Many bands decide what they will sound like and stick to that formula, developing a recognizable style. Deviation from the original sound often results in a band split or name change. Red Hill City is proof that a band can evolve and change its sound without losing itself.
Red Hill City has been playing together for two years. "We all came from separate bands and met through our churches, where we played in praise bands. Ben (McCain, keyboards), Josh (Myers, drums) and Tyler (King, guitar and vocals) were in a band called Exit 54, which was actually a punk band. I played guitar and then Gant (O'Brien), the bass player, came in and we changed the name to Red Hill City. We kind of changed styles and regrouped then," guitarist Joseph Regan said.
In 2005, within three months of Red Hill City's formation, the band completed their debut EP "Ill Attempts." It was an impressive start, considering how long most new bands struggle to put together a debut album.
"We were already geared up to record something before the band was complete," McCain said. "Exit 54 was together for about a year, and some of the others played together even longer. When we finally all got together, we were ready to record something. It was definitely a learning experience for all of us; we learned as we went."
The result was a seven-song EP with a clear Blink 182/Jimmy Eat World-influenced sound. Red Hill City shed its punk roots and moved into a more modern sound that was melodically strong. Not long after releasing "Ill Attempts," the band began to open their ears to new and different influences.
"We moved away from (Jimmy Eat World)" Regan said, "and started listening to Death Cab for Cutie, Radiohead and especially Appleseed Cast. We have a friend who introduced us to Appleseed Cast—'Fight Song' on the 'Two Conversations' album in particular—and it changed our whole outlook."
Red Hill City had finally found a sound that more accurately represented the band as a whole. The new sound is not a radical break from the old, but it shows new priorities and sensibilities about what is possible in popular music.
Red Hill City is currently working on getting their new sound out to the masses. Recording at Coolwater Studios in Clinton, the band has 12 of 15 songs tracked, but they are not ready to set a release date. "We learned from the last one … it's such a long process, but we're getting there, and we're really excited about it. We want to put something out there that shows what we are now," Regan said.
A few days prior to my interview with Red Hill City, I had iTunes on shuffle at work. A song came on that I was just sure was the Shins. Much to my surprise and delight, I found that it was actually "Birds-eye View of an Autumn Fairground," a sweet, wistful song referencing the sights, smells and sounds of the fair, and being there with your sweetheart. It also happens to be one of the new songs from Red Hill City's upcoming album. When I relayed this story to the guys during the interview, they were flattered.
"The Shins is one of our biggest influences," Regan said. "People who come to our shows after only hearing the EP are kinda surprised, because we don't even really play those songs anymore … we've just changed so much, and we like sharing our new stuff."
Red Hill City's live shows are musically tight and a bit innovative, even on cover tunes. I caught their show at Two O'Clock Bayou recently and was impressed with the musicianship on display. McCain was jumping from keyboards to marimba and back, and King's vocal style ranged from Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst to a fine impression of Rivers Cuomo for one of my all-time favorite songs, Weezer's "Say It Ain't So."
As for songwriting, the members of Red Hill City make it a collaborative effort. "Musically, we all contribute for our parts, or help other people write their parts," Regan said, "but it's definitely a group effort. ... It happens in practice most of the time. We'll hear something we like and put parts on top of it and layer it."
The new year is looking bright for Red Hill City. In addition to finishing up and releasing the new album, the band would also like to find professional representation this year. That aside, the band plans to play as many live shows as they can to promote the new album and their new sound. In the meantime, "Ill Attempts" is available on iTunes, at BeBop and Borders. See Red Hill City on the Web.