Nashville’s Waker used to be known as Koa, but they felt like they needed to rebrand because the world wide web was confusing them for KOA Campgrounds. They also replaced a drummer (Dave Czuba is the new drummer) and added a keyboardist, David Crutcher.
The origins of the band can be traced to lead singer Chase Bader and guitarist Conor Kelly meeting in fifth grade in Denver, but Bader calls Birmingham home. Before finishing high school, Bader’s family relocated to Birmingham for a job, and he graduated from John Carroll High School.“I did a lot of solo stuff while I was in Birmingham,” he said. “I played a lot of open mic nights at Heart and Soul, a lot of stuff at BottleTree. I had a neighbor named Henry Dunkle who played a lot. He’d tell me a lot about the scene and what was coming out at that time when I had moved from Denver. I went to a lot of shows in Birmingham — BottleTree, [the] Crawfish Boil when that was a thing. I’ve been lucky to get to see the music scene grow in Birmingham.”
Just a year removed from where they all met in college at Belmont, they’ve already shared stages with some big names: JJ Grey & Mofro, Moon Taxi (another band with strong Birmingham ties), Galactic, and The Wailers. And perhaps that diverse roster of talent can infer what to expect from Waker’s EP and their live show. The music is built for exploration; the shows are high energy.
“I really learned a lot from JJ. He’s such a dynamic performer,” said Bader. “He’s exactly who you think he is, down to earth and relatable. We also just spent a week with Blues Traveler, which was also an eye-opening experience. All of those guys are super genuine and very kind; very down-to-earth and accepting of our music. It’s cool to see a band like that that had such success, and you’re playing with them in a room that holds 600 people and you step back and watch 600 people sing every word of ‘Hook’ or ‘Run Around.’ It’s a really powerful statement, and when you talk to them before and after the show, they’re really humble guys and they don’t let that success overwhelm who they are.”
The EP is very successful at capturing a live jam sound more than most studio EPs. Jam bands aren’t known for making great studio records, but Waker isn’t quite a jam band. They’re built for radio success, with a sound very reminiscent of OAR.
“We like to keep it open-ended,” he said. “When we were starting out as a band, we’d write a song and we’d road test it and try out all of this stuff. When it came time to record it, we’d dial it back for a studio version. But now that we’ve developed and matured as writers, it’s more like we write a song that’s very effective; everything is there and working well. Then we take it to a whole new level live. We kind of let it expand. Maybe there’s a section where we change a couple of chords.
“It depends on the audience, too; there’s a song on our EP called ‘Lover.’ After the bridge there’s a section where if we have a responsive crowd, we’ll call it back and say, ‘Hey, let’s do the [singalong section] … It’s amazing the interaction you can get if you just look at a song and say, ‘Hey, this may be a cool section to get people to clap in’ or ‘Maybe everybody cuts out and it’s just percussion and keyboards.’ You find those moments to give each member of the band a spotlight and keep it more collaborative.”
They’ll add some covers. They’ve played around with the Grateful Dead’s “Estimated Prophet” and Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band’s “10th Avenue Freezeout.” The set is mostly originals, but in the spirit of playing off of the audience’s energy, they’ll toss in something that they think can work on occasion.
The band also recorded an Audiotree session in Chicago this summer to complement their EP, which was re-released as This Is Waker upon the band’s name change. The former was recorded with all current band members, but the band plays all of the previously released material and feels like it is representative of their current work. A full-length will come in 2017.
“We’re shopping a couple of producers,” Bader said. “We’ve got a guy that we think vibes well with the band; he’s a real song guy. He looks at the lyrics and works at it from a writer’s perspective because he is. So we’re in the process of looking at the songs and eliminating some, deciding which songs are the strongest. We’re getting into pre-production and that’s exciting.”
Waker comes to Workplay on Friday, November 11 with Stop Light Observation. The show begins at 8 p.m. and tickets are $12. For more information, visit workplay.com.