Things are looking up for Amos Slade – the Sioux Falls, South Dakota quartet whose LP, Hungry Earth, promises to be one of the best debuts of 2013.
Singer-guitarist songwriter Nick Engbers’ songs are atmospheric wonders that reflect the grittiness and open spaces of the South Dakota landscape, his introspective nature, and his spiritual beliefs.
And the rest of Amos Slade – which consists of guitarist Dan Ludeman, bassist Landon Heil, and drummer Phil Mueller – perform Engbers’ tunes with passionate virtuosity, while simultaneously imbuing them with their own musical personalities.
Electric Mohawk recently sat down with Nick, Dan, Landon, and Phil to discuss the origins of Amos Slade, the creation of Hungry Earth, and their plans for the immediate future.
Electric Mohawk: Tell us about the birth of Amos Slade. How did you guys meet?
Nick Engbers: I’d just moved back to South Dakota and was writing music with a long-time drummer friend of mine. We kind of got things started, along with a bassist friend ours. Personal lives were taking them elsewhere, so I contacted Phil, who dj’d a local music show at a radio station in Sioux Falls. He’d been giving us a fair amount of airplay, and I also knew that he was an excellent drummer. He, Dan, and Landon were actually already jamming together, and they all agreed to play through some Amos Slade stuff with me. Things fell together pretty quickly after that. I really lucked out and am so fortunate to have met these guys because this thing could have died before it ever really got off the ground.
EM: Who did you guys listen to when you were growing up?
NE: Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, Bright Eyes, Pedro the Lion, Okkervil River, mewithoutYou, As Cities Burn, Dashboard Confessional.
Phil Mueller: I was exposed to just about everything, from classical and country to light rock. I’d say I was most inspired by bands like Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, 311, to name a few.
Landon Heil: I started out just listening to the radio where bands like The Wallflowers and Everclear stood out to me. I then started to get into punk and pop-punk music. MXPX, Blink-182, Alkaline Trio, and Slick Shoes were some of my favorites. I got into Ska music for a bit, and soon after that, I started to get into a lot of indie bands, like The Get Up Kids, Saves The Day, At The Drive-In, and Dashboard Confessional, among many others.
Dan Ludeman: Nickel Creek and Nine Inch Nails.
EM: What inspired you to pick up your instruments for the first time?
NE: I picked up the guitar so I could accompany myself singing. I was so emotionally connected to some of my favorite music that I had a strong desire to create and write some great tunes myself.
PM: My mom bought me a little tykes drum that I used to bring everywhere with me. I used everything from pots and pans to even constructing my own kit out of play-dough containers. I was brainwashed, I think!
LH: I fell in love with an MXPX album called Life in General, and decided that I had to figure out how to make a guitar sound like they made it sound. I begged my parents for a guitar and got one for Christmas that year. The next Christmas I got a bass guitar and alternated practicing each instrument.
DL: David Gilmour from Pink Floyd. He’s why I picked up guitar.
EM: How is the new record, Hungry Earth, different from Cartography, aside from its being your first full-length?
NE: We spent a lot more time on the Hungry Earth process. From the writing and arranging to the producing and recording, we just put a lot more time, energy, and resources into the whole thing. I think the final product reflects that.
Cartography was more just a recording of a couple of songs that we’d written and played periodically, whereas Hungry Earth is a complete, cohesive conceptual idea.
EM: Where did you record Hungry Earth? What studio?
NE: We recorded it with Mike Dresch at Cathouse Studios in our hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
EM: Did you work with a producer?
NE: We did not. It was just ourselves, and we’re proud of our work. We would love to work with someone in the future, though.
EM: Many of the songs on Hungry Earth create an atmosphere of grittiness and space that speaks to me of South Dakota. Is there a relationship between sound and landscape on the record?
