PLAYING ATLANTA: Challenger Deep Unleash Frantic Energy on Self-Titled Debut

There’s something about the quiet and stillness of winter that drives me to seek out new music to break through the silence. Lucky for me, I stumbled across a Spotify playlist with a long list of new releases from Atlanta bands a few weeks ago. I spent a happy afternoon shuffling through a wide variety of music written and released mostly by people I knew and loved – and have written about, like I The Victor and Starbenders. A few songs in, I found myself nodding along with an intricate, expansive instrumental track called “Immersive” by four-piece instrumental rock group, Challenger Deep.

I’ll be honest: I haven’t listened to many instrumental bands in my life, other than the occasional instrumental Allman Brothers Band song, but there was something so emotive about this group’s playing that immediately drew me in. It’s high energy, bordering on frantic at certain moments, but there’s something welcoming about all that enthusiasm.

I immediately reached out to the quartet, made up of James LaPierre and Jordan Fredrickson on guitars, bassist Jason Murray, and Grant Wallace on drums. After exchanging a few messages, I got to sit down and chat with Jordan about their self-titled debut and all things Challenger Deep.

AF: How did you guys get your start?  

JF: James and I met in a bar and sparked a conversation about music and found that we both play guitar and sort of naturally decided to jam. About a year or so later, we thought it’d be a good idea to play some shows and recruited Grant. Not long after that, Grant introduced us to Jason, and we were happy with the sonic art enough to play The Pink Room, my friend’s basement venue. I couldn’t have asked for a better first show. We all love challenging ourselves to make the music as interesting to listen to as it is technically challenging to play. That shared passion really makes our dynamic work.

AF: Were you involved in music growing up, or was it something you grew into?

JF: I’ve been playing guitar for 21 years, but I didn’t really start taking it seriously until I was about 17, so I guess a little of both.

AF: When did you realize it was less of a hobby and more of a career?

JF: This is the first band I’ve been in where I feel like we’re all committed and talented enough to realize our creative dreams while appealing to a wide array of people.

AF: We’re living in a day where instrumental bands are far less common. What made you decide to start an instrumental group? Was it a group decision, or more a natural, spontaneous creation? 

JF: In the beginning, we had some conversations about adding vocals, but we couldn’t really imagine any style that would enhance the music enough without being a little too much. I’ve been in instrumental bands as a guitarist for the past 6 or 7 years and I really like being able to express the feelings a song might invoke without having to verbalize anything. We actually have two lyrics: “Whoo!”  and “Ru-Fi-O!”

AF: You recently released your self-titled debut album. Where did you record it? What was the recording process like? 

JF: This experience was so great! We took one bongo part from our session at Standard Electric Recorders, but besides that, Corey Bautista recorded most everything at his studio, Corey Bautista Audio. He’s a pretty brilliant guy when it comes to laying down a record and he’s a wizard at smoke machine operation too! For the album, I loved the perfectionism. When I hear the finished tracks and think about all the work we all put into it, it really makes me smile. Everyone really brought something special to the table, along with their passion, and I think that really comes through in the music on the record. The process was so much fun because I love being around musical people and things. It’s hours of tuning drums and replacing guitar strings and really searching for that one sound in your head that you really want to lay down, and of course, forcing your fingers to do really weird and sometimes unnatural things. I wouldn’t have changed a thing. My favorite part was recording the auxiliary percussion though. Just being silly and shaking tambourines and shells for a while was great.

AF: What’s your creative process like? How has it changed in the year that you guys have been together? 

JF: Well, James and I played exclusively in his room for a while before finding the right additions to the band. He had a lot of the stuff down, but we added some parts here and there and redid a lot of the arrangements. After the additions of Grant and Jason, the music really started to take shape. I thought it sounded complete and great before, but after adding their instruments and ideas to the mix, there’s no other way I would want to hear it. Basically, the songs have been through the wringer four times over. We each break them down and ask ourselves and each other how every particular part serves the song, and if it doesn’t, we find where it fits or throw it out.

