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The rock 'n' roll road trip to end all road trips 

Atlanta buzz band Balkans attempt the impossible on a 48-hour sprint to New York

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ALL WET: Balkans' hardy guitarist Brett Miller soaks it up on stage at Star Bar in 2010 - PERRY JULIEN
  • Perry Julien
  • ALL WET: Balkans' hardy guitarist Brett Miller soaks it up on stage at Star Bar in 2010

The four members of Balkans started playing together in the spring of 2008 when they were juniors at Riverwood High School in Sandy Springs. They'd been playing music together since they were kids, but formed Balkans to compete in their high school Battle of the Bands. To their surprise, they won.

Before long they began playing shows at Marietta teen punk hangout Swayze's, but they were banned for life after a particularly rowdy set ended with them blowing up a piñata stuffed with raw meat and fireworks.

After befriending local label Die Indy on MySpace, owner John Breedlove offered to release a split 7-inch with his punk/metal group, Trial By Fire, which materialized in August '08 with two Balkans cuts, "C++" and "F3."

Almost immediately, the songs earned comparisons to the Strokes and the Walkmen, mostly because of their intricate guitar interplay and Broyles' frazzled pinning. The comparisons weren't unfounded, even if Balkans didn't possess the Strokes cocksure strut or simplistic sense of rock 'n' roll revivalism. "People say it all the time," laughs Vergilis. "We sound like the Strokes, but I hate the Strokes!"

They soon struck a partnership with Double Phantom and joined a roster of playfully experimental art-pop and rock bands, including Carnivores, Selmanaires, the Clap and Mood Rings.

Released as a 7-inch in '09, "Zebra Print" kicked off an era of expansion for Balkans. Although follow-up single "Georganne" wasn't as strong of a stand-alone single, there was visible growth in the group's performance and songwriting.

In January, they leaked the "Edita V" b/w "Cave" 7-inch to a handful of higher caliber national music blogs. My Old Kentucky Blog was the first to take notice, commenting on the "delicious fuzz and drone" of "Cave." Within a few days of hitting the Internet, the 7-inch pushed Balkans into the indie music blog aggregator Hype Machine's top 20 artists.

The band also achieved an increased level of sophistication with its release. Broyles' remorse-filled yelps had become more pronounced, even confident, and the production was clean and loud, hinting at a new pop aesthetic.

But there's an odd dichotomy driving Balkans' vision of indie rock acclaim. On one hand, Shortridge sees success in punk rock terms and speaks fondly of records by Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth. Vergilis, meanwhile, gets excited when he talks about J-Lo and Kanye West. Not surprisingly, his favorite Beatle is Paul McCartney. "John Lennon had too many political affiliations and McCartney effortlessly created the best music ever," Vergilis says. "Effortlessness is critical when making music."

Vergilis' obsession with clean, high-fidelity production and focused songwriting gives life to the group's debut album, which stands apart from the willfully messy clichés of the low-fi and garage punk scenes that weaned Balkans.

"I got fed up with how a lot of Atlanta bands were preoccupied with what didn't sell," he adds. "I wanted to figure out why something does sell — why something that seems like it wouldn't be popular, like Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP became the fastest-selling solo album in U.S. history."

Sometime around noon on their second day in New York, the members of Balkans awake amid nearly 20 other floor-crashers after sleeping scattershot across two loft apartments inside Shea Stadium, where Staggers and his stepbrother live.

Soon after, the four of them head across Brooklyn to record a video at a bar called Veronica's Peoples Club. The week of their trip, "Troubled and Done," the third song to leak from Balkans' forthcoming album, premiered on Fader.com and earned them an invitation to record an acoustic version for Fader TV.

The acoustic run through "Troubled and Done" doesn't quite work without electricity. The group plugs in but keeps the amps turned down low. Broyles sings without a mic, which is about as acoustic as Balkans get. Since the shoot doesn't call for drums, they borrow a boom box from a friend to play a CD of percussion tracks. In the resulting video, Vergilis looks painfully awkward sitting around with nothing to do.

The son of Russian immigrants who fled to the U.S. to escape social and political turmoil following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Vergilis harbors no romanticized view of the hardships of a DIY lifestyle. "It's hard to tell your parents that you're going to drop out of school to go play in this rock 'n' roll band, especially when they left their home to give you a better life," he says.

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