“We’re just out for a couple of weeks right now, but in 2010 we did 250 consecutive days not the road,” Ryan Malott, frontman behind Cincinnati twang rockers 500 Miles to Memphis, spit my way through a faulty cell phone connection, he and his bandmates – David Rhodes Brown (lap steel), Kevin Hogle (drums), Noah Sugarman (bass) and Aaron Whalen (guitar) – lost somewhere towards the middle of North America.
“We’ve been touring heavily for seven years and have been a band for about nine years,” Malott continued. “When we release a new album we go out for a whole year or so straight, then the following year we taper off touring a bit and start working on a new album. So that’s where we’re at right now – slowing down the touring and playing some of our favorite cities here and there.
“Fort Wayne is one of those favorites,” he adds with sincerity, a nod to the band’s upcoming September 30 show at CS3′s Tiger Room.
Malott next tells me how his band, who have been featured on Rock Band, MTV and pretty much everywhere else, has been functioning as a full-time unit for over five years now. No day jobs, lots of writing, lots of van time. The real deal – an indie band that actually makes money.
“Well, we love Cincinnati,” Malott adds. “That’s our bread and butter. We’ll bring out almost 1,000 people per show in Cincinnati. And it’s always a blast – those shows.”
Coming off like some sort of Old 97′s, Green Day, Creedence Clearwater Revival hybrid, the Memphis 500 have established quite the reputation as a powerful, energetic live band. They’ve essentially done everything a young, thriving band can do – every thing but, ya know, blow up and achieve success similar to, say, Mumford and Sons.
“We’re working on a new album right now with plans to hopefully be in the studio by January,” Malott told me when I asked what stage he and his crew were currently in. “We’re working with a new producer this time around – a guy named Todd Sullivan who worked on the latest Weezer album. So we’re gonna go out to LA and do the album with him.”
I next asked Malott if this next album was meant to be, more or less, the big one. The game changer. The record that gets them on Best Buy endocarps and the big Bumbershoot stages. The All Out.
“Oh yeah, that’s what we’re thinking. That’s the idea,” Malott told me, explaining how he and the band plan to shop their Sullivan-produced record to labels far and wide. “The new songs are … I don’t know … there are a lot of singles in there to chose from. We’re really stoked about it, though we do have a lot of work to do yet. It’s going to be kind of a throwback record in a way – it’ll be way less produced with nothing orchestrated. It’ll be more like what we do live – just guitar-driven rock mixed with country. So we’re gonna keep it a little more raw.”
For the last record, a big, loud, incredibly detailed cowpunk disc called We’ve Built Up to Nothing, the Memphis 500 worked with famed producer Erwin Musper, known for producing hit records for Def Leppard, The Scorpions, Van Halen, Bon Jovi and many others. And while none of those bands have much of anything in common with 500 Miles to Memphis, the connection between Musper and the band is strong.
“[Erwin] came about through my steel player, an older guy named David. I met him through the music scene and he saw our show and liked it a lot. So he ended up kind of coming to us,” Malott explained to me while fumbling with gear in his band’s tour van. “He just sort of said ‘I want to produce your next album.’ We’ve been with him ever since. He’s great to work with; he and I produce things together. It’s kind of like this unexpected collaborative relationship. We hear the same things – big guitars and big drums. We produced the same way, so it’s great. I have nothing bad to say about the guy; he’s awesome.”
Musper was there through 2009, as the band worked on the album that made them, We’ve Built Up to Nothing, a work that saw their sound mature greatly from their previous release, the also good Sunshine in a Shot Glass.
The growth and departure was significant, seeing Malott move beyond the heavy Green Day influence and towards a sound all his own. It was, thus far, the moment that’s likely mattered most for the Cincy boys.
“[The new sound} sort of happened organically. We were all sort of changing as musicians – all getting into more classical music and jazz. We were kind of getting away from country and rock a bit, and started tinkering around with different things. But we of course came back to the country rock sound, but this time with different influences. Definitely The Beatles,” Malott said with a laugh. “It was natural, really. We didn’t put too much thought into it. We just knew what we wanted by the time we went into the studio and just kind of did it.”
Tempted as I was to bug Malott for further details about the new songs and the band’s direction, I stuffed the fanboy tendencies away and worked my way through some stock questions. First, his influences (NOFX, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Waylon Jennings and, of course, Green Day) and next, I asked about the fan base of a band that mixes country and punk (“the high school kids stand up front singing the lyrics and their flakes are in back singing). Malott they explained how, despite seeing a mixed bag of faces in the crowed each night, their hybrid sound sometimes works against them.
“Sometimes we’re not punk enough for the punk kids and we’re not country enough for the country folks. So sometimes that genre mix works against us. But the people who really get what we’re doing are really supportive – they come to all the shows and buy all our stuff and really make it all worthwhile for us.”
Lastly, I asked Malott about his band’s reputation for seeing musicians come and go. He laughed, stuttered, dodged and then, finally, faced it.
“Well, as far as people quitting or getting fired goes, the biggest problem is the road – it’s sometimes too hard for people to keep up. Ya know, they just can’t handle it after a while,” Malott said, showing a slight ray of torture and regret. “So people end up leaving or, ya know, we have to fire them. But the lineup we have right now is solid. I mean, we lost a bass player last year – my new bassist is my old guitar player. So I’ve had him and my drummer in the band for five or six years. So we have a new guitarist as of the beginning of this year. But the core group – me, Kevin, David and Noah – has really been around damn near since the beginning.”
With a new live record currently on record store shelves and We’ve Built Up to Nothing still going strong, this finally solid Memphis 500 lineup seem poised to do something big. To break. Don’t be surprised if this upcoming Fort Wayne show is your last chance to see these five cowpunks on a small stage. With pop sensibilities as strong as Malott’s, I won’t be a bit surprised if they drink and strum and shout their way into the top of the country rock heap, big hooks and loud guitars leading the way.