By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
This week, Dove Hunter's debut release, The Southern Unknown, will finally see the light of day. And it's about time, ain't it?
It'd be one thing if Dove Hunter were an act we'd never heard of before, an act that was still testing its mettle on small stages in the suburbs. But most anyone who has been paying attention to the scene is somewhat familiar with this band. Hell, this very publication even named the band's debut the most anticipated release of 2007.
Rightfully so: Dove Hunter hasn't just been playing small, one-off gigs in various spots around the region or to sparse audiences; the band's been wowing crowded rooms at Dallas', Fort Worth's and Denton's favorite clubs with its intricate roots- and alt-country-influenced brand of rock since forming two years ago. Talk on the band has remained consistently positive over that stretch: Crowds at Dove Hunter shows are a who's who of the DFW/Denton music scene; each show features a growing cast of recognizable faces—musicians, booking agents, promoters, scenesters—all looking forward to catching a glimpse of what the to-do has been about. Few leave these shows without buzzing.
Despite all this live-show success, the band is only just now releasing a nine-track share of its catalog. Which kind of raises the question: What took so long?
It's a difficult answer. Over beers at The Amsterdam Bar, located not too far from the band's Exposition Park-area rehearsal space, vocalist Jayson Wortham and bass player Chad DeAtley try carefully to explain the difficulties of finding studio time with their chosen producer, Stuart Sikes (The White Stripes, Cat Power), before being curtly cut off by their drummer:
"We put a lot of stock in building hype," Quincy Holloway says with a laugh.
He's kidding, but the band has built up a more-than-fair share of hype surrounding its first release, if only incidentally.
Lucky for them, The Southern Unknown dodges disappointment. There are fewer improvisational moments, but it's not all that different from the band's live show. It's a little more subdued, sure, but no less intriguing.
Opening track "The Devil's Lake," a largely instrumental take immediately ushers in an only slightly more rootsy tone than listeners can expect to hear throughout the rest of the 44-minute album. It's an intricate sound, with guitar, bass, banjo, pedal steel, keyboards and various percussion instruments layered carefully atop, but not necessarily in tandem with, one another. And that's the trick behind Dove Hunter's impressive sound: As if each player's instrumentation weren't inspiring enough on its own, the band manages to further impress by allowing each instrument its own elements. Parts whirl about one another as two dancers on a floor; there's a lead, yes, but the other isn't necessarily bound to its leanings. The result is a constantly developing sound, both upon repeated listens of the disc and on repeated plays for the band.
"I suspect that if we were to go out tomorrow and you were to record us live, in eight months, it would be completely different," Holloway says.
"That's one thing about Dove Hunter that I've noticed," guitarist Marc Montoya agrees. "There is a little bit of freedom."
It's what makes each Dove Hunter performance unique. Pedal steel guitar and banjo player Josh Daugherty estimates that 20 percent of the band's live shows are completely improvised. "There's parts of the night where we have built-in windows that we all look forward to where we can all do whatever," he says.
There is, however, one constant: Wortham's unique vocals. His voice is at once strained, faint, weathered and resilient. Granted, as principal songwriter for the group, Wortham is able to play to his strengths.
Actually, the whole band is—Dove Hunter isn't the first band for any of its members. Wortham performed with Mandarin, a more ethereal act; DeAtley played in the harder-edged Doosu; Holloway maintained the drums for Sub Oslo's dub sound; Daugherty once worked as a "hired gun" in the Burden Brothers; Montoya still plays around town in the similarly twangy but less rootsy Bridges & Blinking Lights.
And when Wortham wanted to record some songs he'd written post-Mandarin, he called in this line-up anticipating that each member would have something else to bring to the table, that each member would use a different palette to paint his part.
"I was just pleasantly surprised about how these guys went about it," Wortham says. "They didn't just lock up with each other."
Instead, they blended, creating the sound that so successfully comes through in Dove Hunter's disc and even more so in its slightly more rocking live show. And each member credits his earlier experiences with other outfits to his appreciation and understanding of his role in Dove Hunter, where each member's part just fits with the rest.
"It's like playing with your best friends," DeAtley says. "In that aspect—and in all aspects, pretty much—it's the best band I've ever been in."
The band has high hopes for its future. Although lengthy touring is somewhat out of the question for the moment because of day jobs and families to take care of here at home, its members still plan on shopping the disc around, to see if there are any takers out there.
"In the back of my mind, when I'm lying in bed at night, yeah, I'm thinking about playing stadiums and having millions of people listening to our music," DeAtley says. "But do I know it's a huge long-shot? Yeah. And I think everybody in this band is realistic about it. I'm really proud of this album. Even though we've been going at this for two years, this is definitely the starting point. And a clear starting point. Now we can start talking about ourselves like a real band. You have a point of reference..."
Wortham cuts him off and flashes a quick smile: "It means more than just having T-shirts for sale at a gig."
And it means that, for the past two years, the band's just been building up for what's to come.
Holloway laughs again. "This is the beginning of the onslaught."