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Concert Preview & Interview: Red Sun Rising

Grant Walters Grant Walters Concert Preview & Interview: Red Sun Rising
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Riding the success of their latest album, "Thread", the Akron alt-rockers will be spotlighted on the main stage at Rock on the Range this Sunday

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I can’t tell you the last time I had a meaningful discussion at a gas station that wasn’t purely transactional, but if you’re as lucky as Red Sun Rising founders Mike Protich and Ryan Williams, a chance rendezvous at a service station in Tallmadge can be life-altering. It’s the stuff of a great Ohio success story: two former high school classmates still hanging around Akron after graduation, bumping into each other in what would normally be the most uninteresting and inconsequential of places, and striking up a conversation in which they unwittingly begin a musical partnership that would take them beyond their wildest dreams.

While chance was the catalyst, Red Sun Rising’s ascent to international acclaim is the result of over a decade’s work of earnestly cutting their teeth in clubs and festivals, gradually picking up steam as their reputation propelled them into bigger venues, bigger crowds, two independent albums and two EPs, and eventually a major label deal with Razor & Tie in 2014. The culmination of that journey, at least thus far, is their recently-released second studio album, Thread.

Thread is a complexly-layered, carefully constructed effort that showcases lead singer Protich’s magnum-sized voice as the vessel for the band’s striking melodic compositions. And while its lead single “Deathwish” does a great job of representing the album’s depth of flavor, Protich insists that Thread should be consumed as a whole.

“I would really encourage people to listen to the whole record. If you’ve just heard about [us], don’t judge us by the one song you’ve heard. Every song on that record is different, and we do that by design and we don’t like to pigeon-hole ourselves.”

The band will take the stage at Rock on the Range this Sunday, earning themselves the honor of playing the main stage among a phenomenally strong lineup that includes Tool, Alice in Chains, and Stone Temple Pilots.

“This will be our third time,” Protich explains during a phone interview a few weeks ago. “I remember the first time we did it we didn’t even have a record yet, and we got in just because we were from Ohio — we had some buzz around that and we played the Jaeger stage. That was a huge gig for us at the time. And then the next year, we played the side stage and there were, like, twenty thousand people — and they told us ‘we think you have set a record for the side stage.’ It was insane. This year we finally get to play the main stage, so it’s just fun to see our name get a little bigger in print on the poster and get onto the bigger stage. We always look forward to it.”

Your fans obviously know the story about how you and Ryan came together as founders of the band, but once you started playing together and booking gigs, how did you weave yourselves into the Akron music fabric and how did that shape what happened to you in the future?

“I think it was cool to be a part of a smaller town music scene rather than New York or L.A., or any other big town. Akron’s just big enough that there’s enough going on, but it’s small enough that you see the same people at shows and you see the same bands, and all the bands know each other. There was the little bit of a competitive nature, but it was also supportive as well, because those same people would show up at your shows and it kind of nurtured that…that competitive nature kind of just pushed everybody. And I think that’s why there are great artists that come out of the area, and there are a lot of musicians that got really far in the music industry and they’re still there. And maybe they didn’t make a full career out of it, but they’re just amazing players.

Ryan and I were those guys that were just kind of sponges, and when we first started the band we took the advice of a lot of these older guys until we got to a level where, not necessarily where we didn’t need their advice anymore, but we got to that next level where we said ‘okay, we’ve utilized them being here, and who can we go to next?’ It was cool to be from a smaller town and to have those kind of people around.”

Speaking of next-level growth, you’ve strengthened your reputation over the years by playing shows and recording, but I know social media had a lot to do with Red Sun Rising’s rise in popularity. Was there a moment where you and the band knew you’d transcended just being a local band?

“There’s this Rock on the River, and it’s a summer concert series. And we’d always played the clubs, and I remember thinking ‘man, we need to get on [that].’ It’s a thing everyone goes to the Akron-Cuyahoga Falls area. Big stage, big production, but it’s usually, like, tribute bands, but it’s got a built-in crowd of about ten thousand people, and we said ‘we should really open one of these.’ So, we finally got that gig, and we were like ‘this is amazing!’ And then we noticed more people were coming to our local shows, and we said ‘well, this is cool. Let’s try and do it again next year.’ We’d had our opening spot, and I think we opened for Zoso, which was a local Led Zeppelin tribute band.

