Like so many Hoosier communities, Nathan Bennett's hometown of New Castle is centered around industry. And industry is hurting. When the Chrysler plant that was the town's lifeblood closed, it took thousands of residents with it, leaving a decidedly smaller tax base, high unemployment and crumbling infrastructure.
Bennett sees the result every time he comes off the road from playing bass in The Elms. The Indiana-based rock band is set to release its fourth and most anticipated studio offering yet, The Great American Midrange
, on Sept. 15. It's an album loaded with ragged melodicism, authentic rock & roll hooks and tales of a post-industrial Midwest.
"It's pretty dark, but I still love it," Bennett says of his hometown. "To me it feels so real."
It would be easy for The Elms to leave their roots behind. Guitarist and lead vocalist Owen Thomas, his drummer brother Christopher and lead guitarist Thomas Daugherty all grew up together in Seymour (Bennett joined about six years ago). Starting in 2001, they released two albums in two years on EMI Records and played hundreds of gigs. After Universal issued The Chess Hotel
in spring 2006, The Elms were sharing stages with artists ranging from Buddy Guy to the Goo Goo Dolls.
That's a long way from the garage and basement practices of Seymour, but they haven't abandoned smalltown life.
"I don't know if it's just because I'm partial to home, but there's something serene about the farmland and friends I have," Thomas says of Indiana. He's backstage with the rest of the band in their dressing room, preparing for an all-Hoosier concert at the Indiana State Fair with Jon McLaughlin and The Why Store. "All the things I hated about my hometown in high school I love now."
Especially the people. The Great American Midrange
is The Elms' affectionate paean to blue collar, salt-of-the-earth folk. Verse three of the album's closing track, "A Place in the Sun," goes:
I don't know a fella who ain't seen it tough.
We deal and we hustle to make just enough.
But somewhere the people are still having fun,
So I'm gonna find me that place in the sun.
"Most times I feel more kinship to a carpenter or excavation worker than a rock star," Thomas says. "We've worked incredibly hard and spent many nights toiling for this dream."
And The Elms believe The Great American Midrange
is their most realized effort yet. One thing it's not is The Chess Hotel
, a spontaneous combustion of raw sound that was recorded and mixed in three weeks. The Elms spent two years writing songs for The Great American Midrange
. They ended with 200, and whittled that to 19 by the time they entered the studio. Some, like the aptly-named "Strut" and the anthemic slow-burn of "This is How the World Will End," were obvious choices.
"Going from 200 to 12 (songs), when you've got that many to pick from hopefully there's some gems in there," Daugherty says. "I'm so glad it's finally done."
Early on Christopher says the band showed its influences prominently. Now they're truly starting to make their own statement.
"When you're young, you're influenced to the point of writing what you're listening to," he says. "Eventually you grow out of that and become what you're supposed to be."
The members of The Elms have become laid-back spokesmen for their neck of the woods. Each member acts laid-back and personable with every pre-show visitor to their dressing room. Daugherty re-strings his own guitars, cutting a finger in the process ("Happens at least once every time," he says). Bennett walks around trying to break in a new pair of cowboy boots he just bought in Seymour. That fashion accessory is practically a must for every one of them.
"They're just badass," Bennett says. "And once you break them in, they're like heaven on your feet."
The Elms may not be household names, but they're getting noticed by some who are. Perhaps the biggest affirmation of their talent so far came when fellow Seymour native John Mellencamp personally invited them to perform at Farm Aid in Boston last year.
"The most special part was just being invited," Owen says. "To have John, Willie (Nelson), Neil (Young) and Dave (Matthews) say they what you're doing is worth a damn is a very special thing for a band like us. We consider those guys our heritage. We identify with that sort of life-weary American song-writing."
But homecomings like this State Fair show don't become exercises in self-love. The fact that Owen's relationships with friends back home come without pretense is something he finds refreshing.
"My friends don't really care that this is what I do," he says. "Very little of our relationship has anything to do with music, and that's really cool."
Yes they are interested in the music, "But it's hard to deify someone you graduated high school with or was in biology class with. They are interested, but it's not like you walk into a room and the air gets sucked out because you're some big shot now."
As accessible and rock steady as The Elms' new album may be, they also don't expect everyone to like it.
"All we want is for people to have the opportunity to take a shot at liking it," Owen says. "We don't feel entitled to success; that's the honest-to-god truth. All we hope we're entitled to is the opportunity to make our case on a widespread level. If people tell us they aren't interested in our band, then we'll be OK with that. But not having the opportunity to let them decide is what we're not going to be happy with. We're very proud of (this record) and feel like the songs have a certain connectivity that we've never had before."