"The big thing that hit us when we started touring the last record was that it didn't seem like the progression was what it needed to be," says former GC5 frontman Doug McKean. He's downing a Budweiser in a workingman's pub on West 132nd, where flannel is worn to be warm, not cool. "Anytime we tried to play something slower, it was just awkward. It ended up where people in the band just didn't want to do it, because you have people bouncing off the walls the whole show, then they're going to scratch their heads for four minutes while you do this weird thing. I just got sick of hearing punk rock every night."
"When we got done with a four-, five-band bill, the last thing we wanted to do was put on a Clash record, as great as the Clash was," adds Doug's brother Dave, the band's drummer. "You have to branch out."
And so the McKeans did, spinning bluegrass and vintage Staxx soul on the tour van's CD player. When the band began penning tracks for what would have been its fourth record, it became apparent to the brothers that the new material was stretching beyond the bounds of what fans had come to expect. Rather than keep the GC5 alive in name only, the pair disbanded the group and formed a new project: the more diverse, rock-oriented Motel Blonde. They recruited Ryan Foltz, an Ohio-born mandolin player who spent the last couple of years with the celebrated Boston punks the Dropkick Murphys, to round out the lineup.
"It just wasn't something I could continue doing," Foltz says of his former band. "It almost became a job for me. I'll work on a car or be a plumber before I let music become a job, because I like doing it too much. It would ruin it for me."
Foltz grew up a few miles down the road from the McKeans and ran sound for the GC5 at some of its earliest shows. He also produced Devil, which hinted at the new direction the McKeans were headed, with boozy ballads and touches of rueful pedal steel and mandolin.
"Musically, it was like, 'Where do we want to take this?'" Doug says of the freedom that came with launching a new band. He speaks in the deliberate, measured tones of a schoolteacher, which he is. "We decided to do a bunch of different things. It wasn't like, 'Okay, we're going to be a soul revival band, or we're going to sound like AC/DC.' It was like, 'Let's try everything.' There's some more soul-oriented stuff, there's a couple of straight-ahead punk things, there's some Stonesy rock-type stuff."
In the basement of the West Side house Foltz shares with the McKeans, the three are test-running rough mixes of their forthcoming album, while their shaggy crotch-hound, Civ (named after the Gorilla Biscuits frontman), sniffs their visitor. There are plenty of connections to the gravel-throated punk that characterized the GC5, but there's also a great roots rocker that sounds like Springsteen fronting the Replacements, then a raucous zydeco tune. The energy is still there, but punk diehards will need time to get used to the broader range of sounds. The band's coming-out party happens this Saturday at the Beachland Ballroom; its debut album drops on Thick in April.
"It just feels more complete, rather than this drastic change from before," Doug says of the album. "I'd rather paint it as something that's expressing our entire selves, rather than a small part of them."
"Art schmart," Foltz interjects with a laugh, lopping off the conversation's academic tone. "I'm ready to attack shit. It's time to get going."