For a band named after a ’70s disco-rock hit, Knoxville’s Ebony Eyes sure is having a hard time shaking its heavy-metal reputation. Known for its rowdy and decibel-surging shows, the group is often described as hyperaggressive. But drummer Bill Van Vleet says that there’s more to their sound than sheer heaviness.
“As far as rock ’n’ roll bands go, we get compared to stuff that’s really heavy, like metal,” Van Vleet says. “But that’s not what we do. Ebony Eyes’ music can be intense and it can be kind of aggressive, but it’s also very accessible.”
Singer/guitarist Russell Garner agrees. “I think a lot of times people confuse volume with being heavy,” he says. “We tend to play louder than what some people are used to, but there’s really nothing that heavy about what we do.”
Ebony Eyes has gone through a handful of transformations in the group’s two-year history. Formed in the summer of 2012, the band began as a casual experiment between Garner and a friend. Eventually, the duo went their separate ways, and Garner asked pal Nick Teague to come on board as a bassist. The pair then recruited mutual friend Derek Lynch, who played drums with the outfit for a year before moving away from Knoxville—just weeks before the band was scheduled to hit the road.
“We had all of these gigs scheduled and we obviously didn’t want to cancel them,” Garner says. “So we figured that if we could get Bill Van Vleet, the master, to play drums with us, we wouldn’t have to. Lucky for us, he agreed.”
At the time, Van Vleet—the longtime drummer for the now-defunct Knoxville outfit 1220 and current member of Nashville’s Birdwings—was living in Nashville and only planned on helping out the band for a handful of dates. But the trio gelled, and Van Vleet decided to come on board full-time.
“It’s hard to even compare the first iteration of Ebony Eyes to what we’re doing today,” Garner says. “Now that we have Bill, we can make everything better. Instead having ideas and just sort of messing around with them, we can figure out a way to lay them down.”
On their latest release, the 2014 EP Grow Into It, Ebony Eyes alternate between pockets of punchy psych-rock and spacey prog riffs. Throughout, Garner’s snarling vocals are muffled by a generous helping of distortion. Live, the group’s songs are transformed into harder, more spastic versions of themselves. To up the intensity factor, the trio thrashes across the stage, exhausting themselves in the process.
“There’s definitely a crazy physical aspect to the shows,” Garner says. “When we’re done playing, I feel like I’ve been trying out for a junior-high wrestling match or something. It’s hard to play like that the entire show. A lot of the time, I don’t think I’m even going to be able to do the last two songs. You can see us struggling to make it through. It creates a really cool, human kind of vibe that I think audiences are drawn to.”
It’s only been a few months since the release of Grow Into It, but Ebony Eyes has already started recording another six-song EP. “We’re really on this six-song kick at the moment,” Garner says. When it comes to the recording process, the trio tries to keep things open-ended.
“We’ve never aimed to achieve any particular sound,” Garner says. “It’s really just that we try to make songs that we would want to listen to. So if we’re playing something and are like, this is cool, we’ll flesh out a song and that’s the end of that.”
While their next EP will mostly feature songs from their current catalog, the band is looking forward to taking their new material in a fresh direction.
“I think we’re really moody as far as what kind of sound we’re going to come out with. Our next song is always different than the last,” Garner says. “I could see us going in sort of a dreamy direction or going straight-up thrash. We just sort of pivot as we’re playing it.”
But for a group that is used to constant change, the members of Ebony Eyes seem content with their current set-up—at least for the time being.
“We definitely like where we’re at right now,” Van Vleet says. “But the point is to always progress. You can never be completely happy with where you are because you always want to get better.”