By Ashley Zimmerman
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By John Hood
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By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
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This weekend, our very own "fold-out party Bible," PureHoney magazine, celebrates its third year of existence. The noble endeavor of creating an indie print publication in this digital world is undertaken by Steve Rullman. Besides going strong, PureHoney is hosting a proper shindig at Respectable Street to celebrate its anniversary, featuring stellar local bands like Plastic Pink, Sweet Bronco, and Central Florida's indie folk troupe Roadkill Ghost Choir.
In the same alt vein as this local music guide, the organic Americana sound created by Roadkill Ghost Choir stands in stark contrast to the sleek, modern, Top 40 radio pop. Banjo-led songs with touches of folk, like the group's breakout track "Beggars' Guild," are as refreshing as taking a dip in Central Florida springs.
Add steel pedal guitar licks and Southern-rock charm and you'd assume the five guys who make up the band grew up in some tiny town in Florida's zany swampland. In actuality, the three Shepard brothers at the band's core — vocalist/guitarist Andrew, bassist Zach, and drummer Maxx — were raised in Deland, a town near Orlando.
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Frontman Andrew's first time dabbling in the world of music was, surprisingly, an electronic experiment. "I was really into producing chilled-out glitch beats over Rhodes piano keystrokes," admits the pensive, soft-spoken, 25-year-old singer. At age 15, Andrew spent entire afternoons composing minimalistic digital songs along the lines of then hero Jimmy LaValle's synthesized solo project, the Album Leaf.
It was not until age 19 that Andrew discovered the sweeping orchestral melodies of Sufjan Stevens and, a few years later, started exploring the country yearnings of Willie Nelson. He calls the discovery of Nelson's outlaw country tunes a "defining moment" in his young career because it caused the young musician to begin crafting songs.
Just a few years later, Roadkill Ghost Choir was fully realized when Andrew asked his two brothers to perform with him at Deland's Café Da Vinci. Scheduled to be a solo acoustic set, where Andrew would perform songs he had been working on over the past year, he thought adding Maxx and Zach would round out the performance. Surprisingly, this was the first time the Shepard bros had ever performed together.
"Yeah, it really doesn't make much sense, but I'm glad we figured it out," says Andrew. "My brothers never played out much, and I spent all my time writing music in my room." Joined by guitarist Stephen Garza and pedal steel/banjo player Kiffy Myers, the siblings struck a magical musical equation. Its roots are in folk music, but it has a modern atmospheric slant highlighted by Andrew's haunting, Thom Yorke-like yelps.
Success came at a rapid speed for the Shepard gang — one fan posted a song of theirs on Reddit, thereby catching the ear of notable comedian Joe Rogan, who in turn championed the band on his successful podcast. After just an EP's worth of material, the five-piece found itself on the iconic Late Show With David Letterman. Andrew says the performance was one big blur for him. "It wasn't until I was shaking this dude's [Letterman's] hand that I came to realize what a big moment this was."
On August 19, Roadkill Ghost Choir released its debut full-length, In Tongues. Andrew says it is much more cohesive than his group's introductory EP, Quiet Light. "There's more of a joining thread," he explains. The record takes more of a rock bent too. "The banjos are not upfront like they are on 'Beggars' Guild.' " The result is a record that takes many cues from My Morning Jacket's postrock flair.
As for how the band linked up with PureHoney, the story's simply romantic. The Roadkill crew was prepping for a show at Bamboo Room last year when Andrew picked up a copy. "I was thoroughly impressed," Andrew says. "Local magazines are usually terrible!" But it's clear PureHoney is sweet enough to draw in even the singing specters of roadside fallen animals.