“There’s a certain charm to a place like Georgia,” says Arbor Labor Union guitarist-vocalist Bo Orr. “You can drive 20 minutes in any direction and be in the woods. There are forests here and beautiful parks and trees…”
That charm is what makes Georgia music so singular. With pastoral greenery, plenty of hiking opportunities and easy access to the coast, Georgia geography is quite diverse, and the cultural scenes that have cropped up mirror such a mixed landscape. Only Georgia could have produced R.E.M. and the The B-52’s. And Deerhunter and OutKast. And The Allman Brothers Band and Otis Redding.
Arbor Labor Union is yet another Georgia band who sound like no one else. Comprising Orr, bassist Ryan Evers, guitarist Brian Atoms and drummer Ben Salie, Arbor Labor Union have one foot placed firmly in Atlanta and the other in Athens, two cities separated by 70 miles, each with their own distinct musical profiles. Arbor Labor Union get their transcendental weirdness from Athens, a thronging utopia of jangle pop, DIY rock, and freak synthpop, and their hard-edged bite from Atlanta, a city with strong hardcore and metal scenes.
Even their name recalls Georgia-grown qualities: the trees, the working-class, a sense of rural community. But for the first part of their career, Arbor Labor Union went by a more direct yet equally ecological moniker: Pinecones. They changed names after signing with indie stalwarts Sub Pop to reduce confusion (there was another band with the same name), but in retrospect, the change marks a significant moment in the band’s career.
“Names don’t have that much power, even though they do,” says Orr. “It seemed like we had rules about what a Pinecones song was, but I would say there’s a difference now to what an Arbor Labor Union song is. Meaning that, I feel that we’ve embraced all the aspects of music we enjoy whereas before we tried to keep it this deconstructed thing.”
Orr notes with the name change came a newfound sense of maturity. After all, the band started as little more than a chance for four friends to gather in one room, plug in guitars and just play. Orr speaks frequently about a feeling he and the band are trying to reach something close yet far off, something branching outwards, something pure. The closest he can get to describing it is The Allman Brothers Band’s ode to living, “Blue Sky.”
“Perfect song,” Orr notes. “It contains it all. You can’t put that song on and have a bad time. That feeling—we are searching for a certain feeling. We all grew up on classic rock, [and] bands like CCR were an influence. Loud and clear and straightforward.”
Arbor Labor Union manage to hit the note between Creedence Clearwater Revival’s hook-to-the-jaw rock riffs and the wide expanse of “Blue Sky.” The band’s Sub Pop debut, I Hear You, is crunchy and droning, perfect for zoning out or doing some classic headbanging.
If there is a difference between the band’s 2014 debut, Sings for You Now, and I Hear You, it’s the latter’s polished sound. Before Sub Pop, Arbor Labor Union recorded an entire demo version of I Hear You and then re-recorded it once they signed. As is their M.O., Arbor Labor Union are constantly evolving while remaining rooted in that plug-and-play mindset.
“[The songwriting process] has changed a lot since we first started, but it’s also stayed the same in the right ways,” says Orr. “On the recording for I Hear You, everyone pretty much wrote a song or a riff, and we would bring them together and throw paint at the wall to see how we could make a painting together. Then I would put the poems I had written over the music.”
His poetry frequently references singing and what it means to sing for someone, a startlingly intimate act. “It’s kind of a scary thing to be like, ‘I’m going to sing for you.’ Especially when you know that your voice isn’t as beautiful as, say, Marvin Gaye’s.”
On I Hear You, Orr’s voice is immediately bracing. It breaks and bellows. He sounds more like a sage than Marvin Gaye at the mic. “Transmission granted!” shouts Orr on “Hello Transmission.” “Safe passage through the maze!” On “Radiant Mountain Road,” Orr instructs listeners to “ascend to the mount of joy” over chugging guitars and driving rhythms. The song’s linearity—pulsing eight notes, emphasis on the downbeat—recalls Interpol, Eagulls, and the short-lived Georgia band Grass Giraffes. It’s the perfect distillation of Arbor Labor Union: forward moving, reaching, driving and loud.
Ultimately what Arbor Labor Union are after is purity—the purity of song, of place and of becoming. Nowhere is that purity sought after with more tenacity than in the studio. “Most of the time, we agree that first take is the purest take, in the sense that everyone gives what they can,” Orr says. “And everything after that is sometimes an imitation. So we’re trying to get back to the initial impulse of the first take.”
This is the goal of many bands, though they struggle for perfection against human flaws, eating through an advance and burning bridges. It can drive many artists up the wall and out of contracts. The mainstream entertainment industry makes idols out of frustrated geniuses (i.e., Kevin Shields) when any musician who has recorded a full-length in a studio can attest to the rarity of capturing the first take. Arbor Labor Union is searching for the ability to attain that pure first take, and listening to I Hear You, it becomes clear that they are closer than many of their contemporaries. Maybe it’s Georgia. Maybe The Peach State just produces the kind of artists who naturally stand out.
Arbor Labor Union are in the process of writing their next album, and though they will inevitably grow, they will still be four friends plugging in guitars and singing for you. “The basic sound of a guitar has always been great,” says Orr. “We are searching for that ‘Blue Sky’ sound.”