Local band discusses formation, future plans

Photo by Allyson Stone

At The Drunken Unicorn this past Thursday, the band Champagne Room harmoniously hypnotized Atlanta locals with their genuine lyrics and foot tapping swing tunes. With matching sports coats and a lead saxophone player, Champagne Room transported the audience through a musical time machine into a metaphysical 1950s nightclub. Originating in 2011 here at Georgia Tech, the band is comprised of Andy Smith on jazz drums, John Copeland on tenor saxophone, Charlie Rutter on bass, Derek Liddell on guitar, and Jared McGrath on vocals. The band’s set varied spectacularly with undertones of hip-hop, rock and roll, jazz and surf punk, with each song telling its own distinct story.

Overall, the band’s charismatic stage presence completely outshined the more timid Suspect Raptor and Autumn Spring, who started out the night. McGrath has the quintessential knack for bringing an audience of different music tastes together under one roof with his ability to “out-goofy” the crowd, successfully creating a comfortable music setting for everyone. When not backing on guitar, he was energetically dancing to crowd favorite “Hurricane,” bringing the audience together and making them jump and clap in extraordinary unison.

Champagne Room hypnotized Atlanta locals with their genuine lyrics…

Allusions to Atlanta were evident in the parody of  “Home Park Hullabaloo” and the upbeat “Unplanned Peachtrees.” Liddell reticently serenaded the crowd with “Lemonade Breeze” during the band’s one-minute intermission. Copeland’s tenor sax repeatedly blasted to the foreground of songs in a colloquial conversation with the telling lyrics. Visually hidden by the rest of the band, Smith’s jazz-inspired percussion permeated the claps and head bops of the crowd. Last but not least, Rutter raged on bass, alternating between more classical and more modern techniques in order to anchor the puzzle.

The high energy took a tender turn when Kathryn Cain (girlfriend of Smith) performed a duet with McGrath on “A Little Bit More.” The two complimented each other charmingly and underlined the band’s mutability. The group’s honest hunger to play music was clear in every song and appreciated by a fully obliging audience; by the show’s end at a late 12:30, audience members undoubtedly walked to their cars with some reluctance, wishing instead to “Dance to the Moon” with Champagne Room for more humanizing frolic inspired fusion.

The Technique was lucky enough to have a jam session with Champagne Room at one of their practice sessions and talk band dynamics.

How did you come up with the band name “Champagne Room”?

JM: We were at the Claremont Lounge before we formed the band and there was a cover band there and we were just kind of surrounded by this illusion of grandeur; some things they try to make nice, some things they try not to. It’s kind of a rundown place, any walk of life can go in there. The idea of a Champagne Room, which can be tied to nightclubs, the idea, the sound of it, is something trying to be upscale, but forcing itself a little bit. We didn’t think about it too much, our original guitarist thought it would be cool, just guys hanging out in an Atlanta dive bar. We are swing punk, and the name has that feel to it. Champagne is toasting to something and a lot of our music is celebratory. Not taking anything too seriously, but it also matches with what we are trying to go for.

When you perform live, you all wear matching sports coats; what is the story behind the coordinating wardrobe?

JM: We dress in gold jackets because Georgia Tech fans wear that color to football games and our mascot is “The Yellow Jacket” for that reason. We didn’t consider that at all when we started. Before we were going to play our first show, which was a house show, it kind of just came up: “What are we going to wear?” We wanted to have some grandeur about it. So then the idea came up: “Let’s wear yellow jackets, because we are ‘Yellow Jackets’,” then it morphed into beige. It was a tongue and cheek thing, it wasn’t the main reason we did it just to connect us with the environment we all met in. It’s a look back into the past, and a way to make ties to the personal connection of Tech, we don’t consider ourselves a Tech band, but we met because of Tech.

Where do you get your inspiration to write your songs?

DL: More recently for me, movies, kind of like taking parts of the stories that aren’t there and making up parts for the characters. “Hotel Floor,” the third song on the album, was inspired by a scene in Almost Famous where Kate Hudson is in the Hotel and William runs back and she is passed out and he figures out she is the girl of [his] dreams. So if you look at the lyrics of the song it’s kind of like filling in the blanks.

CR: Either Derek or Jared or Andy usually come in with an idea for the drums and when I’m trying to come up with bass lines it’s easy for me to fill in the spaces.

Jared helps you make your own associations with the emotion or feeling that we are looking for, and it’s easier to add your own element when someone else lets you.

JM: I write everything off of feeling, it’s usually a permeation of something I’ve seen or heard or experienced and usually pops in my subconscious and I usually press record on my iPhone and sing it out. Then the next day I iron it out with the other guys. The Beatles were so well taken because they took the introspection from Folk music and applied it to rock and roll. Audiences really connect with personal experience.

AS:Usually it’s really late at night and I’m sitting in my bed. I take them from whatever thoughts I have in my mind and turn them into songs. So anything I’m struggling with sometimes it turns into a song. “And a Little Bit More,” track 11 on the CD, is about the time I met Kathryn, who is featured on the song, and we hit it off pretty well, but we didn’t have any contact info which was my fault, so out of frustration at myself, I just kind of wrote, it was out of the whole idea that you want to hang out with someone but you don’t know where they are.

JM: That song challenged us because it’s a little slower than what we used to play, and I felt it should have male and female vocals, and that was the idea and inspiration behind it.

Each song is pretty unique; how would you define your style?

