Arrows to the Sun—left to right, Gavin McCourt, Andy Stringer and John Hamilton—chose a photo of three Puerto Ricans who shot up the House of Representatives in 1954 for CD album art. “I really like the look in their eyes,” says McCourt. “Plus, when people see it they’re going to think that we’re Puerto Rican.”
Gavin McCourt is stonewalling and loving it. The guitar player and vocalist for Arrows to the Sun is recounting venues where his band’s performed in the year and a half they’ve been playing together when he mentions one show at the Symes Hotel in Hot Springs.
It seems like an odd fit: Arrows to the Sun plays brooding music, viscous guitar licks accented by resonant, thrumming bass lines, and cymbal-heavy drumming—hardly what patrons of a grand old hotel would choose to soak to. It turns out to have been a special engagement, and the band was playing at the invitation of the organizers of a conference convened there.
Curiosity piqued, I ask which one.
“Uh, I can’t tell you,” says McCourt, leaning back in his chair.
“Like you don’t remember?” I ask.
“No,” he says with a shrug and a smirk, “I just can’t tell you.”
McCourt, who wrote many of the songs on Arrows to the Sun’s debut album Hail Men Well Met (a name under which the group previously performed), then promptly dodges the topic, saying, “I’ve always been a fan of the mystery of rock music, the dark side of it…It’s just more fun.”
When pressed about the show, the band explains they’re not allowed to talk about it, saying only it was for a good cause and, as was accustomed when they first started, they played pro bono.
“We generally play for free,” adds bassist Andy Stringer, a business management student at the University of Montana, “but things are changing now. We hope.”
With their new release, a group of loyal fans who turn out for the band’s regular local shows and nearly enough material for another album, Arrows to the Sun is coming into their own, says drummer John Hamilton.
“We knew that the first year or so was going to be about cutting teeth and paying dues and playing those dives and figuring it out and getting to the point where you can actually ask for money,” Hamilton says.
Hail Men Well Met contrasts with its authors’ personable style though it shares something of their playful demeanor. Dark, heavy melodies accompany lyrics about assassination conspiracies (“The Perfect Marksman”) and degenerate social conditions (“Fascism v. Apathy”). But even the weightiest subjects wind up tinged by tomfoolery.
For instance, “Death Waltz,” inspired by McCourt’s years of Catholic education, celebrates a macabre Eucharist with a twisted tribute to transubstantiation. It opens as a circus ringmaster invites listeners to “Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and enjoy our death waltz” while a bouncy 1-2-3 melody of distorted power chords plays in the background. As the band breaks into a riot of noise, McCourt screams “Have a piece of my flesh! You gotta have just one piece if you’re gonna live eternally!” before the trio launches a fuselage of speed metal darts that descend into darkly accented organ music and cackling. Such wicked riffs and hoarse-voiced lyrics may invite thrashing, but the band isn’t about being scary, says McCourt.
“The stuff we’ve been working on, some of it’s really dark,” he says, “but there are other songs that are very poppy and pretty.”
“With nice messages I think,” says Hamilton.
“What? Like bunnies and kitties?” interrupts Stringer.
“But not necessarily killing bunnies and kitties either,” counters Hamilton. “It’s kind of like an in-between.”
In fact, the energy manifested on Hail Men Well Met is something nearly spontaneous, says McCourt. “A lot of our energy and sound just comes from the three of us working together, the chemistry of the band. It’s not an individual thing. It’s a group thing.”
Arrows to the Sun formed when McCourt, a history student at UM who’s lived in Missoula since he was a child, took to performing solo at Sean Kelly’s open mic night. Stringer remembers seeing McCourt “up there rocking out by himself so I just said, ‘You need a band?’ and it worked out.” McCourt says he and Hamilton met under similar circumstances. In the two years since, the band has practiced regularly, played whenever it could, and eventually slotted the time to record at Missoula’s Habbilis Records.
Though they “haven’t done the paperwork yet,” says McCourt, the band plans to sign on to Habbilis’ label and return to the studio as soon as this summer. Also planned for the summer is a tour of Montana, including stops in Havre, Cut Bank, Conrad and Babb as well as other towns where “it’s kind of a treat [because] there’s not a music scene at all.”
Hamilton invokes a show Fugazi played in Miles City in the 1980s after their bus broke down, and imagines Arrows to the Sun following in the footsteps of one of its major musical influences. At the mention of the show, McCourt calls up a confirming memory. “On their first EP they have a photo from the Miles City Café,” he says. “They’re all sitting there at the bar, drinking their pops.”
The juxtaposition of a wholesome small town soda counter with four young punks brash enough to play an impromptu show seems resonant with Arrows to the Sun’s sound.
“We all like heavier music,” says Stringer, citing Nirvana and Queens of the Stone Age as other influences. But, adds McCourt, “we also try and be melodic and that comes from other influences like the Beatles and pop music in general…Lyrically and musically this is a pretty dark record, but I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into a style of music.”
And always, there’s the attraction of the dark side. “Music is an outlet for the inner workings of the psyche,” says McCourt. “I’m not a dark person in life but, I don’t know—there’s something attractive about it.”
Arrows to the Sun plays a CD-release show Friday, April 27, at the Badlander, 208 Ryman St. Good Neighbor Policy and Apples of Discord open. 9:30 PM. $5.