had things in the works, but nothing like it is now.

L.A. just kind of folded and Nashville is the place where everything landed. But even the deals now aren't that great. I still wouldn't say Nashville has a great rock scene. It's kind of like if all the NBA stars moved to one city, but the city's team could still only have 12 players. Danny Ainge isn't going to have anything great to say about Kurt Rambis if Danny Ainge doesn't make the team. Everyone in town plays music, so a lot of folks in town aren't going to polish your shoes if they think they can do the same song and dance better. Nashville has ten times as many music venues with live music seven days a week than any other town on earth. You can't escape it. For artists, I guess that's both the greatest thing and the worst thing. Nashville is like an abusive relationship.

I've heard that before. That Nashville has such a great music scene, but musicians don't necessarily love playing here, because most of your audience will be made up of other musicians.

But even with all of that, for me it's still the greatest city on earth to be a musician. Probably the smartest thing for us is living an hour or so away, and being able to come and go. In our hometown [Hendersonville, Kentucky], we have a huge blues festival and a bluegrass festival, and there's always been a strong connection to both of those traditions around here.

BRIAN: There are so many things I like about Nashville. There's so much talent here. We have our places we like to eat or hang out. It's a very competitive endeavor to draw an attentive audience in any city, but even more so in Nashville because of the number of great bands. So while I feel like we've been successful in the cities we've played in, I'm especially proud of our progress in Nashville. We know how tough it can be here for bands starting from scratch.

Your songs include quite a bit of religious and historical imagery . . . and also a lot of killing. Do you come up with a few riffs first, then write lyrics, or the other way around?

CHRIS: 50/50. We either just riff something in practice, come up with a section and then I write lyrics to it from there based on the mood it brings, or the whole song just hits me at once and I write it down start to finish. "John" and "Jesus Brother James" were finished in my head before I picked up the guitar. Scribbled them on a piece of paper early in the morning. A song like "Cannonball" is one that we just jammed out. It's nice not sticking to the same method all of the time, I think.

As far as imagery, I think that's what I take from the early Delta artists that I love more than anything. Son House sang about women, drinking, gambling, and Jesus. Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James, Bukka White--they all sang about what was real to them. I identify with that. I grew up in church, I didn't know my real parents until I turned 30. I was born in Eastern Kentucky, and Brian and I grew up in the River Valley. That area has a lot of history. I identify with Johnny Cash and Robert Johnson. I've been arrested, and I've been saved. If I grew up in Jersey as an atheist, I guess I'd write about factories and science.

At your live shows you cover the Allman Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Jimi Hendrix. Did you listen to a lot of AOR growing up?

CHRIS: I had a God-brother that lived behind me when I was a kid who was 12 years older than me. When I was about seven I saw a Jimi Hendrix poster on his wall. I remember him showing me the inside cover of Ted Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever" and thinking, "What the hell is this?"

I also remember being on a church retreat around that time and some kids had smuggled a Black Sabbath record into the basement of the lodge, cranked it on this giant wood box record player thing, and I can't begin to tell you what kind of effect that the first 30 seconds of "Paranoid" had on me. There's great stuff in any decade of music, but the seventies guitar rock stuff is a huge influence.

BRIAN: I listened to a lot of everything. Album-oriented rock was the most accessible when I first started getting into music. Obviously as a kid, you sometimes like what's trendy, or what your friends expose you to. I would read about these bands, then check out what influenced them. So going backwards, I first listened to Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Hendrix, and then moved to jazz and blues from that.

You get to assemble a band for one show. Anyone, living or dead. Who's on stage?

CHRIS: Jim Morrison on vocals, myself and Peter Green on guitar, John Paul Jones on bass, Keith Moon on drums. No way I'm putting that lineup together and not playing with them.

BRIAN: Cedric Bixler-Zavala on vocals, Ray Manzarek on keys, Jeff Beck on guitar, Tony Williams on drums, John Entwistle on bass.

Who would you want to jam with?

CHRIS: I'd love to work with the Chino from the Deftones, Jimmy Page, Josh Homme. I'd love to do ZZ Top's comeback record. Shave the beards and get lowdown in the street.

BRIAN: Ian Thornley, Clutch, Tom Petty, MGMT, Pink Floyd, The Who.

Let's talk about the music industry a bit. What's it like to be an unsigned band in a city full of musicians? Do you get frustrated?

CHRIS: I'm probably always frustrated, never satisfied. When a band plays a gig, the venue does $5,000 at the bar. The band makes $400.00 at the door, pays $150.00 production, $100.00 in gas and travel. You split the money up, and most times you're breaking even. A lot of bands play for free in Nashville because they just want the gigs. But just because a hooker will lay you for free doesn't mean you should lay her. Get paid for what you get--it helps the whole community.

