The Tennessean: "From the Ground Up"
Cincinnati CityBeat: "Missionary Ridge Pledges the Sound of Andy Bodean and the Bottom Boys"
Sponic Zine: "Andy Bodean and the Bottom Boys: Missionary Ridge"
The Rage: "Quirky and Intriguing New Middle Tennesse Band"
NOMA Music: "Mr. Cox: Your Check is Being Sent Out Today"

The Tennessean
"From the Ground Up" By A. TACUMA ROEBACK
Staff Writer

The musicians fueling Black Label Empire, a fledgling indie effort, fervently cling to their methods while reaching out to the masses

They're style-hopping, musically adulterous artists who can't stay married to one sound, conjoining Roy Orbison's rockabilly with Beach Boy sensibility. Add Dr. Dre's bravado, but leave out the cash and car lust.

What you have is music as the mixed-raced child in a segregated classroom.

It's the brainchild of Black Label Empire, an ominous name for a coltish crew of cocksure rock-'n'-roll boys who wouldn't have their baby any other way.

''It's about doing what you do and doing what you love,'' says Black Label member Andy Trundle, ''and letting it all hang out.''

This Nashville collective is composed of several bands, whose members not only play with its multiple groups, but also record, arrange, produce and distribute its own music.

On New Year's Eve, their palatable but curious music was featured at The End, the Vandy-area hole where lip-pierced goth girls and lost refugees from the grunge-era quaffed bottles of Rolling Rock and Budweiser.

So what did they do to mark the occasion? Stormed the stage under a homemade papier-mache dragon. Surely all eyes were on them. But that's what these cats live for.

In the face of a sobering economic reality and nagging self-doubt, they retaliate by making music.

Sure, theirs is the well-told Nashville story of starving artists looking for a big break.

But it's how they do it, living their lives between boxes of Marlboros and recording sessions, designing their album covers and hawking them over the Internet. They represent an emerging pop-cultural idiom: the self-sufficient, technologically able musician.

''There are no rules in music, especially with the Internet,'' says Patrick Himes of BLE, ''and people have to be shown that.''

So forgive them for not taking the traditional route to find musical stardom.

And auditioning for American Idol snobs? No freakin' way. They're not exactly enamored with the music biz hype.

They say they've worked for industry idiots, who engineer the kind of clone-happy, carbon-copy cacophony that uncreative labels deem as music.

They ruefully laugh at the studio closings throughout town. And even regale you with stories of newly signed artists who spend their advance money like divorcees at a strip club only to be indebted to their label later.

So what do they actually want?

''To get on an indie label where they would let us do our thing,'' says drummer Brian Kotzur, who joins Himes, Trundle, Tye Bellar, Jason Barnett and Josh Guntel as core members of BLE.

More specifically, they want to form a partnership with a big, independent label that will allow them to still do everything in-house, yet distribute their records throughout the country.

For now, home is a Hendersonville home studio — think garage meets frathouse — where BLE bands such as Andy Bodean and the Bottom Boys, Communist, Nüthanger, Good People and Fun'iki record their music. They perform at local hangs such as Blue Sky Court and The End, occasionally traveling to New York and Chicago.

There are times when meals consist of beer and fruit . . . or sometimes just beer. Yet they find sanctuary in their music as one does in the arms of a lover.

Behind the love, there's a prayer, of a determined kind, the kind that makes them perform and record ceaselessly or the kind that comes in simple utterances such as this one.

''I hope one day we can make it,'' Trundle says.


As for now, there's still a crowd to conquer.

The End is eerily still until Barnett gets maniac. Friction from his fingers and the frets produces a caustic guitar riff; swilling Budweiser, adrenaline rises. Beating all life from his drums is a shirtless Kotzur, while Himes' fingers pounce on the organ keys. Guntel and Trundle twirl in their own private chasms of sound, twisting, bobbing, bangs flying about their faces. And Bellar, whose eyelids are half-closed, is entangled in some unspeakable ecstasy.

