Photo Credit: Serra Ferguson
It's not long into the conversation before The Powder Room drummer Aaron Sims brings up "Eastbound & Down," the gleefully crude HBO comedy series about a washed-up former ballplayer and his politically incorrect misadventures.
"I'm fucking obsessed with it," says Sims. "It's like, if you have seen it, let's talk about it. If you haven't, I'm gonna try to make you watch it. I can't stop talking about it. It's unhealthy."
Like Kenny Powers, The Powder Room's debut album, Curtains, is uncouth and unclean, vaguely mistrustful of its surroundings but also determined to be the focal point wherever it goes. Like the television show, the music balances the primal with the sublime, burying ear-grabbing pop melodies under a thick, wet layer of sonic muck.
Of course, that push-and-pull is precisely what frontman and guitarist Gene Woolfolk's musical heroes were known for. Working on Curtains, "we definitely cross-referenced In Utero," says Woolfolk, who also leads Nairvana, the unflinchingly faithful local Nirvana cover band. Indeed, The Powder Room's debut outing shares more than a few traits with the grunge icons' Steve Albini-produced swan song: blown-out bass tones; crunchy, room-filling guitar squall; an airy, organic drum sound.
The record is a "hi-fi, raw representation" of the band's personality, says Woolfolk, an admitted gearhead who runs the boards at the Caledonia Lounge and has developed a reputation as one of Athens' most reliable sound engineers. With the help of producer Kyle Spence, the album came together over a period of nearly a year, though Woolfolk notes, "we only did like six days' worth of work."
As Sims and Woolfolk explain, Spence was frequently on tour or in the process of moving his home studio during the album's creation, which led to numerous delays in the process—though time spent reflecting on the recordings no doubt contributed to the album's stellar mix.
Indeed, regardless—or maybe because—of how long it took to complete, Curtains is one of the best-sounding records to come out of Athens this or any year. Largely free of studio accoutrements, the album succeeds wildly in the group's stated mission of translating its formidable live presence to tape.
"The intention was something simple, something stark and stripped-down that would capture us as a band," says Sims. Songs like the unfortunately titled "Sand in My Vagina" showcase the group's impeccable sense of balance. Bassist Bubba McDonald's chunky low-end churn and Woolfolk's dissonant guitar leads frame the latter musician's raspy yowl, perched unavoidably in the middle.
Sims jokingly describes The Powder Room's sound as "caveman catchiness," but the phrase is apt. Curtains is as eager to hypnotize as it is to destroy. Certain moments, like the eerie half-step vocal melodies on "Earthworm," display shades of underrated '90s alt-rock acts like Local H. Other songs, like battering-ram jam "Waltz Liquor," call to mind local heavy music forefathers Harvey Milk. (It's no coincidence that Spence is that group's drummer.)
"I wouldn't put us on Harvey Milk's level," says Woolfolk. That shit is brilliant music. Ours is really dumb [laughs]. But it's fun to play, and it's catchy. We're just trying to write catchy tunes that are [also] nasty."
Though Woolkfolk names groups like Motherfucker and Cinemechanica as fellow torch-carriers, he is aware of his band's status on the local scene, which has seen a decline in heavy bands over the past few years. The Powder Room "definitely" feels like an oddball, he says, noting that crowds are often more receptive to the band's sonic assault in Atlanta, long known as a heavy-music mecca.
On the other hand, it's likely Athens' creative diversity contributes to the group's multifaceted sound, which is pummeling on the surface but hides melodic and other such intricacies underneath. Woolfolk also cites Faster Circuits and Old Smokey, two decidedly non-heavy local groups, as favorites.
The band hints at a more streamlined sound for the follow-up to Curtains, which is already being prepped; The Powder Room plans to enter the studio with Utah guitarist Wil Smith next month to lay down some initial demos.
"They're shorter," Woolfolk says of the new batch of songs. "Some are just as grungy and nasty, but [they're also] even poppier." Often times, says Sims, "the songs are better when they just kind of spill out, and you don't overthink it… It's something you don't really analyze. We just write songs and hope they're not terrible and people like to listen to them."
For the moment, the band will relish the satisfaction of having crafted a decidedly impressive debut. The Powder Room will headline an album release show Friday at its de facto venue home, Caledonia. Looking ahead, a summer tour is on the horizon, the group's first since having most of its gear stolen at a Chicago stop last November.
"We're great," says Woolfolk, when asked about the recovery from that setback, a recovery helped along by a successful fundraising campaign set up by a friend of the band. "It was amazing that people came together and did that for us. We're restored."
Still, like a certain mulleted pitcher, The Powder Room isn't likely to forgive and forget anytime soon. Says Woolfolk, "We might avoid Chicago for a few years."
WHO: The Powder Room, Motherfucker, Pale Prophet
WHERE: Caledonia Lounge
WHEN: Friday, May 2, 10 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $5 (21+), $7 (18–20)