When Alive Records out of California approached them in 2011, Knoxville's Black Cadillacs were a two-year-old outfit with a single self-released CD and a local buzz born from a dozen drunken Fort Sanders parties. With the label that signed the Black Keys calling, the band did the only thing they could do.
They turned the offer down. "It didn't seem like it did a lot for us," says guitarist John Phillips, talking Cadillacs over pints of Guinness at North Central's Central Flats and Taps. "It didn't give us a lot of creative control, and it would have turned us into something they thought they could sell."
"It would have cut a lot of our soulful balladry stuff," says vocalist Will Horton. "We would have become something we didn't want to become. And we would not have owned a lot of our own creative property."
Instead, the six-man outfit held out until an offer from Pittsburgh's Young Giant Records came down the pike. Phillips says the Cadillacs were wary at first, given that Young Giant is run by a couple of kids fresh out of college; but they're clever kids, with the business-contest awards to prove it, and they have the capital necessary to float a fledgling rock band.
Most importantly: "They're artist-friendly," says Phillips. "They haven't touched the creative control. This is more of a partnership. We knew where we wanted to record, how much it would cost, and they were willing to provide that. They also handle booking. As far as the label side, we're thrilled."
Now the Black Cadillacs stand on the cusp of their second release, Run, on a promising young indie, looking to build on their status as one of the two or three most popular rock acts in the city of Knoxville.
The band has grown a bit on this second release; though you might say that couldn't be helped. Other than keyboardist Kevin Hyfantis, 29, all of the Cadillacs are between 23 and 25. And many of the songs on their first record, All Them Witches, were holdovers, tunes written for earlier projects, some of them when band members were still in their teens. It showed in the lyrics to those early songs, which were littered with references to sweet babies and pretty mamas—musty manifestations of a Stones jones emerging from the bong-water fog of a past that none of them remembered.
Still, the band members' precocious white-boy blues chops, their bent for evocative melodies, and their sheer naive conviction carried them through the clichés, admirably so. Even the early Cadillacs were a potent outfit, alternately sweet and soulful, loose and groovy on record, but with a dangerously high throttle on stage.
Now, with Run, the melodies and the chops have sharpened; the mélange of '70s influences grown more seamless; but the hoary bell-bottom clichés largely put to pasture.
"It is a more mature, well-rounded sound," says Phillips. "It's less a mishmash of songs."
"There was a lot less writing songs on our own and then showing it to the rest of the guys," Horton says. "It was more like one of us would have an idea, then we would flesh it out with the group. In the end, it made sound more like ourselves."
Like their previous record, Run is a veritable tapestry of lush blues and Southern soul, with Phillips, Hyfantis, and guitarist Matthew Hyrka weaving varicolored webs of texture and melody over the solid foundation of bassist Philip Anderson and drummer Adam Bonomo. And the dichotomy between Cadillacs on stage and Cadillacs on digital is a challenge, given the band's history of bull-rush live shows.
"When you're playing, you have 45 minutes to entertain a crowd, and the best way to do that is to pull out all the stops," says Hyrka. "But from a songwriting standpoint, I can't help sometimes writing the melancholy stuff."
"It's hard to get a crowd that doesn't know you to pay attention to a ballad," Phillips admits. "We try to serve the audience and the situation the best we can.
"But some things will change. Some of our upcoming shows will probably reflect the diversity of our songwriting a little more."