As band goals go, the one Chris Koza set roughly 18 months ago—to release four full-length albums tied to the changing seasons in one calendar year—takes the word "daunting" to new heights. It's the sort of preposterously ambitious plan that musicians hatch over too many beers, only to abandon when clearer heads prevail come morning. The whole endeavor would smack of hubris if Koza and his compatriots hadn't already proven themselves among the most consistently engaging and impressively dynamic acts on the local scene over the previous five years. During that time Koza's brainy folk-pop ascended from free weeknight gigs at the now defunct Dinkytowner to headlining First Avenue's mainroom to celebrate the release of 2008's The Dark, Delirious Morning.
While they've become a hot local quantity, breakout success on the national level has thus far proved elusive, which has nothing to do with the appeal of their music and everything to do with the vagaries of the fractured modern music industry. If there's any justice in the blogosphere, Crater Lake—the first album in the series, which is being released under the new full band nom de plume Rogue Valley—will go a long way toward elevating the group's national profile.
The motivation behind the epic project for Koza and his bandmates, however, wasn't thoughts of catching the ever-fickle ear of the web so much as reclaiming the reasons they make music. "It just feels like a much more effective way to spend our time than driving around the country playing shows again," admits Koza, who logged multiple coast-spanning tours with his bandmates in the latter half of the 2000s. "It's kind of depressing and exhausting to find yourself in situations where you drive hours and hours just to be like, 'Well, here we are in Sacramento sitting at a bar famous for selling the most 24-ounce PBRs in the region.' This was a way for us to spend time working on music and improve together in a way that felt more constructive than that."
Crater Lake's dozen songs nicely encapsulate the traits that have already made Koza's band a beloved Minnesota music fixture (Koza's clear and winning tenor, literate but playful lyricism, mid-tempo tunes whose deceptively poppy guitar hooks sink their teeth in with repeated listening), while simultaneously pointing in exciting new directions (the slide-guitar-driven album closer "El-Ay" finds Koza channeling his inner Tom Petty for the first time, to tasty results). While The Dark, Delirious Morning embraced the studio as its own instrument, layering synthesizers, drum programming, strings, and horns at seemingly every turn, Crater Lake opts for a more organic approach. Human voices provide its primary flourishes, with Koza, longtime guitarist Peter Sieve, drummer Luke Anderson, and bassist/secret vocal weapon Linnea Mohn joining forces on nearly every chorus, and gorgeous harmonies providing added punch throughout.
"Stripping back the sound somewhat was an entirely conscious choice," explains Koza. "It was really a reaction to getting out there and playing shows behind The Dark, Delirious Morning and realizing that some of the songs just weren't the same without those key elements on the record that we couldn't replicate live. I wanted to make sure this time that if we did have any extra instrumentation, it was more complementary to the arrangement and not central. I didn't want to use any horns or strings. The rule of thumb I've been going from now is, if we can't play it I don't want to put it on the record."
With a purposeful shift in sound, new name, and new modus operandi (nonstop recording replacing nonstop touring), the band is clearly relishing its reinvention. "I don't think it works to keep doing something the same way and expect different results," claims Koza. "The thing to do is try it differently and be okay with not knowing exactly what's going to come from it. That's a better way to keep us all interested."
"I feel like we're ratcheting up the world's tallest roller coaster right now, and once [the Crater Lake CD-release] show happens we're off and going and there's no looking back," offers Mohn. "We're already on to working on the summer album. We can't really take the time to parse out the details of the present too much because there's so much work left to do."
"We always talk about how great real albums are as opposed to a string of disposable tunes you can just cherry pick," says Sieve as our conversation winds down. "It's nice to be making something meant to be consumed like a giant novel that will be more rewarding when taken in as a whole. It feels great to have so much work to look forward to and know what we'll be doing for the next year. We've laid out a path, now we just have to walk it."
ROGUE VALLEY play a CD-release show with Jeremy Messersmith and JoAnna James on SATURDAY, APRIL 10, at the FITZGERALD THEATER; 651.290.1221