Conventional wisdom suggests that the only way for an upstart band to find success is through relentless touring. The optimistic view of this is that live performance is what connects musicians to fans in a way algorithms or record reviews never could. The more cynical view is that in the face of meager album sales, bands must become de facto T-shirt companies, using their tunes as merch-table magnets.
But the Raleigh band Lightning Born offers at least a glimpse of an alternative. Though its live performances have been sporadic, and its recent self-titled debut album arrives three years after the band’s formation, the quartet attracted the attention of the California label Ripple Music and its devoted, if far-flung, audience.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the roster includes well-established musicians. Singer Brenna Leath also leads the hard rock band The Hell No and, more recently, the doom trio Crystal Spiders. Drummer Doza Hawes has played with Mega Colossus and Bloody Hammers, among others. Guitarist Erik Sugg leads Demon Eye, and bassist Mike Dean is best known as the bassist and occasional frontman of Corrosion of Conformity.
Lightning Born draws elements of them all in its hard-grooving proto-doom. Leath’s dynamic vocal is a compelling complement to the burly swing Hawes and Dean ply in the low end and the earworm riffs Sugg reels off. (“He is a riff machine,” Hawes says.)
“We have international interest, in part because of Mike Dean,” Leath says. “But also, the genre that we’re in and the ‘#RippleFamily.’ They really have a worldwide network of people who are passionate about this genre of music, who follow it even though it’s somewhat niche.”
For a busy quartet that balances Lightning Born with the demands of other touring bands, careers and families, that built-in interest allows the band to exist and grow with a more laidback approach. Whereas Hawes’s previous outfits focused on precision and repetition, Lightning Born takes a looser approach, rehearsing in Deans studio, where they can press record anytime they find the right groove.
“Mike’s encouraging us just to experiment and play off the cuff, and whatever ideas come out, we’ll put them on tape,” Hawes says. “We’re just playing riffs together and all of a sudden, there’s a song.”
That approach also allows for accommodating the band members’ schedules. When Leath was pulled away by business travel, her bandmates would send her their recordings so she could write lyrics and vocal melodies to bring back to the studio. But the band does have limitations, self-imposed and otherwise.
“The things you do for love are not the things you do for money,” Leath says. “This has been and continues to be a passion project for us. It’s a lot of fun in the studio, and we’re fortunate to have Mike’s studio to do it in. But I think it’ll be more of a festival project than it will ever be a heavy touring project.”
So far, though, it’s working. Lightning Born played the annual Maryland Doom Fest twice ahead of the album’s release, appeared at last year’s Hopscotch Music Festival, and are booked for the September festival Descendants of Crom III in Philadelphia. And even with no formal tour planned, pre-orders of the LP’s limited-edition variants are already selling out in Europe.
Leath acknowledges that live performance is still a vital aspect of being in a working band. “There’s still a heavy appetite for live music and live shows,” she says. But Lightning Born seems to have struck a balance that allows its members to maintain separate lives while growing a fanbase, conventional wisdom be damned.
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