With the accolades that Mace Ballard has piled up over the past couple of years, it's hard to believe the pop-punk band is just now preparing to release its first full-length. But The Next Time You See Sky, to be released this weekend, is indeed its debut long-player, anticipated since 2009's The Time It Takes to Rewind EP. (Last year saw the release of a three-song acoustic EP as well.)
In spring of 2010, Mace Ballard won the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Pittsburgh Rocks contest, the prize for which was a video shoot and cash. Later in the year, the band took home top honors in the "Best Pop/Rock Band (That's Not The Clarks)" category of City Paper's readers' poll. How does a band that had released only about 25 minutes' worth of music total to that point account for the popularity?
"Our last CD was free; we try to make it so it's not expensive" to follow the band, explains singer and guitarist Chris Daley (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is the brother of CP news staffer Lauren Daley). "We try to give fans a lot of content -- we try to let people in, and engage people. We might not have the biggest audience, but they're engaged." The band's approach to self-promotion is a refreshingly down-to-earth one; Daley recalls just a few weeks ago standing outside the New Found Glory show at Altar Bar, handing out fliers for Mace Ballard's release show.
The Next Time You See Sky is a 44-minute blast of contemporary pop-punk with glossy production, but an old-school spirit underneath. ("People sometimes come up to us and say what we play is ‘old-school pop punk,'" Daley says. "But I'm not really sure what that means.") Chuggy guitar breakdowns borrowed from Thrice-style post-hardcore make the band what Daley calls "pop-punk with an edge." Occasionally, the guitar tone and time-signature changes recall bands like Small Brown Bike.
The band recorded the album with Kory Gable at Pin Up Recording in Lancaster, spending a good bit of time driving across the state. ("We put in about 4,000 miles total during recording, just within the state," says Daley.) Production help was provided by Steve Soboslai (Punchline, Blue of Colors).
"Steve came to the practice space and hung out with us before we ever went to the studio -- that's when the album really began," says Daley. "He worked with us on songs, made suggestions. By the time we were ready to record, we knew exactly what we wanted to do."
The result is impressive -- there's an element of the post-emo "new pop-punk," but not enough to make the record same-y. (Daley eschews Autotune, which has been growing in popularity in the genre, but did overlay vocal tracks to give a "chorus" effect throughout.) There are moments -- sing-along choruses, overdubs that highlight particularly triumphant riffs -- that make the record sound truly huge.
If "literary" wouldn't necessarily be the word to describe Mace Ballard, "literate" would. The track list for The Next Time You See Sky is peppered with song titles that reference reading ("A Beginner's Guide to Beginnings," "Close Reading,") and sly puns on contemporary cultural touchstones ("Research in Commotion," "Words With Friends"). The band's name itself comes from an old Western. (Daley has a filmmaking background.) It's a factor that sets the band apart in its genre. How many other pop-punk records released this year reference Antiques Roadshow?
While the band began as Daley's songwriting venture (and has had a few lineup changes along the way), the current roster is truly a collective effort. Guitarist Brandon Lehman writes a good portion of the music on his own, with Daley overlaying lyrics; other songs start with a core Daley develops that Lehman modifies. "He actually will come in with a riff and say, ‘Hey man, can you Brandonize this?'" Lehman says with a laugh. "I didn't really know what that meant at first."
The band is rounded out by bassist T.J. Angelo and drummer Steve LaRussa, who's the band's most recent acquisition. (He recorded drums for the album just a few weeks after joining.) The members were all committed to making a record that worked as an album despite the uncertain future of the format.
"We treated it like an ‘album-album'," Daley says. "There are things we did to make it link together. The song order, I wanted it to be dynamic, just like an individual song is dynamic."
Since the songs weren't written as part of a cycle or a narrative arc, it took some artful putting-together to create a cohesive album. "You get to that dreaded fourth song," La Russa says. "You start strong, then keep that energy through a song or two, then you have to figure out where to go."
"All my years of making mix CDs finally paid off," Daley says with a grin.
MACE BALLARD CD RELEASE with THE SPACE PIMPS, KOJI, ONE LAST MISTAKE, ON THE RUN. 6 p.m. Sat., Nov. 12. Smiling Moose, 1306 E. Carson St., South Side. $6-8. All ages. 412-431-4668 or www.smiling-moose.com