About 100 miles east of Nashville, Tennessee lies the bucolic town of Sparta. The same small town that’s only 45 miles away from the Bonnaroo Music Festival and where The Features’ lead singer, Matt Pelham calls home when he’s not touring -- most recently with Kings of Leon and again in October with The Whigs. It was in these rural beginnings that The Features were formed – where bassist Roger Dabbs and guitarist Matt Pelham were playing covers of Led Zeppelin, Guns n’ Roses and Neil Young. The country/western route to Nashville seemed easy in proximity, but growing up listening to The Kinks and The Beatles pushed their musical persuasions across the Atlantic. It’s this eclectic blend that gives The Features their British inflection and avant-garde twist on southern-indie rock.
After relocating to the college town of Murfreesboro in the early ‘90’s, Pelham and Dabbs became permanent fixtures at Middle Tennessee University and nearby Nashville. In 1997, they signed with Spongebath Records, a local independent label and released a six-song self-titled EP. In 2001, they released The Beginning EP, however within these four years two LP’s came and went – never to be released. Perhaps they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or simply with the wrong record label. The Features were the best-kept secret, yet garnered attention from industry folks who believed they were “the next big thing.”
Their incessant touring and critical buzz led to a deal with Universal Records, who re-released The Beginning EP in 2004 and followed with their first officially released album, Exhibit A. The record expanded their reach from their hometown cult following to a national level and caught the attention of fellow Tennesseans, Kings of Leon – and soon enough they were opening for them on various tours.
In July 2009, The Features released their highly anticipated sophomore album, Some Kind of Salvation on the newly formed Kings of Leon/429 Records/Bug Music Records label. Recently performing at Bonnaroo, you could say they’ve come a long way or more likely, full circle. When Matt’s not on the road with fellow bandmates (including Rollum Haas on drums and Mark Bond on keyboards) he’s happiest at home with his wife and 8-year-old twin girls. Glide caught up with Matt hours before going back on stage…
Thanks for giving me some time right before your concert…
No problem. We’re doing a random show for a college right around Nashville. It’s probably a little bit too big a venue for us, but it should be fun.
Are you all the originals?
Roger and I are originals from 1994. But as a band we’ve been together for four years, which is pretty incredible for a band these days.
When did it all begin for you?
I guess it began at eight years old. I really wanted a guitar, but I got a banjo instead. I stuck with it for about a year and a half. Actually, I just started playing banjo again…I guess it’s like when you took piano lessons as a kid and hated it, yet when you got older you went back to it again. As far as The Features go, Roger and I moved from Sparta, Tennessee to Murfreesboro to go to college and that’s where it all began.
Wow, you’ve been around a long time. Has it been tough?
Yeah, there definitely were periods where we felt bitter or disappointed quite a bit with the way things were going, but we got past that. We’ve been doing this for 15 years because it’s truly what we love to do – you gotta love it to hang in this long (laughs) so I guess our expectations aren’t really the same as they were when we were young and naïve.
Speaking of expectations, how do you feel now about Exhibit A?
Well, I think if we could do it over, we would do some things differently. The songs definitely held up and we still play them live. But when I listen to Exhibit A I think it’s more of a sound issue. We were too one-dimensional on that album.
I think it goes back to how we aren’t so frustrated anymore. We got past feeling jaded. It’s at the point that it doesn’t really matter what the music industry wants or how good you are—you have to do what you do because you like to do it. Hopefully, people will hear your stuff and if not, do it anyway. I think we went through a lot between Exhibit A and Some Kind of Salvation. When we started working on the new one and we were still on Universal we were having trouble writing songs. A big part of that was because the label didn’t care much for the direction we were going in. It shook the band’s confidence a bit. Just because we felt it was pretty good, yet we got little to no attention, really. The label was telling us our new songs weren’t going to make it, “don’t bother making the second record,” etc. Then we started going through the whole commercial “thing” and ultimately refused to do it and got dropped. In the end we came out losing our original keyboard player (Parrish Yaw) but it made us a lot stronger.
Does that have anything to do with the album name, Some Kind of Salvation?
