Switchback Kings

A practice session by one of Richmond’s most promising new rock bands speaks volumes about its future.

On the second story of the long, narrow building attached to Temple Beth-El at Roseneath Road and Grove Avenue is a large open room filled with drum kits, guitar cases, amplifiers and instrument cables.

The floor is littered with the splinters of shattered drumsticks. The room functions as a rehearsal studio for local acts, and it has just about everything a band could want in a practice space — except a PA system.

This is news to local quartet Heavy Midgets, here to rehearse for a concert at Gallery5 in Jackson Ward. It was the world’s introduction to their latest effort, the debut full-length, “Super King.” The self-released album has been available online since Jan. 15, but the Jan. 30 Gallery5 show was the record’s official unveiling. A recently completed music video receives similar treatment Feb. 12 at Balliceaux.

“Super King” is, in many ways, a departure from the band’s previous output, which includes a six-song EP and a split with fellow Richmond act Tungs. Gone are the plaintive strains of early songs such as “Oh, Susanna” and “Insect Love/Eternal Patience,” replaced instead with equal parts sweet jangle and gritty garage rock.

Side-one barnburner “House of Cats” rushes headlong through three blistering minutes of straight-ahead thrash, while the follow-up “Dog Girl” tumbles gently down a rabbit hole of tripped-up psych rock. Such is the nature of the entire album: It moves inexorably forward by a series of switchbacks, building a consistent soundscape that keeps the listener constantly anticipating the next left turn.

But tonight the immediate problem is the PA system. Whoever owned the last one that the space had no longer rehearses here, and without audible vocals it’s proving tricky to work out new approaches to some older tracks. Heavy Midgets have been together since 2011, but drummer Bren Hall joined the group in August 2012, and this is his first time playing much of the band’s earlier material.

A stopgap is employed: Guitarist Ian McQuary unearths a microphone from a supply closet and plugs it into a dilapidated amplifier. The vocals are distorted but discernable. Charlanne McCarthy, who alternates guitar, bass and vocal duties with John Graham, explains her vision for one of the revised songs: “It shouldn’t be as rock and roll. It should be more subtle.”

Graham sings a shift in the drum part for Hall while McQuary bemoans the cluttered feel of the group’s early recordings and encourages Hall to try new approaches to the rhythm. “The more space we can create with these [old songs] the better,” she says. After three or four run-throughs, the song is taut, performable. The band takes a break.

Daytime was warmer, but since sundown the mercury has fallen again, and outside, between the annex and the synagogue’s social hall, it’s brisk. The band discusses promotional materials. No one is too optimistic that shirts will be ready in time for Thursday’s show. There’s talk of band stickers from “a guy.” No one seems terribly excited about the band stickers.

I learn that a week-long tour tentatively planned for March — coinciding with Hall’s spring break from Virginia Commonwealth University — has been scrapped in favor of short, packed, weekend-long jaunts, in part because of members’ day jobs.

“We’re all working stiffs,” Graham says. The possibility of a summer tour isn’t out of the question, but nothing’s definite.

Talk turns to the band’s origins. Graham and McCarthy, both Woodbridge natives, vaguely knew of each other through mutual connections; McQuary and Hall came aboard by way of MySpace, Craigslist and being around.

Nearly three years of recording, playing and performing has cemented Heavy Midgets as focal points in the lives of its members. “Being in the band has definitely made me more aggressive,” McCarthy acknowledges. “Not mean, but I think I was a fairly meek person before.”

“This band definitely gives me purpose,” Graham says.

Back in the practice space, the band redoubles its efforts reworking old material. Graham expresses concern to me: “You’re writing about the new album, but we’re playing all these old songs.”

But the group’s dedication to retooling material is revealing. You get the impression that Heavy Midgets are uncomfortable with stagnation — that the creative process, in their hands, presents as a kind of forward momentum.

If “Super King,” with all its sonic twists and turns, is the end result, then this rehearsal offers a uniquely trenchant glimpse into the inner workings of the band — a relatively young quartet with an increasingly mature sound, whose guiding principle seems to be constant change. S


Heavy Midgets perform Feb. 12 at Balliceaux and March 5 at Sound of Music studio.


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