Crowded around a table in an Old City pizzeria, the members of Down From Up look the part of a cooler-than-thou rock band: sunglasses, chains, enough black to dress a funeral procession. The aesthetic is a reasonable reflection of the band's sound—dark, brooding lyrics draped over a cacophony of double-kick drums and death-by-shredding guitars.
Then, they open their mouths. "Eh-low?" says guitarist Andy Wood in broken English, doing his best Borat impression into the digital recorder. His bandmates, who look as though they haven't had a good night's sleep since the late '90s, dissolve into laughter.
"The only time we're serious is when we're playing the music itself," Wood says. "You can't joke around when you're playing 32nd notes. Sixteenth notes, maybe. Thirty-second notes, not so much."
In addition to Wood, there's drummer Andy Campbell, frontman Matt Brewster, and bassist Matt Reynolds. "The name was a big part of the audition to get into the band," Brewster explains to more laughter.
Joking about underage groupies ("We're really popular with the K-8 demographic," says Wood) and mock-insulting one another at every opportunity ("Boy, to be in this band you have to have tough skin," Brewster says), they come off as four guys who are in it for a good time. It's just that they're talented enough to make a decent living while they're at it.
Their current chemistry is the end result of more than a few lineup changes—up-and-coming local singer/songwriter Erick Baker, an original member, fronted the band until last year—and a comfort level that allows them to shape-shift as the band grows musically.
"When you limit yourself to one fixed idea of what you are, you start repeating yourself, saying the same thing over and over again," Wood says.
By any account, the band is a far different beast today than it was when it started. A handful of years back, the band was a fixture on the local college rock circuit, playing melody-driven pop-rock numbers. Since then, they've grown some chest hair, ditching emotive balladry for deeper, darker fare.
"I think what happened is, early on, we were just playing music—it wasn't real clear where we were going with it," Brewster says. "We had maybe one or two harder songs, and those were the songs that fans really responded to."
As a result, the band's songwriting began to mutate, starting with the 2007 album A Terrible Beauty. Harder songs gradually replaced the slower ones. Down From Up's new album, From Ashes to Empire, is a zenith of sorts, combining the technical dexterity of a complicated math equation with raw, unfiltered emotion.
Thinly concealing his amusement, Brewster takes issue with such an assessment. "We try to play with absolutely no feeling or soul or emotion—just as many notes as we can cram into a measure," he says. "There's plenty of people doing the ‘Let's play with feeling' thing. Plenty of people have got that, so we're trying to take our music in a different direction."
Making an argument against the band's musical ability, on the other hand, is significantly more challenging. Wood was Guitar Center Guitarmageddon National Champion, and Campbell was a regional finalist in Guitar Center's Drum-Off. Naturally, they downplay such achievements.
"With the last top-20 dudes, there is no ‘better,'" Woods says. "It could've gone 20 different ways.
"I was just the best looking," he adds with a smirk.
To further sweeten the pot, From Ashes to Empire was produced by Travis Wyrick and mastered by Tom Baker of Precision Sound in Los Angeles. In addition, two tracks were co-written by Keith Wallen of local band Copper and Brian Vohinh of 10 Years.
As the interview goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult to decipher between fact and fiction, original quotes from one-liners culled from late-night infomercials and Spinal Tap. There's a lengthy discussion about whether quoting from YouTube clips would be considered plagiarism, and if plagiarism is even the right word.
"All of our deep, heavy lyrics—nobody's going to take us seriously anymore after this," Wood says with a sigh. "Three-hundred thousand notes and lies."