When I met Angela Mullenhour a little more than five years ago, she was 19 and had a habit of sneaking into open mikes at bars like Quenchers and the Inner Town Pub. She played raw, inelegant solo sets of folk-soul heavily indebted to Cat Power and Bob Dylan, and even though she was obviously nervous and still figuring out what to do with herself onstage, her intensely heartfelt songs and gorgeous voice consistently made her the best performer of the night.
I wasn't surprised when I heard a few months later that she'd been recruited by three other players—guitarist Phil Naumann, bassist Shawn Podgurski, and drummer Eric Mahle—and was singing with them in a rock band called Sybris. I started seeing their name constantly on flyers, and within an impressively short span of time—about a year from their first gig—they were headlining clubs as big as Double Door. When I finally saw them play in late 2004 it was easy to see why: their songs were big, their sound was big, and emboldened by the band Mullenhour had evolved from a timid Chan Marshall type to a full-blown rock'n' roll front woman.
Sybris's greatest asset, though, is their enthusiasm. They're so fearlessly eager it wouldn't even be right to call their dedication a work ethic—that would suggest they see any of this as work. The band started rehearsing with Mullenhour in April 2003, played their first gig in September, and five months later went on their first tour. "We were kind of new," says Podgurski. "We just went out the gate and started playing shows. We only had a few songs and forged our way through." They pressed an EP called A Time for Hollerin, recorded in their practice space in late 2003, so they'd have something to sell for gas money on the road—and considering that 47 of the roughly 60 shows they played in '04 were spread across the midwest and along the east coast from Florida to New England, they needed it.
It didn't take long for people in the business to notice Sybris's earnest hustle and arena-ready sound. Flameshovel released their self-titled debut full-length in September 2005, which prompted Spin to pick them as Band of the Day later that month. "We recorded a year after we started," says Mullenhour. "It was the first time I had even been in a studio at all." On the strength of that album and their tireless road work, Sybris has landed slots at some major festivals—Lollapalooza in 2006, Milwaukee's Summerfest and Toronto's Virgin Festival in 2007—and accompanied indie royalty like the Fiery Furnaces, the Walkmen, and the Hold Steady for strings of out-of-town dates. They played 55 road shows in 2005, including their first trips to the southwest and the west coast, and their pace didn't slacken a bit in 2006.
By last October, when Sybris finally made time to record another album, they were practically a different band—they'd been sharpened and seasoned by their intense performance schedule, growing into each other and developing a clearer idea of what they were about. Producer John Congleton, who'd mixed their first disc, booked them for a week at the Pachyderm Recording Studio in rural Minnesota.
"It was like a vacation," says Naumann. "Fifty acres, totally isolated, with hiking trails, dilapidated bridges—cell phones didn't work. I got a lot more work done without it." The band was amped to be recording in the same spot where historic alt-rock albums like In Utero and Rid of Me were made. "I was taking a shit looking at tape storage for the studio," Mahle says, "looking at reels of tape for the Breeders, Frank Black, Nova Mob—Grant from Husker Du's band. It was crazy, taking a shit looking at this. I took the Frank Black tape into the living room totally wasted, opened it—like guys, look, it's Frank Black on this tape!"
The album Sybris recorded at Pachyderm, Into the Trees (Absolutely Kosher), is more modest than the legendary albums from the studio, but the tunes wouldn't sound out of place on a mix tape next to Nirvana or early PJ Harvey. Sybris's jumbo guitar tones and uncomplicated songwriting style have a lot in common with the unflashy 90s indie rock that most of the band came of age listening to. "We weren't trying to be more grunge or anything," says Naumann, and Mullenhour cuts in to explain: "The grunge is in us," she says.
"We keep it simple for a few reasons," Podgurski says. "One, it's all we know how to do. But another one is, it's just fun to do. We can run around and jump off stuff. We are just four rock 'n' roll people."
Mullenhour's vocals have matured, and though the friends I've played the new record for have compared her to Chan Marshall or Karen O—the first song, "Oh Man!," sounds more than a little like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs—she's starting to develop her own style. She has a distinctive way of exaggerating the odd, playful flourishes and hiccups in her singing that creates a perfect counterweight to the band's simple, crunchy riffs. Unlike Sybris's first album, which sometimes felt lost in a haze of overdubbed guitar tracks, Into the Trees has a strong backbone and a focused, no-nonsense sound. Bands usually decide to get back to basics after some sort of disastrous experimental phase, but Sybris has skipped the fucking around.
"That's what we wanted," says Mullenhour. "Nothing masking the songs, just having it sound like how we do in the practice space. We didn't do many overdubs or extra instruments. That's a big part of being more sure about our music—with the last record just maybe we weren't as sure of ourselves in the songs. With this one we wanted to go all out, be awesome."
Into the Trees comes out in mid-June, but since Sybris will be on the road by then—they leave on a five-week tour with Unwed Sailor on May 23—they're having a release party this Friday.
"We were just trying to get the record done so we can go on tour," says Podgurski. "We didn't play enough shows to satisfy our need for touring last year. That's one of the reasons we put our last record out so fast. We wanted to tour. Everything else is boring. It's my favorite thing to do. It's why we are in a band! Tour tour tour tour!"v
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