Band To Watch

Band To Watch: Thunder Dreamer

Corey Greenfield makes a mean taco. The drummer for Thunder Dreamer has toasted up tortillas, sliced radishes, and marinated a flank steak for three days. He’s made homemade guacamole, although he apologizes for not mixing in cilantro with the tomatoes and jalapeños; the bunches at the grocery store were too wilted. It’s a recipe he picked up in Austin, where he went to culinary school, and brought back to his hometown of Evansville, nestled among the oxbows of the Ohio River in the southwest corner of Indiana.

“I was trying to get out of this town for a while,” he says of his short stay in Texas. “I was having a little trouble getting a job. I had been thinking about quitting music and needed to work on a back-up plan. People always eat food, so I could do that. I ended up doing the culinary school thing because I knew there were a lot of kitchen jobs open. I don’t use my degree professionally, but I do cook a lot.”

Evansville exerts a strong pull on the members of Thunder Dreamer, a heartland indie rock band whose members all hail from Indiana’s third-largest city and now live within walking distance of each on the west side. Once a bustling manufacturing and shipping hub, it’s now one of countless mid-size Midwestern cities with a fraying economy and blocks of empty buildings. It’s an unusual place for a band to be from and an even more unusual place for a band to stay. It’s not a big city; it has no prominent music history nor an especially active scene at the moment.

On the other hand, Evansville has no baggage. It provokes few expectations from listeners, no preconceived notions. That makes it freeing, both musically and professionally: Thunder Dreamer can move at their own pace. They can sound however they want. Working away in the margins, they have crafted a complex and compelling palette, playing guitar-driven indie rock that is darkly dramatic and indulging hairpin shifts between quiet and loud, soft and hard, aggression and ambience, realism and dream. Their hometown looms large over the songs on their second full-length, Capture, an immense metaphor for feelings of disconnection and dislocation that anybody in any city has felt at some point.

We’re all standing in Greenfield’s house on the west side of the city. Miles Davis is breezing into the kitchen from the next room, which doubles as the band’s practice space. It’s stockpiled with instruments, most prominent his drum kit nestled into a bay window. Cupping tortillas in their hands, the band members line up for seconds and then thirds, the conversation growing quiet. Alex Wallwork, the band’s tall bass player, announces that he’s going for a Ski run, which prompts a discussion about the regional citrus soda. “It’s an Evansville delicacy, its own little Midwestern thing,” jokes Steven Hamilton, who may sing, write songs, and play guitar but hardly comes off as a frontman. The band chugs Ski like water, and Wallwork is quick to point out the musical connection. “The Kentucky Headhunters have a song that mentions Ski. ‘Dumas Walker.’ I’ll play it for you when I get back.” Then he’s out the door.

The members of Thunder Dreamer all cut their teeth in local bands playing local venues. There are few clubs in Evansville, so most bands must create their own performance spaces. Greenfield works down the street at PG, a café with a stage in the back room. They’ve all played gigs there in various bands over the years, but thesen days Thunder Dreamer tours more often than they play local—a pace that will surely intensify with the release of Capture.

In a year when critics have pondered “the uncertain future of indie,” Thunder Dreamer makes a persuasive case that the traditional line-up of guitar/drums/bass/keys can still build something fresh and exciting on top of a familiar foundation. The band may count Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, and local greats Mock Orange as influences, but Capture conjures something specific and indelible, an existential despair that feels rooted in the present, ugly moment. “Why am I here? Months turn to years,” Hamilton sings on “The Bridge.” The band try to answer as best they can, using snarling guitars and grandiose piano chords to say what the lyrics cannot.

That dynamic is rooted in the spark between the band members, who push against the roles traditionally assigned their instruments. Hamilton’s guitar chimes and shimmers, less concerned with riffing than with providing texture and grain. Wallwork bashes out power chords, strums the strings violently, and generally avoids the repetition of anything that might be considered a typical bassline. Zint’s keyboards add friction to these songs, especially on “You Know Me,” often playing against the other instruments. Only Greenfield plays a traditional role, although his agile drumming is crucial to the band’s careful builds and abrupt shifts in tone and direction.

