Lady Legs: Holy Heatwave

Released in May before the summer hit (though let’s be honest, Alabama has two or three seasons of summer), Holy Heatwave (Communicating Vessels/Rough Trade), the debut full-length by Birmingham’s Lady Legs, delivers the perfect beach vibe of a soundtrack for these scorching months.

Influenced by bands and acts like Real Estate, Twin Peaks, the Strokes, and the Pixies, the foursome of guitarists John Sims and Grant Galtney, bassist Seth Brown, and drummer Ellis Bernstein created an album that has garnered them rave reviews from critics in both the US and the UK.

Shortly after this interview, the band started planning and recording its next batch of songs, so readers will be able to hear the ever-evolving repertoire at this year’s Sloss Music & Arts Festival.

We discussed the beginning of the band in Auburn/Opelika’s music scene, signing to Communicating Vessels, opening for indie rock Superchunk and playing SXSW.

Magic City Bands: If I remember correctly, you guys are from Auburn. How did the band form?

Seth Brown: I’m the only one that’s actually from Auburn. I’m from Opelika which is right outside. The rest of the guys are from Birmingham, but they went to school at Auburn. We all met while they were at school. Ellis and John have known each other for years. Grant got involved and then we all got together at like the end of 2014.

MCB: There were hints of an Auburn “scene” starting about five years ago with Opelika rising up as an alternative to the Auburn bar scene.

Ellis Bernstein: It’s funny. We played sometimes in Auburn, but we spent a lot of time in Opelika or house shows. There was this place called Shady Glenn Condos.

SB: It had a cul-de-sac at the back of the apartment complex where you could throw house shows. We always preferred the house shows because the Auburn bar scene wasn’t providing a lot for local artists and musicians.

EB: And this cul-de-sac was just filled with a bunch of our friends who just happened to be musicians. I was talking to friends about this recently, how everyone was thinking about leaving Auburn because they felt alienated until they found our musician-y, hipster-y friend group. You’re kind of forced together in a way.

MCB: Is the fact that most of the band is from Birmingham a factor into why you decided to move back to town?

EB: We got signed to Communicating Vessels right before we moved here.

SB: We were playing our “last show” at Secret Stages [in 2016] because we didn’t really plan on continuing after that. Jeffrey Cain saw us at that show and asked if we wanted to make a record with him. We all decided to stay together, and it’s obviously worked out for the best.

EB: And now we’re in love.

SB: Yes, all four of us are in love.

Had you recorded before getting together with Communicating Vessels?

SB: We did a short EP at the house in Shady Glenn where we basically were all living. It’s called Stay Late and it’s a three-song EP that came out in December of 2015. After we got signed, the label pressed it onto 10-inch vinyl and we had a release party at Seasick Records, which was a lot of fun.

MCB: How fresh are the songs on the new record? Are they songs that have been around for a while?

SB: For Holy Heatwave, we went in and recorded all the songs that we had so far. Then we had to pick and choose which ones we wanted on the first record. We built our track list based on wanting to get our earliest stuff out since the opportunity had presented itself. We didn’t want it to get lost. But we’re also excited about the new songs we’re working on, which technically are still old songs, and we have “new” new songs that we’re working on. Some of these songs are from 2015 such as “Hair Down” and “Coastline.” Songs like that are just as old as the band. Basically, all of these songs came from us playing house shows in Auburn.

EB: We had a big bank of songs for this record like 25 songs to choose from. We had been playing for two years, and these were the ones that stood the test of time.

SB: There was the exception of a couple that Jeffrey stepped in to make sure we had on the record. It wasn’t a definitive command or anything, but he would just look at the checklist and say that certain songs would sound really good on the album. He would send us different track lists of stuff we had put together and we came together in agreement as to what needed to make the final cut. It was great to have guidance from someone who definitely knew what they’re talking about.

MCB: And you recorded at the Communicating Vessels studio?

EB: It was us and Jeffrey Cain, and Brad Timko was a huge help. He’s just so talented and unbelievable. It was just us six and we did it all analogue to tape.

SB: No computers or Auto-tune or fixing things in post-production.

EB: It was all live. We were all in the same room and playing our parts together.

SB: The cuts that we got were actually live cuts from the board. It’s live recording in multiple senses in that we played live in the studio and to get the final cut, we have to hit “play” on the tape. Everyone has a job. Someone is holding down a mute button and letting go so the drums can come in at the right time or mixing the faders so the vocals are at the right place. It’s all happening at the same time, and you have to get it in one take for it to be a solid final cut. That was really interesting to be able to learn that process.

