Over the past six years, local psych-shoegaze outfit Spirits and the Melchizedek Children has slowly grown from a meditative one-man project into a roaring noise-pop sextet reminiscent of bands such as the Besnard Lakes, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, and Tortoise.
On its latest record, So Happy, It's Sad, the East Atlanta six-piece documented its progression into a band that's become tighter and increasingly willing to take creative risks. Nearly three years since the ethereal breakout record We are Here to Save YOU! cemented the band's place on the local circuit, Spirits, also known as "SATMC," are now hoping to spread the group's music throughout the South and beyond. "This ball gets bigger and bigger," frontman Jason Robert Elliott says. "It's scary and there's a lot of risk involved at hand. But the more and more we're doing this, the easier it is to swallow."
Despite the band's eerie and haunting sound, Elliott began the project in search of a tranquil mindset. At the end of one particular all-nighter, he began strumming his guitar on his bed's corner to calm his mind down as the sun slowly rose. Out of that late-night inspiration, Elliott eventually recruited his first bandmates before going through multiple incarnations that ranged from a quartet to sextet, which now includes keyboardist Chris Case, drummer Bryan Fielden, and bassist Joe McNeill.
Although Elliott came up with the record title a long time ago, its meaning truly came into focus last winter on a trip with his 6-year-old son to the Bonneville Salt Flats. On a lengthy walk, the songwriter watched his child become captivated with the simple joys found in the lonely, desolate, and peaceful northwest Utah salt pan. It proved to be a moment that Elliott's girlfriend captured from afar — and soon was chosen for the record's cover.
"You can't have one without the other," Elliott says about the album title's meaning. "It's almost comical. It's special, it's intimate, and it rolls off the tongue well. But it's terrifying, almost destructive."
As Spirits began working on So Happy, It's Sad, Elliott decided to make a series of personal lifestyle changes. He was forced to change his drinking and eating habits after being diagnosed with Crohn's disease. Elliott, who wrote much of the new record "under the influence," initially worried about laying down tracks in a different state of mind. But those early fears eventually gave way once they began recording at Studilaroche with producer Ben Price.
"In some ways, everyone finds inspiration in different things," Elliott says. "But I've done it all to push that envelope and see how far my mind and body can go on other substances. Sure, you might have a moment of clarity when you're unclear on something. But it's hard to follow through with it. You've got these brilliant ideas, a thousand of them firing all at once, and then they're quickly forgotten. I feel clearer."
For Elliott, the process dispelled the long-standing myth that artists needed drugs, alcohol, and depression — some sense of internal torture — to make great art. In many ways, that mindset allowed him to escape himself and craft a more positive theme to complement the group's mystic, vociferous, and atmospheric slow burners. That shows throughout So Happy, It's Sad's ebb and flow between serene post-rock drones ("Throw Me to My Knees") and dissonant noise bursts in balance ("Past, Present, Future").
Spirits brought in a talented medley of Atlanta musicians, including Royal Thunder's Mlny Parsonz and Oryx and Crake cellist Matt Jarrard. Elliott has remained adamant that the band's recorded music remains faithful to its live sound. In addition, the group also brought guitarists Andrew Burnes (San Agustin) and Ryan Odom (Iron Jayne, Damon Moon) into the fold as regular contributors. "By allowing new members to inspire me, they can offer a new dynamic," Elliott says. "That's special. We went from a four-to-five-to-four-to-six-to-four piece. It shifts and sounds great and you hear things differently."
For the past few years, Spirits have eyed potential traditional record deals with a variety of indie labels. But they got tired of waiting for others to sign them. Instead, Spirits partnered with Atlanta-based digital printing company Fallen Arrows to help them release So Happy, It's Sad on multiple formats. The Fallen Arrows partnership, one of several that the company has with local artists, has enabled Elliott and the rest of Spirits to continue making music with a DIY mentality.
A few days after the record hits the shelves on March 4, Spirits will head on the road for a national six-week headlining tour that they entirely booked themselves. They've also confirmed a Daytrotter performance in early April. Once they return home, they plan to head right back into the studio for another recording session. With any luck, the momentum will keep them busy throughout the remainder of 2014. They're prepared for whatever the future holds.
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