What comes out, at first, is a perverted product that would be described by most of us as disco. The crowd bobs its collective head to the slinky bass line but is jarred when the track gets chopped up by conniption fits of testosterone rock.

''Communist rules!'' a spectator yells loudly. As 2002 wanes, they won't go softly into that good night.

In dreams

Like journals, songs can reflect the history of its composers. Such is the case with Missionary Ridge, a song by Trundle's band, Andy Bodean and the Bottom Boys.

The actual Missionary Ridge conjures thoughts of his grandparents, who lived in nearby Chattanooga. For Middle Tennesseans, the road to Chattanooga runs through the scenic six-mile mountain ridge. Still, Trundle remembers it for more than that.

''Whenever there was a crisis, we had to drive through Missionary Ridge,'' he says.

At Barnett's home studio, where an ashtray is littered with twisted butts, that experience is set to a sonic tapestry of drums, keys, guitars and an organ. Microphone cords and amplifiers are splayed over a worn, brown carpet. Not your typical atmosphere for catharsis, but definitely a conduit for release, where past memories can easily be recalled.

As a young child, Trundle grew up adoring a sport he could never play, so instead, he drew pictures of footballs and sketched the Atlanta Falcons logo.

But music was beginning to get his attention. Soon, acoustic guitars took the place of sketch pads.

In his mid-teens, a cousin would turn him on to The Beatles. His creative fires were further stoked when he saw some pubescent punk rockers laying it down at a local talent show.

Two of those kids were Jason Barnett and Tye Bellar, who had just created the first Black Label band. That was 1992.

Barnett, like Trundle, also had taken up the guitar, while Bellar had gravitated toward the bass. Because music had been integral in all of their lives, their career paths were already etched.

Barnett started playing guitar at 3, and, years later, when he saw Metallica guitarist James Hetfield, that did it for him. He knew that was the kind of sound he wanted to make.

Bellar, the son of a jazz musician, got his first bass guitar at 10.

The nucleus of Black Label Empire, however, would form during their high school years. That's when Barnett and Bellar linked up with an older kid who played drums. His name: Brian Kotzur.

Around 1997, Kotzur, Barnett, Bellar and Trundle began practicing together, earning their chops and shedding their creative insecurities. Attitudes changed. Kotzur says they became fiercely obsessive about their music. There were fights and arguments, he says. But somehow, some way, they survived.

In 1999, Patrick Himes came to Nashville from Dayton, Ohio, to work as an assistant engineer at Woodland Studios.

He recorded Emmylou Harris' guest vocals for an album by alt-country rocker Ryan Adams. He engineered a few more albums from such artists as Atticus Fault and Olu Dara.

He met Josh Guntel, an MTSU music student and pianist, Bellar and Barnett at a karaoke bar about the time the crew built its first studio.

It was all too natural.

''I took all my gear in the studio and haven't left since,'' Himes says. Those guys would form the core of Black Label Empire.

On a November night, they began recording Trundle's song, Missionary Ridge.

Kotzur knocked out the drums. Barnett churned out crunchy guitar riffs. Trundle fingered his acoustic guitar. Himes and Guntel layered the entire thing with the appropriate key and organ accents, respectively.

Then it was Trundle's turn, again.

Bellar, the recorder and engineer, cued the track.

And suddenly a galloping guitar riff got all John Wayne before morphing into this classic rock/electronica hybrid. And in some way, that Chattanooga-area mountain ridge, that very source of anguish — from its tragic but pivotal Civil War battles to those unpleasant memories — was personified.

Trundle lit a Marlboro and took a pull, perhaps to clear the distortion in his soul.

He opened his mouth and sang: ''Where the rhythms roll through me/the skies are blue/and the air is fresh and clean.''

And out of the hurt came a forgiving romanticism. And beauty trumped grief.

Us and them

Thank God for homemade studios, good people and good music. Otherwise, Patrick Himes probably would go broke.

