03 May 2005

Rose Hill Drive Take the High Road

This article was originally published in the Colorado Daily (without sidebars):

After some meditation, some vocal exercises, and some Red Bull, Rose Hill Drive take the stage at the Fox Theater to howl, thrash, and croon their way through their hard-edged, Led Zeppelin-inspired rock tunes. “City,” “Ball and Chain,” “The War,” and other songs elicit cries of joy from the small but growing knot of friends and fans at the band’s feet. The trio enjoys bantering with their friends in the audience. When bassist Jake Sproul introduces him, drummer Nate Barnes lets his face show his pride for about two seconds; he can’t resist twirling a drumstick and showing off for a couple more seconds. Jake’s brother Daniel dissolves into his ornate guitar riffs, his face hidden behind a thick curtain of shoulder-length ringlets.

Rose Hill Drive keep the pace fast, the pitch steep, and the volume high. Daniel’s guitar allows him to channel Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan while Zep, Pearl Jam, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers thread their way through the tapestry that forms the backdrop of their catchy original songs. The ease with which they wield that age-old she-done-me-wrong blues moan belies their youth (their average age is about 21). Tonight Daniel wrestles his demons and finds bliss on his six-string while Nate pounds his skins and Jake howls of rage and lust. Their instruments, bodies, and minds are in tune; they’re in the zone.

The club is in the zone with them. Daniel’s fluid riffs, Nate’s reckless percussion, and Jake’s impassioned vocals and bass hold the room and leave everyone breathless, wanting more. Jake handles most of the between-song banter. At one point Daniel brushes back his thicket of hair and makes the rare comment: “I love you all.”

“I do too,” Nate says with childlike wonder. “This is really an experience now.”

The words “LOVE” and “BASS” tattooed on his knuckles, Jake emotes, “What I do to you, I do to you, I do to me.” In another song, Jake sings a luscious chorus that drips with the promise of sex – even love – in his smooth, melodic voice. The band jumps back into up-tempo urgency so suddenly that I wonder whether they are perhaps still uneasy with handing out sex so casually, with their ’rents right there in the audience.

Then I listen to an archived performance from community radio station KGNU’s Kabaret from late 2003, on which Jake does a vocal riff to introduce a song and blows that theory out of the water: “Da cudda da cudda da kissa, da kissa, da kissit, da kissit, kiss it, kiss it, touch it, love it, lick it, stick it.” I ask whether they adopt different personas before they perform. They assure me, “We are ourselves onstage.”

Before Rose Hill Drive end their set and clear the stage for the headlining band, the North Mississippi Allstars, Allstar Cody Dickinson joins them for one long jam to infuse the screamfest with some electric organ groove.

* * *

“The love is here! The love is here!” Everyone swarms the kitchen table at Boulder’s Coupe Studios for some fries and fat foccacia slices layered with veggies or bacon, lettuce, and tomato. The food is a relief: It’s been a maddening day so far in the studio for Rose Hill Drive, Boulder’s best-known unknown rock band.

Nate, Jake, and Daniel have been flailing away fruitlessly here at Boulder’s Coupe Studios for an hour and haven’t been able to record for one minute without problems. They would love to go outside and take some bats to their old junker van. After all, there’s a newer van now, a van big enough to carry their burgeoning gear, one that won’t break down on the way to Vail in a snowstorm the way the old one did.

“No way, man. You’ve gotta save that van for eBay,” says their friend John. When a ripple of uneasy laughter travels around the table, he protests, “I’m serious!”

But aside from the garden-variety self-destructiveness of young guys newly emancipated and with time on their hands, the van conversation misrepresents Rose Hill Drive. Everyone in their orbit – their parents, friends, and even the guy who sells me the ticket for the Fox show – says, “They’re such nice guys,” or talks about their passion for what they do, their hearts being in the right place. Jake once described their alliance as a “three-way marriage.”

Although they are not spending their own cash on studio time today, Rose Hill Drive clearly hear the clock ticking. A small crew of people have come in this Saturday to help them record their first EP. The studio’s owner and engineers squeeze sessions in between their day jobs recording soundtracks for McDonald’s ads and their lives; also here are the band’s manager, Brian Schwartz, and a rotating cast of friends and well-wishers. All are here to help the band work the bugs out and get some songs on tape. All have a stake in the outcome. The expectations are high and everyone here comes with ideas about how today will go and what it will mean for their futures.

