Southeast Engine hails from Athens, OH. After listening to their new record, Canary, it not only makes me a little misty for the small town where I went to graduate school, but for the good people, local downtown characters, and the vibrant music scene that is nestled in that little town that treated me so damn well. The young boys of Southeast Engine have crafted a haunting, timeless, and at times, astoundingly vibrant record of Depression-era tales of their own home in Appalachia.
Lyrically, Canary sidesteps literary pretension, and is so dense with genuine sentiment and detailed prose throughout the set that it begs for another spin each time it ends. The heart and guts of the collection focuses on hard times, depressed places, and the people weathering the era despite the grim looks of it all. The boys showcase their musical range by matching the authenticity of the stories with a full-band treatment that bends itself to suit the needs of each individual tune. It is a testament to how well each tune stands alone, as well as how they all fit together.
Blistering gallops, sparse ballads, anthemic barn-raisers, and solemn laments are all here. Southeast Engine takes us up over mountains, across the waters of rivers and lakes, and deep down into valleys below. The result is an album by a band that draws from the area's musical roots: bluegrass, county, and mountain music, while using their voices to create a work that feels loose, young, energetic, and respectful of it's past- both geographically and musically. Canary is a rewarding and highly enjoyable record by a band to watch out for. Catch them soon before they get huge.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Adam Remnant of Southeast Engine, and we discussed the band's history, it's inspiration for Canary, and why Athens remains the geographical touchstone for the band.
Can you briefly describe how Southeast Engine got together?
It's a typical story really. Myself and drummer Leo DeLuca both went to the same high school in Dayton, Ohio. By 1999, we both relocated to Athens, Ohio to attend Ohio University. It was around that time that we started playing music together, and Southeast Engine was born.
How did you meet The Wrens and hook up Misra Records?
I think it was 2005 - we played a festival show in Athens, Ohio called Lobster Fest run by the college radio station, and The Wrens were headlining. I remember we got to talking to them quite a bit about the music scene of Dayton, Ohio in the 90's. The Wrens had toured and were friends with Braniac, a band out of Dayton from that era.
When we were making A Wheel Within a Wheel we sent a few of the recordings out to labels with the hope of getting signed. Misra was being run by Cory Brown of Absolutely Kosher at the time, and The Wrens were on Absolutely Kosher. Charles Bissell from The Wrens put in a good word for us, which got Cory to give our music a listen.
For readers who may be newcomers to SEE, can you briefly take us through your discography up to 2009's From The Forest to the Sea?
Well, A Wheel Within a Wheel is our first album that appears on a label, but it's actually our third album - we had already recorded two albums that we had self-released prior: Love is a Murder, a Mystery of Sorts (2003) and Coming to Terms with Gravity (2005). Our first album was a home recording affair, and Coming to Terms with Gravity was our first time making a full-length album in a studio. A Wheel Within a Wheel (2007) is an album about spiritual awakening and struggle, and it's the band's most most rocking, orchestrated, and epic album potentially.
After that experience, we wanted to tailor things back and recorded From the Forest to the Sea (2009) in an old school building in Stewart, Ohio, which is allegedly haunted. We recorded that album largely live in that space with minimum overdubs - the album continues the spiritual themes, but it also has a political and social element as the album weaves a narrative about the demise of a cartographer who maps the ocean's floor for off-shore drilling purposes.
Who were your influences early on?
When I was about 12 and 13 years old Nirvana was breaking, and I became completely obsessed. The rock n' roll archetype has eclipsed in my adolescent psyche, and I haven't been the same since. Growing up in Dayton, we also heard bands like The Breeders and Guided by Voices. Kim and Kelly Deal of The Breeders actually lived down the street from me. One day me and my other 13 year old friends went and knocked on their door for the chance to meet them and have them sign our CDs. They were really nice about it - I still have my signed copy of the "Cannonball" single.
I would say that Southeast Engine's more direct musical influences would be music from the 60's and 70's like Bob Dylan, The Band, The Beatles, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen. We grew up listening to all their albums and know them inside and out.
You have done a lot of touring and played with an impressive list of artists. Can you describe one of your most memorable experiences on the road?
On one of our first outings we played a show in Bowling Green, Ohio opening for what we though was an independent rock minded band called Bancroft for their CD release show. It turned out they were more of a frat rock band with a very drunk and aggressive audience. Near the end of our set their audience started chanting "Bancroft, Bancroft, Bancroft, Bancroft." Our drummer Leo wisely walked out to the mic and simply chanted with them. The chanters became confused, and we finished our set - we still sold a good bit of merch that night so there must of been some folks in the audience that did get what we were after.
Out of the acts you have played with, who has had the biggest influence on you in a live setting?
Touring with Deerhoof last summer was really inspiring. They always brought so much energy to their live performance. The Wrens are the same way. Both bands have such strong and sophisticated musical sensibilities, but also bring raw energy to their performances - it's hard not to gravitate toward that, and want to do the same with your own band.
Congratulations on your new record. Can you describe the songwriting process behind Canary?
