By Michael Lello
Bands are always saying their newest project is something totally unique, unlike anything they’ve done before. And sometimes, it’s even true.
Like in the case of The Badlees, the veteran Pennsylvania band which this week releases “Epiphones and Empty Rooms.” The two-disc record is essentially two albums: one featuring songs sung by frontman Pete Palladino, and the other featuring songs sung by guitarist, songwriter and, until now, sometimes-lead singer Bret Alexander.
“This is completely different,” Alexander said recently during an interview at Saturation Acres, his recording studio in Dupont, Pa. “We’ve never done a project like this, ever. So we just kind of did it, for myself, anyway, I just tried to make it sound as good as I could. The Pete album, I wrote the songs and we all recorded the tracks here, but Pete did his vocals at home. I didn’t hear them until they were done. Somebody else mixed the record, and I’m usually involved with that. There’s an element of on some points I had more control of what’s going on and on other points I had less. So I gave other people a chance to do their thing without me standing over them (laughs).
“And it also gave me a chance to do things that I wouldn’t ever be able to put on a Badlees album, because of just the style.”
The contrast in style, simply stated, is a more traditional pop rock feel on disc one and a more Americana, roots-rock sound on disc two. In some ways, it represents the two major musical forces in the band, which achieved major label success in the ’90s with the hit songs “Fear of Falling” and “Angeline Is Coming Home.”
“Back in the day, the big magazine for Americana was No Depression. I don’t even know, maybe like 20,000 subscribers or something. It wasn’t a huge number of people. So that discussion was had when we got a record deal. Are these guys the next Son Volt or are they the next Matchbox Twenty or Hootie & The Blowfish? It doesn’t take a genius to know that a major label is going to say they want you to be the latter, ya know what I mean?,” Alexander said with a laugh.
“So that was the way it went. But there was always elements of both. Somebody like Tom Petty rides that line over the years between having the big pop singles and having a certain American music credibility to him. Wilco does it but never had that mainstream success. In a lot of ways, these two records are both sides of that coin split apart.”
The original idea, Alexander said, was a conceptual album.
“Before there was going to be a double record and any of that, my original idea was I was going to do a concept record,” he said of “Epiphones and Empty Rooms,” the band’s first album of new songs since 2009’s “Love Is Rain.” “When you’ve made that many records, and we’ve made quite a few of them and I produce a lot of them, you’re always looking to do something you haven’t done.
“The idea was, if you think of it like a movie or something, it was going to be a story about a guy whose house was being foreclosed, and he was painting his masterpiece all over the walls before they kicked him out. So there’s one song on there (‘Things You Can’t Take’) that talks about that.”
For now, the band – Alexander and Palladino as well as bassist Paul Smith, drummer Ron Simasek and newest contributors Dustin Drevitch (guitar) and Nyke Van Wyk (violin) – is playing a smattering of shows, including last week’s CD-release event at the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg and an Oct. 25 date at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe.
“I don’t really honestly know how many (shows) we’ll be doing,” Alexander said of the band, whose members live in various parts of the state and, in Palladino’s case, New Jersey. “I know there’s talk about a lot of things. We’re in different points in our lives where some of us are more available to pick up and go than others.”
So too are the band’s fans, many of whom have been with the band since its early days but are now entrenched in lives that don’t allow them to follow a band around like they used to.
“I don’t even know of anywhere that that exists, even with young bands, maybe the jam bands,” Alexander said of the changing live music landscape. “Around here you’d see the same people at every show, it didn’t matter what city it was in. You’d see the same people in State College as you’d see in Harrisburg as you’d see in Wilkes-Barre. You’d see locals as well. So it was kind of like people socialized, got in a car and followed us around. Obviously they don’t do that anymore if you have a job and couple kids and responsibilities. I don’t know.
“Typically speaking, when we play, we just have to look at it strategically. Sometimes you’re playing an event that’s not really contingent on you drawing the people, like a festival, so that’s one type of show you do. Doing the club shows, you usually see the usual suspects. We don’t overplay them, we don’t play the same town every month.”
In the spring, The Badlees opened a string of shows for Bob Seger at arenas in State College and Reading.
“Basically, our name just came up in a bunch of different conversations,” Alexander explained. “Bob was touring and was coming to the Northeast, and he was doing well with his tour and he wanted to add some dates, and they were talking about support (acts). One of the Live Nation guys mentioned us, and in quick succession a Clear Channel guy mentions us, and a press person. We toured with them in the late ’90s and they knew what we were about. And you talk about the Internet working for you, then they go to your website and see that you’re doing business. OK, this is a going concern, these guys won’t embarrass us,” he said with a laugh.
Opening for other performers – including those that haven’t been around as long as The Badlees – is something Alexander said he’s open to.
“Wow. Lots of them. I like a lot of things; I don’t know if I’d want the Badlees opening up for them,” he said. “I love Death Cab For Cutie, I love Ray LaMontagne, Amos Lee, Tom Waits of course. Who else am I checking out these days . . . I like Dawes. I think that second record would fit nice on a Dawes show; the first one, the Pete record, is more pop.”
Highway 81 Revisited recently debuted three songs from “Epiphones and Empty Rooms.” Listen to them here.