Like a stiff drink, love can make you forget the world around you. Music can be a similar antidote, muting everyday concerns, if only temporarily.

And when they do arise, the world takes care of you.

''Today I got five dollars, I was broke for two weeks before that,'' Himes had said in early December. He recalls another time, after not eating for more than a day, when he was able to get a meal from a friend after playing a gig.

Himes sees it as serendipity, but some might interpret it as struggle.

The latter is perhaps indicative of a much larger issue: to become successful musicians while maintaining creative control over their product by all means necessary.

It's nothing new, musicians have struggled with this for years.

But now more than ever, technological advances allow beleaguered dreamers to become autonomous artists.

Black Label is no exception.

With the right equipment, such as a digital recorder and computer programs such as Pro Tools and Nuendo, musicians can virtually produce studio-quality material.

''The emergence of digital technology makes everybody a player,'' says Americana artist Rod Picott, whose independently produced album Stray Dogs is getting radio play in different parts of the country, largely due to his work as the album's promoter.

He admits that there are struggles when creative artists sometimes have to step into less comfortable roles, like that of an engineer, to finish a record.

But he wouldn't change things.

''It gives you the freedom to explore,'' Picott says.

Luckily, Black Label members have their own studio equipment, otherwise their exploratory tendencies would put them up a creek.

''If we paid for recording time,'' Bellar says, ''it would be insane.''

With $2,000 in a basic Pro Tools set up, Picott says, one could be up and running.

Ultimately, those independent souls believe they can eschew the familiar route to musical stardom.

''Somebody can spend $1,000 on a digital recorder and get 90% of what major labels would get after sometimes spending hundreds of thousands of dollars,'' Picott says.

Express yourself

When the tough gets going, there's sweet, redemptive rock music, or something like it.

And Black Label's seamless roster — each act its own incarnation — spends the entire year locked in a continuous cycle of recording, playing and performing music.

Trundle leads Andy Bodean and the Bottom Boys, who specialize in rootsy, American rock.

Bellar and Barnett perform as Nüthanger, a Euro-dance group, but they also do time in Communist, along with Trundle, Himes, Guntel and Kotzur.

Kotzur also is in Fun'iki, a BLE band that Barnett describes as ''indie rock at its finest.'' Even legendary guitarist Duane Dennison, of Jesus Lizard-fame, plays with Fun'iki.

The personalities are just as varied.

Kotzur is the explosion; Barnett, the rock star. Trundle is the Beatles-esque introvert, toiling with melodies in his head. If Himes is the vibe, then Bellar is the philosopher. And Guntel is probably the emotive, passion-pourer. All offer elements that can fuel a band.

They also can destroy one. Proof is in the fact that the divorce rate for bands is a lot higher than the divorce rate for marriages.

''Bands are only going to last for so long,'' Kotzur says. ''You just have to be a good player and you'll get by.''

Add to that the uncertainty of the music business, which effects even the self-sustaining creative entities.

''You can have $10,000 one week and be broke the next,'' says Jason Barnett's mom, Joan.

In Joan Barnett's voice, the worry is palpable. As a classically trained guitarist, her husband played at Opryland Hotel and has traveled throughout the country.

There's a familiar rule that she has learned to live by in regard to the industry's fickle tendencies.

''It's like throwing mud on the wall. Some of it sticks, some of it doesn't.''

But she has faith in her son's friends. She and her husband, Mark, helped their son build the studio in their home.

''They're really good,'' she says of Black Label.

''We do believe in them.'

Midnight passes and so does 2002.

Communist gets back on that stage. ''Happy New Year,'' Barnett yells to the crowd. Soon, though, the crowd thins out. For some of the folks there, New Year's Eve is just an excuse to be out past midnight. Some cross the street to go to Exit/In, a bigger, more renown venue where greats such as B.B. King once played.

Judging by the size of The End, it may feel like they are miles away from that grander stage. Still they continue to jam with their disco-inspired electronic head rock.