Tacos devoured, pumped on Ski sugar, the band took their places around Greenfield’s table to discuss their hometown, the concept of heartland rock, and why Monday is their favorite day of the week.

STEREOGUM: Tell me about Evansville. What kind of scene does the city have?

ALEX WALLWORK: This is a very working-class town. It’s the home of the color TV. It was the refrigerator capital of the world. We built ships on the Ohio.

COREY GREENFIELD: A lot of people escape this place. That was part of my reason for moving to Texas a while back. I had a really negative view of Evansville right out of high school. Everything seems to die here. No one ever gives a good enough effort around here. It’s no use. But I was living in Athens and trying to meet people and be a part of that scene, which was really difficult. They won’t let you in if you’re not local.

STEVEN HAMILTON: I think Evansville as a town is super special. I love this part of the country: Southern Indiana and Northern Kentucky. It’s very beautiful. And with the internet, it’s not necessary to move to Nashville or Chicago or wherever. You’re in a good location here. You’re close to a lot of places, even if there’s not a great scene here.

STEREOGUM: I wondered if there was any temptation to leave.

GREENFIELD: For me, as a permanent relocation, no. Unless I had to. Unless it was something I couldn’t pass up. This is always going to be home. When I came back from Austin, I had this incredible resurgence of feeling for this place. I had hated it for so long and just wanted out, but now I see that you can build something here. You do anything from anywhere, as long as you just try it. But that’s the main problem I have around here. People get discouraged and stop trying. It does take a little more time to get things going here.

WALLWORK: I like how we’re from a place that you can’t put a sound on. There’s not a million bands already. We can move at our own pace. We don’t have to be influenced by the pressure of so many other things. We may have to fight to find shows, but that makes them so much better. We played in Champaign, Illinois, with Julien Baker, and it was the biggest show I’ve ever played. I was stressed about it for a week. Driving there was electrifying. You can’t get the same feeling just driving down the street to a show.

STEREOGUM: Do you think this place informs your music? Or, to put it a different way, do you think you would make an album like Capture if you lived somewhere else?

ZACH ZINT: I think it does have a lot to do with that frustration and love of Evansville.

HAMILTON: Sometimes I think it’s the music that kept me here. If I wasn’t in this band, I might have moved down south.

GREENFIELD: You almost did. We even had a farewell show, but that didn’t last a month.

WALLWORK: We save one day a week for practice, because we’re all busy working jobs and living our lives. If we were doing something different, I don’t think it would sound the same. We get pent up. When we get in the same room together, it’s like going to church.

GREENFIELD: We definitely look forward to Mondays. All through the week we’re waiting for rehearsals. Sometimes when we start on a song, it’ll take months until it becomes perfect. We’ll keep changing things over months and months. It’s a good thing we didn’t record too early because it took us a while to get the songs into that final form.

ZINT: We were ready to record Capture eight months before we actually went into the studio. We ended up not doing it for whatever reason. We kept rescheduling. We ended up going on tour instead, and there were things that changed during that time.

GREENFIELD: The only thing we discussed when putting the record together was, we didn’t want it to sound like anything else. What’s the point of making it sound like another band? Let’s not even talk about what we want it to sound like.

STEREOGUM: How does the songwriting process work then?

HAMILTON: I’m not very controlling. I’m very passive. When I write a song and bring it to the guys, I like that we all do our own thing. I’m not trying to be a lead guy. Our first record, Lonesome Morning, was just completed songs that I had written. Whereas Capture was more of a collaboration between the four of us making the songs together. But the lyrics always come last. I hate writing lyrics. When we recorded up at Russian Recording in Bloomington, there was a song or two that didn’t have completed lyrics. I had to write them the night before. I’ll always have a singing melody and can just mumble things until I figure out the lyrics. Usually I go by the tone of the song. What does it make me feel? That helps me come up with words. I have to write sad words to fit sad notes. I try to make happy songs, but they sound so cheesy all the time. I wish I could be like Blur and just write awesome pop music.