No, it actually has to do with living in Murfreesboro for a while. I wanted to get out of there and get back into the small town life again-- which is what my wife and I did with the kids. You know, we wanted a garden and to have a simpler kind of life.
So you initially released the album independently in 2008?
Yeah. We knew there were people that heard of us and we thought we should be able to sell a certain amount of records. So we figured, let’s just try it because the reach is so much greater these days through the internet.
How has growing up in Tennessee influenced your music?
Where Roger and I grew up, we weren’t exposed to anything beyond the classic rock station. Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, etc. Also because of where we’re from, which is the home of Lester Flatt, there were always bluegrass and country music festivals. My grandfather played bluegrass music, so I grew up with a love for it and of course, rock. When I got to college, I started getting exposure to stuff I never heard growing up in a small town.
Pavement and The Pixies and Camper Van Beethoven.
So you wouldn’t necessarily describe yourself as a southern rock band?
I’m not sure how I would describe our sound, but certainly not just southern. There’s a lot of British influence. We grew up listening to anything from Can and Hall & Oates, to The Kinks and the Beatles. It all just sorta meshed together and that’s how I would describe our style. That eclectic sort of sound has always been my favorite. For example, The White Album is one of my favorite Beatles records because it’s all over the place -- it shows all these different sides of the band and that’s what I love about Some Kind of Salvation.
How far is your hometown from Nashville?
Nashville is about an hour and a half from Sparta. That was the closest city to see a concert.
I always think of Nashville as this eclectic, rock n’ roll incredibly cool place where it all began…
Yeah, see it’s weird. You’re like one-in-a-million (laughs). Most people automatically associate Nashville with only country music and that’s something that every rock band from this area had to battle with until Kings of Leon broke through. And you probably never heard this…I think it’s just a local thing, but there’s supposedly this Nashville curse on rock music.
I don’t quite know. For the longest time, there have been all these great bands from around here and none of them can ever break through. Even in our own experience, we’ve seen so many of our own friends that have played in bands and have had incredible potential, yet they’ve all come and gone. Seems like if anyone can be credited for breaking the curse, I would say it’s Kings of Leon. They’ve brought a lot more attention to the area. Before it was L.A. and New York but no one was paying attention to Nashville.
How could that be? I don’t get it…
Yeah, you and me.
“Foundations Cracked” reminds me of ELO (Electric Light Orchestra). Are you a fan?
Well, we’re definitely fans of ELO. Probably most of the stuff we like is before our time.
How did you hook up with Kings of Leon?
When we released Exhibit A the guy that used to run sound for us was running it for them and they had just finished up their second record and were about to go on tour. So he invited them to our CD release show. They enjoyed it and from then on we did quite a bit of touring with them and became pretty good friends.
Oh, it was great. It definitely helped get us our there a whole lot…especially in the UK. At that point, Kings of Leon weren’t quite as big here. We were playing maybe 400 capacity venues. In the UK of course, they were already selling out arenas.
What is it about crossing the Atlantic?
It seems like there’s just a lot more outlets in the U.K. and Europe. Also, things aren’t quite as saturated as they are here, ya know? Everything closes at 7 o’clock. They don’t have 24 hour Walmarts and such. So they go out every night - they want to hear bands, they want to hang out with friends.
Your voice is incredible. Is it hard to maintain that falsetto pitch concert after concert?
Well, recently it has been. I think I figured it out though. I can’t drink before singing anymore. (laughs) I’m probably getting dehydrated. We did a two-week tour recently and I was fine. But we’ll see at the end of October when we start our two-month tour with The Whigs.
What was it like playing Bonnaroo, which is practically in your backyard?
Kinda nice and kinda weird ‘cuz Manchester where it’s held is also where I grew up. So when we were starting out as a band, we would go there and play at little gatherings…the city pool, etc. I mean, to think in the late 80’s we were in high school playing there, and now it’s this gigantic festival stop…it’s kinda odd to play there now with Bruce Springsteen, ya know? (Laughs).
Joanne Schenker lives in New York and is a contributing writer for Glide and AOL Music (Spinner.com) She can be reached at email@example.com.