Emerson Drive Biography
We're at Six Flags/Kentucky Kingdom, the latest stop on Emerson Drive's apparently endless tour. They rolled into town at 5:30 this morning, just in time to crash for a few hours in their hotel. It's two o'clock now, and sound check -- a multi-hour ritual before each gig -- is about to begin. Bassist Patrick Bourque and drummer Mike Melancon are onstage in the open-air venue, jamming through their own private set -- "All Blues" by Miles Davis, which melts into a nameless fusion groove that breaks down to five beats per bar -- as engineers nail the sound. The others will arrive later, but already a crowd has gathered outside the gates, screaming out the band's name or, simply, screaming in anticipation of this evening's show.
Such is life for Emerson Drive -- singer Brad Mates, guitarist Danick Dupelle, keyboardist/guitarist Dale Wallace, fiddler David Pichette, Bourque, and Melancon, the hottest young phenomenon in country music. Their world is the road, the stage, the road again, and every now and then, a visit to a recording studio. Whether behind the mic or splayed out on the floor of their bus, watching a new DVD as they barrel through the night to their next gig, there always seems to be a wind at their back, pushing them faster, rushing them toward something that they might only have dreamed of not so long ago.
Ask them where home is, and they'll answer, "The bus." And they're serious. But if that sounds pathetic, forget it: These guys are having a blast. There's no place they'd rather be, except for in the spotlight and in front of their fans. And there's no one they'd rather be with than their family -- which is to say, each other.
Whatever rigors they encountered on their travels over the past year or so were blown away by distinctions – ACM Top New Vocal Group/Duo [awarded in 2003]; Billboard’s #1 Top Country Artist of the Year for 2002; R&R’s #1 New Artist MVP for 2002; Group of the Year for two consecutive years, from the Canadian Country Music Association; two Top 5 hits with “Fall Into Me” and “I Should Be Sleeping”; as well as a number one music video on CMT's Top Twenty Countdown with “Fall Into Me” -- that flashed past like mileage markers en route to their next engagement.
And here, as roller coasters roar and onlookers call out their names, the band takes a few minutes on the bus to look forward to another milestone: the release of What If?, their second album for DreamWorks Records Nashville.
All it takes is one spin through the new album, What If?, to realize why these accolades have come their way: Emerson Drive is more formidable than they’ve ever been. The invigorated sound of Emerson Drive is apparent throughout What If?. They've always had powerful vocals, with solid harmonies behind Brad's electrifying lead. But now, there's nothing they can't handle; from the exuberant interplay of the voices on their cover of "Fishin' in the Dark" to the nifty basso on the chorus to "Waitin' On Me" (that's Dale, by the way) to the passion and unity that drives the ballad "I'll Die Tryin'," they chomp down every challenge and seem hungry for more.
Richard Marx, who produced two songs from Emerson Drive and all of What If?, has said as much himself: "This is a better band now," he declares. "There's a higher camaraderie factor. Everybody's enjoying the process more. The band feels as I do, which is that all of this has happened for a reason."
"We've reached a new level," is how Brad puts it. "Bringing in three new members has given us an upgrade in sound. We've worked hard to take the next step in our music. I guess you don't realize how much is possible until you have people like Dale, David, and Patrick step into the picture. Once we brought them in, it was like starting all over again: Doors opened, and the music just fell out of us."
Instrumentally, the sound has grown; Patrick's bass playing, drawing from funk and jazz as well as country, locks with Mike's rock-solid drumming in a groove that's irresistible at any tempo (check out that tasty glissando that Patrick lays down just before the second chorus on "You're Like Coming Home"), while on tracks like "Simple Miracles" Dale's keyboards paint the most vivid textures heard to date from this band. Whether pushing the beat within the rhythm backup or trading fiery licks with Danick's guitar on "Still Got Yesterday," David upholds Emerson Drive's standards for nothing but the best fiddle performance.
You'll hear more of their own songs on What If?, too. Outside material comprised almost the entire first album, but on this one they wrote several themselves. "It can be tough for a new band to get one of its songs out there right off the bat," Brad explains. "We were determined to be heard, and if that meant doing other writers' songs, that was fine with us. But we're writing more and more all the time. We've kept learning and maturing, so it felt right to put some of our own things on the new album."
"DreamWorks gave us as much time as we needed to finish the album," Brad says. Between a hectic tour schedule and being in and out of the studio, Emerson Drive chose not rush the album and worked for almost one year to get it just right. During its creation the guys juggled a schedule that typically included travel and performance for three to four shows per week, interspersed with brief visits to Nashville or to Richard Marx's home studio in Chicago for recording. This would be a back-breaking routine for most artists, but Emerson Drive thrived on it: "It was great to record while being on the road," Brad insists, "because we were able to try out new material onstage and see how the fans reacted."
At one point, they all moved into Richard Marx's house and cut nine tracks in only four days. "We were on fire," the producer remembers. "When I was with one of them, the others would be in the basement with my kids, playing video games. We would work all day, take a dinner break, watch movies, and work some more. I called it 'Camp Marx,' but they really became part of the family."
In the end, What If? came out sounding strong and only intensified the group's determination to make it to the top in a field that's dominated by solo artists. No matter how well your normal country superstar gets along with his or her musicians, there's still a line drawn between the headliners and the rest of the entourage. Not so with Emerson Drive; they're all on this bus together.
"I wouldn't even want to think about being a single artist," Brad insists. "If you have six people working for the same thing, why would you want to change that?"
"That fits with my own personality," David says. "I've never been a backup fiddle player. And I would never see Patrick as a backup bass player. It's the same for Dale and everyone else. We are members of a band."
"That's huge," Brad affirms, "and not just for the musicians. We've got a driver, a couple of techs, the merch guy, and they're all part of the family. It's funny; we'll walk out and horse around before the show with our merch guy because he's one of us. That's the cool thing: We can let other people come into the picture. I wouldn't have it any other way."
Neither would those who've already felt what's special about Emerson Drive. All that was magical about that debut album is even more evident on What If?. This is more than a great album; it's a snapshot of a life being shared by some exceptional musicians and their friends, one that will inspire younger followers to share in the fun and stir memories among older listeners of adventures from their own lives, not so long ago.
It's around four o'clock now, and beneath a glorious blue sky the whole band has assembled to complete their sound check. Brad, looking fit in a sleeveless T-shirt, a bottle of water in his hand, is at the mic as they play through "You're Like Coming Home." The song is flowing easy but rocking too -- then, gradually, one member after another drops out until Brad is singing alone, bringing it home with keening high notes and a final slow swoop into a rumbling bass. Outside, looking in through entry gates, fans shriek as the band grins, waves, and leaves to ride the roller coasters until showtime. …
Tomorrow, they leave for … wherever. It almost doesn't matter -- Emerson Drive are on their way.