[Photos from RoseHillDrive.com]
Snowy, crunchy Boulder, Colorado brings to mind the Rocky Mountains, the Flatirons, liberal-minded, nature-conscious people and quite possibly Mork & Mindy. Given the legions of rootsy bands that call the city home, Rose Hill Drive, an incendiary threesome steeped in the traditions of hard-driving classic rock, cannot help but stand out from their laid-back hometown brethren. A power trio in every sense of the word, Rose Hill Drive has built their following on concert-goers not only eager for bassist Jacob Sproul's often-literary lyrics but for the sonic assault brought by drummer Nathan Barnes and Jacob's brother, guitarist Daniel Sproul. Already a bit of an underground sensation, Rose Hill Drive is in the process of emerging into a much more identifiable entity. The self-titled Rose Hill Drive hit stores in August and while on tour in support of their debut, the group attracted the attention of Pete Townshend, ultimately leading to a coveted slot opening a number of shows for The Who. With the Sproul brothers delayed due to some typically snowy Colorado weather, Nate Barnes recently spoke with Earvolution by phone about Rose Hill Drive's relatively rapid ascent, the recording of their explosive debut album and their new found friend, Pete Townshend.
At 24 years old Barnes is Rose Hill Drive's eldest member, but only by three months. Although the excitement over his band's success can't be disguised, Barnes hardly speaks with wide-eyed wonder or youthful exuberance, exuding a confidence not always typical of a twenty-something at the beginning of his career, regardless of their field. A healthy amount of Barnes' aplomb surely arises from the close-knit nature of the band, which formed while the Sprouls and Barnes were still in high school, a fact that should give hope to every teenager toiling away in their parents' basement or garage. "I knew Jake and Daniel from going to the same school," explains Barnes of the band's origins. "We had mutual friends. One of my really good friends was their former drummer. I replaced [him] which was kind of a sticky situation but it all blew over."
Most high school bands don't survive graduation much less get to play shows outside of their hometown. "We were all on the same page," explains Barnes of the band's post-scholastic existence. "I went to community college for about half a semester, but that wasn't what I wanted to be doing; Jake too. That's not where our heart was or what we wanted to be doing. We wanted to be playing." Both Jake and Barnes withdrew from their respective colleges and Daniel followed their lead, making the risky call to drop out of high school. The glamorous rock and roll lifestyle didn't come immediately. "We all just got jobs and starting working."
With jobs waiting tables available for the Sprouls at their mom's breakfast spot, Barnes found a job at a bread store. Adopting a philosophy of accepting gigs whenever and wherever they arose, Rose Hill Drive played as many shows as they could. In time, the bookings started to increase, wreaking havoc with their day jobs. "None of us ever made a conscious decision to quit our jobs. It was more like we were getting tours and shows and realizing 'I can't keep my job anymore,'" said Barnes of the American dream of departing the 9 to 5 working world. "We eventually got to the point where we couldn't hold jobs." Before they were old enough to legally get into a bar, Barnes and the Sprouls were full-time musicians.
From the outside it may look like Rose Hill Drive are an overnight success story, but Barnes seems quite nonplussed by such appearances. "You could look at it that way," Barnes explains. "We've been getting our own shows since high school, so we've been building it for about seven years. In the past couple years, we've gotten more recognition, as well as put our first album out." As for "quick success," Barnes couldn't disagree more. "We've definitely put a lot of years and a lot of time into this."
In cutting their teeth around Boulder, Rose Hill Drive built a following by offering an alternative to the jam rock scene. "The jam scene here is more a college scene or a college age scene," he carefully explains. "I never really got into that kind of stuff. In high school, we'd go to see rock bands when they came to town but we weren't going to the clubs just to go." Barnes understands Rose Hill Drive's appeal within the jamband scene during that time. "We definitely stuck out in our home town. We were one of the only bands doing what we were doing and managed to tap into that fan base, which has also been beneficial cause those are the people that keep coming to shows, recording and sharing them. They spread the word and we kind of developed an underground following by being appealing to that scene. I think it's been good for us."
Barnes boils down Rose Hill Drive's initial success with jamband audiences to a shared love of the art of the live performance. "They like it because we definitely just play together on stage and it will go places," said Barnes. "We'll play stuff we haven't played before, kind of just a free thing as opposed to playing this song off our record and that song off our record; we kind of string everything together and change things up. I think it would be incredibly boring if we did the same thing over and over again. I think that's what people latch on to: the freeness and the improvisation of what we do on stage." This past New Year's, Rose Hill Drive definitely changed things up, opening both year-end shows at the Boulder Theater with an entire run through Jimi Hendrix' Band Of Gypsys. In tearing through the album Hendrix recorded with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox on New Year's Eve 1970, Rose Hill Drive did more than pay homage to a classic recording: they rendered it with such skill and dexterity that it doubled as a resounding declaration of Rose Hill Drive's emergence as a potent force to be reckoned with.
Years of playing bars, clubs, arenas and festivals have given Barnes a good sense of Rose Hill Drive's allure. "I think there's two different kinds of people that go to shows," he explained. "I think the jamband scene goes to see a show - a whole show - and feel the energy coming off the band and to be a part of something really cool. I think a lot of the people that go see mainstream bands go to hear 'that song' or just want to hear them play the songs off 'that record' and if they stray from that then they don't really get it." Barnes senses the mix of both types of fans in their current audience. "I think the fact we have the first kind of fans at our shows is really cool for us. We do have a few of the other types of fans: hopefully, we can turn them on to the fact that there's more to a show than hearing the band just play 'that song.'"