NE: Absolutely. I think most music is reflective of the time and place in which it was created. I love the Midwest and South Dakota, and I really wanted to tap into this place musically. While I like to think that our music is unique, one of the most unique things about us is that we’re from South Dakota, so I really wanted to try and bring a bit of the prairie into our overall sound. I guess it worked!
EM: Nick, your lyrics for “Sahara” are about nature as a menacing force, and the music – especially the heavy guitar work – complements your lyrics perfectly. How was this song composed?
NE: “Sahara” began with Dan. He came up with the introduction and bridge and sent the song to me. We added the verses and chorus as a band. This is probably the only song on the record where the music was written completely separate from the lyrics. In fact, I hadn’t written a large chunk of the lyrics until our last week in the studio, which more than likely had a positive effect on the connective outcome of the two, because I was really able to get an exact feel for what the final musical product would sound like and pen the lyrics accordingly.
EM: “Stones” is another dark track, with brooding, dark lyrics. One of the lyrics is “Life is wasted on the living.” Why did you guys feel that the quiet-loud dynamic was an appropriate fit for the words?
NE: The dynamic contrast works well because the verse lyrics are a lot more reflective and introspective. This song is about the search for absolute truth of any kind. The verses reflect this search in an ethereal way that I like, and the choruses are angst-y and representative of the dead ends that we so often run into in a quest such as this. I have looked high and low to no avail, so “I’ll beg the stones to tell me what they saw.” There’s desperation in the lyrics that would only translate in an emotional chorus.
EM: Hungry Earth has a number of remarkable slide solos. How did you get into slide playing, Dan?
DL: Well, thank you! You know, I really don’t play a ton of slide. I tried it out on the album, and it seemed to fit great. It was a lot of fun laying it down.
LH: Dan has been really influenced by folk styles since I met him in 2001. He was always playing along to Nickel Creek and honing his skills. I think he definitely uses that love of folk music in his guitar style, and it shows on the record.
NE: Dan is good at everything he attempts to do. It’s maddening!
EM: “Down the Map” and “Caskets” move away from the heaviness of most of Hungry Earth and are excellent pop songs. Who brings the pop to Amos Slade?
NE: I don’t know that it’s a question of who brings the pop . . . Both of these songs were nearly complete songs before I brought them to the full band. The lyrical idea, vocal melody, and rhythm guitar part came together nicely, so who am I to try and beef things up?
For the most part, I feel like songwriting is about finding songs and then letting them do what they want to do. We’re not a band that’s opposed to venturing into different sounds if it’s appropriate for the song. A person’s emotional landscape is broad. We get tired of the hearing same sounds and feeling the same emotions over and over. I think these songs give the record some good variety.
EM: Nick, your voice is especially strong on the band’s atmospheric ballads. Where did you develop your singing chops?
NE: Thank you. I just sing all the time. I think that’s it. I sing all the time and try to be observant while I do. Voices are like snowflakes (laughs). Every voice has breaks in certain places, different tones in other places, and a completely unique character. I try to learn more about my voice every time I sing. I also love recording myself sing and dissecting different things I try. Also, when I listen to music the vocals will often make or break the band for me, so picking up certain things from my favorite artists here and there has been beneficial, too.
EM: What can you tell us about the ballad “Lunacy”?
NE: “Lunacy” is another song that was instigated by Dan. He sent me the introduction and verse, and I was taken by them. The song has a space-y, other worldly vibe, which reminded both him and me of the moon. I came up with the concept of having the song be an analogy, comparing God to the Man in the Moon.
There’s a lot of religious imagery on this record because I’m a religious person, and most of the songs were birthed out of an existential crisis of sorts. “Lunacy” questions the very existence of God, comparing Him to a mythical, man-made creation. I added the chorus to Dan’s verse, and I felt strongly about only using the one word – “lunacy” – because I wanted the “u” vowel sung in falsetto to mimic a howl at the moon.
My favorite part of this song, though, is the bridge. The verses are sort of arrogant and confident, but then the bridge ends with the line, “You wink to keep me wondering.” The album is filled with a lot open-ended questions, or things that I attempt to make my convictions, only to come back later and question them all over again. That’s life.