JM: We jokingly refer to it as Southern-Fried Swing Punk. The main elements are swing music, punk, surf, jazz and probably some dance music here and there. Our music is really about people having a good time. We want to out-goofy everyone. We are about freedom, liberation and fun.

There is a unique depth added to the band with John Copeland on tenor sax. What was the inspiration behind highlighting this instrument in a rock band?

JM: I am from D.C., and I read a book called Capitol Rock, a book about rock in D.C. from 1950 to 1975. It talks about how Elvis Pressley started out playing at a local community center, how in that era sax was the lead, you didn’t have guitar soloists, guitar was just part of the music puzzle. When thinking about coupling pseudo swing music with antiquated sax with American Punk Rock, forming a band off of those elements started to make things seem pretty cool.

How did you all meet and how would you describe your group dynamics?

CR: I was approached by a mutual friend of ours and he asked if I was playing in a band and he said he knew an awesome front man (Jared). Jared knew a guy who played drums and we got together and goofed around. We decided to do it again and John was there (sax). So we played together a few times and the guy who played drums was too busy, so we decided to find a new drummer, so Jared went on Craig’s List, and put up an ad, and we got nothing, so as a last ditch effort, he looked up on Georgia Tech’s Musician’s Network, and found Andy. It was really rare because not many really know how to play drums. So we invited him over, and played it off like “We’ll let you know how it goes” but were really so excited to have him.

JM: Before Andy we were basically a glorified mariachi band, and played our first song at a friend’s graduation party. But technically we all met in summer 2011. We started as a cover band, playing songs together after a hard workweek. Then we started playing house shows and after practicing and experimenting I really pushed us to start writing our own songs. Originals are more fun and you sound like yourself. There is nothing more rewarding than playing your own songs. Originals are the way songs can hold true as long as people will want to hear them.

What was the original music platform for the band?

JM: We just had this crazy jazz drummer, and saxophone player, and I was talking with Derek about how much we love punk music and then he tells me he loves Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth, he was so important because he was the anti-guitar hero, he would find what was needed to be found with guitar number two, this was really important because we didn’t want to be a regular rock band.

DL: So once we started writing new material, it just happened naturally, we all come from different influences.

CR: Andy and I are more classically trained, John and I are big into hip-hop and folk and Jared and Derek are really into punk. We are also really opened minded musically, as far as to different styles.

JM: I played the record for older relatives and they say that we all digested a fair amount of music between the five of us.

When going out on stage, what is the band’s main goal?

JM: Basically music is an amazingly liberating thing, and unfortunately there are a lot of forms where people stop worrying about its effects. To me, it’s more of a tribal and community aspect. On a surface level I want everyone to have fun, but on a deeper level, there are very few things that will make everyone jump together in the same room or dance a crazy dance. To be able to do that I think you’re on to something. Also coming from a punk background, I align with the ethos and sincerity of the DIY aspect of it, so with this band sound aside I knew they were going to connect with the songs, these are positive honest energies, not destructive. We put a lot of effort and energy into our songs and most of them are about things that we really care about and hold dear to our hearts, a lot of them have high energy and fun, but not shallow. If our band was a generic type cast thing, each show wouldn’t feel like it was the last show we were going to play every time we are getting up there.

CR: I think the main goal for everyone has been to make a song that you can dance to; I think that’s been the underlying motif, which makes it more fun. We want to write songs you WANT to dance to; we want to be the band where we have songs that are infectiously fun. Playing live beats the hell out of playing in a studio.

DL: If you’re sitting at home listening to it, then at the show you remember how much fun you had listening to it at the live show, you develop a deeper appreciation for it because of that. We want so badly to enjoy what we are about to experience, and having that same effect on other people is just amazing.

CR: It’s also nice to know that you see the audience having as much fun listening to the songs as we had making them, it’s nice to see that translated.

JC: I love seeing people I don’t know dancing to our music and having a good time, when that happens the mission was successful, goal achieved.

AS:It’s also nice when people say after the show “Wow you sound way better than I thought you were going to” or discuss how polished you are, it ‘s rewarding that people recognize a difference between us and other people. It makes the many hours a week practicing worth it.

Your new album, Nothing Gold, was just released this January. What was the recording process like?

JM: One thing I’d love to see is more people going to Under the Couch, it blows my mind that there are not more people there. About the time we started writing our originals, I found myself at Under the Couch and found the recording studio, it became this breathe of fresh air in so many ways. Live studio, full lighting, house drum kit, how do you not learn how to play an instrument by your sophomore year or play in a band blows my mind. It’s cool too because it’s not just about bands, there are DJ’s, people with various interests. Our last record was truly a labor of love. We recorded our CD right there in the Student Center with the help of GT students, and it was really cheap- a few hundred bucks. Try going out to the city, and producing a CD would be ten grand easy.  I know for a fact our recordings wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Under the Couch. And if your music means enough to you then it’s probably pretty good and you can play for people.

Most of the band members are GT PhD or undergrad engineering students, so what are your plans for the future as a band?

“Music will be forever my greatest hobby.”

JM: We all have dreams about making it as a band, but the reality of the music industry makes it a not so likely scenario. Music will be forever my greatest hobby. The idea of touring is risky. We’ve all worked hard academically, and a few of us have job interviews lined up. As PhD students, we also don’t have the flexibly of taking a week and half off to go on a tour. It’s hard because, how do you choose between a more stable career and one in pursuing your dream? Our EP and CD are huge steps forward and we sent our record to studios in the South, so we are kind of just seeing if we get any bites and where our music takes us. Right now we are five best friends doing what we love together and playing for everyone we can.