Music

Southeast Engine Taps Ohio Roots for New Record

Brian Ahnmark
The Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio conceal pockets of history, mystery and intrigue. For enterprising artists, there is an eternal well of inspiration to be tapped from these strange shadows.

Folk-rock quartet Southeast Engine has made an earnest living the past 10 years, driven by the same blue-collar work ethic that perpetuates their hometown of Athens, OH. They are unabashedly proud of their roots, with an appreciation for ancestry that infiltrates their music with a spiritual – nay, ghostly – fervor.

Never more so than now.

Back in March 2010, Southeast Engine performed at The Treehouse in Columbus. Adam Remnant (vocals/guitar), Jesse Remnant (bass/harmonies) and Billy Matheny (keys/harmonies) delivered an impromptu acoustic set sans drummer and founding member Leo DeLuca, who had been sidelined by a bout with the flu. Although the band was still touring in support of their superb 2009 album From the Forest to the Sea, they had a surprise in store for those in attendance: A slew of new material from a forthcoming concept record.

Unbeknownst to most, Southeast Engine was in the midst of recording sessions for a new album, working title 1933. Adam Remnant, the band's principal songwriter, explained that the genesis of the record was a chance meeting with a stranger.

“I live in Athens, Ohio. This older gentleman came around to my house one day – a stranger, I didn't know who he was.” As it turned out, the visitor explained that his father and uncle had built Remnant's countryside house back in the 1930s. “He had these memories of living there as a kid,” Remnant recalled. “I just sat and chatted with him for a while about what his life was like back then in that neighborhood at that time. It left an impression on me.”

Remnant was also inspired by a local documentary about life in southeast Ohio in the 1930s. The film explored how early industry ravaged the landscape, as strip mining annihilated the old growth forest. The documentary also discussed Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his efforts to revitalize the country through the New Deal.

“I feel like it's analogous to the state of our country right now,” Remnant said.

About five miles outside of Athens, there's an old mining town called Canaanville. By all accounts, it is little more than a ghost town these days, ruins overrun by ivy. But Canaanville was once a booming community populated by gritty miners and their families. This town became the setting for Remnant's writing.

“A lot of these new songs are about a fictional family from the 1930s living in southeast Ohio,” Remnant explained as a way of introducing the material during the March concert. Even without DeLuca's propulsive beats, the songs provided a gripping soundtrack for Remnant's moving lyrical narratives. “Curse of Canaanville” featured a classic Southeast Engine mid-song tempo kick turning the song from ballad to spiritual release. “Ruthie” starred Matheny on banjo and a lyrical theme of decay laced with optimism, as Remnant sang, “Let's backfill what's been defiled.” The band concluded the fresh batch with “New Growth,” its musings on winter and spring resonating with the Ohio crowd: “Just as nature intended / New growth is what I'm looking for.” Throughout the six-song teaser, motifs began to emerge from the melodies: Family, loss, rebirth, redemption.

“The new album is very Ohio, specifically southeast Ohio and its history,” Remnant explained after the show. “One thing I love about Athens is that it's different than most other places in Ohio. It's a college town, but it has a different vibe than any other city in the state. It has a really strong sense of community. I like the idea of going back to the 1930s, and I think the mentality exists in the new songs and it exists amongst the people of Athens – the mentality of going back to living off the land. Hard times are here, and how are we going to get by? I don't necessary live that way, but I like the idea of it.”

Remnant was being modest. In truth, Southeast Engine has always approached its art with an organic, natural aesthetic. Consider the story behind the sessions for Southeast Engine's 2009 release, From the Forest to the Sea. The band recorded the album in the woebegone auditorium of a derelict 1800s school in the tiny town of Stewart, OH.

“I was a teacher for a year, and that building is owned by the school district I taught for,” Remnant explained. “They rented out the old classrooms for practice spaces. The band was renting out one of the rooms for a practice space – actually, we were the only band that was renting there. We were looking at the auditorium and we thought, 'This would be a great place to record the album.' They had a big wooden stage with an old upright piano, and we knew the guy who tuned it. The studio we worked with is really adaptable to that and brought in the gear to record.”

It was hot as hell with no air-conditioning, but Remnant said he wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

“It was really fun because we would sleep there,” he said. “It's a small farming community called Stewart, and the community uses that building for its Halloween haunted house. We weren't technically supposed to sleep there, but we did. It was really spooky. It added to the adventure and the memory of making that album.”

For the new record, the band opted for the comforts of a “legitimate” studio, capturing the bulk of the material in a four-day session in February 2010 with producer Josh Antonuccio at 3 Elliot Studio in Athens. The working title of 1933 gave way to an official moniker of Canary, a nod to the primitive safety precautions used in early mining days.

For Canary, the band committed to capturing live recordings on tape, which for the first time included Remnant's lead vocal takes.

“I'm really excited about this record,” said Jesse Remnant, Southeast Engine bassist and Adam's brother. “Other than some harmonies and a few overdubs, we did the whole album live.”

Canary does not yet have an official release date, but eager listeners will have the opportunity to hear the new songs in a live setting. Southeast Engine returns to The Treehouse in Columbus on Thursday, November 11. The show is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. On Friday, November 12, the band will perform at Casa Cantina in Athens at 10 p.m. That concert will include a set of Neil Young songs in addition to Southeast Engine material.