The StoneCoats on debut album, influences, and making music in Mississippi
(Originally published on Southern Senses 03/08/16)*
Coming off the January release of their debut full-length Poor Boy Blues, Brandon, MS-based Southern music band, The StoneCoats, took some time to chat with Southern Senses editor Cole Powell about making the record and their industry experiences thus far:
SS: Hi, guys. First, thanks for taking the time to speak with us.
SC: Hi, Cole. Thank you for giving us this opportunity. We are very excited about it!
SS: I want to start by focussing on that country/rock/blues blend that we here call “Southern” music and which can be heard on your debut full-length, Poor Boy Blues, available now worldwide through just about every digital retailer in existence. Can you guys expand a bit on your influences and how you worked to bring those influences into this record?
SC: Our influences range from a variety of different artists. Most of the artists or groups we like, we picked up from our parents while we were growing up and listening to old records with them, or hearing them talk about the music of their youth. Living in Mississippi, we have a large blues influence as well. It is really hard not to have some blues influence when it has been so essential and has affected just about all genres of music. However, we do appreciate and study the early blues artists out of interest and pure enjoyment as well. Some of these artists are Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and many, many others. Our influences aren’t just limited to the blues though. Ranging from Americana to Rock, we have several other influences which include, but are not limited to, the following: Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, CCR, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Cream, Derek and the Dominoes, and many more. Therefore, our musical influence and foundation is very versatile since it is drawn from all across the musical spectrum.
SS: What was the typical songwriting process like? Highly collaborative? Or was there a sole or dominant writer?
SC: When we were writing this record we never said, “Okay, this is what we want to sound like. This is what direction we are wanting to go.” We just sat down and wrote. We did what was natural, and we did what came to us. Instinctively, we subconsciously pulled a little bit from all of our influences while writing. Because of this, a wide variety of sounds and origins can be heard on Poor Boy Blues. From soft rock songs like “Another Thought For Today” with its mellow feel, to songs such as “Cheated Heart” with its country twang telling the tale of heartbreak from the pedal steel guitar, and to everything else in between, it is easy to see how all of our influences have come into play while crafting and shaping this project. While writing, the music almost always came first. Usually someone would come to the practice room with a chord progression, or even a melody or a riff, and we would work on it. However, sometimes someone would play something while we were warming up, and we would literally see it come to life in front of us as we worked on it. Overall, the writing process was something very special for all of us to be a part of and for all of us to contribute to. Writing for us was almost always a collaborative effort, with the exception being “Cross That Bridge” which was written by Brannon. As a band, that’s just how we work for the most part. That is how it’s been since day one. We just know how to bounce ideas and creativity off of each other.
SS: Did the band write every song on the record?
SC: All of the songs on Poor Boy Blues are originally written by us with only one exception. “Roll It Over” is a Derek and the Dominos song that we decided to put on the album. Eric Clapton is another influence of ours by the way he combined the blues with rock. Therefore, we thought that by putting this song on the record it would not only challenge us, but pay homage to that concept as well.
SS: You guys mentioned usually writing the music first, some times starting with a riff. One quality I felt Poor Boy Blues has that also defined a lot of those influences you mentioned, but that I don’t hear much from artists any more, is a signature riff for many of your songs. “When You’re Down,” for instance—that intro just immediately grabs the listener as something unique. Can you, or I guess more precisely, the two guitarists of the group, expand a little bit of the riff development process? Do you set off consciously to make a riff? “I’m gonna come up with a new riff today!” Or is it more an organic case of sitting around, goofing off with the guitar, and striking something new? Or do licks some times just pop into the mind randomly?
SC: Well, it’s actually a little bit of both to be honest. Sometimes we will have a solid chord progression that we all like and then someone says, “This could really use a riff or something over it.” Therefore, at this point we set off to intentionally write one. However, sometimes it’s more organic when coming up with the riff. Sometimes there’s a solid groove going on when we are just messing around on the instruments and someone will hit a few licks that sound cool, so then we set off to write around that. But our minds are always working and functioning in this creative way, so it’s always a good possibility that we will hear a random riff in our heads and turn it into something that we can work with later.
SS: This one’s for Brannon. As with the band’s noticeable myriad of musical influences, I also heard a lot of different vocal stylings from you on the record. On “Blues Boogie,” you’re more dark blues and rough-edged. “Cross That Bridge,” you lean more country. On “Cheated Heart,” I feel you’re channeling Tom Petty heavily. I heard a bit of Ronnie Van Zant at times too. I think the great singers are those who sound like they sound because they choose to sound like that, meaning, they could choose to sound differently (within the bounds of their vocal chord structure and strength, of course) if they wanted. To me, it seems you’re doing something that very few do, and that’s altering the sound of your voice from song to song as the change in music styles dictates. Do you feel that bit of vocal chameleonism separates you from not only the current Southern music pack but also some of those past greats that you guys mentioned earlier?