AF: Which bands or artists inspire you the most? How do you draw from that inspiration and use it to create something that’s unique?

JF: We draw from bands like Protest the Hero, Chon, Clever Girl, Saves Us from The Archon, the list goes on. I think I’m inspired by bands that have a certain playfulness to their music. When I draw from influences, it’s more about the feeling than it is about sounding or playing a certain [part] like them. I’m inspired by music that makes me feel like making music that will hopefully inspire someone else to make music that makes someone happy, or help make someone’s day a little bit better. Damn, that sounds cheesy.

AF: How do you communicate feelings and stories through instrumental music? Do you think it’s in the notes you play, or the way you play them? 

JF: I tend to think about the way that the melody and harmony lines are working together and working up to in any given part. Proper execution is key to conveying the melody and harmony, but for me, it’s more about the bigger picture. Where did the song come from? What was felt there? Where is it going? Where do you want the listener to end up?

AF: What’s your favorite part of the Atlanta music scene? 

JF: I like the variety. It’s got a little bit of everything and no matter what you like I can probably tell you where to find it on a Saturday night.

AF: You’ve been together just over a year and are already seeing some serious growth. What’s next for Challenger Deep?

JF: We’ve been writing new (super secret) songs and finding creative ways to display them. We recently recorded a lyric video with onomatopoeias for the instrument sounds. It’s pretty hilarious and it was so fun. You can look for more of that weirdness.

AF: Last question: best place to hang out and listen to live music in Atlanta?

JF: I like EAV a lot, 529 and the EARL always holds some familiar faces and crazy talent. I love seeing people play music there and I’m just thinking, “I am so lucky to see this, and it’s right down the street.”

Keep up with Challenger Deep on Facebook, and stream their self-titled debut on Spotify

PREMIERE: HALEY “Credit Forever Part 2”

Haley by Colin Michael Simmons

Since 2003, Haley McCallum has put dozens of releases out into the world as Haley Bonar – most of them with a folk rock bent and a focus on her clever lyricism and yearning vocals. That focus shifts with Pleasureland, released simply under the mononymous moniker HALEY. It’s a collection of instrumental only tracks, written in a time so bleak that Haley says she literally had no words to describe what she was feeling. An earlier single, “Infinite Pleasure Part 2,” featured ragged guitar layered with distortion; now, HALEY shares roiling piano ditty “Credit Forever Part 2,” accompanied by an eerie video montage of every day American television from the early 2000s.

By their nature, instrumental songs afford listeners something of a gift: the meaning is theirs to interpret, the melody a journey for the taking. Juxtaposing the lilting arpeggios of HALEY’s lively playing with a collage of cataclysmic natural events, absurd infomercials, and gooey sandwich fillings reveals the singer’s trademark wit in a new art form. Like so many of her songs, “Credit Forever Part 2” is more than meets the ear – it guilds this surreal imagery with nostalgic importance, almost as if we’re opening a time capsule. But inside, there are only meaningless artifacts, and yet HALEY’s majestic piano meditation swirls on, accompanied sporadically by restless, fuzzy guitar.

We spoke with Haley McCallum about tackling tough subject matter and how she’s navigated an industry that’s quick to pigeonhole female musicians.

Watch “Credit Forever Part 2” below:

AF: You’re a north country native, born in Canada, raised in Rapid City, South Dakota and currently residing in St. Paul, Minnesota. Do those north country winters affect the subject matter / mood of your music?

HALEY: I am a moody person, and weather definitely effects that. The winter is tough sometimes, but man can you get a lot of work done.

AF: What kind of music did you grow up listening to?

HM: I was obsessed with girl bands of the early 1960s like The Crystals and I loved the Beatles. That was not considered ‘cool’ but I felt like I was born in the wrong time. That being said, I also loved TLC, Green Day, The Cranberries, Enya, and Wilson Phillips.

