The rhythm section and producing unit that powers Drughorse, Chapel Hill's fertile vintage rock collective | Music Feature | Indy Week
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The rhythm section and producing unit that powers Drughorse, Chapel Hill's fertile vintage rock collective 

Suspicious rhythm: James Wallace (left) and Jeff Crawford spending a brief moment away from one of a dozen bands

Photo by Martin Anderson

Suspicious rhythm: James Wallace (left) and Jeff Crawford spending a brief moment away from one of a dozen bands

"We've turned down some folks," Chapel Hill producer and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Crawford says of the new projects he and longtime collaborator James Wallace accept or decline. "We're actually in the process of trying to do that more now."

You'd be forgiven for not believing him: Crawford and Wallace currently produce for or play with (and oftentimes both) Max Indian, The Tomahawks, Mount Moriah, The Light Pines, Ryan Gustafson, Twelve Thousand Armies, The Sundowners, Tom Maxwell, Mandolin Orange and Crawford's own recordings. Dozens more album and gig credits line their résumés, whether their roles were as full-fledged members, temporary sidemen or in-studio engineers and producers. Still, somehow, they always seem to be available for more music.

"Our chief concern is time," explains Crawford, "but we do want to be involved in music that we can really get behind."

Rock 'n' roll didn't always seem to be the likely musical profession for Wallace and Crawford. Having played piano since the age of 4, Wallace was a professional jazz pianist after college. Crawford played upright bass in the orchestras at Duke University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill during his four years at the latter. He planned on continuing with classical music professionally until he joined the lithe folk-pop band SpencerAcuff in 2002. "I just wasn't as interested as I used to be in [classical music] and started playing in bands," Crawford says.

Soon after, the two met through Carter Gaj, who then played bass in Roman Candle and now fronts Max Indian. With Gaj, they formed The New Darlings. While not quite inseparable, Crawford and Wallace have played together in most of their projects since.

Their talents, mixed with a little instrumental scarcity, led the two to form the de facto rhythm section for nearly all of the intertwined acts of Chapel Hill's Drughorse collective. ("Drughorse is just a name for something that was already happening," Wallace clarifies, crediting Gaj and The Love Language's Stuart McLamb for christening the gang, but declining to explain its meaning.)

"A lot of the guys that lead are really good guitar players," says Crawford, referring to the slew of gifted songwriters—like Gaj, Gustafson and The Tomahawks' Nick Jaeger—currently affiliated with Drughorse. "On the other hand, there's hardly any drumming or bass playing, so we get called into a lot of stuff."

The pair approaches forming a rhythm section or recording a record with the same overarching philosophy.

"One of Jeff and I's shared aesthetics is serving the song and losing your ego about things. You don't have to play your sweet bass line that you came up with if Ryan Gustafson has written one," Wallace says. "Ryan's a great bass player and he writes these sweet bass lines that go perfectly with his songs and they just make sense. That's what the song's calling for, so we don't try to put our own bullshit into other people's stuff."

That doesn't mean everything they do sounds the same. Their studio approaches—they typically serve as the in-house producers for Drughorse bands as well—reveal slightly different tendencies. On Gustafson's Donkey LP, for instance, Wallace's tracks are murky—a stamp that's undeniably Drughorse—while Crawford's recordings, like "Gold Rush," are noticeably cleaner. "If we're all in here together, we're using my equipment so it's going to have a certain sound that's sort of like my sound," Wallace says, "but it's open to interpretation and everybody's welcome to contribute to the creative process."

"It's definitely a creative process with the person you're working with," Crawford agrees. "I try to figure out what the band is trying to accomplish. I did a couple Luego records ... and those records are different in their aesthetic because Patrick [Phelan, Luego frontman] was trying to do different things with his career at that point."

With the demands of such a busy schedule, one would assume thht Crawford and Wallace wouldn't have time for a cover band, too. Though The Sundowners—consisting of a rotating cast of Drughorse associates—perform some original material on occasion, it's largely "an outlet for guilty pleasures," says Wallace.

"It started out as a group of guys that didn't get to play together all in the same thing, and it kind of still is," Crawford continues. "We put it together at The Station one time in Carrboro and it was a lot of fun." The two laugh while recalling a recent rendition of "Proud Mary" from a Cat's Cradle gig and acknowledge that this band is not intended to go anywhere. "We do it for the barbecue and beer," Crawford admits.

They continue to expand their approach. Wallace talks—jokes, maybe—of a hip-hop collaboration with songwriter Josh Moore, while Crawford says he wants to explore instrumental music in the near future. Both talk of movie scores. Crawford speaks often of his appreciation for old country and folk music, and now they're working together on the second album by Carrboro folk duo Mandolin Orange, a gentle departure from Drughorse's general classic pop-rock lean.

"That's why we decided to start working with Mandolin Orange," Wallace says. "We really just love Andrew's songs, and it was just the perfect aesthetic for us."

And that's just a glimpse of the horizon for Crawford and Wallace: Brett Harris, who both have backed, has a new album in the works. The Tomahawks debut is nearly complete. Josh Moore has a solo effort due soon. And Ryan Gustafson's next record is on the way.

"Gotta get started early," Crawford says. Perhaps he'll even be able to carve out some time to complete his sophomore disc, Love is the New Hip, which has been in the works for more than two years, though it's largely been on the back burner lately.

Time, after all, won't slow down, even for a Drughorse.

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