An endorsement from Roy Stein, I'm telling you, it ain't no hype. The always black-clad Stein has his fingers on rock music's loud and proud pulse and in a lot of pies as a drummer, producer, engineer, teacher, sensei, consigliore, etc. So when Stein pulls on your coat about Better By Morning, a band he fell in love with and ultimately joined, you listen.
Drop the needle in: what initially hits the ears is a thoughtful, provocative blend of intertwined melody and groove played by a barely-out-of-its-teens sub-melodic machine. Calling Better By Morning epic may be a bit of a stretch, though the sound is big. Not in a foreboding or intimidating way, but in more of a swirling narcotic comfort. It envelopes the listener as their ears flip between myriad melodies and their interwoven co-mingling with the compelling guitar patterns. But before we trip up looking for different ways to say big and beautiful, let's pause to consider the pedigree: Johnny Gravitt plays lead guitar; Jacob Brooks sings, plays bass, and rhythm guitar; Alex Goettel plays bass, keyboards, violin and sings back up; and of course there's Roy Stein, the man on the drums.
Stein met Brooks at Nazareth College where Stein teaches in the Music Business Program.
"We started talking about bands and immediately hit it off," Stein says. "He showed me some YouTube videos of his previous band, Vontus and — I've been doing this a long time — within 10 seconds I knew he was a gifted singer, not just something in a typical band."
As Vontus, the members of Better By Morning were more of a blues-rock outfit before inevitably imploding, with eyes on the alternative.
"We wanted to head more towards the alternative rock," Brooks says. "So we started writing more alternative."
How exactly? Gravitt defines a key component.
"I think what makes our new stuff different is the guitar parts are more intricate," he says. "More lead with less chord changes."
These are intricacies that, according to the band, cooperate with the vocal melody, even though the words get tacked on last.
Live, the band certainly doesn't phone it in. Writing and recording is another story.
"If we have a general idea, one of us will press record on their phone and we'll just see where the song takes us," Gravitt says. "Sometimes we'll just play things we feel in the moment."
Brooks jumps in to say, "We try a lot of different things when we're recording. Some stuff works, some doesn't. We just work through it."
Bands like Coldplay lend obvious influence as well as U2 — a band which Better By Morning pegs as unintentional even though many of Gravitt's rhythmic guitar patterns and ching-chimey embellishments sound like The Edge.
"That's funny," Brooks says. "Because Johnny doesn't listen to U2."
"We've played U2 songs where I've never actually heard the original," Gravett adds.
You'll might also hear Echo and the Bunnymen sans The Doors nod and The Pixies without the sardonic wit. The band says it's just listening to as much as it can get its hands on. It's all come together to render a remarkable debut EP, "You Say," a five-song salvo to the band's remarkable talent.
One place you'd expect Better By Morning to seek influence would be at the feet of Stein. Stein's dark new wave alma mater, New Math, seems to be an obvious influence even if the young band doesn't know it yet. But at this point Stein is content in sitting behind the drums adding a seasoned beat to the fledgling magnificence. By laying down drum tracks with the rest of the band already committed to tape, Stein got to hear the songs with additional insight.
"They asked me to play drums on their record," Stein says. "The original drum tracks were laid down so I had to come in and re-do the drums. It was done backwards. That meant I had to dissect the songs, really pay attention to them, because I hadn't worked them organically with the guys from the beginning. They were already done. That's where I gained a lot of respect for the songs. They were really well put together with an intuitive sense that guys their age don't typically have."
For now he's pretty much hands-off, but Stein says that could change.
"One thing I'm looking forward to in the studio is experimenting a little bit more with sounds, with space," he says. "Maybe not always using real drums. But I have a lot of faith in the guys. It's obvious to me they have something special. I don't feel I need to do much. I try to stay out of the way musically. What they've done is great. Why mix it up?"
Sonically the quartet has arrived, though they still look to pioneer the wilds of the alternative frontier even further. Live, the band is loose, with a backseat approach to performing; the music comes first, though, it's clear the bodies on stage are equally moved as those on the dance floor — it's honest, pure, and believable.
"I think our sound will always be changing," Brooks says. "Because times are always going to be changing. It'll mature, lyric wise. I think we know more now than when we were writing back then. The music may mature but I think we'll always have that core of how it sounds as a whole."
"We're looking at different rhythmic things to change it up," Goettel says. "But still stay true to what we've been doing. The nice thing about alternative rock is that it's a really open genre."
And it's fun, a deal-breaker for Stein if it isn't there. "It ain't fun, I'm out the door," he says.