There's no money in downloads, no money in touring, so what is there to not be frustrated about? But Dan Baird once said to me, "we are lifers." This is what we do. It's not like you can say, "At 30, I'll quit playing music and just teach history." Bullshit. I didn't wake up one day and say I'll be a musician. It's just who we are. We are doing it whether there's success to be had or not. It's just a shame that even in 2011, everyone else involved still has a bigger cut of the pie than the folks who are doing the baking. We don't want to get rich, we just want to be able to continue doing what we do. Why should someone that wants to have a relationship with us also be forced to have a relationship with Sony, or whoever?

We're working towards something that we are launching in early 2012 that we think will be unique to the industry. It might finally cut out the middle man, and create a better relationship between fans and artists. So stay tuned.

BRIAN: I'm very grateful for every chance I get to play. I'm also greedy in the fact that I want it to sound great, I want people to pay attention, and I don't want to have to pay $17 to do it. It's tough playing rock and roll. I concur with what Chris said, and would add that any frustration I have is just because this thing is special, and I want as many people as possible to be able to experience it.

The music business model is changing. You've had some success selling your own CDs. Is signing with a label still even necessary?

CHRIS: Everything we've done can be attributed to people who dug what we are doing, who then turned more folks on to it.We're in the process of creating something that will enable and encourage that kind of community, and make everyone feel like they are a part of the band's success. We have talked to some labels, and at this point I don't think we're interested in signing with one. I'm not saying we wouldn't sign in the right situation. But at the moment, I think some of these record labels are in the same boat as these Wall Street cronies. We're hoping that by February 1st, 2012, you can visit to see the new direction we're going, and if you dig what we do, you can join us in making some changes to how it all works.

BRIAN: I'm interested in continuing to make records. I'd like for people to hear those records. And maybe to have a budget to record without having to watch the clock. But I don't know if a label is the best way to accomplish that. When you're a kid, you think that the label comes to you and says, "Hey, would you like a golden egg? We love your songs." It's just not like that these days. It's an 85/15 split between label to artist. And that is just unacceptable.

Chris, you have a great family story involving your great grandfather that's really a blues tune waiting to be written. Want to share it?

CHRIS: I think I'll hold on to the details until the song is written. But the gist is that my great grandfather killed the sheriff and his deputy brother in the late 1920's after the cops did some ill things to my grandmother and her sisters. I was told about it in high school by their great grandson. It was a tough story to hear from my grandmother. It was a different time in America, definitely a different system of law. I've kind of held off from writing that because it's still a painful thing for my great aunt. She's still kicking it at 103.

You guys don't really project the image of the typical Nashville musician. You generally drive up from Kentucky for your shows, drive back after. You're dapper, not ironic. Is that all a conscious thing--to stay clear of the noise?

CHRIS: What does a musician look like? Sure we do. We look like the bands we like. Afghan Whigs, Muddy Waters, Clutch. We don't look like the Kings of Leon, but they didn't look like Kings of Leon on their first record, they looked like the Black Crowes. I might wear a suit because that's me. I like to wear suits. I like southern things, old things, it's who I am. If I'm holding a gun it's because I am about to shoot it, not because I want to be seen with it. These bands in their sarcastic t-shirts and their dirty skinny jeans are no different than Bon Jovi and Poison twenty years ago. That's not them. Then you couldn't get noticed from the labels unless you looked like a woman. Someone likes that stuff, and that's great. It helps draw a line between us and them. We are more concerned with being a good band live, and writing great songs than coming up with the right color theme for our band.

I don't think we are intentionally trying to stay clear of anything. We are working with the best folks in town right now. We're very close with some great bands in town and have a great relationship with the venues we play. We wouldn't be where we were if Ron Brice at 3rd and Lindsley hadn't given us a shot. We have a great relationship with Lightning100. We aren't going to go out of our way to be associated with someone that worked on so and so's record in the 90's just because they worked on so and so's record in the 90's- and there are a lot of those kinds of people in town like that. Who want to be seen with the latest thing for their image.

We just aren't like that. We're small town, and we choose our friends and relationships with people based on who they are as much as what they've done. Instead of the music social events, we're usually in the studio, or at someone's pad playing music. It's the stuff outside the stage and studio that turns us off. My friend Ryan Smith, who has a dozen or so #1 MTV videos in L.A. in the last decade, came up and crawled through the woods to an abandoned, 1940s Pentecostal church in rural KY to shoot some photos of us. [Note: See some of those photos in the video for "John" above.] Our friends get what we are. It's not about L.A., or reality shows, it's about honesty. We have the most unpretentious team of folks I could ask for.

What's coming up for you?

CHRIS: Probably spreading out a bit for 2012 and picking up some tours across country. Multiple new records and the new website in January that will launch our new music model with our community of fans. Possibly some film and TV placements. We'll just keep ours head down and continue to work. We are very thankful, and grateful, and want to do the best we can so that the people that have worked so hard to help us will see it wasn't in vain.