You might think — given the four years that separate Roman Candle's newest LP from its predecessor — that the band has been taking it easy. In the interim, singer Skip Matheny and his keyboardist wife Timshel welcomed a third boy to their family. Logan Matheny, the group's drummer and Skip's brother, got married. After more than 15 years spent creating together, it's easy to think that these talented players who navigate the gray area between country, pop and rock would retreat to domestic bliss, tiring of studio tedium and rock club repetition — a realistic hypothesis that's actually quite wrong.
"I think that people have an impression that we don't have day jobs and do other things," Skip says. "On our Facebook page or whatever, they're like, 'Don't take so long next time.' It's very well meant and lighthearted, but the truth is Timshel and I have three kids. I've had a day job for the past 10 years. Logan has a day job in addition to running our recording studio. The reason that things take a while is we're still the same artists we always have been. We wanted to make a record that would get under your skin."
Debris, Roman Candle's fourth LP and its most challenging to date, is a work of sheer determination. On their own after releasing 2009's Oh Tall Tree in the Ear through the reliably rustic Thirty Tigers, they had no timetable, no deadline to hit. Working around busy lives and the frequent Daytrotter sessions at their popular Nashville recording spot Big Light, Roman Candle played well into the night whenever they got the chance, tinkering for three years until they got it right.
"We're all in our 30s," says Skip. "We're putting our kids to sleep on a studio floor with a book on tape, so we can record. There's a lot more on the line. You're not 22 years old, and you bought some guitar with a credit card you just applied for, just wondering what kind of burrito you're going to get at the end of the day. We've lived that world, and that was fun. But the art means more to you when you have the opportunity to claim it for yourself before you even worry about what anybody else thinks."
Oh Tall Tree pushed Roman Candle's crisp country-pop to new heights, reaching for ineffable truths and failing eloquently, falling back on rapturous hooks. Paste called it a "modern-rock masterpiece." I'm inclined to agree. But the band wouldn't be satisfied by replicating past successes. Debris abandons those bright crescendos and shimmery strums, coloring their still rich melodies with harsher electronics, processed beats, and dense vocal effects.
Tight and anxious rather than grand and sweeping, songs like "Every Time" let the darkness creep a little closer. Clattering keys and nimble guitars dodge brash blasts of noise, making Skip's tale of a love that leaves him utterly confused feel grave despite an upbeat chorus. Like the rest of Debris, it's a complex sentiment — one that couldn't succeed if the group didn't believe so deeply in their art.
But as different as it is, Debris is still a Roman Candle record. "Nowhere to Start" is a blur of wry wit and unabashed romanticism. The song percolates atop rhythmic skitters and a surging New Wave bass line as Skip paints his bachelorhood as a house he's built and a newfound lover as the flame that burns it down: "I thought I had a little place to lie in," he smiles. "It's nowhere to start, to start again."
Debris serves a similar purpose for Roman Candle, clearing away a comfortable sound that had already run its course, making room for a promising future.
"We've changed and grown up in different ways," Skip declares. "Different things interest us now because that's what people and artists do — change their ears."