Some of the folks who stay gravitate closer toward the stage. And when Communist comes off, Black Label band Fun'iki takes the stage.

Fun'iki, too, continues to rock, and for this night the cares of the world are temporarily suspended.

God only knows

Despite the looks of it, the new year might be the most exciting time for Black Label Empire. Members say they are in talks with independent record labels to get the kind of distribution they seek.

''It feels good,'' Bellar says.

Barnett adds, ''One of our bands is a critic's pick every other week.''

Uncertainty still looms in this life of rock 'n' roll. For them, tomorrow is the next recording project or performance.

Bellar wants to master the keyboard.

Himes sees himself playing 12,000-seat venues in the future. And one day, Guntel wants to conduct a philharmonic symphony wearing a Spider-Man suit.

For Barnett, it's about getting that distribution deal. Same holds true for Kotzur. Add Trundle to that as well.

They all remain faithful to their music.

They're far removed from the time the first BLE band performed on stage, Nüthanger.

It was in a high school gymnasium.

''After five minutes, the auditorium cleared out, the house lights were turned up,'' Barnett says. Only his mom and grandmother remained.

They rocked on for 30 minutes, he recalls. And they continue to rock on today, in the name of Brian Wilson and Miles Davis, Dr. Dre and Pink Floyd — all forefathers to their little lovechild.

But will the world embrace their music? Can we appreciate it, for all its poetry and dissonance?

''Yes,'' Barnett says, perhaps echoing the sentiment of his mates.

''I think everyone wants to be liked, I want to be liked on my own terms.''

Inside Black Label Empire

The bands
Abraham, Martin & John — California folk rock
Andy Bodean and The Bottom Boys — American roots rock
The Brimlees — Christmas vocal group
Communist — Psychedelic, progressive rock
Faster than P. . . . — Bluegrass
Fun'iki — Indie rock
God's Whip — Contemporary Christian
Live Damage — Hard-core heavy metal
The Good Gospel Truth — Indie-alternative
Good People — Southern rap funk
Leprechaun — Punk rock (dedicated to the eradication of Billy Graham)
Nüthanger — European dance, metal group
Pervert — Multi-genre (hard rock, folk and etc.) act
Tim, Chad & Sherry — Singer-songwriter lounge music

Web design and album covers

Los Studios De Fairfax, owned by Andy Trundle

The core

Jason Barnett: Andy Bodean and The Bottom Boys, Tim, Chad & Sherry — background vocals, guitar; The Brimlees — tenor; Communist, Nüthanger — lead vocals, guitar; Faster than P...., God's Whip — guitar; Leprechaun — keyboards

Tye Bellar: Andy Bodean and The Bottom Boys, God's Whip, Leprechaun, Tim, Chad & Sherry — bass; The Brimlees — bass; Communist — lead vocals, bass; Nüthanger — lead vocals, keyboards

Josh Guntel: Abraham, Martin & John — guitar; Andy Bodean and The Bottom Boys, Tim, Chad & Sherry — piano, lead vocals; The Brimlees — tenor; Communist — vocoder, synthesizer and piano; Faster than P.... — banjo, accordion

Patrick Himes: Andy Bodean and The Bottom Boys — organ, slide guitar; The Brimlees — soprano; Communist — synthesizer, organ, lead vocals; Live Damage — guitar; Tim, Chad & Sherry — organ, synthesizer

Brian Kotzur: Andy Bodean and The Bottom Boys — drums, backing vocals; Fun'iki — drums, lead vocals; God's Whip — lead vocals; Nüthanger — drums, keyboards; Tim, Chad & Sherry — drums, lead vocals and guitar

Andy Trundle: Andy Bodean and The Bottom Boys, Communist — lead vocals, guitar; The Brimlees — soprano; Tim, Chad & Sherry — guitar; Abraham, Martin & John — background vocals and guitar

A. Tacuma Roeback is a features writer for The Tennessean. Reach him at 259-8271 or

back to top

Cincinnati CityBeat
"Missionary Ridge Pledges the Sound of Andy Bodean and the Bottom Boys"

Playing a slippery brand of Power Pop with a peripheral Roots Rock twist, Andy Bodean and the Bottom Boys might hail from the middle of Tennessee, but purists shouldn't come looking for like-minded traditionalists. While the trio has distinctively traditional elements in their sound, they smush them all together, blindfold them, spin them around and set them loose, ending up with something of a carnival ride of fun, dented Americana/Pop.

