Mere mortals

Despite disappointing gigs, local supergroup the Brand New Immortals’ Tragic Show goes on

Nobody promised David Ryan Harris and Johnny Colt, core members of Atlanta’s Brand New Immortals, it would be easy. With decades of professional playing and recording between them — Harris with early ’80s funkers Follow For Now, supporting soul-rocker Dionne Farris and as an unplugged solo act; Colt as founding bassist for the Black Crowes — they both understand that landing a major-label deal as part of a largely unknown band is only the beginning of another slow and difficult climb.

What they didn’t expect was the nasty, hostile reaction they would receive from their biggest hometown audience to date. While Harris and Colt are no strangers to the animosity routinely encountered by opening bands, the dozens of raised middle fingers and pelting that greeted the group during its energetic performance in front of 40,000-plus aggressive Staind fans at a free Centennial Park show was a disappointing start to a month that would culminate with the release of the Brand New Immortals’ debut album, Tragic Show.

Especially since all the variables seemed to be in place. Tragic Show already had generated positive response from radio, weeks before its official release. Leslie Fram — 99X program director and an early BNI champion — added the album’s first single, “Reasons Why,” into heavy rotation on the modern-rock powerhouse’s tight playlist. And the well-rehearsed group was about to show the hometown crowd its stage muscle — anchored by drummer Kenny Creswell (aka Threshold) and bolstered by the addition of second guitarist Mark Dannells (ex-Blacklight Posterboys).

Not that they expected a rousing welcome playing their soulful hard rock in front of a jittery alt-metal audience already aggravated from standing on a field drenched during that afternoon’s steady rain. But beforehand, both Colt and Harris were clearly juiced about the prospect of strutting their stuff live.

Exactly what went wrong after the band came out roaring with a version of Prince’s “Let Go Crazy” is uncertain. But 15 minutes into the set, the normally low-key Harris suddenly stopped playing mid-song and jumped into the pit to berate one of the more obnoxious audience members — a radical reaction from a guy known to croon a tender acoustic cover of Doris Day’s “Que Sera, Sera” at solo gigs.

It should have been a triumphant performance. It wasn’t.

Just a few hours earlier, Harris and Colt excitedly discussed their current partnership, long history together and plans for their new band — an aggregation that finally seemed to click for them both after years of individual struggling.

The exact date when the two met is unclear, but Colt remembers Harris entering his dressing room looking to jam while they were both performing on the 1995 H.O.R.D.E. tour (Harris in Farris’ band and Colt with the Crowes). Harris played his 8-track demos for the Crowes’ bassist. “I was blown away. I just thought it was pure genius,” he says.

The two maintained a friendship throughout Colt’s last years with the popular Atlanta band. “He was like my pen pal,” says Harris. “I’d call and tell him to pick up new albums.”

Colt eventually became fed up with the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, got turned on to yoga by his wife and departed the Crowes. “I was possessed by yoga,” he says. “It was a source of positiveness in my life. When I left the Crowes, it was very tough. We had grown up together and they were like family. But I was fried, so I split and went to India. I traveled with my wife, we picked up yoga classes and met different teachers. Once I got back, I felt absolutely liberated. I felt like a kid again and I was ready to play.”

Harris, meanwhile, entered into an ill-fated solo project with local producer Brendan O’Brien’s Columbia-affiliated 57 Records label in 1997. It proved a frustrating experience, but one that ultimately whetted his appetite for joining another band. “It was isolatory, and there was a certain amount of pressure that I wasn’t ready for at the time,” he says. “I like having a team around me now. I’m really proud of the work that went into that record [David Ryan Harris], and I enjoyed realizing my own vision. But everything outside of that was a hassle.”

While Harris continued writing tunes and playing solo-acoustic gigs around town, Colt was working with friend Nick DiDia, recording self-penned songs he couldn’t work on with the Crowes. The two hooked up again and discovered a symbiotic relationship. In Harris, Colt found a vocalist of startling soul and passion, as well as an accomplished guitarist and songwriter. “Dave and I weren’t going to form a band, we just wanted to write songs,” Colt says. “But when we got together, I felt he just set me free. I could write at a level that I would never be able to perform. He took my songs to a different plane. That was what changed my whole life.”

Sitting side by side at a picnic table backstage after their Centennial Park sound check, it’s clear the two musicians possess a kinship that transcends their musical relationship. They feed from mutual energy off-stage as much as on.

This shared respect translated to Tragic Show, an album of which both are justifiably proud. The tracks, some previously released last year on an indie EP, were meticulously but quickly recorded, leaving the disc with a crisp, organic, rocking sound, perfectly encapsulated by the “Reasons Why” single. Harris’ roots in ’70s-styled funk and soul mesh with Colt’s bluesy rocking to yield songs with a tough, melodic attack.

But there’s a less obvious facet to the album. Using studio techniques such as digital looping, the songs are layered with subtle, often complex instrumentation that adds another dimension to already sturdy work.

“The looping thing was liberating for us,” Harris says, “because we were able to pull from various sources. We couldn’t afford strings, and I don’t play keyboards, but I can visualize what I want to hear and piece the parts together to make it sound like a string section.”

Colt expounds, “We can get close to an idea and we can pretty much execute it. Technology, contrary to what some people think, is your friend.”

After a closer listen, it becomes more apparent where the middle ground between the two artists lies. When Colt cut songs alone, they were heavy, hard and fast. Harris’ tunes, meanwhile, were longer, deeper and slower. “We couldn’t have been more polarized,” Colt says. “When you look at the record as a whole, that begins to show up. The songs kind of landscape from one to the other. It’s an album that unravels over time.”

Their new label, an Elektra Records imprint called The Music Company founded by Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, left them alone to create a product they feel is entirely representative of the band. It also didn’t hurt bringing Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine) back into the mix for safety’s sake. “Brendan is Brendan,” the heavily tattooed Colt says. “The label knows you’re in good hands. And they didn’t sign people who had never made records. They expected us to go off and do a great job, and we like to think we did.”

The tunes for Tragic Show were written over the course of recent years, with “King for a Day” even re-recorded from Harris’ 5-year-old solo project. “The one thing that holds the songs together — and where the album’s title comes from — is the lyrical content,” Colt says. “It’s the suture, the thread that ties the songs. Quite honestly, we have gone through a number of personally painful experiences over the last few years, so there’s a bit of a cleansing in there.”

Harris agrees. “There’s a balance between a certain amount of loss ...,” then Colt jumps in to finish the thought, “and a redemption in this process. I feel this relationship is a payoff for things I went through.”

Perhaps, things he’s also prepared to go through again, judging from the less than welcoming reception the band receives from a demonstrative minority of the local audience.

No, it’s not easy. But they’ll weather this momentary disappointment and persevere. The Brand New Immortals remain survivors. Just before hitting the stage, Harris has high hopes for what’s to come. “This is at home, which is awesome. I can’t say enough about the city of Atlanta, the music scene and how supportive everybody has been.”

The Brand New Immortals’ Tragic Show is released June 26.??