100 Watt Horse looks to the future

New EP embodies timeless honesty

George Pettis may have the coolest room in Atlanta. It's been only two days since the 24-year-old singer and songwriter relocated to a dusty side room on the Mammal Gallery's second floor, but it already feels like a musician's enclave. He's brought only a few necessities, but the objects that litter the room speak volumes about his priorities. An aging grand piano sits behind his coffee table. It hasn't had a proper tuning in at least a decade, but of course Pettis likes it better that way. A weathered acoustic guitar rests on his bed. It was the first means by which he embarked on his then-solo project, the 100 Watt Horse. Originally that guitar was Pettis' sole tool for his folk-inspired songs, which didn't fit in with the glittery electro-pop of his first band, Wowser Bowser. While he was strutting between different bands, Pettis was using that guitar to perfect the songs that didn't fit the mold of Atlanta — songs that inspired visions of Appalachian valleys and quiet North Carolina hillsides, fever dreams of a rural oasis.

It may seem counterintuitive that Pettis moved to the discontented heart of downtown Atlanta, one of the least rural locations imaginable, after the long-awaited release of 100 Watt Horse's debut EP. Yet that discontent spurred his creativity more than his time living in North Carolina ever did. "The times I feel really content are the times I've written bad songs," Pettis says. "The city never lets me settle down or feel comfortable. It's lit a fire under my ass in many ways."

The group's debut EP is barely two months removed from its release, but Pettis is eager to distance himself. The self-titled release immediately stands out amid the overwhelming climate of lo-fi, noisy, and damaged rock 'n' roll that has dominated Atlanta's music scene for years. The EP's crisp arrangements give ample room for lush density and whispered melodies alike. Despite the rural imagery, the moonlit harmonies, and the driving banjos, 100 Watt Horse isn't a folk band.

Pettis stresses, above all, that he fronts a pop group. A "weirder pop" group, to be precise. He rattles off the names of such Atlanta bands as Warehouse, Hello Ocho, and Suffer Dragon as contemporaries. Each one embodies a synthesis of the strange and familiar that Pettis fights for in his songwriting. "Atlanta is split between two warring factions: the conventional and the avant-garde bands," he says. "But some of the best bands are both. I love those bands that are pop, but with enough inherent weirdness to keep things interesting."

Pettis and 100 Watt Horse's vibraphone player, Maddy Davis, are equal parts grateful and embarrassed when people compare their group's latest EP to work by modern folk icons like Sufjan Stevens or Fleet Foxes. "They're labeled as contemporary folk, but they're channeling mountains in a way that isn't natural at all," Davis says, "They're sacrificing so much raw emotion in their singing because they're stacking up all these effects in a way that's not folk anymore."

Yet even a cursory listen to such songs as "Who Will Love Us When We're Gone," "Black Balloon," and "Morning" reveals a similar emphasis on reverb and heavily layered vocals. "I wanted to get a very professional sounding recording because I thought the songs begged for this level of production," Pettis says. "I'm not sure if that was the right call."

It's hardly a wonder the group is so eager to move past the EP; most of its songs are at least four years old. One of them was even penned while Pettis was still in high school.

Since the EP's release, numerous changes, from lineup revisions to stylistic shifts, have altered the face of 100 Watt Horse. The EP features bass clarinets, drums, violins, and banjos, but the group will drop all of these elements on their upcoming tour. Former drummer Jake Thomson left the band to focus on his group Breathers. Bass player Gabe Seibel has taken a hiatus to hike the Appalachian Trail. That just leaves Pettis, Davis, and singer/bassist Anna Jeter. "Just not having a drummer was really frightening to me, because that's a big step in a different direction," Davis says. "I didn't know how it would manifest. But I've been thrilled with playing the new songs now that I have more room."

For all the apprehension that Pettis and Davis feel regarding how the EP turned out, they're brimming with optimism for their more recent songs.

Atlanta's creative breeding ground has challenged the group to match the weirdness of its peers and recontextualize it in a pop idiom that's largely foreign to the city. "Being unafraid to make pop music in this town is a challenge because it embraces harsh music, even aesthetically," Pettis says. "This is a big, scary city; it's not particularly inviting or hospitable." But the group's penchant for honest songwriting allows it to resolve the contradictions of playing folk-inspired pop music in the concrete core of an urban epicenter.

Banjos and bass clarinets aside, 100 Watt Horse is an undeniably Atlanta-sounding band. Its songwriting may lack the rough edges of its contemporaries, but the group embodies a value that has always been at the heart of this city's music: honesty. Compared to hotspots like Brooklyn or Los Angeles, Atlanta's artists rarely get lost in visions of overnight blog stardom. Sincerity is the most respected local creative currency. "Even the bands that I think are okay are filled with some of the hardest-working, most honest, most sincere people I know," Pettis says. "Atlanta is many things because it's honest."

Both Pettis and Davis are brutally sincere in their critique of 100 Watt Horse's EP, but their honesty is their greatest asset. Rather than trudging in the past, they've already churned out enough songs for a full-length LP. As they overlook the neglected strip of empty South Broad Street storefronts from the Mammal Gallery's second-floor window, they see promise. Like the haphazard sprawl that surrounds it, 100 Watt Horse always keeps one foot in the past while the other lunges toward the future.