Guitarist Scott Murrin is seated at a table in Back Room BBQ, waiting on his Bright Shuttle bandmates, drummer Tre Berney and bassist/guitarist Matt Silvey. The two are running late from a meeting at Yee-Haw, where they're procuring paper for the jacket of their upcoming album, Cold Nice Gold. The recording will be the first full-length vinyl release from Laboratory Standard Recordings, the record label Silvey operates with musician Cain Blanchard. It's not really a surprise the excursion ran long, as Silvey is particular on details when it comes to LSR releases. It's a reflection of the attention that goes into this band, as well, the trio fussing over the nuances of their performances and recordings.
The genesis of Bright Shuttle was the curiously-named Analog Steaks and Binary Hearts, a duo comprised of Murrin and drummer Eric McLean. Having played bass in numerous groups around town for over a decade, the project was Murrin's first venture highlighting himself as a guitarist. The duo changed their name and recorded a series of CD-Rs, inviting drummer and engineer Berney to add a few percussion and electronics tracks to the final one, Rises All Ships. With McLean's departure in 2007, Berney and Murrin continued playing together, though both admit as a duo they could never really find a sound they were comfortable with.
"The problem was, neither one of us are songwriters," Murrin says. "We'd have different parts but couldn't really make a song of them. Matt was hanging out at the practice space and looked like he didn't have much to do, so we started playing with him. We were having jam city for a while, but he grounded us."
Listening to the album, you understand their conception of the word "jam" is far from its most prevalent association with the Widespread Panics of the world. Instead, they run with the idea of playing off a riff or figure, exploring its possibilities and limitations before whittling away the superfluous aspects to create a well-composed song that allows for minimal improvisation. At times the music is cold and brittle, at others warm and pretty; in their most inspired moments, they marry the two. At their loudest, most obvious "rock" moments, they flirt with crescendo-rock, but are content to work with repetitive patterns, denying the build-and-release that has become fairly common in instrumental bands following in the wake of Mogwai or Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
While Murrin is known around the shared Central Avenue practice space for being something of a mad tinkerer, experimenting with all manner of recording processes and mic placements, he says Cold Nice Gold was recorded in a pretty straightforward manner, direct to 8-track tape with little overdubbing. Much of the group's unique sound has to do with his custom-made guitar, a 1963 Silvertone that's been "modified and hot-rodded," he says.
"It's a tool, it can sound like multiple instruments," Murrin continues. "[Matt and my] guitar sounds are the difference between land and water. And we let the sound of our instruments dictate what the song is going to be."
This sound is perhaps most striking on the 13-minute "Spooks"/"Meeho" suite, as Murrin's mournful, warped guitar snakes through a metronomic steel-on-steel beat to create the album's most outright beautiful section. The ordinary tight structure of the band is temporarily abandoned as Murrin opens up with an extended improv.
Though instrumental, there is a definite narrative feel to Bright Shuttle's music, an arc to the rhythms and melodies that have a beginning, middle, and end. Listening to Cold Nice Gold while driving around downtown Knoxville and its environs, it plays like a soundtrack to the post-industrial, neo-gothic Southern city, populated by burned out, abandoned warehouses, with a view of the mountains and suggestion of wilderness around every other corner. This idea is aided by the song titles, which carry an air of menace and anxiety about them: "Outer Dark," "Spooks," "When It Gets Here," "Taking Up His Hammer," "Caves." When assigning titles, the band admits to borrowing from Knoxville's favorite ex-pat literary son, Cormac McCarthy, and Murrin took the band's name from a passage that struck him in McCarthy's No Country for Old Men.
With the album recorded and sent off for final mastering, the three have already began to chart their next course, though they're not quite sure what form the music will take.
"We talked about doing subtle, ambient stuff before we recorded this record, but it didn't turn out that way," Murrin says.
The ever-pragmatic Silvey attempts to sum up his notion of the band. "There are so many different things you can do with music, whether it's cutting edge, in line with current trends or rehashing something," he says. "But what we're doing is just comfortable to me. That's what's most important to me. "
Berney nods in agreement as Murrin considers the statement, before offering, "I wanted to do something to cause discomfort to people. But listening to the record it is kind of poppy, and comfortable, I guess. We should think about going into some discomfort."