The Bridge, the debut album by Southern California band Letter Kills, is a spirited manifesto of independence and self-belief - one that embraces numerous musical styles including 70's punk, pop, metal and even classic rock, and twists bends and ties them into something highly energized and instantly engaging.
The guitars on The Bridge are abrasive and explosive, the vocals yearning, pained and, yes, emotional. But don't call Letter Kills emo or screamo. Not that they hate that kind of music. They've actually toured with Thrice and consider Pedro the Lion an influence. However, they're disturbed by the way the sub-genre has come to define youth culture.
"It has become something that makes a kid cool. If you listen to certain bands, you can be popular, which kind of bums us out," singer Matt Shelton says. "We want to get back to the spirit where people listen to something because it's good and rocks and it doesn't matter what other people think."
From the start-stop riffing and multi-note licks that drive the screaming "Lights Out" to the ringing guitars and melancholy rhythm of "Hold My Heart," Letter Kills exhibits conviction, versatility and love for many types of music. Shelton's affection for singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash contrasts with guitarist Timothy Cordova's penchant for headbangers like In Flames and Children of Bodom. And everyone's mutual interest in legends like the Beatles and Tom Petty help connect the two sonic opposites.
"We're five different guys with different music tastes and different backgrounds, so instead of trying to force the music in any one direction we let everybody do their thing and go where it leads us," said Shelton. "At first, it was really frustrating because we were all the prominent songwriters in our previous bands, so we were all used to our own style. But having so many directions made me sing melodies I normally wouldn't have done, and it made us more original."
Letter Kills formed in August, 2002 after Shelton moved from Texas to Temecula. The singer had met Cordova in Texas earlier when Cordova's previous band LX45 was on the road. So, when Shelton arrived in California, he hooked up with Cordova, who was already playing with drummer Paul Remund. With the addition of local musicians guitarist Dustin Lovelis and bassist Kyle Duckworth, the lineup was complete.
The band started writing original songs right away, and before long it were playing out everywhere from birthday parties to dive clubs. With every show Letter Kills got more comfortable with each other's playing style and personality, and before long they were chugging like a powerful machine. "At first we were really concerned about whether or not we would gel as musicians," Shelton admitted. "But we stretched our boundaries and got used to playing with each other really fast. Everything was really natural, and we've grown to be like brothers."
In March 2003, Letter Kills recorded their debut three-song EP at Indigo Ranch Studios in Malibu, California over a three day period. All three tracks, "Don't Believe," "Radio Up" and "Clock is Down" appear on the band's album. A label deal came soon after, thanks in part to Finch guitarist Randy Strohmeyer, who had gone to high school with Lovelis, and loved Letter Kills' hard-hitting tunes. Strohmeyer plugged the band to one record company, which auditioned it, then offered it a deal. Instead of signing right away, Letter Kills hired a lawyer, who played the band's demo for various other record companies. It wasn't long before the group signed with Island.
The band entered a studio in Santa Monica, California in late 2003 with producer Jim Wirt (Incubus, Hoobastank), and recorded the record in eight weeks. Legendary mixer Tom Lord-Alge (Rolling Stones, Blink 182) added his magic as well. And aside from their vehicle hitting a patch of black ice there and almost crashing, the creative process was relatively drama-free.
"The record actually was really easy to make because we wrote everything when we first started as a band, and toured for a year before we went into the studio," Shelton said. "Once we got into the studio, it was really just a matter of presenting the songs with the same energy as we do live."
Considering the thunderous, kinetic stage presentations Letter Kills has become known for - and will again display on this year's Vans Warped tour - capturing that volcanic energy on album may seem impossible, but the band has easily risen to the challenge. "Brand New Man" layers lunging rhythms with scribbling guitar trails and caps it off with a contagious harmonized chorus, while "Time Marches On" hammers and pounds to a fiery bed of guitars. "Clock Is Down" tones it down with ringing guitars before blasting into a soaring refrain, while "Carry You" is an offbeat stormer that merges punk-pop melody with a groove that's suggestive of AC/DC.
The first single off the album is the galloping "Don't Believe" which features the seemingly cynical line, "Don't believe in me/ 'Cuz I will let you down." Not only isn't the lyric negative, Shelton says the song's message is actually uplifting and spiritual.
"People who look up to rock stars have their posters on their walls, and they idolize them," Shelton explains. "But then when they do something wrong, all of a sudden it's the end of the world because they thought they were super-human. We just want to know that people can't just put their faith in other people, they have to believe in something more than that."
For Letter Kills, that belief is in a higher power. Shelton and his bandmates are practicing Christians, and some of their lyrics reflect their spirituality. But the band doesn't preach to others and does their own thing.
"I can't put my hope in people because people just let me down," Shelton says. "I say that with all sincerity, but it's not a bad thing. I just believe no one person is better than another, and we're all in this together. So I put my faith in God. But we believe that if you put too much emphasis on that, it alienates the kids who don't really care. Our big thing is to unite people, not push them away with the music we play."
Such devotion has earned Letter Kills and large and loyal following. Maybe the kids identify with Shelton's sincerity, perhaps they're magnetized by the way the group's songs are simultaneously heavy and euphoric or impressed that the band members enjoy hanging out with their fans after their concerts. Whatever the reason, they're out there and their devotion is undying.
"We've had kids that have thrown us birthday parties when we weren't even there," Shelton says. "And there was one girl who came to a show and told me she had a few thousand pictures of me on her wall. It sounds kind of strange, but at the same time that person really cares about what you do and that's amazing to me."