Nashville. Music City USA. The Country Music Capitol of the World. The home of Sound & Shape, perhaps the next big thing in prog rock. What? If that last one doesn’t seem to fit, it’s not just you. It’s just as well, because there is plenty about this band that doesn’t really fit, so to speak. In some ways that’s been a blessing and in other ways a curse, but always a challenge to make the best music they can.
Sound & Shape formed when Jerry Pentacost took over on drums in Ryan Caudle’s old band. The two knew each other from playing around town. When that band dissolved, they continued on and Sound&Shape was born. They later met Dave Somerall at a gig in Alabama back in 2006 and kept in touch. About a year and half later, with a west coast tour, no bass player and Dave along as their merch guy, the course was clear. By the third gig, Dave was in the band. From that point on, they just “kept going and never looked back,” says Jerry. Sometimes things just work out that way.
The band isn’t based on a singular, narrow vision. All three come from musical backgrounds, but somewhat different traditions. Ryan was soaking up music and performance from an early age. His Great Uncle Curly was the original guitar player for Buck Owens. His grandparents, his dad and his uncle all played. Despite all that country around him, the first thing to really hit home was the Beatles. “My first grade teacher brought in Help! on vinyl one day and I was never the same,” says Ryan. From there he got into Dylan and Zeppelin, King Crimson, Yes, Steely Dan and lately the great soul singers, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke.
Dave was also inundated with music at an early age, but classical played in his house. “My dad was always pumping that stuff,” Dave says of his father, who has a bachelor’s degree in performance on oboe. His dad’s influence led him to take up saxophone in the 5th grade and he moved to bass (and rock and roll) five years later. While he shares some classic rock influences with Ryan, Dave’s playing is also influenced by more jam-oriented bands like Jamiroquai and 311.
These diverse backgrounds help Sound & Shape overcome perhaps the biggest hurdle faced in their genre: too much head and too little heart. Dave, coming from his classical roots, says that practice should be “focused, emotionless, and right at the breaking point of boring.” For him, emotion only comes into play when the band performs together, but emotion cannot be a cop out for proficiency. For example, he asks “how could I ever fully express myself in, say, the mixolydian mode, if I had not first become technically proficient and educated myself to the possibilities of that particular mode?” His approach is clearly not for the lighthearted musician. Ryan agrees on one hand, but adds, “I, as a person, am driven solely on my emotions and the soul I possess and the music that comes out of me is colored by that no matter what.” So, how does this play out? Well, the friction it creates may seem like a lot of arguing in the studio, but the truth, as Ryan says, is “Dave is trying to translate the raw ideas of mine and Jerry’s into something that makes musical sense. He’s our musical interpreter, our own in-house George Martin so to speak.” It is taking separate paths to a single goal that sets them apart from others in the genre every bit as much as their genre sets them apart from the other music in their hometown.
Sound&Shape has spent a lot of time on the road over the last few years. They started off doing three tours – southeast, northeast and west coast – each three times a year, playing over 220 shows in 2006. Now they focus a bit more on their region, but only get back to playing in Nashville once every few months. How is a prog band received on the club circuit? “I feel like we do fairly well on the road. Typically we’re a breath of fresh air to most music fans. I guess it’s just different to see a prog band with such an energetic live show,” says Jerry. Nonetheless, they’ve run into their fair share of adversity, from venues changing their minds about live music to racist promoters, but that hasn’t slowed them down.
While they don’t do as much writing on the road, they do play a lot of new material, “done or not,” laughs Ryan, and work it out there, which adds to the excitement of the Sound&Shape experience. He adds, “We try to sequence our set lists almost like a roller coaster…ups and downs and twists and turns.” They tailor the set to the crowd, sometimes sticking to the songs as written and other times with extensive improvisation. They’ve had to suffer the “jam band” label, but they don’t see themselves that way. Improvisation is a tool they use, but not one they rely on in a gimmicky way.
Two years after their debut full-length, Where Machines End Their Lives, Sound & Shape had plans for a 14 song follow-up. However, following complaints about length on the debut and the “breakdown of our attention spans,” as Ryan puts it, they paired it down to the EP that became The Love Electric. What’s truly amazing about this new release is that despite its brevity (its five tracks clock in at just under 28 minutes), it feels long. There’s an awful lot going on even on the four tracks that are short enough to be pop songs. Ryan says that the “Love Electric” is that “spark inside you that reminds you that you’re alive” and the songs follow someone who has lost that and is paying the price, but also has the chance to get it back. Along with just having the chops to fit a lot of music into a short time, the concept gives
the EP a cinematic nature.
While they were busy trying to pair down the material, they were also in search of a label to release it. Their friend Frank, of New Jersey’s We’re All Broken, hooked them up with Craig at Engineer Records. Craig wasn’t looking for a new band at the time, but repeated listens told him this was something he needed to release. For him, “It was the mystery-the twists and turns the music took against a melodic vocal, the type of band you love in the long-run, as opposed to the quick fix.” While Engineer is a pretty eclectic label, they really didn’t have anything quite like Sound & Shape, so the signing broadened the label’s already varied palette. The respect isn’t just one way either. As Ryan says, “We love Craig to death and couldn’t be happier. It’s a very validating feeling to have someone behind you that really gets you as a band…and not just in a business way. He’s one of us. A fighter…a rock and roll soldier like we are.”
So there you have it. Break the old molds. Sound & Shape is a prog band, with all the technical skill you’d expect, based in Nashville, with an EP and a healthy dose of emotion and spontaneity. If that’s not something to check out, I don’t know what is!