EM: What about “Builder: Burglar?”
NE: I’d prefer to be a bit vague about some of these, if that’s ok. This song applies to something specific in my personal life, but I tried to write it in a way that it could apply to other things. I guess it’s about the fact that things aren’t always exactly how they seem.
EM: Nick, your lyrics on “Mara” are very tender, moving, and introspective. Can you tell us about this song’s inspiration?
NE: Putting together a completely cohesive record was important to me. There are a lot of common threads running through all of the songs, and many of them refer back and relate to each other.
The record starts with “Sahara,” which, as you mentioned, is palpable and gritty. We really tried to make it feel like the desert. With “Mara” and “Orphans,” I really wanted to try to capture the opposite feeling.
“Mara” is essentially the oasis, hence the lyric, “Let’s be a sturdy circle of trees, whose roots run deep to thicken narrow rings.” “Mara” is actually named after a biblical place. It’s a place at which the Israelites stopped while they were wandering in the desert. They were thirsty, and they stumbled across this pond, but when they tasted the water, it was bitter. They were instructed to throw a log into the pond and told that when they did, the water would become sweet.
That’s sort of the backdrop for this song, but I’ll let listeners determine what I actually mean by referencing this place and take from it what you want. Again, these songs are very personal, but I think they could also be translated differently for different people.
EM: “Orphans” is a remarkable song – perhaps the best song on the album. How did you guys create it?
NE: “Orphans” was a pretty simple song to write. My songwriting process often begins with an idea or a single lyrical line. I had the chorus melody and lyric, which led to finding the chorus chords. The verses were pretty easy to sculpt around what was there in the chorus.
I remember bringing it to the guys and being like, “Here’s a song.” We played through it a couple of times and just kind of moved on to the next thing. Those songs are the best. You’re right, though, it’s one of my favorites, too.
EM: Why did you choose it to close the album?
NE: I couldn’t sing the words, “The end gives the middle more meaning,” and then not have it end the album. I also liked that it would end things on a positive note. It just felt right. It’s a great conclusion.
EM: I know that you guys probably have a lot of gear. But what brands of instruments do you like playing the most?
NE: I’m a Fender guy. My main guitar is a 1952 Telecaster reissue, and I play through a Hot Rod Deville 412. That, with a few assorted effects pedals, is my setup. I like to keep things simple.
PM: I play Ludwig drums. Right now I’m using a 4-piece classic maple kit, accompanied by a black beauty snare. I also play Zildjian cymbals.
LH: I use a Fender 72 reissue American Precision Bass guitar. I also have a Fender American Deluxe Jazz Bass. Fender bass guitars give me the sound and feel I desire.
DL: Fender guitars are definitely our jam. I also play on a Dresch guitar, which was made for me by the same guy who recorded our album.
EM: What about your amps? Nick, you said that you play through a Fender Hot Rod Deville 412. Landon and Dan, what about you?
LH: I use an Ampeg SVT Classic head and run it through an Ampeg 8×10 cabinet.
DL: I play New Vintage Amps. New Vintage is an awesome amp company based out of Duluth, Minnesota.
EM: How do you plan to promote Hungry Earth? Would you tell us about any gigs that you might have planned?
NE: We’re planning to get out and about a lot this summer. We’ve got a bunch of stuff set up in June, primarily around the Midwest – Omaha, Lincoln, Des Moines, Kansas City, among others.
Since we’re releasing the record independently, everything is a little bit more difficult. And being from South Dakota makes things even more difficult. We’d really like to get hooked up with a booking agent and put some serious rubber on the road, but that has not happened for us yet.
Press-wise, we’re working with Mike Cubillos at Earshot Media, who has already been a big help for us.
We’ll be depending a lot on fans of our music to spread the word about what we’re up to, too. I’m happy with the way the record turned out, and I believe that good records get heard. Time will tell.