Brannon: It’s funny you mention that because it’s something that I didn’t notice fully until the album had been completed. Each song has a different feel, and I want to do my best to convey that feeling to the listener. I think it definitely sets me apart as a vocalist in modern rock, and it’s nice to be in a band where I have that kind of freedom.
SS: A lot of acts come and go and never make it nearly as far or play nearly as long as The StoneCoats have thus far. How tough has it been to successfully navigate Mississippi’s indie music scene (which I know from personal experience can be rough waters to traverse) and begin to branch out further regionally?
SC: Well, one thing that has really helped out along the way is being close to one another. That has helped out during some of the tougher times. We are a family. Two of us are actually brothers, and Bran is like a brother also. Ashten has been with us for two years, so when we hit a rough spot, we work through it. We also know that we want to make a career out of this, so we refuse to give up or quit. We work really hard at what we do, and we have a great manager who helps us and a great team around us who is not afraid to tell us when we need to get it together or work on something. As far as playing in Mississippi goes, one thing that we have had to learn how to use to our advantage is social media. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have been a huge help. Through social media, we can let people know when and where we will be. Social media has revolutionized the industry, and we try to use it to our advantage. If you read about the greats, as we call them, all of them had to pay their dues, and we have been paying our dues. However, we have had a lot of great people help us along the way that we can’t thank enough and great opportunities that have opened a lot of doors for us.
SS: I think you guys hit on a great point about social media marketing. I see so many acts not take advantage of such a fantastic, free promotional tool, and I think “How can you not be blasting everything you’re doing all over the web?” So, kudos to The StoneCoats for taking advantage of those resources.
Tell us about some of your “big” moments in the industry so far. I know the Hard Rock appearances are something worth bragging about for sure!
SC: Yeah, we have been very fortunate to have some great opportunities, and we are definitely thankful. We have played the Beale Street Hard Rock Café in Memphis, and we played the Bourbon Street Hard Rock in New Orleans. In Memphis, we played in front of Epic Records. We had the chance to meet some pretty important industry guys. That was such a valuable learning experience in itself. In New Orleans, we actually played for the Hard Rock Rising competition. A few bands were chosen from each region to play, and we happened to be one of the bands from this region chosen. The grand prize for the winner was a trip to Spain, where the band would play at a festival in Barcelona. We finished second overall in the Southeastern United States region. Recently, we were nominated for an American Music Guild award, and we had to travel to North Carolina for the ceremony because we where asked to perform live. While we were there, we had the chance to meet a lot of artist who have had an impact on the industry. Billy Paul and Dee Dee Sharp, along with many others, were there. We actually had the chance to work with David Cook and perform live with Melanie Safka, who played at the original Woodstock. Getting to hangout with her and hear her stories was a very cool experience for us.
SS: Three of you also got to appear in the James Brown biopic Get on Up. Care to elaborate on that experience a little for us?
Leighton: Filming Get On Up was an incredible experience all together. Since it was in Mississippi, we sent our information to the casting directors hoping to do something musical. However, we were placed in other roles. Carson and Brannon were extras for the scene that was being shot. I played the drummer for the Rolling Stones, Charlie Watts. There was a very cool scene that I was able to be a part of. It was the scene where James Brown bursts into the Rolling Stones’ dressing room while they were getting ready, and demands to know why he wasn’t going to be closing at the 1964 T.A.M.I. Show. That was a very cool moment. The room was set in 1964, of course, so it felt like I was actually there. There were replica guitars there from the sixties. I felt like I was actually experiencing a part of history first hand. We had to shoot the scene for what felt like a million times. Of course, everyone smoked inside then. They gave us fake cigarettes that would burn up super fast, and they smelled terrible. By the time that scene was over I think I had smoked about a pack and a half of the things. Overall, it was a very long day. Shooting for 12 hours, it took us all day to complete a five minute scene. We definitely have a new found respect for actors, directors, and everyone else who makes a movie happen after the experience. The best part was getting to meet all of the actors. We met stars like Chad Boseman, Dan Aykroyd, Tate Taylor, and Craig Robinson. All of these people were incredibly nice, and they were super fun to hang out with. We were invited to the premier and cast party in Jackson as well. One thing is for sure, we have never watched a movie the same way since we have had the chance to see how it was actually shot.
