- with guests From Satellite
Taproot's Stephen Richards sits in the family room of his Ypsilanti, Michigan home, contemplating the question he's often asked -- What kind of band is Taproot? "My favorite thing to tell people," offers Richards, who's surrounded by his bandmates, "is we're heavy enough to have done OZZFest twice, but then again we're the only band that wore all-white."
That may be the most definitive explanation you'll hear about Taproot. The quartet bangs the heads and shakes the rafters like the heaviest of 'em all -- but it does much more than that. Taproot is a group that is neither defined nor limited by genre; rather, it comes at heavy rock with intensity and ambition, constantly searching for -- and finding -- new directions, sounds, textures, ideas and, yes, even looks to establish its own place as a visionary in a field of same-sounding wannabes. In short, Taproot is proudly, and defiantly, its own band.
It was like that when childhood friends Richards and guitarist Mike DeWolf formed Taproot in 1997 with drummer Jarrod Montague and bassist Philip Lipscomb, and it's most assuredly still the case on the group's third album, "Blue-Sky Research."
"Yeah, we definitely like to separate ourselves from being just a heavy band," Richards states. "I think there obviously still are heavy songs, but that's not the most important thing to us. It's putting the best music that we can together with all the different inspirations and people that helped us along the way to compile what we think is the best record. And it is very diverse, but that's something we strive for."
"Blue-Sky Research" is Taproot at its most bold and sound-stretching. The album explodes with the menacing, Godzilla-sized riffs of "I Will Not Fall For You" and rolls through the moody atmospherics of "Calling" and "Violent Seas," the aggressive, Eastern-tinged swirl of the aptly titled "Facepeeler," the big beat rock energy of "April Suits," the huge hooks in "Birthday" and twisting fury of "So Eager." "Nightmare" was inspired by Richards' distaste for late-night televangelists and features a bevy of sounds from a children's xylophone, piano strings played with a guitar pick and dulcimer. "Promise" cruises in a smooth, upbeat fashion that's a little New Wave, while the gentle, instrumental title track builds into the howling fury of "What's Left."
"Blue-Sky Research" has an epic story behind it, too, a 28-month odyssey that began in November of 2003 and stretched across numerous writing sessions that produced more than 80 songs that were considered for the album. That wasn't its intended path, but at the same time it was the only way Taproot could create the kind of album it envisioned. "We just kept going and kept going," recalls DeWolf. "There were points where it was just painful, but you look back in the end and, God, I'm glad we're really blessed to be given this huge amount of time to be allowed to better ourselves."
Flash back to the start of "Blue-Sky Research," when Taproot rolled into Los Angeles after driving cross-country -- and surviving a blizzard in the Rockies en route. ("The drive took a couple years off my life!" DeWolf contends.) The group was armed with songs and arrangements, and the initial sessions produced what most bands would consider a finished album. But the creative tap had not yet shut off. "We were writing and coming up with new ideas all the time," Montague says. "It seemed like every step, people around us were saying 'We really like what's coming out, so keep writing, keep writing...' "
That they did, continuing in Chicago in February of 2004 with a new, and unexpected, collaborator -- Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan. "He wasn't really looking to produce anything," Richards remembers, "but he had just worked with another young band, and I think he really enjoyed it. So he agreed to sit with us and we spent a week with him in Chicago, and it was very cool."
More than that, even, the sessions with Corgan produced three key songs -- "Lost in the Woods," "Violent Seas" and "Promise," the latter of which started as "the heaviest song that we had" and became "our most beautiful kind of non-Taproot sounding song," according to Richards.
"He was great to work with," DeWolf says. "When you're done playing a song, he would have five, 10 ideas right there -- 'You try this. You try that. Don't think about it; just play!' "
Despite Corgan's refreshing frankness -- much desired by the Taproot guys -- the group felt like there was a great deal of mutual respect when they left the Windy City. "He really ended up appreciating us as a band," the drummer says. And, Lipscomb adds, Corgan -- like others before him -- "seemed surprised at our work ethic, also. It was like, 'Wow you guys really work hard. You spent time with it after I left.' That's what we're supposed to do, right?"
Returning to Los Angeles, Taproot reunited with someone who knew that's what they did -- Toby Wright, who produced the group's sophomore album, "Welcome," in 2002. It was then that all the writing and all the lessons gleaned from Corgan and the work that came before that coalesced and began to move forward with renewed urgency. "When Toby came back it was like, 'Ah, now we're making progress again," Richards notes. "We enjoyed making 'Welcome' so much because it was just so much fun experimenting and growing as a band."
Or, as Montague puts it, "He really kicked us in the ass on the last record, and we wanted him to do it again."
The musicianship throughout "Blue-Sky Research" remains intricate and sophisticated but boasts a new, stripped-down sensibility. "We really figured out how to make the parts flow together nicely," says Montague. "Mike has done really well with figuring out how to do that with chord progressions instead of just going to his heavy channel and cranking it up."
Richards points out that, "It's not just doing what we can do but, rather, enjoying making it easier on ourselves as well as making good material."
Translation: "It's never too late to learn new tricks," DeWolf says.
Richards and DeWolf began learning from each other in the third grade and subsequently as high school truant partners, when the singer, who was also playing guitar and drums, would join the guitarist for all-day sessions at DeWolf's home rather than in class. Together they dissected a wide range of favorites, from Metallica to Motley Crue, Def Leppard to Duran Duran, Slayer to Sepultura. "Once we started to listen to different types of music," DeWolf recalls, "it opened the door for us to try new things and experiment and stuff. Even now, we try to do totally different things like we don't hear anywhere else."
After several trying different configurations, Taproot began to take shape when Richards and DeWolf met Lipscomb and Montague, both students at the University of Michigan, where they shared a house with Richards' cousin. Montague, in fact, was headed to medical school but shifted gears because "this had a lot of potential and would be a lot of fun."
Taproot established a regional following throughout the late '90s, then went international after signing with Velvet Hammer Music⁄Atlantic Records and releasing "Gift" in 2000 and garnering radio play with tracks such as "Again & Again" and "I." "Welcome" followed in 2002 getting more radio attention with "Poem" and "Mine" -- the latter bolstered by a video directed by System of a Down bassist Shavo Odadjian. Taproot also hit the road with, and became a kind of good-luck charm for the likes of Deftones, Linkin Park, and Incubus.
Taproot, however, has always focused on something more gradual and long-lasting. "When we first got signed and our management asked 'What do you guys want to do?'," DeWolf says. "We said, 'We want to try to grow gradually and not just blow up all at once, because that can be hurtful'."
So "Blue-Sky Research," as far as Richards is concerned is "the third small step of hopefully a group full of stairs." And the climb, he says, is just as important as reaching the top -- if not more so.
"What we wanted was a career," he explains. "Since day one we had the chance to maybe do something really big off the bat, and we kind of explored our options and found people who were maybe more interested in building this as a career for us so we're around for a long time rather than just hitting big right away and then having people asking 'Whatever happened to those guys?' "