In recording their debut album, Rose Hill Drive opted for a different tack than other bands with devoted live followings that strive to duplicate their show within the studio. "We didn't want [the album] to sound like we sound live because the record is a whole different art form," said Barnes. "I think it's kind of silly when people say that just want to capture what they've done live on their record. We definitely wanted to capture the vibe of us playing together; all the basic tracks were done at the same time, the drums, the bass and the rhythm guitar tracks." Although they didn't try to replicate the feel of their live show, the stage workouts the songs have endured greatly helped Rose Hill Drive deliver them in the studio. "We've played some of those songs live for probably about nine months to a year. They've each developed their own thing from playing them in concert. I don't think we did any more than four takes for any of those songs," said Barnes with a mixture of amazement and pride. "We were ready. We had been waiting a long time to be able get in the studio and record. We came fresh off the road and went through preproduction with our producer and co-producer about a week before. We had a game plan: we just came in there, got the sounds we wanted and blazed through it." Some bands may struggle in the studio, worrying over getting things just right: not Rose Hill Drive. "We did most of the basic tracks in the first couple days; the rest was going back over and adding overdubs and layering things, which I think is a really cool thing to do. You don't want it to sound overproduced, but you have the opportunity to create different sounds than you do live."
Realizing you only get one chance to create your debut release, RHD gave the project a good deal of forethought. "We wanted to make sure it flowed on record and wasn't just a collection of songs," said Barnes. "The order of the songs was really important to us. We were really conscious of making it a cool, flowing thing rather than random songs thrown together. We were also conscious of making the songs complete songs." Main songwriter Jake Sproul populates Rose Hill Drive's music with dramatic confrontational scenarios and detailed characters with a little more depth than those normally found within your typical rock song, often creating the hard-rock equivalent of a Spaghetti Western. Without diminishing Sproul's contributions, Barnes doesn't discount his or the younger Sproul's efforts towards the literary scope of the tunes. "Jake wanted [the lyrics] to stand up to how good the music was," explained Barnes. "I think the lyrics are about something, they mean something they're not just random words thrown together that sound cool."
Undoubtedly, Rose Hill Drive's biggest exposure came when Pete Townshend and Rachel Fuller invited the band onto their In The Attic podcast. After opening a festival headlined by The Who, Rose Hill Drive caught the eye and ear of the legendary guitarist. "It was just a total shock to me," said Barnes. "We were kind of hanging out and then Brian, our manager, came up to us and asked if we wanted to be on Pete's podcast." Having grown up fans of The Who, surely they had time to compose themselves before going on the air with the icon. "Yeah, we had maybe 30 minutes," laughed Barnes. With hardly time to reflect, they quickly found themselves being interviewed by Townshend while trying to not be starstruck by the whole situation. "If you look at the video, you can probably see that in our eyes. We were all pretty blown away by the whole thing," Barnes said with pleasant humility. "We grew up watching The Kids Are Alright, Live At The Isle Of Wight and the Woodstock videos, listening to Tommy. They are a huge influence of ours. It was pretty surreal to be in the same room doing a show talking about our band with him."
Showing little trepidation, Rose Hill Drive played the acoustic medley that comprises the center of Rose Hill Drive. From that initial appearance, the band struck up a fruitful friendship with Townshend, who's nearly as old as all of Rose Hill Drive combined: they've become frequent guests on the In The Attic podcast and will once again open a handful of shows for The Who on their current American tour. One of the highlights for RHD occurred this past September at Chicago's House Of Blues when Townshend joined Rose Hill Drive for one of their anthems, "Raise Your Hands," as well one of his, "Young Man Blues," one of Barnes' favorite songs. "A really cool sequence of events that ended up with a really cool outcome," sums up the marveled Barnes.
Looking forward to their upcoming stint of shows with The Who, they plan to build on the pragmatic approach they adopted when they previously opened for them. "We came up with a thirty minute set that would put across what we do so people can get an impression of what we're about," he explained. "I think we probably did 3 or 4 songs. We didn't try to cram a lot of songs in there. We just wanted to do what we do. It's a much more intimidating setting: you're in an arena, you have a huge sound system and only a half hour." Did opening for The Who mean people recognized Rose Hill Drive? "People definitely had no idea who we were," deadpanned Barnes before chuckling. "We were kind of nervous," he said of the daunting effort. "The band that had been on tour before us [Peeping Tom] had been booed off stage several times but Rose Hill Drive was a much better fit for The Who."
Knowing his history with respect to bands formed by siblings, Barnes knows the pitfalls that could lie ahead, but isn't overly concerned. "I'm pretty fortunate cause they get along really well," he said with a bit of a laugh. "You hear about bands like Oasis and the Black Crowes: that the brothers hate each other and there's all this tension. I feel pretty fortunate that it's not like that. We're not blood brothers but we're all pretty much brothers cause we spend all our time together and know each other so well. I think it's the best setup as far as having a lot of creativity. There's unspoken communication between the two of them and they're always on the same page; it makes for a really creative environment." If the two are at odds, does Barnes become the tiebreaker? "Usually I don't find myself in that position," he says with a lighthearted relief that bodes well for Rose Hill Drive's exceedingly bright future.