But the gremlins have other ideas. Sneaking around the studio, they plant a buzz here, something off-key there, and generally muck everything up just enough to irritate. I can’t hear all the flaws the sound engineer and the other folks complain about, but they continue to plague everyone.

“What do you think I should use?” Daniel asks, turning to the studio’s owner, Scott Roche, who is donating his studio’s time for a share in the band’s profits. Roche had scouted for a talented young band he could work with and develop, and he's sure these are the guys.

“You could give up on the Gibson for today and play the Strat,” suggests Scott. Daniel nods; he’d be happy to get on with it. He’s looking more pent up by the minute.

“We’ll just do an out of tune EP. ‘This note does not exist,’” jokes Daniel, with a pained look in his eyes.

“We should go do ‘Ball and Chain,’” Jake says, trying to buck up his brother and itching to play something that will amp them up again.

“Kick that shit,” agrees Nate, percussively. “Bump that shit out. Kick that. Let’s go play.”

“But the Strat is not sounding as fat, I’ll tell you that right now,” Scott tells Daniel.

“Goddamnit, Scott!” says Daniel, stalking into the studio. He picks up a turquoise Strat and huddles in a little closet-sized space to vent some anguish.

In the sound room, engineer Greg McRae mutters at the tiny heap of shredded fingernails and skin he has excavated from Daniel’s Gibson: “You can tell a lot about the way a person plays when you clean their guitar.” McRae is pretty sure he won’t be able to fix the intonation on this guitar without replacement parts, and the repair shop is not open today. McRae is the one who first noticed the guys coming into Robb’s Music, where he was also working at the time. “They were always coming in and picking out the good gear.”

McRae turns to Nate. “You get the Boy Scout preparedness award. You had new skins and everything. You came ready to rock.”

“Yeah,” Nate says. “I want to play,” Nate replies, swinging his arms.

“Actually it sounds really good when you’re playing soft,” says Aaron Lasko, an engineer and partner at Coupe Studios, from his spot at the mixing board.

Nate just stares at Lasko, his expression flat as a cymbal, before he heads for the studio.

* * *

All along, everyone cultivated the musicians’ interests. Nate’s dad, Peter Barnes, a pastor at First Presbyterian, played guitar and sang in Boston coffeehouses during college, mostly James Taylor and some other folk. Nate’s mom Lori played the flute, which attracted her to the music of Jethro Tull. When Nate was growing up, he was always interested in music; an early photo shows the towheaded toddler pulling himself up on a speaker. He tried piano and got bored with it. Drums caught his interest and he played with his church band. Then he met Daniel at Fairview High in the orchestra band and they started playing together after school. Recently Nate told his mom he had heard the Beatles’ Abbey Road and loved it. “Wait just a minute,” said Lori. She ran down to the basement and retrieved the vinyl LP she’d had since she was his age. “That gave me some credibility,” she laughed.

Jake and Daniel’s dad Steve played guitar, mostly noodling on his own. At home the whole family listened to Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, The Who – what’s now called “classic rock” on the radio. Daniel learned “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on guitar when he was six. At Base Line middle school, he was wowing his classmates at a school talent show with the Jimi Hendrix version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on an electric guitar that he held above behind his head and played blind. (“That was cool!” recalls former classmate Justin Hoffenberg, who now plays fiddle in the Coal Creek Bluegrass Band.) Daniel’s brother Jake tried guitar but took off when he discovered the bass.

Back when Daniel and Jake Sproul lived on the University Hill street that gave the band its name, a group of neighbors knocked on the Sprouls’ door. “You guys have to move,” they said, having had enough of the trio’s loud practices. But the neighbors were so nice about it. They said, “We’ll rent you a place, but it’s time for you to move.”

This happened at the same time as Daniel and Jake’s parents were divorcing. “It was a tumultuous time,” their mom, Jacquie Sproul, told me, making it clear these boys know first-hand of sadness as well as joy, that people are complicated, but that this was a private matter and she would not say anything negative about any of her family.

The band no longer live or practice on Rosehill Drive, but thanks to the faith and generosity of a large supporting cast of relatives and music professionals, Nate, Daniel, and Jake are now ensconced in an old farmhouse east of Boulder where they can practice at any hour without bothering neighbors. Their moms have been working on the garden, going to Costco to stock the cupboards, doing their laundry while they are on tour, and orchestrating the wiring, drywall, and painting projects to create a proper practice room.

