From the front of the stage to the back near the merch table, The Earl is packed for the sold-out Features show, but not with the Atlanta venue’s typical twenty-something crowd. On this Friday night, you can see just as many dad-jeans as skinny ones. People are talking about both the start of classes and babysitter woes, and it becomes apparent there’s probably a bit more to The Features’ broad appeal than the band gives itself credit for.
Maybe it’s The Features’ long history—although they formed in 1994, singer/guitarist Matt Pelham and bassist Roger Dabbs have been playing music together since the late ’80s. It could be their wide-ranging influences that all have a place within their compositions. And the band’s recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s show and long-term ties with the Kings of Leon can’t hurt. But if you’re asking Pelham—who talks in a patient, low southern drawl that doesn’t have much in common with his singing voice—that’s all an afterthought. Pelham’s just glad to still be doing it.
“Someone asked me the other day how we felt about our success,” Pelham says. “I guess it depends on how we’re measuring success. I think as far as us being glad that we’re still playing music, sure, we’re great successes at that. We’ve done some really cool stuff, I’ve done some things I thought I wouldn’t have seen, but I still feel like we’re pretty small scale. Maybe that’s just the way it is. Maybe that’s a big part of the way this business is.”
After nearly two decades together, though, the bandmates still have some fire in their bellies. Although their album Wilderness was released in July, The Features already wrapped up another set of tracks, still stacking songs on top of a catalog that they estimate is now somewhere in the 200s.
They’re old-school guys, sometimes to their manager’s dismay. They’re not big on Facebook or Twitter, Pelham says, but it also comes across in the way they write and record their songs. For their new, unreleased album, the band entered a studio in Portland, Ore., with an unusual plan in this Age of AutoTune: They recorded the songs live with no metronomes and no overdubs other than vocals, keeping the pressure high until the still-untitled album was finished.
“We were just flying by the seat of our pants, because we were just like, ‘Can we have some more money to record another record?’” Pelham says. “And [our record label said], ‘Sure, here’s a few dollars.’ We just wrote. In about a month, we ended up writing the next record and going in and recording it, which was fun. It was kind of nice to put ourselves under pressure.”
As drummer Rollum Haas explains, although the band’s live show includes songs that span their long career, he and his bandmates don’t like to rest on their old material. Their huge catalog stems from a desire to keep creating music.
“When we get together, we’re not one of those bands that just rehearses our material a whole lot,” Haas says. “[We write] for that moment where everything comes together. Sometimes it happens quick, and sometimes you’re beating your head against the wall trying to figure it out, but it’s almost like everyone knows that moment when we’ve got it and it works out.”
But if the band hasn’t been rehearsing their old material, you’d be hard-pressed to tell by the way they’re riling up the Atlanta crowd. It’s a Wilderness-heavy set of songs, but the crowd actually cheers when Pelham announces they’ll play a cut from their new record. The sounds range from the keyboard-heavy “Another One” to the dirtied environmental-rock opus “Big Mama Gonna Whip Us Good,” and it seems like rather than one crowd-pleasing single, the band has a song that certain sections of the audience love more than others. And Pelham says that probably isn’t a mistake.
“I feel like our records end up being a bit more like a mix tape, and to me its a little more interesting to listen to than a continuous sound,” Pelham says. “Things to me that sound similar through a whole record, I get a little bored with. Most records I like—even older records—they’re very much eclectic. They do lots of different things on those records. But to me it does get a bit boring when a band takes a three-minute song by their favorite band, and it seems like they make a career out of it for two records.”
Haas agrees. “I think that may have hurt us before,” he says. “Now I look at it being an asset a little bit. The engineer [for the upcoming album] has been good about tying all of that together sonically and I personally like that quality in us a lot.”
The guys are touring the U.S. in patches, introducing crowds to Wilderness while they’ve already got a new album under their belt. They’re not playing or listening to most of the unreleased songs, although the band is excited to play them after they tour behind Wilderness. And though touring isn’t his favorite thing, Pelham says it’s the band’s saving grace, the thing that’s introduced The Features to new fans that become die-hards over the years.
“There’s a raw aspect to the live show that translates to what we’re doing well,” Pelham says before dryly questioning the appeal of The Features’ live show. “I’m not really sure, we’re extremely good looking; maybe that’s a good part of it.”