When Naked Gods took to the stage in its hometown of Boone on July 31, on the very night the band issued its first album in four years, nearly 15 months had passed since its last show. The band was down a guitarist, too; Christian Smith, Brian Knox's guitar-harmony partner in Naked Gods, had relocated to New York. Being onstage seemed new again.
But less than two months later, crammed into the corner of a congested upstairs rock club in Raleigh during the Hopscotch Music Festival, the taut, terrific quartet had already grown into the configuration. Knox embraced his newfound musical space, filling the elastic, ricocheting grooves with fuzz. Singer Seth Sullivan banged his tambourine hard and threw himself against the happy crowd.
"We're excited to be playing music again together," says bassist Chris Hutelmyer. "Hopefully, it shows. I'm sure most people outside of Boone have no idea all the shit that has happened to us over the past two years, and that's A-OK."
When asked about "the shit that has happened" since Naked Gods' last burst of activity, Sullivan and drummer Derek Wycoff pause and sputter, struggling to list all the life-changing events. They pepper subsequent answers with ones they forgot earlier. Smith moved away and amicably split with the group. Hutelmyer had his second child. Wycoff got married earlier this year, while Sullivan tied the knot in September, the week after Naked Gods' Hopscotch performance. And Sullivan's house burnt down, a detail Wycoff mentions casually.
That flippant attitude makes sense considering the most wrenching news of the period: After passing out and being taken to the hospital in June 2014, guitarist Brian Knox was diagnosed with a grade 3 anaplastic astrocytoma, a life-threatening brain tumor that had to be removed and followed by aggressive treatment—33 rounds of radiation, then chemotherapy. Knox, now 33, has only recently finished his last round.
"Initially, it was thought I would lose all my vision," Knox says. "Luckily, that early prediction was wrong and most of my vision has returned—all except the top right corner of both eyes. The part of the brain that interprets vision was damaged in one of several strokes I had due to the tumor pressing my brain against my skull. Before the surgery, I had been having severe headaches every day for about six months. Now I rarely have a headache, so that is a nice change."
Another nice change is that Naked Gods is back in action at all: After the pains, travails and changes the band survived since the release of 2011's No Jams, it's hard to believe Naked Gods not only returned but did so with its most compelling new set of songs to date.
From the beginning, music played a large role in Knox's recovery. His bandmates, for instance, gathered at the hospital during that first emergency visit. They organized a dance party and an auction to raise funds for his expenses. They also leaned on their dedicated network of musical friends.
The jovial Gods had long hosted other regional rock bands in Boone, establishing a rapport with many of the Southeast's most exciting outfits, particularly a clutch from Virginia that includes Borrowed Beams of Light and Invisible Hand. When these and other groups asked to help Knox, the Gods parlayed the friendship into the 23-track David Lazer Fundraizer benefit compilation.
"As opposed to just sending a get-well-soon card and crossing our fingers, we did what we're best at and used music," says Invisible Hand leader Adam Smith. "We tried to alleviate at least some of the financial burden; by using only tracks by all the buddy bands in our scene, it also kinda doubled as that get-well-soon card."
Even before Knox got sick, the Gods' hiatus seemed inevitable. Knox had planned to relocate to Charlottesville, Virginia. (And during his recovery, he has.) Smith, the other half of the dizzying duo whose interplay once coursed through the band's live sets, had already moved away and joined another act.
"There's been extreme ups and extreme ups and extreme downs," Sullivan says with a sigh. "There hasn't been a lot of time for, you know, playing music."
The time away wasn't wasted, at least. The self-titled follow-up to 2011's No Jams, which the band released at that return show in Boone in July, pushes past the sharp songcraft and understated anxiety of earlier efforts. Its 10 studio constructions are rich but concise. Some are delicate and hallucinatory, others tangled and grimy. These songs share the same aggressively positive energy and eager melodic touch that drove the band's previous efforts, even though that wasn't the original intention.
After a busy year touring behind No Jams in 2012, the band was anxious for change.
"We wanted a more live and energetic feel than No Jams and some roughness and rawness," Wycoff recalls. "We wanted it to be big, sprawling, like a Wowee Zowee, where it's just an epically long album where there's just no cohesive sense to it. We just wanted to throw a bunch of different ideas at the wall."
That spirit remains, albeit filtered through a series of painstaking recording sessions and revisions. Before Knox's diagnosis, the members took their time tracking the basic parts in a succession of different houses and practice spaces in both North Carolina and Virginia. They applied new, intricate touches—vocal layering, additional percussion, subtle keyboard inflections. Knox later used his stint recovering at his parents' house to dive deep into the record's mixing, adding "little guitar flourishes and experimenting with structure, taking away things and rearranging parts."
The result is Naked Gods' most boisterous album and its most intricately composed one. "Picture in a Picture" opens with lulling keys and pillowy vocals before catching fire with a barrage of guitar-and-synth riffs. "Psychic Summer" fills the space between its precise beats with sparkling walls of guitar. It doesn't bring the ruckus that Naked Gods offers live, a deliberate decision that shows Naked Gods doesn't need to be in your face to be convincing.
"What sounds best recorded doesn't always work live, and Seth is so good at what he does, it makes it easier for the rest of us," Hutelmyer says. "We've always been very conscious about separating our album sound from our live sound."
And to some extent, Naked Gods is simply excited for the chance to have both onstage and offstage opportunities again at all.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Band together"