And then by the third year, we were like ‘you know what? Screw this. Let’s try and headline it. Let’s be one of the first original bands to headline this little concert series.’ And they let us do it, and people showed up, and I think that was one of those turning points for us where we got exposed to so many people, and even if they didn’t know us, they came to Rock on the River because it was a thing to do. And they said ‘who’s this band headlining?’ Maybe they assumed we were a tribute band, but then after that we started packing clubs in the area and people really started to take notice. That was a turning point, for sure.”

I remember initially hearing singles from your first record when we still had 105.7 The X in Columbus, and what really got my attention was how intricately melodic those tracks were. There’s that great stadium rock element in your sound that has power and punch, but those melodies are sung and shaped so precisely. How do you preserve that balance as you craft records? Because it sounds like it’s important to your identity as a band.

“Yeah, it is. And I think it’s a few things. One thing, it was our influences, and when were growing up we listened to stadium rock — it was kind of the first rock [music] I was exposed to and my parents would be playing that. I also…my family would listen to The Beatles, so huge melody and harmony. And then I discovered the grunge scene, and even though it’s grungy, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains had those amazing big melodies and harmonies. So, I was always drawn to that. I think the other thing is that I write songs on an acoustic guitar. I don’t jam out in a room with a bunch of instruments — I sit down with a guitar and figure out the melody first, and in my opinion if you can’t make it sound good like that, it sucks. You can color it however you want, and there are other people who will tell you something different, but from my perspective if a song’s melody and lyrics sound great on an acoustic guitar, it’s the best place to start. And then you can add all the flavors you want on top of it in the production.

So, I think that’s the big thing in keeping the melody. We were a little displeased with the way modern rock was — we felt like it was kind of missing that melody for a while. And I think it is starting to come back, and hopefully we’re at the forefront of that.”

You have a really great instrument in your voice, and it’s so expressive and and voluminous. So, when you sing with that level of power and force on a regular basis, how do you take care of your voice? That might seem like sort of a mundane technical question, but I’m always curious about that.

“No, not at all. This last tour in particular, I actually had the most trouble I’ve ever had — I got sick and then I was playing headline shows, so I just didn’t have time to recover and it was kind of a snowball effect when you can’t really get better. Just a lot of sleep and hydration. And I had to learn how to sing. I never took formal lessons, so I had to go to some of my mentors over the years that were singers and ask ‘how do I do this?’ I had to figure out how to use my voice without really pushing my voice hard.

It’s funny, when I talk to people now and they say ‘oh, man, that scream was awesome, that high note!’ And I tell them ‘you know, it’s not very loud.’ I let the microphone do the work and I’ve learned how to use my voice and not have to push as hard as I possibly can to get those notes. That just comes with experience or having someone guide you though that.”

One of my favorite songs on Thread is “El Lazo” — I think it’s such an intriguing tune. Can you tell me what it’s about? It sounds like it could be a memorial to something, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

“It is kind of a metaphor for death, but it’s about when you care about somebody and you have a place in your mind for them, always. And when they’re not around or they become non-existent, it’s almost as if they’ve died, in the metaphorical sense. And that place in your mind kind of has to shut. ‘El Lazo’ means ‘the loop’ or ‘the noose’ in Spanish. And so it’s kind of like this person isn’t trying to get back into your mind or to be there for you, and they might as well have just killed themselves, but figuratively speaking. It is not a call to arms to, obviously, kill yourself. But it’s a metaphor for really missing someone, but finally coming to terms with letting that person go.”

We’ve talked about how far the band has come since those formative days in Akron, and now you’re all operating as a creative collective at such a different pace and magnitude. What have you had to do to adjust as a unit to exist and sustain yourselves now?

“Yeah, we had to find that. When we first went in to record Thread, it was the first time, other than the independent record, where we went into the studio with a full band. Polyester and Zeal was basically just me and Ryan. Even though we’d been touring with the group for two-and-a-half years, but then we had to figure out how to write and record a record together. We tried the whole ‘everybody in one room’, and we got some good stuff out of jamming. But we still found that we had to come back to that acoustic guitar and figure out the structure first, and then have each member of the band come in and bring their flavor to it. Once we figured that out and we got to the studio, it all sort of just flowed and everyone knew what to do to add their strengths.

So, yeah, that took time and it took several sessions for everyone to fall into where their strengths were and utilize them. But once we found it…moving forward it’s going to be even better.”

To see what went into making Thread, check out their behind-the-scenes video.

Red Sun Rising will play Rock on the Range on Sunday, May 20 at 2:20 pm. Single-day general admission tickets are still available ($79.50 plus applicable fees and taxes) and can be purchased only at the festival box office on-site. For more information and music downloads, visit Red Sun Rising’s official website.

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