Before any kickoff at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia, a video rolls across the big screen, with a deep, haunting voiceover that repeats the same monologue at every game. Just thinking about it brings chills to my body; there’s something so nostalgic and powerful about it, highlighting the greatest victories UGA football has ever seen, the heroes, the fans (92,746 of them), and – of course – the mascot. It’s a long, measured speech, but the opening line is forever burned into my mind: “70 miles east of the bright lights of Atlanta…”
But Athens is more than a football town. It’s a city with a music history like no other. REM and The Drive-By Truckers lived and wrote and played there. Dead Confederate rocked the world from The Classic City, and songwriters like Levi Lowrey carry on the innovation and dedication to real, genuine music. It’s Atlanta’s sister-city; an older sister, without a doubt, with an incredible record collection and an encyclopedic knowledge of rock history.
This week, Audiofemme is heading across those 70 miles to sit down with John Strickland of Lullwater. The rock quartet – made up of lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Strickland, lead guitarist Daniel Binnie, Roy ‘Ray’ Beatty on bass and vocals, and Joseph Wilson on drums and vocals – has called Athens home for eight years, but with the release of their newest record, Voodoo, they’re ready to take on the world.
AF: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me! You guys are officially the first Athens band this column has covered, so let’s get started. How did the four of you meet, and when did you realize it was time to start a band together?
JS: Lullwater has been around for a while now and has gone through its share of growing pains. Joe, Ray, and I have been in this band for seven or eight years, with Daniel joining on lead guitar over two years ago. We knew he was the perfect addition the first time we all jammed together. We used to be in a band together years and years ago. He is an amazing guitar player and writer, so it was an easy decision.
AF: Athens has a long musical history, birthing bands like the Drive-By Trucks and REM. How does the history of the city inspire you and encourage you to take risks?
JS: Athens definitely has a long musical history, and I would say bands like Drive-By Truckers and Dead Confederate influenced us early on. It wasn’t until we started touring and playing big shows in other markets that Athens began paying attention to us. We owe a lot to Athens though; it kept us on our toes during our transition periods and made us work harder to be a better band.
AF: Your new record sounds massive; you blend grunge with Southern rock to create a sound that’s unique, compelling, and heavy. Which bands have inspired you the most? How do you draw from your influences to create something that’s unique to you?
JS: I think our biggest influences are bands from the early ’90s Seattle grunge scene. I’m a huge fan of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains, but our sound is unique because everyone in the band comes from different musical influences. Joe is a big jam band fan, Ray is influenced by metal, and Binnie draws inspiration from classic rock, so Lullwater has all of these elements blended together to create our sound.
AF: We’re living in a time where a lot of bands are hearing “guitars bands are dead,” or — especially in the South — bands are pushed toward Nashville and country music. What makes you dig in your heels and keep writing rock ‘n’ roll, and why did you choose Athens as your home base for creating the new generation of Southern Rock?
JS: We’ve been digging in our heels for so long that it’s who are and what we love to do. Rock music for us is our passion, therapy, and motivation to continue touring and putting out records. If you don’t love the music first and foremost, you probably won’t be around that long. We’re committed to rock and roll and I think it shows. I went to UGA, and Athens has been my home for over a decade, but who knows where we’ll all end up.
AF: You just released your new record, Voodoo, the first since 2015. How did you know it was time to get back into the studio and make a new record? What inspired the new record? Do you have a favorite track?
JS: We love being in the studio. If it was up to us, we’d probably be in the studio every month, if possible. We knew it was time to make a new record when Binnie joined the band. We all wanted to create new music together. Before Voodoo was written, everyone in the band was going through a lot of emotional turmoil and confusion. I feel like it’s very rare for that to happen where every member is going through seriously heavy shit at the same time. We put all of that emotion and energy into Voodoo. It’s hard to say which track is my favorite, but I’m gonna say “Fight of Your Life” and “Suffer Not.” Those songs are special and resonate with me on a deeper level.
AF: What’s the creative process like for you guys? Is it collaborative, or do each of you come in with a complete idea?
JS: It’s definitely a collaborative process for us. We all bring ideas to the table and jam out the songs. I write most of the lyrics and vocal melodies once all the music is written, but we all bring different musical ideas to the writing sessions. I think exploring everyone’s ideas and following that process is what makes it so special for us to do a record. We’re all writing music for Lullwater and it’s exciting to go down the rabbit hole together.
AF: What’s your favorite part of the Athens music scene?
JS: Watching the local rock scene gain momentum. Athens doesn’t really have a big rock scene, so it’s cool meeting younger rock bands exploring and honing their sound. It’s a pretty close-knit community and we enjoy going out and supporting that scene.
AF: What’s the best place in Athens to catch a live show?
JS: The Caledonia Lounge always has something going on in the rock/metal scene, so that’s probably my favorite spot to catch a show. The 40 Watt and [Georgia] Theatre are legendary so those are a given.
AF: Last one! What’s next for Lullwater?
JS: Touring Voodoo. We’ll be out all year pushing the new album. Also, we have an acoustic record coming out at some point this year. A lot of things are happening and we’re excited about what the year brings.