In this era of digital photography it’s very likely that many of the young fans who follow local foursome Darkroom aren’t terribly familiar with things like fixing baths and enlargers. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters, according to frontman and lyricist Corey Drake, is the music, and, in the hands of these twenty-something friends, songs often take on the qualities of black and white photography: they’re complex in composition, painstakingly framed and lovingly developed.“On one hand Darkroom’s just a name we came up with, but on the other we really do like the idea of how a photo goes through a process of being developed and how that applies to music,” Drake said in a recent phone interview from his Winona Lake home. “At its best music is a progression. A song goes through a development process, and so does a band.”
In that case it would seem like the guys from Darkroom are in the fixing stage of the game. Having gone through roughly 10 former members since the band first started in 2006 (Drake is the only original from Darkroom’s initial incarnation as a staple of the Grace College music scene) the quartet is now solid with Drake on lead vocals, Kyle Steury on guitar and keys, Lucas Huffman on drums and Jason Bodley on bass.
Turnover is as common as a chord change in band world, and Drake said one of the reasons so many mates have come and gone over the years is the sacrifice that comes of getting serious.
“Being in a band is really fun if it’s just a bunch of dudes writing songs and hanging out, recording music – and that’s how it started, but then I think some of us wanted to make it more than that,” he said. “We wanted to work hard at it, to play out, and that takes a lot of time and sacrifice. We went on a few tours, and it’s hard to hold down a job and tour at the same time, and it’s hard on relationships too.”
With a few East Coast and Midwest tours under their belts and regular gigs close to home – including a March 13 showing at the Dash-In and a March 18 booking at Columbia Street West, not to mention a March 25 appearance on WBOI’s Little Brother Radio – the members of Darkroom know well the need to not let even music get in the way of their relationships with the people they care about. Consider the title track from their sophomore album: “Stay Here With Me (For Better or Worse).
Sounds a bit like a proposal, but in truth the story behind the tune and its meaning is much more complex than that. It began with a few lines supplied by Steury, whose roommate at the time had just been diagnosed with cancer.
“It was an awful time for me, because there was my friend who was suffering and I wanted to do anything I could to help, but in the end I was pretty helpless,” said Steury.
Drake took what Steury gave him and added to it, turning the song into a meditation not only on life’s brevity but the need to seize the moments we’re given with the people we love.
“The song and the album title mean something different to all of us,” Drake said. “I remember when we were writing and recording it we’d all just gotten off road after a four-month tour and we were missing a lot of friends and family. I think for a while I was taking for granted a lot of my friends and the community that was supporting me. So to me it’s about sticking with people who matter most, and it’s also about the band in general. You know, ‘Let’s stick with this for better or for worse.’”
At the time things were a little on the “worse” side. Drake, Steury and Huffman were mourning the departure of their longtime bass player, Lucas Humberd, who left the band to pursue other projects, and they were on the hunt for someone new to round out the rhythm section.
Enter Bodley, who’d seen Darkroom perform while he was living in Nashville and admired the band’s style and accomplished musicianship.
“I loved how they gave the music room to breathe,” Bodley said. “They were really melodic, but at the same time they could play loud. They did it all, and when my friend told me Darkroom was looking for a bass player I basically caused a scene trying to get myself into the band.”
Bodley got into music through the saxophone and drums. He picked up the bass while he was learning the recording ropes in Nashville because “everyone in Nashville plays guitar. There were lots more opportunities for bass players.”
All of the members of Darkroom are basically self-taught, and three play multiple instruments, including Steury, who grew up playing piano, guitar and trumpet and was introduced to music at his grandmother’s piano where his family members would gather for sing-alongs.
“We’d do ‘Happy Birthday’ in three-part harmony. It was that kind of family,” he said.
Drake, who took up guitar at age 12, is also a versatile violinist. He can’t really remember a time when music wasn’t his constant companion. By the time he was a student at Northrop High School he was doing the singer-songwriter thing in local coffee houses, and he even released his own solo CD, Shortcomings, which he described as “me, a guitar and a lot of cheesy harmonies.”
At Grace College Drake was briefly a part of a straight-up rock act called Jefferson Dropoff, but he left that group to form Darkroom with Matt Carter, who served as band’s first lead guitarist.
Huffman, who joined Darkroom after the 2007 release of their debut album, A Curious Excavation, bought his first drumset as a preteen. He met Drake at Grace College when they were playing together in a chapel band.
It’s not a coincidence that the members of Darkroom all hail from Christian colleges. As individuals they’re unapologetically religious, but, according to Drake, Darkroom’s music doesn’t really fit into the sub-genre of Christian music.
“We all definitely see music as a way to share in an experience of transcendence and even to reach something divine, but our sound isn’t explicitly Christian, and our influences are all over the map,” he said.
Those influences include Ryan Adams, Death Cab for Cutie, Wilco, Postal Service, Iron and Wine and Radiohead, just to name a few.
“Corey’s voice is really pop-friendly,” said Steury, “and I tell people, we don’t want to be the Fray but we’re not Animal Collective either. We’re kind of a weird mash-up of a lot of things.”
That was particularly true when Darkroom paired up with a 12-piece orchestra for their CD release parties, the second of which took place during Downtown Improvement District’s Drop Your Avante Guard event at Ryan Hadley’s art studio.
“That was a really wonderful experience for us,” Drake said. “We all believe very strongly in the power of the arts, and it was a real honor to play in that setting, with music and visual arts coming together.”
With a rock solid lineup, a growing fanbase and a new album to promote, it can’t be argued that Darkroom’s future is well, bright.
“We’re just going to keep playing our music and hoping people respond to it the way they have so far,” said Drake. “We don’t know exactly where we’re going to be playing from weekend to weekend. We just have to see what develops.”
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