"I believe in Athens music," says Scott Low in between long drags on a beat-up American Spirit. The hirsute and outspoken local musician is responding to a simple question about his numerous current endeavors, but the bumper-sticker answer may just as well be a rallying cry.
Low, once known as Scott Leon-O'Day, is a trained guitarist who fronts the long-running folk- and country-tinged rock and roll band Efren. He also performs solo under his own name and with what he terms his "hip, weird, cool acoustic band," The Southern Bouillon. In addition, he works with several others to run the nascent booking and promotions agency Handpicked Artists Presents (HAP).
Low says his current creative focus is on his solo work—although Efren will play this week at Nowhere Bar and plans to release a fourth studio album in 2014, he describes his band as "more of a once-a-month type of deal" right now, given its members' other musical commitments.
Of course, Efren began as a solo project, too; its debut album, 2009's Thunder and Moan, was a quiet but formidable lo-fi folk outing. Its followup, Rise On Up and Melt, was a full-band effort that dived into dark folk and Americana. The sea change came with Efren's 2012 album, Write a New Song, a full-blown rock experience that boasted a handful of instant barroom classics, like the rollicking single "If My Heart Don't Fail Me."
Shortly after that album's release, the band underwent an amicable personnel shift: out went bassist Darrin Cook and drummer Jamie Derevere, replaced by Clint Swords and Mike Strickland, respectively. The new lineup further solidified the band as a whiskey-soaked, four-on-the-floor machine, says Low, who, like his bandmates, has a background in jazz.
"I think Efren's the best we've ever been" these days, Low says, while also giving heartfelt props to Cook and Derevere. In terms of the evolution of the group's sound, "I almost had a three-year plan laid out," he continues. "[I'd] start real indie-folk, play the small places and hopefully grow it into the rock band it is now, to be able to make a bar bounce."
Even so, as Efren grew louder and more raucous, Low found himself yearning for the folky simplicity of his early output.
"I love rocking out and sweating and bleeding," he explains. "But [I also love] being able to sit there and talk to the audience, without the distraction of having to put on a rock show."
Low's new solo record, The Stories I Shouldn't Tell, revives that stripped-down sound but adds some truly unexpected elements: the eerie whistles and trip-hoppy drum loops of "Cactusgrass" represent yet another sonic shift for a guy who never seems to sit still for long.
"It's really, like, a bunch of shit that didn't make Efren albums," Low says of Stories. "But at the same time, it's stuff that would never make Efren albums."
It's easy to see why: tunes like "Crumble," which is sparsely designed and willfully experimental, or "Run Away," on which Low's breathy, beaten vocals melt warmly over a distant guitar, do not exactly fit the bar-rock mold. Low says he finds creative satisfaction in keeping his musical worlds separate. "I [also] held back songs from the solo album that I knew Efren was gonna do."
He also has found unexpected happiness in HAP, which aims to build a new sort of musical community, connecting Low and his colleagues' favorite upstart Athens bands with acts, clubs and promoters from the surrounding states while also drawing new talent back to the Classic City.
"Everybody in Athens knows you can't make it just playing in Athens," Low says of the motivation behind the agency. "We've gotta broaden the horizon and evangelize this shit."
Among the 10 bands currently officially associated with the company, Low is most eager to talk about Athens-via-Waycross power-trio The Woodgrains, whose second, self-titled album will come out in January 2014. An early taste suggests the band has tweaked and tightened the ADD-riddled, Zep-heavy sound it displayed on its 2012 debut, to rousing effect.
"The Woodgrains are about to roll," says Low. "They've got the desire and the age and the rig to do it… These guys are, hopefully, the next big [Athens band]."
But it's important to note that HAP isn't only about supporting bands. The agency also wants to lend support to some under-heralded local venues, most notably the Lumpkin Street hangout Nowhere Bar, which has become somewhat of an unofficial HAP headquarters.
"What the Nowhere Bar does is such an asset to this community," Low says. "It's free shows, but they pay their bands. They have a good sound system, a good stage. You can go in there any night of the week, and there are people watching music."
Likewise, Efren and The Woodgrains both recorded their most recent LPs at Watkinsville's Full Moon Studio with engineer Jay Rodgers; Low cites the studio as one of the most quietly indispensible in the area.
"I want to elevate all this shit," he says—the music, the venues, the studios, other scene supporters. "I know I'm not making money 'til March, June. I know I'm working my ass off for this just to make the name. I spent 40 hours last week [working on HAP]. It's definitely a full-time job."
Wisely, the seasoned Low is cautiously optimistic about the future of his latest endeavor. "I hope by the middle of 2014 we have 20 bands and two more agents," he says. Legit office space would be nice, too, so HAP can stop operating "out of coffee shops and kitchen tables."
But to succeed in this line of work requires some degree of idealism, and there is a part of this particular musician that remains defiantly hopeful.
"I ain't stoppin'," he promises. "I believe."
WHERE: Nowhere Bar
WHEN: Thursday, Dec. 5, 10 p.m.
HOW MUCH: FREE!