Over the course of three-plus decades spent playing in bands, the thrill of creation has remained unparalleled for Kyle Melton, with the Smug Brothers singer and guitarist describing the act of songwriting as a type of magic on par with alchemy.
“There’s always that buzz of playing and hearing something come in, and it’s something you love, but it’s never existed before,” said Melton, who joined drummer Don Thrasher and bassist Kyle Sowash for an early September interview. (Guitarist Ryan Shaffer completes the current lineup for the Columbus/Dayton quartet, whose new record, In the Book of Bad Ideas, releases via Anyway Records on Friday, Sept. 8.) “You know when you get a song that’s good and it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and you can’t wait to show it to your buddies and go, ‘We’ve got to record this!’ And that’s been the buzz since I was 17.”
Melton described songwriting as a constant, with even the Smug Brothers’ prolific recording schedule generally being unable to keep up with his relentless creative pace, the band sometimes operating like a helpless sailor attempting to bail out a flooding dinghy with Dixie cup. Melton recalled one year where he wrote more than 100 songs, and he said each time the band prepares to put a new album to tape, the musicians generally have years of material on which to draw. Indeed, even when the pandemic briefly slowed Melton’s roll, his catalog of potential songs remained vast.
“[The songwriting] definitely slowed down, but it was an opportunity for us to catch up on stuff I’d written years ago,” Melton said. “And that’s also let us get into more recent stuff. And when I say ‘recent,’ I mean the backlog from three years ago as opposed to 10 years ago.”
And yet, the songs have a way of surfacing precisely when they’re meant to. With Book of Bad Ideas, for example, a handful of the tracks sound rooted in the idea of fresh beginnings, or in chasing an event, relationship or life circumstance back to that initial spark. This feeling is matched by current realities within the band, which have included a welcome return to in-person recording following more than 18 months of pandemic-induced separation.
“I mean, these guys recorded remotely and did stuff during the pandemic. But, as the drummer, all my stuff was done, so I just had to sit around and wait until we could meet in person again,” Thrasher said. “So we were pretty stoked to finally get together, and we popped out a bunch of stuff in a few sessions, really.”
This sense of joy surfaces on tracks such as the album ending “Paradise Farms,” a scrappy, loosely jangly rocker on which Melton repeats a question that doubles as an answer: “How lucky am I tonight?”
While the music continues to emerge from a similar creative place, Smug Brothers' sound has evolved in subtle ways, with the musicians increasingly utilizing synthesizers that lend some tracks an early ’80s sheen. The production is also slightly cleaned up, though the music’s immediacy remains undimmed.
“We spent a little more time tracking the songs and trying to get them right, which in the early days wasn’t always the case,” Thrasher said. “We want to capture a vibe and we don’t want to overdo it. But I do think we take more swings now if we have to.”
“It’s a more-polished immediacy as opposed to a raw immediacy,” Melton said.
“It’s like you guys play it through three times instead of two,” Sowash said.
“With some of the really old stuff, there was no run-through,” said Melton, who founded Smug Brothers in 2004, with Thrasher joining the fold four years later. “And we definitely don’t do that much anymore.”
“We still get together, say, ‘Here’s the songs we’re going to do,’ and then lay them down the same day, and that hasn’t changed,” Thrasher said. “But maybe now we take a few more minutes than we did before.”