STEREOGUM: One phrase I keep seeing in write-ups on the band is “heartland rock,” which I associate with your fellow Hoosier John Mellencamp. How do you feel about being included in that category?

WALLWORK: I am super down with that.

GREENFIELD: I’m down with it too. Indiana. Crossroads of America. I’ve read that but didn’t think much of it. We’re in the Midwest. I like it better than Americana. We got grouped in the Americana thing with Lonesome Morning, although we were listening to a lot of Magnolia Electric Co. then. A lot of my favorite bands could be considered heartland indie rock. Slint. June Of 44. Sad music with a hard edge. It’s not Fugazi, but it has this angst to it. There’s a band from around here, Mock Orange. They have two different sounds. They were a math-rock emo band at the beginning, and those albums are cool as shit. Then they got on MTV in the early 2000s and they went for a more Americana indie rock sound. Oh, there’s this band from Evansville and they’re on MTV. That was the coolest thing ever. That was one of the first instances where I went to a show at a coffee shop and a really talented local band played a set right in front of my eyes. Then we ended up meeting those guys and getting cool with them.

ZINT: They were playing even less than us. We would wait a couple of months, but they would play once a year. So everybody would come out.

GREENFIELD: When we started this band, I was putting together most of the shows. I was trying to feel it out and make sure we took it seriously. I didn’t want to half-ass it or just be another band that dicked around for a little while. “Let’s do it how Mock Orange did.” They took it seriously. They practiced a lot, really thought about it, spaced out their shows, and used different strategies.

WALLWORK: It’s hard because we’re all hungry to play shows.

HAMILTON: But you play too much around here and no one will show up. That’s what happened with our other band, Quin. We were playing every hole in the wall. “Oh, there’s just three people. And they don’t look like they like it at all.” When we first asked Zach to be in the band, he didn’t want to play with us.

ZINT: I had just broken up with my last girlfriend and was just dying inside. It took me months to recover.

GREENFIELD: That’s the best time to play music. I bothered you, too. Every month or so I would say, “Are you still heartbroken? Do you want to be in our band? Please come over and play with us.”

ZINT: I’m so glad I did. Being in a band pushes you as an artist to be better. I mean, I didn’t want to be in a band to begin with, but these guys really feel it and I think it comes off as greater than the sum of its parts.

STEREOGUM: You didn’t record in Evansville, though. You went up to Bloomington.

WALLWORK: We can’t record here, so we have to go other places. We recorded Capture with Mike [Bridavsky] at Russian Recording. He had a sense of what we wanted to do and the timeframe we had to do it in, so there was no lollygagging around. It was more like, “That was a good take. Let’s keep moving.” If he wasn’t doing that, we would have been lost. He had a sense of purpose and direction.

HAMILTON: Vocals were the hardest part. In the past I usually did them in one take. “Good enough.” But Mike was like, “No, that sounded weird. We have to redo it.” I spent a day and a half doing vocals by myself. They’re in the next room watching E.T. Sorry, guys. I didn’t think it would take this long. But I can only sing so much before my voice weakens. There were a few times when I just had to say, “Sorry, I can’t do anymore tonight.” There was one song called “How Long” that we were doing, and the vocals were impossible. We had to do it over and over, and finally Mike said, “Why’d you make a song that’s so hard to sing?” And then we had to take it off the album!

STEREOGUM: Why’s that?

GREENFIELD: We weren’t considering that a record is 22 minutes per side, and the total nine songs were about 47 minutes and change. So there was literally not enough room for that song. The label actually made the decision, and we were like, “Sure, whatever, OK.” I actually like the way the tracklist ended up.

HAMILTON: It made it better. It has a nice symmetry, I think.

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Capture is out 5/26 via 6131 Records. Thunder Dreamer are touring a bit, too. Here are the dates.

04/03 Bloomington, IN @ The Bishop
04/22 Indianapolis, IN @ Luna Music
05/05 Cincinnati, OH @ The Comet
05/06 Columbus, OH @ The Tree Bar
05/08 Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Tavern
05/11 Brooklyn, NY @ Alphaville