FMF FRIDAY: THIS LITTLE UNDERGROUND PRESENTS ROADKILL GHOST CHOIR, with Case Work, American Party Machine, Good Graeff, E-Turn and DJ SPS
6:30 p.m. Friday, April 25 | The Social, 54 N. Orange Ave. | 407-246-1419 | floridamusicfestival.com | $10
Roadkill Ghost Choir’s Shepard siblings didn’t grow up harmonizing while doing house chores. They didn’t form a killer high school band that rocked the talent shows till they each graduated. No, Roadkill Ghost Choir is not the Avett Brothers of DeLand. Although three of the group’s five members are brothers – vocalist/guitarist Andrew Shepard, bassist Zach Shepard and drummer Maxx Shepard join guitarist Stephen Garza and pedal steel/banjo player Kiffy Myers – unlike the honed-since-childhood indie folk of better-known bands of bros, the Shepards had never strung a note together until Andrew was invited to play a gig at DeLand’s Café DaVinci three years ago.
Andrew thought a solo show might be dull, so he formed Roadkill Ghost Choir in January 2011 to add heft to his set, which was comprised of songs he wrote alone in his bedroom. He asked his brothers, who have remained in the band since then. It took around two months of shifting guitar players for the current lineup to be cemented. Andrew credits their sleepy hometown of DeLand for finding so much talent willing to join forces with him, but not much else.
“Everyone seemed to be into the idea of playing, so I didn’t have to pull a lot of hairs to get anyone to play with me. Plus, around these parts, there’s not much going on, so it was something to do,” Andrew says.
That first gig is one he cringes at when he remembers it, due to technical mishaps and the awkwardness of the impromptu arrangement. Still, it was a turning point for Andrew, whose songwriting process had always been so insular.
“It was really cool, especially for me, because I had been doing it by myself up to that point, and the only time I could really hear the music fully was through speakers,” Andrew says. “So it was cool to hear everyone else’s take on the songs, instead of just purely my influence on it.”
The rapid rise in attention his band has seen since those tenuous first few shows extended that freshly collaborative sound well beyond Central Florida and demonstrates a sort of serendipity in the band’s crystallization, which led to two consecutive official showcases at South by Southwest, a national tour with Dead Confederate and an appearance on Late Show With David Letterman (Jan. 17) – all before they released their debut album.
That’s due out in July of this year. It’s called In Tongues, and Andrew says it will be 10 songs that you should expect to rock a little louder than last year’s Quiet Light EP (though he swears their already-established indie-folk sound doesn’t stray so far as to completely drown out Light). One major example of a simple shift Andrew points out is that the banjo is less prominent throughout the new release than it is in perhaps their most popular song from the EP, “Beggars’ Guild.”
Perhaps we’ll be treated to a demonstration of the new songs at this week’s Florida Music Festival, where Roadkill Ghost Choir headlines our live music columnist’s This Little Underground showcase at the Social, alongside an array of local bands similarly selected by Bao Le-Huu, including Case Work, American Party Machine, Good Graeff, and E-Turn and DJ SPS).
Le-Huu was an early fan, naming Roadkill Ghost Choir among Orlando’s best new bands in his 2011 annual Undie awards, and by last year, they had graduated to best area breakout band. In 2012, he heaped more praise on the band, saying, “The majestic symphonic twang of Roadkill Ghost Choir remains unbelievably mature for such young dudes.”
It was just fortunate timing that the band returned from out-of-state dates in time for FMF, prompting Le-Huu to create his locally focused showcase and making it a sort-of welcome home party for Roadkill Ghost Choir, Andrew says, since they haven’t played Orlando much since busying themselves with promoting the EP through touring.
On Roadkill’s website (roadkillghostchoir.com), you’ll find tour photos showing the band climbing mountains, scanning plains and performing at a number of major festivals, including the Governors Ball in New York, a city Andrew says is a band favorite to play, in addition to Athens, Atlanta and Austin.
Although the exposure this has garnered them has been at times surreal – Andrew confesses to blacking out during the entirety of their set on Letterman, not coming back around until the moment the soon-to-be-retired late-night host shook his hand – making music has always been Andrew’s priority, so he was eager to return home. (When asked if he’d ever play the show with Stephen Colbert behind the Late Show desk, Andrew laughs and says, “Now, that would be the dream.”) Backstage on the CBS set, some of the Roadkill guys got to meet the guest comedian for that night’s program, Myq Kaplan, but not the guest actor Don Cheadle. Really, the majority of the time before their set was spent huddled in a tiny room – freaking out.
“The only thing I really remember from the studio audience was looking out past the cameras, and everyone just sitting there all stoic, like not even remotely into it at all,” Andrew says. “It was a totally weird experience compared to the other audiences at a real live show. It was completely bizarre, the whole experience.”
The opposite could be said of Roadkill Ghost Choir’s latest jaunt at SXSW, which Andrew describes as rather cushy. They played only four shows, so the guys spent most of their time checking out other bands they wanted to see and enjoying all the free beer they could drink. Andrew’s favorite showcase was at the Pitchfork Central Presbyterian Church and featured Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon) – whose “write-what-you-know” songwriting policy easily struck a chord with the Roadkill lyricist – and Angel Olsen, whose withered-flower vocal packs as much depth as the Roadkill singer (imagine if the pair dueted; hearts would race to break before each broken note). Our SXSW correspondent Nick McGregor caught Roadkill Ghost Choir at two separate appearances and predicted, based on the crowd reaction, that their upcoming debut will be a big hit once it finally happens.
Fortunately, the band was afforded two months of downtime from tours, festivals and TV shows in August and September 2013, and that’s when their new songs finally came to fruition. Only one song from In Tongues was written outside of that two-month session, an out-of-character road tune Andrew came up with in a van after forcing himself to push his limits and write a dang song somewhere other than his bedroom. He says he has trouble getting into the right headspace anywhere outside that familiar realm.
If you’ve ever seen Roadkill perform live, you’re familiar with the soulful, ear-catching croon Andrew employs to give life to his inward-looking lyrics. He cites Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (the way Yorke molds his vocal to mirror the song’s structure) and Bob Dylan (principally his howling tendencies) as major influences for his vocal delivery, and you might extend that coupled influence to the curious blend of indie folk the band derives from their frontman’s lead. Surprisingly, Andrew admits his first bouts in songwriting began on a laptop when he was 15 – an outpouring of now-forgotten electronic songs he doubts will ever resurface – but it was an excellent exercise in melody that translated when he eventually picked up the guitar at 19. He and the band have come a long way since then, displaying an onstage maturity and honoring traditional folk sounds with an eerie pedal steel, a quick-picking banjo and Andrew’s confident, woebegone presence.
Up ahead for Roadkill Ghost Choir: more touring to support their upcoming release – seemingly defiant behavior for a band whose name honors those wild animal souls who never made it to the crossroads. They've also been added to impressive lineups for major 2014 festivals including Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. Andrew says that traveling, and especially the experiences he’s had recently, compel new lyrical direction for him. The only teaser we have of the new music so far is an Instagram share posted to Roadkill’s site, alluding to shadows they’ve cast over the forthcoming album. When I asked Andrew about the clipped song (hashtagged to hell with #darkness), he laughs at me and says not to read too far into that sarcastic snippet. After already going the distance on Quiet Light, it’s unlikely, though, that any amount of shade their new material casts will keep Roadkill Ghost Choir from the spotlight.
“I don’t think the Quiet Light songs were very ... hopeful? But they weren’t completely bleak, and I think it’s kind of the same on this record,” Andrew says. “It might be a little bit darker in tone, but it’s not like a terribly sad, pitch-black record.”