Zac Brown Band is going home.
Two years after releasing Jekyll + Hyde – an album that twanged and head-banged its way from rock to EDM, pulling the group far away from its country roots – the band is prepping for the May 12th release of Welcome Home. Produced by Dave Cobb, it’s a back-to-basics project, picked clean of ZBB’s recent diversions and, instead, steeped in everything that made Brown famous: Southern storytelling, rootsy instrumentation and the sonic swell of eight bandmates who, once again, are firing on the same cylinder.
“We went back to being very minimalistic,” Brown tells Rolling Stone Country. “I feel like something happened to me when we were recording Jekyll + Hyde, where we cleaned the white board creatively. We got to experiment. We got to go all over the map, from rock to electronic songs. Now, I’m able to do all my experimental things with Sir Rosevelt, and it’s helped me get down to the basics of what ZBB started out as, which was very much a singer-songwriter type of approach. That’s really what the rest of this album is.”
Ah, yes. Sir Rosevelt. To understand what Welcome Home sounds like, it’s helpful to know what it doesn’t sound like, which is Brown’s dance-pop side project. Formed in 2016 alongside Niko Moon and Ben Simonetti – the hit songwriter and studio engineer, respectively, who helped bring much of Jekyll + Hyde to life – Sir Rosevelt has become a repository of sorts for the bandleader’s not-so-country songs, giving Brown the opportunity to flex his pop muscles without alienating the fans who may want more “Chicken Fried” and less “Beautiful Drug.” Those lines were blurred on Jekyll + Hyde, an album recorded before Sir Rosevelt’s existence.
“I never wanted to abandon anything ZBB did,” Brown says of Jekyll + Hyde‘s pop-leaning sound, “but I wanted the opportunity to try and make people dance, and create something that lived on more of an international platform. This band has been so blessed; we have 15 Number One songs, and during every single show, we’re expected to play them all. That’s basically three quarters of a show. Sir Rosevelt is a fresh start. It’s like if you have a pizza company, and you’re eating pizza every single day, and you love it, but you need more than that sometimes. We’ve figured out how to do both.”
With Moon and Simonetti along for the ride, Brown spent a year writing Welcome Home‘s track list, finishing the work during a trip to Alaska.
“It’s inspiring to be in a place like that, sitting on a glacier with a laptop and our guitars”
“It’s just one of my favorite places,” he says of the Last Frontier state. “I get a feeling in my chest that I don’t get anywhere else. It’s just the grandeur of everything. The nature is stunning. There’s a primal part of me that feels very much at home there, and it’s inspiring to be in a place like that, sitting on a glacier with a laptop and our guitars, hammering out these tunes.”
Back at home, Brown rounded up his namesake band – now an eight-piece outfit featuring two percussionists and nearly a half-dozen multi-instrumentalists – and headed to Southern Ground, the group’s recording studio in downtown Nashville. Producer Dave Cobb urged them to record quickly, letting instinct drive each song forward. The guys agreed.
“The song ‘All the Best’ was recorded in one solid take,” Brown remembers. “‘Start Over’ was one take, too. We just went into the studio and captured what we do. Normally, we have pre-production for a week, and we work out all the harmonies then. We just did it on the spot this time.”
Once the tracking sessions were over, everyone reconvened at Cobb’s new headquarters: RCA Studio A, where Waylon Jennings and Dolly Parton once crafted their own classics. There, surrounded by history and top-notch gear, the band blasted Welcome Home‘s drum tracks into the studio’s main room, capturing the playback through a new set of microphones. The result: a bigger, bolder drum sound, born in the Southern Ground studio but sweetened by RCA’s acoustics.
“We basically took all the drums on this record,” Brown clarifies, “and we re-amped them in the RCA studio. We were able to get this new sound, just playing the drums through a speaker in that room. So there’s a little big of magic from Cobb’s studio sprinkled in there.”
Dan Fogelberg. Jim Croce. James Taylor. The Allman Brothers Band. These are the names Brown excitedly lists as Welcome Home‘s biggest influences. In the same breath, he sings the praises of electronic superstars Skrillex and Avicii. Strange bedfellows? Perhaps. But this is the new Brown – a country boy with an international palette – and he’s hellbent on straddling those boundaries. If Jekyll + Hyde showed the full range of his aspirations, then Welcome Home consolidates his twangier tastes, redefining Zac Brown Band as a country act with bedrock material like first single “My Old Man.” These days, though, Zac Brown Band is only half of the picture. Sir Rosevelt is here to stay.
“Am I scared about backlash?” Brown asks, knowing that his unique occupation – the frontman of two vastly different projects, one rooted in the tradition of the modern South and the other informed by the late-night playlists of international dance clubs – is a bit uncommon in the conservative world of country music.
“Look, there have been Chris Gaines-type experiences with other artists who’ve been trying to exercise this creativity,” he says, alluding to Garth Brooks infamous alt-rock alter ego. “But then there’s people like Pharrell [Williams]. I’m talked to Pharrell a lot about this. Most bands have a shelf life of about five years, and if you’re not curious about what’s around the next corner, then it’s like you’re the same actor in the movie every time you perform. You’ve gotta play the same role over and over again, and eventually, you’ll stop getting asked to do it. Creatively, music is such an incredible medium, and now I get to paint in a million different colors. Everyone these days is ready for diversity. People’s playlists have all kinds of music on there. I’ve figured out a formula that makes it all work.”