SS: Now, what’s on the horizon for The StoneCoats? Big gigs? Working on another album already?
SC: We are always working towards playing bigger gigs, and even gigs beyond the area that we usually play. We would love to start playing festivals. As far as recording, right now we are working on a small blues EP in North Mississippi with Matt Nolan. He has always been the front man for The Spunk Monkees and is an incredible artist, songwriter, and producer. He is recording the album at his studio and helping produce it. It’s an album of blues cover songs that the blues fathers of Mississippi, and others, did in the past. As Mississippi musicians, not only are we artists, but we are also curators in a sense. We want to preserve the rich history and influence of the music from this part of the world, and for us this project is a great way to pay tribute to that. Not only that, but we love the blues. The rawness and reality of the subject matter of the blues is something that everyone on Earth has experienced. The blues is one aspect of humanity that connects us all together, and we want people to know that. We want people to see not only the musical influence these men had on the world, but the influence that they have had on humanity because they honestly played from their souls about the heartbreak and tribulations they experienced. Even though a lot of these artist played from a personal perspective much of it applies to the larger world. We are no different today. Our generation can spark a movement and a moment out of all the turmoil and hurt to make a better world. We would love to help spark a movement of love and unity with our music and our art. It’s our job to preserve this and pay it forward. We don’t want to forget these roots.
SS: I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about life outside of the music biz. I’d like to hear from each of you on your interests apart from writing and touring. What do you like to do outside of music? Hobbies? Any sports fans in the group? Film buffs? Foodies?
Carson: I am actually in my sophomore year in college studying history. I really enjoy reading anything historical or political. I like to read autobiographies, especially the ones of my favorite musician or of a former president. I also love to collect guns and target practice. I like to play video games and beat Ashten. I love to discuss politics and have heated debates with my close friends. I am a family guy. We have a really close family, and we have a lot of fun together so I tend to hang out at home.
Leighton: music is just one particular interest in my life. I am an all around nerd in every sense of the way when it comes to the devotion to other areas of study in life. I love reading and writing my own short stories, essays, and even plays, and I also have an interesting physics, chemistry, and astronomy hobby. Most of the time I’m engaging in one of these topics, or I can be found at church. I love studying theology, and I look for ways to do effective ministry for Christ every way possible. For relaxation, and an escape from the mundane, I can be found tending to my vegetable garden.
Ashten: I usually work during the day, so in my free time, I usually just come home and relax a bit. I just listen to a bunch of music and hang out with the guys most of the time. Since I live with the Bristows we always just play video games (where I usually lose to Carson in fifa), but it’s like a family here. I watch anime more often than I’d like to admit. The guys call me a weeaboo. Google it. But in my free time I usually get into the Scripture. I go to church and hang out with friends. I watch a lot of movies and things on Netflix. Does that mean I get to be sponsored by Netflix now? And, oh yeah. I smoke a lot of cigarettes if that counts as free time.
Brannon: If I’m not writing music, I’m eating. I have a group of friends that likes to eat at a different restaurant each week. Jackson has some of the most incredible food joints that are virtually unknown, even to people that have lived here all their lives. Go down to Martins one day and get their squash casserole. It will change your life.
SS: We’ve covered a lot of ground here, but before we go, is there anything we haven’t touched on that you guys would like to say to the people who may be hearing about you for the first time? Anything you’d like to say to the fans that have shared this journey with you thus far?
SC: First of all, we want to thank the fans for the interest and support. Second of all, we want to let them know that they are just as involved in this journey as we are. We want them to know that even though we love being artists and playing music that this band is not the end of a means, but this is the means to an end. That end is leaving a positive impact on the world and changing it so it can be better, whether that’s on a large scale or wether it’s a single person’s life. This is what we believe it means to be successful. We hope to do just that by using this music as a platform. We want the fans to know that they are involved in this as well. If we could let them know anything, it’s this.
*In 2015, Cole Powell and bandmate/wife Brittany D launched Southern Senses, an online publication dedicated to showcasing the best music and cuisine from the Southern United States. With talented site contributors (including Southern rocker J. F. Oakes and restaurateur Christa Reid Neil), the site gained immediate success, attracting the attention of renowned restaurateur Robert St. John and retired NFL tight end Reggie Kelly, among others. Though Powell opted to discontinue the site in 2017, select articles can be found on the Ramblings of a Mad Man blog section of colepowell.net.