Listen to any of Mobility Chief's cosmic, shape-shifting jams, and you'll likely find yourself perplexed. And that's precisely the point.
"We definitely don't want to sound like any other band," says guitarist/keyboardist (and occasional saxophonist) Nate Glenn, an electrical engineering major at the University of Tennessee. "It's new enough and unique enough that people haven't heard something like this before."
He's not kidding. Mobility Chief's music folds together like a Rubik's Cube—it's symmetrical, colorful, and tricky. If you've been lucky enough to catch one of their local shows at Preservation Pub or the Well, you likely didn't forget their sound: an all-instrumental blend of post-rock atmosphere, prog-rock virtuosity, and absurd funkiness. But Mobility Chief isn't concerned with fitting into a particular scene or niche.
"Early on, it was comparisons to the standard post-rock bands," says guitarist Ryan Vowell. "But now people have an incredibly hard time defining the sound, which is exactly what we want. We want an independent presentation and an independent type of tone."
What's astounding is how quickly that presentation coalesced. Glenn and drummer Chance Kellar, a Pigeon Forge native, formed Mobility Chief in January 2012. Though they found an immediate chemistry, they wanted a fuller sound and recruited Kellar's high-school friend, bassist Nicholas Cheek.
"We played four or five shows as a three-piece," Glenn says. "We played a show together at Groundswell, and we were like, ‘We need more sound!'"
That's when the band added Vowell.
"I had been out of music for probably five or six years," says Vowell, a social-studies teacher at Fulton High School. "But I used to be involved in the scene. Last summer, I had some personal things going on, and I went to Bonnaroo, and I just came back rejuvenated from that experience—like, ‘I have to make music again.' ... The first practice, we wrote a song within the first hour of knowing each other. We knew that we had something there. So now I've been in the band roughly a year, and the songs keep progressing, keep getting more and more intricate, more along the lines of what we envisioned the band to be."
As specific as that vision was, it was never modeled on any particular band.
"We didn't come in with a structured idea for a sound," Vowell says. "We all have pretty diverse influences. I listen to as much Tom Waits as I do Tortoise or other bands that are kind of similar to us. We never came in like, ‘Here's what we want to do.' We just let the music come to us."
After a year spent carving out their identity within the local scene, Mobility Chief is now aiming to expand beyond Knoxville. They've made baby steps this year, playing sporadic out-of-town shows in Nashville and Asheville and recording the stand-alone single "Big Napper" at Murfreesboro's Boro Fondo festival for a compilation. This summer, they'll embark on their first legitimate tour, a 10-dates-in-10-days run that includes shows in Atlanta, Raleigh, and Charlotte.
"It was a pretty mammoth undertaking," Vowell says of booking the trek. "It's especially difficult to get 10 straight dates in a row."
The band has hustled—using social media to make new contacts, proposing show swaps with other bands, juggling day jobs, rehearsals, studio time, and social lives. But it's been worth it.
"If you never get out there and do it, it will never happen," Glenn says. "You'll never make something of the band if you don't tour around the United States. Everybody in the city you're in will get sick of you sooner or later, and you'll die out."
But before they hit the road, Mobility Chief will pause, briefly, to bask in hometown mojo. Their tour's kick-off at Pilot Light next week is also the release show for their debut album, Search Beneath Earth, which finds the band expanding their kaleidoscopic sound even further.
The album was recorded with Drew Taylor, a recording engineer who also plays in Morristown space-rock outfit Camillo the Ocean. The recording was a frenzied blur—12-hour sessions over one grueling weekend in early June—but the results, based on an unmastered version they shared, are dynamic and lush, filled with evocative soundscapes and syncopated rhythmic gymnastics.
"I think the recordings definitely will enhance what we do live," Vowell says. "It's taking it to a whole different realm. We tried a lot of experimental things in the studio that will pay off and fundamentally change the songs we brought into the studio. Coming out of that experience, the album is going to be a great representation of our sound and also push us to up our game live as well."
Though they're still focused on their jobs and degrees, they're also investing long-term into Mobility Chief, wherever it leads them.
"I was really invested in the local scene," Vowell says. "A few years ago, I played sporadically in a few projects. None of them really took off. I've been in bands since I was probably 13 years old, but nothing on this scale. Nothing that I felt was worth pushing to this point to get out there."