EB: None of us had ever recorded in a studio at all before.

SB: Up to that point, everything was very DIY.

EB: It was totally surreal.

MCB: And I’m sure for those early DIY recordings, you were relying on computers and Pro Tools to fix mistakes. What was the hardest track to record in this new way?

SB: We have a couple of tracks still that didn’t make it on to the album. There’s a song called “Keep Going” that I’m not sure will ever be released. Maybe eventually. That song is a long instrumental that is really intense. We recorded it over ten times trying to get it to tape.

EB: On that one, we had all the amps in the same room with drums, so we couldn’t overdub if we wanted to.

SB: It was a challenge, and we eventually did get a take that we liked, but I think that was probably the hardest and most challenging thing that we had to deal with. Other than that, having Brad Timko and Jeffrey Cain there to guide us made everything feel like a breeze, even though there was a lot of hard work going on.

EB: It being on tape added a cool element as well because you had to nail it. It’s pretty difficult to go in there and splice a kick drum over it. It was hard work, but there was some calming presence mixed in with the idea that you had to perform well.

MCB: But you probably also felt a sense of confidence because you were being treated in such a professional manner.

SB: It definitely helped with the confidence factor. After every take, Jeffrey would just open the door and say “sounds great. It’s beautiful, but let’s do a few more takes and choose from those.”

EB: Whenever he would come in and ask for one more take, that take consistently would be the one that ended up on the record.

MCB: As far as songwriting is concerned, what is the process normally like? Because Seth, Grant and John all sing on this record.

SB: I feel like with this record, John did a lot of the writing on this one because it’s our earlier stuff, just because he was writing more at the beginning. Slowly, while we’re learning to become a more comfortable band around each other, we all started writing and contributing more.

EB: A lot of the time what will happen is that somebody comes in with the skeleton of a song and we’ll all write our own parts within that. But one thing that’s been happening more is we’ll start to mess around in between practicing for a gig, and a song will come out. We’ll record it on our iPhones, and if someone thinks we ought to pick it back up later, we will. It’s become very collaborative.

SB: When we wrote all of these songs [for Holy Heatwave], John was writing a lot early on, but we got to the point where we’re writing and Grant and I are writing and singing. There will be a lot to come where we’re switching it up more. The layout for this record is: John sings the first song, I sing the second song, Grant sings the third, and the rest of the album is like the earlier John songs. But we wanted Holy Heatwave to reflect the earlier vibe, so it’s more John-heavy on this album.

MCB: Is there a significance to the title, Holy Heatwave?

SB: A lot of that came from the early John material, which was angsty, anti-religious establishment type content. We slimmed it down to a few songs, “Out Like A Light” definitely talks about being raised strict religiously, and the song “Holy Heatwave” talks about being in the South and it being really hot outside most of the time, but also tying in the literal heat with lines like “burn up or be saved” type mentality.

EB: It was made to be a summer record, too. The cover looks summery and the songs sound summery and it [came out] in May. We actually finished it a year ago, but we and CommVess have been building up everything for the release with radio and publicity.

MCB: Obviously, it’s working if you’ve got Iggy Pop and NME singing your praises.

SB: We put “Hair Down” out on a Friday and then for the next week, it’s like we got played on a different BBC show.

MCB: You guys have had some pretty incredible experiences in your tenure so far like opening for Superchunk last October and playing at SXWS.

SB: The Superchunk was a great opportunity. It was freezing cold that day.

EB: Miserably cold.

SB: But it was a fun set to play, and it sounded great out there. Playing SXSW was probably the best week of my life so far. It was right at the beginning of everything. We had just finished the record.

EB: None of us had been, either, to Austin let alone South By. All of CommVess stayed together in this little commune and we had a showcase together. We played three shows.

SB: We were there for five days. It was like adult camp where you don’t have to go to any Bible studies. You just get to go to concerts and drink. It was great.

EB: It was pretty humbling too, seeing so many phenomenal [musicians] and knowing that we had to up our game. And the crowds there were so cool. Everyone was just honed in and listening and not on their phones.

SB: People were there to discover music. The city itself is just packed with so much going on. There’s always something to do. It’s like the entire city turns into a festival.

EB: We also only ate tacos for a week, and it did us well.

Chris K. Davidson is a music writer based in Birmingham. He sings in the band Waterwells.