But with the release of The Thorns, a trio of under-recognized singer/songwriters -- earnest folk-rocker Shawn Mullins, wry roots-rocker Pete Droge and alt-rock journeyman Matthew Sweet -- has inverted the supergroup's musty model. Although each has enjoyed a small measure of fame, none are household names. And the durable folk-rock album their collaboration has produced suggests a reverse formula: The lower the profiles of the principals involved, the greater the chances of success.
Not necessarily, according to Mullins. "We almost killed each other a couple times in the first few weeks," says the Atlanta fixture, relaxing on the patio at the Brewhouse Cafe on Moreland, as he recounts the way personality conflicts almost derailed the threesome before a single song was written. "Pretty much in the early songwriting, we got all that out of our system, learning how to write together and learning how to give up that frontman [identity]. Like, how do you handle the criticism of the other person when they say your idea sucks? We never said each other's idea sucked, but you know that's what you think if someone goes, 'Nah, that's not it.' So it's pretty natural; we're all probably pretty insecure anyway as songwriters. We figured out how to get along pretty quickly."
That's fairly evident on The Thorns, an organic platter of folksy ballads ("I Can't Remember," "Such a Shame"), up-tempo rockers ("I Set the World on Fire," the Tom Petty-ish "Runaway Feeling") and lush, plaintive sing-alongs ("Dragonfly," "No Blue Sky" and a cover of the Jayhawks' "Blue"). Throughout the album, recorded largely at Southern Tracks Studios in Atlanta with local producer Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen), Mullins, Sweet and Droge combine their shared strengths for crafting hooks and melodies. They also eerily submerge their voices in crystalline three-part harmonies that tag The Thorns as a kind of modern middle-of-the-road-rock masterpiece. Those exquisite harmonies evoke a number of acoustic-and harmony-based acts from the 1970s: Fleetwood Mac, America, even Bread.
But it's the specter of those granddaddies of vocal harmony, The Beach Boys and, even more undeniably, Crosby, Stills and Nash, that have drawn the most comparisons. "We did notice that [aspect] as [the writing] was being done," Mullins confirms, "but never, ever, ever once did we try to sound like them, swear to God. In fact, we almost tried at times not to. But the thing is, you put three male vocals and acoustic guitars together, and guess what? It's gonna sound like Crosby, Stills and Nash." Not that the comparison bothers Mullins much: "I'm honored just to be in the same conversation [with them]," he says. "It's great."
The bulk of the songwriting took place in Santa Ynez, Calif., last summer, on the porch of a ranch owned by director Andrew Fleming (The In-Laws), a friend of Sweet's. "Each person had a day set aside," says Mullins, explaining the joint effort. "So let's say it's Monday, it's gonna be Pete's day today, and he can bring in as many ideas as he wants, usually two or three. And he plays you just the idea, not a whole song -- it couldn't be enough of a song to where it really started to [take shape] as a solo song; we really wanted to steer away from that. That alone was very different from the way the Eagles and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young did it, because they would just bring in their own songs and the other guys covered it with the harmonies."
Purposeful imitation or not, the velvety harmonies are the record's center, their easy, natural flow suggesting that the three have sung together since birth. That cellular symmetry is all the more surprising, then, given the fact that while its end result was never consciously planned, the collaboration itself was originally something of a contrivance.
"Basically, Russell [Carter], my manager, called me and said, 'Would you like to write some songs with Pete Droge?'" Mullins recalls. "You always get paired up with people as a songwriter; either your publisher or your record company or your manager, someone's trying to get you to co-write with someone." It was a good fit: Mullins, best known for his ubiquitous 1998 hit "Lullaby," hit it off well with Droge, whose 1994 album Necktie Second produced the quasi-novelty hit "If You Don't Love Me (I'll Kill Myself)," and the two began searching for a third writer to join the project. They collaborated briefly with songwriter Marshal Altman, and also with Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket. "We liked Glen, Pete and I both did, and we wanted to try to get something going with him, but at the time he had just put out a solo record (2001's Abulum), so he was kind of really not wanting to be in another band. Of course, now he's [back with] Toad again," he says with a chuckle.
Sweet, perhaps the best-known of the three for a string of minor hits including "Girlfriend" and "Divine Intervention," knew of the project through Carter (Sweet's manager as well as Mullins'), and was sufficiently intrigued to accept the duo's offer to collaborate. "The first song we wrote together was 'I Set the World on Fire,' and the second was 'I Can't Remember,'" Mullins says. It was while working on the latter tune that the trio first recognized their unique vocal mix. "We really sang and wrote well together right off, really fast. And the chemistry of the voices together was just like ..." He trails off, gesturing to convey his loss for words to describe the effect.
Given that divine chemistry, will the threesome work together again? Beyond a tour to support the record, no one in the group really knows. "I think Sony and Columbia want us to do another record," Mullins muses, "but we'll have to see how this one does, and we're going to judge that by how well it sells, because it's really taken up a lot of our time."
In fact, Mullins says the project has taken up the last year, delaying the release of his next solo album for Columbia, already in the can. That's a lot of commitment for a side-project, especially one masterminded by record-company suits.
"It really was more of an industry put-together thing," Mullins acknowledges of the project. "They just didn't have the people exactly, but [execs at Aware and Columbia] knew they wanted to do something like this. I think originally it was [supposed to be] myself and Jakob Dylan and the guy from Counting Crows. It's funny, I think everyone wants us to lie and, you know, make up some story, like how we all ended up under the same table together when a fight broke out in a bar," he says, laughing, "like Hall and Oates or whatever."
ooooohhhh, I'm so excited!! I can't wait to see them together!
come on man you know you got a bromance. you probably still rock that OutKast…
Yes, 14 is the correct answer. I'll pass your info along to the group's manager,…