Now that they are all out of school, nothing holds them back. They’re touring like maniacs, currently a supporting act on the Vans Warped Tour. Everywhere they go they’re inciting a buzz. They spend countless hours listening to all kinds of music, from old Cream albums to the White Stripes, from Cat Stevens to System of a Down. This band has already mastered the conversion of love and noise, pain and beauty into five-minute songs, right there for all to see and hear. And what else would they do? If he weren’t playing bass and writing songs all the time, Jake says, he would be “trying drugs.” “Which ones?” “All of them.” Says Nate: “I’d be a pastor, or a heroin addict.” Asking Daniel the question seems absurd. There’s nothing for him but the music.

As they generate a buzz at Austin's South by Southwest music showcase and in L.A., record execs sniff around. But now they’re proving the cliché that it’s all about who you know in this industry. Nate’s uncle gave their demo CD to a fellow board member: big-time record producer Brendan O’Brien (who has worked with Pearl Jam, Korn, and Stone Temple Pilots, among others). O’Brien was so impressed he asked to hear the band live, and flew out for a private show at the Fox a couple of days later. O’Brien immediately signed on as producer and creative director. Now, instead of flailing around at Coupe Studios to make an EP, O’Brien is lending his professional expertise to help them record a full-length album of their original songs at an Atlanta studio. They’re hoping the combination of their music and his experience will be irresistible to a major label that is willing to nurture them over a long career.

On hearing them live, it’s immediately obvious that these guys have the moxie to fill a stadium one day, and everyone who meets them seems to want in on the scene. Some just want to be around such talented, inspired longhairs who by all accounts have their heads and hearts in the right place; perhaps others want a cut of the booty that will surely fall when they do sign the big record contract. The band’s explanation of how they chose their name already reveals nostalgia for simpler times: “Rose Hill Drive is the street we grew up on and it reminds us of the early days playing countless hours in the basement before management, gigs, labels, tours. It also reminds us of when we just played for the music and the love of it.”

Their manager, Brian Schwartz believes Rose Hill Drive aren’t going to flame out early. He says they take care of themselves, going to Bikram yoga classes to keep themselves balanced when they’re on the road. When they’re in Boulder, Nate meets his family for their weekly bike ride. They tell me about their Brooklyn photo shoot: Nate got queasy and hurled right there on the subway platform. The culprit wasn’t too much imbibing the night before but taking vitamins on an empty stomach. “That was great – we got it all on camera!” Jake laughs.

I’d like to hear more from them about their experience recording with O’Brien in Atlanta, who earlier this year said he only had two things he wanted to work on in 2004: Bruce Springsteen and Rose Hill Drive. But they’re woodshedding, keeping the focus on recording and playing lots of gigs. Schwartz sends out an occasional update via e-mail or forwards the occasional note from Jake.

Meanwhile, Rose Hill Drive are busy “spreading happy seeds,” as Old 97’s guitarist Ken Bethea describes playing live. All at the Fox agree, from the longstanding friends and freshly minted fans on the dance floor to the blonde from Pasadena who takes the drummer’s hand and follows him backstage; from their parents to the recording studio owner and his wife; from Nick Forster, the host of the nationally syndicated etown radio show to the headlining band. Soon we’ll find out what fruits these seeds will yield.

Rose Hill Drive play Denver’s Bluebird Theatre on Thursday, August 26, the West End Street Jam on Saturday, August 28, and Boulder’s Fox Theater on Saturday, September 4. Go to http://www.rosehilldrive.com/ for details.

Possible sidebars:

What Rose Hill Drive are listening to:

o Aerosmith

o The Allman Brothers

o The Animals

o The Beatles

o Cream

o Elmore James

o Incubus

o Led Zeppelin

o Cat Stevens

o The White Stripes

o System of a Down

o The Vines

o The Who

What’s in Rose Hill Drive’s pockets:

o Nate: Orange scrunchie, lighter, lip balm, drum key, keys, cigarettes, and Sudafed

o Daniel: Hotel key, slide, string winder, earplugs, and picks

o Jake: Lint, a few pennies, candy trash, and a condom with a damaged package

copyright 2004 Rise Keller

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