AF: At what age did you start writing your own music?

HM: I was about 14.

AF: What were those first songs about?

HM: Oh, about being a sad sack.

AF: Traditional boys + blues? Or about living in the Midwest?

HM: The first song I ever wrote on guitar was literally called “Depression.” I guess I wrote piano songs when I was much younger. I started playing piano around age five.

AF: Wikipedia classifies your sound as “folk, slowcore, indie rock” – are those definitions on point or off base?

HM: Slow core – what a name! I don’t know, I am really bad at defining my own music because it isn’t defined in my brain when I write it. I just write it, and sometimes the songs are more rock, some ballads, some classical/jazz influenced. I think my goal is to bypass all the labels and be my own style, which is many.

AF: Your new album Pleasureland is instrumental. Was that a conscious decision or did it come from a more organic place initially?

HM: I started writing piano songs initially, just to play around with composition. After I wrote a few, the idea became solidified. I honestly was so blown away with the state of everything that I said, “What can I possibly have to say?” I’d rather convey a feeling. I needed to take a break from telling stories about myself that way.

AF: The state of the world?

HM: Yes. Election, MeToo, Black Lives Matter, immigration. So much negativity and violence, so many people crying out. It was overwhelming, and I found solace in playing piano and pushing myself in a new direction musically.

AF: Were you visualizing anything in particular when you wrote it? Was there a specific movement or subject on your mind?

HM: I envisioned destruction, chaos, a feeling of being out of control. But there is hope that comes through despite all of this. Beautiful parts of humanity and the planet we dwell upon, almost like a requiem for goodness.

AF: Have you had a chance to play this album live? Do you plan on touring with a focus just on Pleasureland as a stand alone piece? Or will you mix in some old favorites?

HM: We will be performing Pleasureland live when we’re in the UK in November. I’ll be playing other songs as well, but more stripped down versions.

AF: What feeling or emotion or vibe do you hope to convey during a Haley show? How do you want people to feel when they step out into that Minnesota cold?

HM: I suppose it would be nice to have folks walk away from the show thinking, “There is more to this artist than I thought.” People tend to pigeonhole, label, or be reductive in women’s capabilities as artists. It’s not intentional, just the way it is.

AF: Do you feel like you’ve been pigeonholed in the industry?

HM: Definitely. I have a lot of music, and it’s kind of all over the place. In my other band, Gramma’s Boyfriend, I write the lyrics/melody and sing my ass off – but the band is consistently panned as my “side project” and any review mostly references what I’m wearing on stage. They don’t understand that comprehensively, I’m a pretty versatile musician. I’ve always felt like the “biz” doesn’t quite know what to do with me. And that’s okay!

AF: What music are you into right now? What do you have spinning on the regular?

HM: Teyana Taylor’s new record has some serious tracks on it. Also really digging this Brit band Sleaford Mods. Oh, and Cardi B’s “Be Careful” is my JAM.

AF: There’s a young musician in St. Paul, she’s thinking of dropping out of college to go on tour. What advice would you give her?

HM: I’d say go for it. I learned a hell of a lot about life by doing that.

Pleasureland is out October 12 (preorder HERE) via Memphis Industries. Check out the band’s tour dates below.

October 4 – Minneapolis, MN @ Trylon Cinema (Video Screening Party)
November 3 – Glasgow, UK @ Stereo Cafe Bar
November 4 – Chester, UK @ St Mary’s Creative Space
November 5 – Newcastle, UK @ The Cluny
November 6 – Birmingham, UK @ Glee Club Birmingham
November 8 – London, UK @ St Pancras Old Church
November 9 – Cambridge, UK @ Storey’s Field Centre
November 10 – Manchester, UK @ St Michael’s
November 11 – Brighton, UK @ Rialto Theatre
November 12 – Amsterdam, NL @ Tolhuistuin
December 8 – Minneapolis MN @ Cedar Cultural Center