Leagues frontman Thad Cockrell has been writing and performing country music for well over a decade. All three of his albums, two of which (Stack Of Dreams and Warmth And Beauty) were released on Yep Roc Records, have been met with critical acclaim. His fan base has stayed loyal throughout his career.
But the release of his first record with new band Leagues, the slickly produced Summer EP, has left some Cockrell fans scratching their heads.
Instead of the dusty road alt-country they're used to from the singer-songwriter, Summer EP is three songs of pure pop-rock, ranging in influence from U2 to Cold War Kids. Several of the songs from the record, "Haunted," and "Mind Games," have sunshiny pop melodies, while "Magic," the first single, has a darker, grittier appeal. All of them, though, sound like they were written for arenas rather than the smoky country bars where Cockrell's earlier material fit.
Three songs aren't enough to tour on -- let alone headline -- but the band promises they will have more songs to showcase when they perform at The Prophet Bar tonight.
Hit the jump to hear Leagues and to read our interview with lead singer Thad Cockrell and guitarist Tyler Burkum about their new venture.
Do you think it's ambitious to hit the road as a headliner with only a three-song EP under your belts?
We're going out with Matt Kearney in the fall. On some levels, this whole project has been ambitious for us. So I don't know if it struck us as anything other than natural, you know? I think it's kind of good to go out and test yourself. If you can do it, why not? We have more than three songs, so it's not like we have to play the three songs five times in order to get a 45-minute set. We basically recorded a full-length album, and in the spring we're going to release it. We just thought, if we're going to go out and start playing, which is a huge part of what we want to do, it's going to be hard to do without some kind of product that says "Hey, this is who we are." That EP is in some ways that; a way of introducing ourselves and coming out and playing some shows.
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In what other ways have you been ambitious?
Tyler: I think just the undertaking of even starting this band has been ambitious. We all live in other states. It's been one of those things that seems crazy to do, but foolish not to try. We tell people, "Hey, we started this band," and they look at us like we're crazy, like "Oh, cool. Oh, sure. You're in a band." What we've tried to do with this band is kind of dream and say "What do we want to do with this band? What kind of music do we want to make with our friends? Let's go out and do it." I think even just getting a van and driving all the way across the country [to theoretically play] for nobody is kind of ambitious -- just to allow yourself to dream a little bit.
Thad, you've had a strong solo career with devoted fans for over a decade. But it seems like you haven't experienced a full breakthrough. Is Leagues a response to that?
Thad: In some ways, it's allowed it. It's been successful on a certain level, but I'm not out playing theaters, and, if that would've happened, I don't know if it ever would've allowed even for the imagination to wrap around something like Leagues. This isn't a side project for any of us. I'm not doing any Thad Cockrell shows, and I've been turning them down so people don't feel like I'm doing my solo stuff and Leagues. As far as I'm concerned, this is what I'm fully committed to.
What do you say to people who prefer your solo stuff to the three songs they've heard from Leagues?
Thad: That's OK.
I mean, besides "Eff you!"
Thad: It's not even "Eff you." It's like making two pies and people liking one more than the other. It all comes from the heart. And, if they prefer the solo stuff to Leagues, that's OK, they don't have to like Leagues.
Tyler: It's definitely different, that's for sure.
What was it that made you want to make the change from country to pop?
Thad: I don't know if I ever wanted to make the change. It's all music that I love and that I'm informed by. I grew up listening to '70s country music under the pillow at night because no secular music was allowed at my house, and when I started writing, I could wrap my mind around country music. As soon as that happened, people want to paint you into a corner and say, "This is what you do." If you were to follow the trajectory of my solo career, as soon as I started in the country world, you could pretty clearly see the path setting out. But I grew up listening to Don Williams and Tears for Fears and The Cure. Growing up, I couldn't find the the distinction in my heart between Marvin Gaye, The Cure, Don Williams and Merle Haggard. If it resonated with me, it was like the truth, man. I was in. I don't know if it's anything like some decision. It's all in my heart. It's very natural.
In listening to Leagues and your solo stuff, it seems like with a change in production, some of the country songs could be pop songs, and even "Haunted" from the new EP could be a country song.
Tyler: They're all cut from the same fabric, just sewn together in a different way. Hopefully it shows what's in our hearts and what's influenced us in a way that's joyful -- not thinking too hard about it, letting the music just happen. We all could probably easily fall into an alt-country band and be happy, but I think it's a blender on our end, and seeing what happens. Let's all start over together. All of our favorite bands have built sounds around each other. They don't come in and say, "This is what our sound is, and this is what I do." We get to see the influences come out in a different way, that we maybe never saw before.
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What's the long term goal for the band?
Thad: To keep playing music for the next 10 years. To keep making records that capture our imaginations and, in turn, captures other people's imaginations. And doing that through putting out records and going out and playing shows.
Tyler: Hopefully, doing all of that well. Early on we said, "Let's make this worthwhile." That really looks like a lot of different things. I hope whatever happens with our music or our career, that it would be done well, that it would be well crafted.
You all got together in Nashville, where there are a lot of bands from religious backgrounds that I associate with you guys -- bands like The Civil Wars and Matt Kearney. Is there a group of young, like-minded bands that are working together there, or is that just all in my head?
Tyler: I think that to some degree, there's a bunch of new bands that are inspiring each other. I live in Minneapolis, so I don't get to be there as much. And when I'm there working, it's usually with Leagues. I don't know if it's from a religious background. For some reason, when I get to Nashville, it seems like everyone has some kind of religious backdrop to their story.
Thad: It's the South. I think the thing that binds Nashville and attracts people-- the Kings of Leon are there, The Black Keys, Jack White is there -- is just the community. It's incredibly open and supportive. It isn't catty in any way. One person's success doesn't equal your failure, so I think what people are feeding off of is that Nashville is still a very song-based town. No matter what genre you're doing, at the end of the day, the song still has worth there to the people who are creating. Around that there's just a really great spirit.
When I think Nashville, I don't really think sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll like I do in other cities like Los Angeles and New York.
Thad: You should hang out there.
Tyler: Yeah, it's sex, drugs, and steel guitar.
Thad: Write a word, get a third, man.