Crammed into a booth in the back of the Longbranch Saloon, shoulder to shoulder over plastic cups half-full of Budweiser, the five members of the Westside Daredevils are forced to perform a series of gravity-defying stunts just to fit in their seats. It's like a 1950s fraternity initiation gone horribly wrong, with elbows and faces in dangerous proximity and more body contact than is really appropriate for public.
Drummer Morrie Rothstein is pushed deep into the sharp corner of the hard wooden booth, his elbows splayed into the window sill. Next to him is guitarist Gray Comer, hunched over the table to make sure Morrie doesn't spill his beer, and next to him is bassist Brandon Smith, trying to maintain his awkward perch on the very edge of the bench. Across from them are Brett Cassidy and Jeff Caudill, who both sing and play guitar. They have a little bit more room, but Brett has to lean out over the table, around Jeff, to answer my questions, and Jeff, right next to me with his hands folded serenely in his lap, has to wrench his neck to make eye contact.
Despite their name, this feat of seating engineering is about as close to daredeviltry as the Westside Daredevils get. Their shimmery, bittersweet pop, influenced by Elvis Costello and Guided by Voices, is straightforward, simple and solid. But it's also intelligent, well-crafted, and disarmingly accessible.
"We're all into stuff that's song-oriented," says Caudill, who shares songwriting duties with Cassidy. "We try to write good songs and then arrange them in interesting ways."
During two years together (most of that as the Shine; they changed their name in August after they learned another band was already using that name), the Daredevils have played regular shows at the Pilot Light and draw small but loyal crowds. Early next year, they'll unveil their biggest stunt so far with the release of their first record, All Things Small Produce a Spark, on the local Lynn Point label. Due out at the end of January, Spark is a distillation of the band's songwriting smarts and tasteful, understated chops. ("I learned to play guitar to accompany myself, which is why I'm a lousy guitarist," says Cassidy. "That's why you won't ever see me shredding up there.") After Spark is released, they're going to play as many out-of-town shows as they can and then begin work on a second record. "Once it comes out, we're going to play—a lot," says Comer. "In town, out of town, wherever they'll take us. Now we're ready to take it to the people."
The recordings, made by the band over the last several months, capture a delicate pop touch that the Daredevils' live performances only hint at. At the Pilot Light, the Daredevils are loud and raw, undeniably catchy but also a potent rock force. On Spark, songs like "Andrea" and "London Forces" are prettier, the rhythms bouncier, the guitars cleaner, than they are in performance, even with the unadorned production on the record. The Daredevils' confidence in slowing up and turning down is a revelation, and there's a refreshing intimacy in that decision.
But the Daredevils take full advantage of their three guitars on Spark—there are plenty of power chords and feedback on the record, too. "We've got three guitars, which means we're infinitely more manly than any other bands in town," Caudill says, laughing. He and Cassidy are huge fans of Superdrag, and both say that seeing Superdrag play when they were in high school inspired them to play rock ’n’ roll.
"I remember standing there and watching them and thinking, 'I can do that,'" Caudill says.
The Daredevils have a strong pedigree of their own: Rothstein played in both Pegclimber and the 1-900s in the early ’90s, and Comer and Cassidy were members of Beeswax. "Brandon and Jeff were in a really bad band together, too," Cassidy says.
The feeling Caudill got when he used to watch Superdrag on stage is still a big motivation for him. All of the Daredevils seem committed to taking the band as far as they can, but they're also realistic about their chances for turning rock ’n’ roll into a full-time job. When Comer half-jokingly refers to the band as the best in Knoxville, Smith looks up, slightly alarmed, and says, "Don't print that."
He looks away, considering, and after a pause shrugs his shoulders. "Well, we are, though. It's all right." Everybody else laughs.