Songwriting always feels like a premonitory experience. The songs are premonitions pointing the way. I'm never quite sure where I'm going, but I'm thrilled to be going there. I really try not to force things and just see where things take me. With Canary I started to see that the songs would take place in a specific time and location. Once I established that I worked within that framework, but still tried to let the songs write themselves.
How did the concept of the album come about? Did a tune or specific tunes inspire the story and/ or set the course?
With Canary I was inspired by the local history of Southeast Ohio, and wrote a couple songs that revolved around characters living in this area during the Great Depression. One event that directly influenced me was a man knocked on my door one afternoon and explained that his father and uncles had built the house I own and live in during the early 30's. The house is built largely out of clay block because it was the cheapest resource at the time because it was made locally in abundance. He described his life during that time period in the neighborhood. All the details in "At Least We Have Each Other" are largely from his story.
Which songs came first?
"Adeline of the Appalachian Mountains" and "At Least We Have Each Other."
Once you began in that direction, how did it develop?
Once a couple songs were written I started to imagine the characters as part of a family, and the album became a group of songs that describe a year in the life of this family. Again, I allowed the songs to present themselves to me spontaneously. One by one, the songs started to develop along with the characters and the sense of place that plays very heavily in the songs.
The main character is a 17 year old who is finding that he needs to become the head of the household while the town and its ability to provide is falling apart - it's sort of a coming of age story. I feel like you're always learning how to adapt to your new responsibilities as an adult so I could identify. I think the other characters represent people and ideas in my real life like characters in a dream or fantasy. I'm reminded of when Dorothy returns to Kansas, and she realizes the people around her in reality were the characters back in Oz.
What were you listening to during this time? Who were your influences while making Canary?
I was listening to a lot of music from the 20's and 30's, especially the Carter Family - I definitely felt a kinship between the characters in the songs I was writing and the music from that era. In order to get more inside that musical world, I actually went out and spent money I did not have on an old banjo and learned the clawhammer style of playing. I have some friends in an old-time string band here in Athens called Rattletrap who were great for inspiration and resource as well.
I was also inspired lyrically by some of my friends, including Frontier Ruckus, Theodore, and Zeb Dewar. All three are so good at including specific details and imagery in their music, and that was definitely something I was trying to do with these songs.
How collaborative is the band's writing process?
I am the primary songwriter. I write the songs on guitar or piano with the chords and lyrics basically complete. However, the band is very collaborative in arranging and producing the album. Leo and I have been working on arranging drum parts for the songs for years, which is such a crucial element to how the song comes together.
The current line-up of Southeast Engine now includes my brother Jesse Remnant on bass and harmony vocals and our friend Billy Matheny on piano and organ. Jesse and Billy have brought a lot to the table - they are both incredible musicians who can play just about any instrument and are full of ideas when it comes to arranging. I'm getting excited about working on our next album anticipating the ideas the band will bring to the songs.
Can you describe how living in Athens specifically influenced the direction of the new record?
Canary feels like the culmination of living in Athens for the past ten years. The town has really become home to me. After living here long enough, you learn the local history and a major chapter is the story of the mining towns throughout the area. By the time of the Great Depression the majority of the mines had been shut down because resources were found cheaper elsewhere. Unfortunately, these communities revolved around the mines economically, so the loss of work would often destroy the community.
The album cover is a picture of the coal mine chimney in Canaanville, which nature has now taken over. Most people think it's actually a tree when they look at the cover. Athens feels the same way, nature has taken over here, or at least we're trying to live more cooperatively - folks have gone back to the land and are striving to create strong and sustainable communities. It's not perfectly idyllic and there are still challenges to be sure, but there is a strong spirit here of people trying to live in a more deliberate manner, trying to learn from the past.
Having gone to school in Athens myself, I loved living there and loved the music scene there too. Can you describe your experiences in the Athens music scene?
I have felt so blessed to be a part of the music scene here. People have been so encouraging toward us to keep going, and there is a strong sense of community between the musicians in town. We got our start here and established the band here - it's one of the main reasons we stuck around after college.
What makes it special for the band?
One great aspect of being based out of Athens where the university ushers out and brings in a new class of students every year is that we are constantly reaching new people in the same place. It also helps for us out on the road because fans of the band from Athens move all over the country and come to our shows when we go play in their new location.
What keeps you there and makes it "the place" for you all to work as a band?
I've really established some roots here - my wife and I own a house and both work here. I work as a carpenter when the band isn't on the road, and my wife works at the university. We also have a really strong sense of community. Currently, my brother Jesse and I live in Athens. Leo recently relocated to Durham, North Carolina and Billy lives in Morgantown, West Virginia. Athens still feels like homebase to the band though because it was started and established here. We also work with a great studio here called 3 Elliot Studio with the amazing engineer/producer Josh Antonuccio - he's our George Martin.
What's next for SEE?
A few dates this summer with a big tour in September. Then, of course, more shows next year while trying to make another album. We'll be busy.