Sometimes, the measure of a good rock band nowadays is the quality of the jokes they tell between songs.
In that regard, Atlanta four-piece Microwave succeeds brilliantly. Without looking up from his tuning knobs, bassist Tyler Hill tells the audience at Austin’s Dirty Dog Bar about the band’s mock entrepreneurial endeavors. They are making Scott Stapp Scotch Tape—yes, it’s named after Creed’s famously troubled lead singer—and it’s going to be a Very Big Deal when it hits the shelves. Hill keeps the joke running for several songs, taking it one step further by introducing a spin-off to their already imaginary product: a new beverage called Scott Stapp Scotch Tape Scotch.
This is what rock and roll has come to.
Thankfully, Microwave back up their ridiculous banter this evening with incredible songs and commanding stage presence, easily outshining every other act on the four-band bill. Lead singer and guitarist Nathan Hardy alternates between a tender, high-pitched croon and blood vessel-popping scream as guitarist Wesley Swanson controls the energy in the room with catchy riffs and slabs of raw, ambient noise. Hill diligently holds down the foundation with drummer Timothy “Tito” Pittard, who bounces in his seat as the music envelops him. Hardy and Swanson bang their heads furiously. Hair flies everywhere.
This is a far cry from the band that wrestled with touchy microphones and unresponsive monitors at sound check 90 minutes earlier, and certainly not the same timid bunch who stuttered through an interview in the alley behind the Dirty Dog. But that’s because Microwave is not a band of pretentious, jaded, interview-savvy rock stars; they’re four regular dudes who finally have a shot at seeing the world and living their dreams.
All four members of Microwave met through playing in different bands and frequenting the same bars in Atlanta, solidifying their lineup in late 2012. The following year, they released their first EP, Nowhere Feels Like Home, a heavy, brooding affair inspired by the likes of Mew and Fear Before the March of Flames. They scaled back the aggression and upped the melody on their full-length debut, 2014’s Stovall. Described by Pittard as “aggressive-indie-post-hardcore,” the album shifts effortlessly between straight-ahead rockers and mellower, atmospheric tracks that allow the band some breathing room and showcase Hardy’s stunning vocals.
The album caught the attention of Jamie Coletta, director of publicity and promotions at SideOneDummy Records, who signed the band last summer. “That didn’t sound like a local band’s shitty demo that I’m used to hearing at that stage of a band’s career. That sounded like the makings of Manchester Orchestra,” she says. “It took me back, but without feeling like it was dated or it was a copy. It was nostalgic, but still really fresh and modern.”
Lyrically, Stovall is shockingly personal and largely autobiographical. As the primary lyricist, Hardy pulls no punches and covers every base required for the genre. Relationships gone sour? Check. Crippling self-doubt? Yep. Sleeping in your car and going to bed hungry because you’ll literally do anything to live this goddamn dream? You bet.
Even more interesting, however, is the prominence of a less frequently explored lyrical theme: the loss of faith, stemming from Hardy’s Mormon upbringing and subsequent denouncement of those beliefs. “I was really heavily involved for the first part of my life, and I stopped being part of that probably like three years ago, around the time that we started with Microwave,” he says. “And that is for sure a theme, just ‘cause it’s sort of like a current event, I guess. An existential crisis.”
This crisis has gotten easier to deal with as Hardy’s come to terms with his beliefs, but it still played heavily on his mind during the songwriting process. “I’ve been afraid of, I don’t know, offending people I’m close to,” he says. “But I guess you have to write about what’s on your mind, and the messages you want to convey, regardless of how people will interpret it or if they’ll be offended.”
This sentiment also applies to the rest of the band, as they all hold different beliefs—not that Swanson is concerned. “I think there’s all kinds of people in the world, and everybody should be allowed to express themselves. I don’t necessarily identify with all of Nathan’s lyrics in general, not just regarding religious stuff,” he says. “It is what it is. You’re never gonna agree with people all the time.”
The band continues to explore these themes on their two newest songs, “Thinking of you,” and “but not often,” which they released on a split with Head North in September. Just as the titles represent two parts of one complete thought (they were inspired by a letter that Hardy’s cousin wrote to his family, which he signed “Thinking of you, but not often,”), both songs tackle different aspects of faith in a call-and-response fashion. “‘Thinking of you,’ I guess is the problem, and ‘but not often,’ is the result,” Hardy says. “I left behind the religious lifestyle, and then I’ve worried about it more so, how it’ll affect my relationships with everybody I knew growing up. But at the same time, I mostly spend my time getting fucked up and hanging out with my friends.”
Moreover, these songs show the band branching out in two different musical directions. “Thinking of you” is arguably Microwave’s most sophisticated and epic composition yet, ebbing and flowing throughout the verses and pre-choruses, and ultimately building to a massive second half where Hardy’s impassioned screams and reverb-drenched power chords crash like tidal waves. Meanwhile, “but not often,” is the band’s most decidedly radio-friendly song (minus that line about “getting fucked up”), with Hardy delivering his friskiest come-ons over a nearly danceable beat before the whole thing explodes in a cacophony of guitar feedback.
“I think we spent a lot more time getting high and finding weird noises to make,” Hardy says of the new songs, laughing with childlike glee at the memory. It’s evidence of a band expanding on their initial sonic template to forge a new sound while still staying true to their roots. “I feel like there’s more of an alternative rock, almost jazzy blues influence feel on the newer stuff that we’re writing,” he says. “It feels less post-hardcore and more just emotive alternative rock, or something like that.”
They’ve already explored this new sound extensively, with a new album nearly finished and plans to hit the studio this month. In the meantime, they’ll re-release Stovall via SideOneDummy in an effort to generate more hype for the new tunes.
“There’s still a gigantic hurdle of people we have to get over that haven’t heard this band yet,” Coletta says. “I think most of 2016 is going to be spent making sure people listen to Stovall, because it’s where the band started, and also just turning them on to the band in general.”
After that, it’s back on the road for as long and as far as possible. The band already has extensive stateside plans this year, and one of their other primary goals is to tour the U.K. (“We are an international band now. We’ve been to Canada,” Swanson remarks dryly.) To quote the band-loving bombshell Penny Lane from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous: “It’s all happening” for Microwave.
And they’re trying to enjoy it as much as possible, because life is too short to get hung up on the little things. That’s the message they want to get across with their music. “I think the basic thing to me is learn to recognize what’s important, and learn to say fuck everything else,” Hardy says. “And sometimes it’s hard to identify what’s actually important, and what is just day-to-day bullshit.”
Hardy’s right. But he and the rest of the band also seem to have a clear grasp of what matters to them. Because when they go into an extended jam at the end of “Stovall” to close out their Dirty Dog set, guitars screaming and hair flailing in every direction, one thing is clear:
This is important.