The common thread for the Bottom Boys is a drilling, hyper-melodic sensibility -- "Missionary Ridge," the title cut from the group's last EP, is a guitar-driven collage of hooks that stick like pickles on the lunchroom ceiling. That is, until the tail end of the song, when the band rips into an electrifying Bluegrass rant that comes on like a blindsiding tackle. On "A Dream in Blue" from the same EP, the Boys rewire a mid-tempo weeper to sound like John Lennon playing Honky Tonk. It's that kind of unpredictability within the course of a three-to-four minute Pop structure that makes Andy Bodean and the Bottom Boys such an undeniably pleasurable listen.

To paraphrase a famous fictional doofus, putting a Bottom Boys CD into your player and pressing "Random" is like a box of chocolates -- you never know what you're going to get. But damn if they all aren't all sweet and delicious. If they can be this jauntily entertaining on record, the group's live show should be a blast.

- Mike Breen, CityBeat

back to top

Sponic Zine
"Andy Bodean and the Bottom Boys: Missionary Ridge"

Five seconds into “Missionary Ridge” (the first track of the EP bearing the same name) everything is fine. Side-by-side guitar and drums come galloping out of the speakers and theoretically anything could happen. Unfortunately, to my disenchantment, anything does happen. Before you know it someone slides their hand down a piano’s keys and a voice starts singing through a vocoder or some kind of voice manipulator. Not what you’d expect from a name like Andy Bodean and the Bottom Boys, is it?

The second track, “Rock and Roll for Fun,” explains it all; these Southern Boys like to have a good time. The problem for me is that on Missionary Ridge Andy Bodean and the Bottom Boys translate a ‘good time’ into an unlistenable hokeyness that bears no interest for me whatsoever. This band screams bright fluorescent colors and big shit-eating grins. And to add insult to injury these boys have decided to turn a four-song EP into an 11 track marathon - providing mono, demo, and stereo versions of the two aforementioned songs ("Rock and Roll for Fun" having an additional ‘outtake’ version), as well as “A Dream in Blue.” Luckily, the last track “Eight Bars of E” is only a nuisance one time around. I wouldn’t wish this EP upon anybody.

- Rob Heater, Sponic Zine

back to top

The Rage
"Quirky and Intriguing New Middle Tennesse Band"

Quirky and intriguing new Middle Tennesse band who describe their sound as "art-rock." While it is intentionally arty and at times does rock, it's much more appealing that that tired tag would suggest. Some of their songs sound like an indie rock mix of Jimmy Buffett and a sarcastic, squeaky McCartney fronting Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. As for their obviously tongue-in-cheek but nevertheless misleading name, there are Americana elements in certain songs, but don't come expecting to hear something from the O Brother soundtrack.

-Heather Johnson, The Rage

back to top

NOMA Music
"Mr. Cox: Your Check is Being Sent Out Today"

From: "NOMA Music" <>
To: "Michael J. Cox" <>
Subject: NOMA Music
Date: Mon, 31 Dec 2001 14:46:32 -0800

Mr. Cox:

Your check is being sent out today.

Here are the reasons why we cannot do anything with these songs:

1.We did not find any of the material to have any hooks. All of the songs we license that are rock oriented have catchy melodies.

2.The material is also old school. In the past it would have sounded current, but not in todays environment. You need to upgrade to a contemporary sound in order to be successful.

3.Also, we found the recordings to be muddied. Probably due to the studio you used. We can only license songs that are broadcast quality as we provide music to major projects.

We will leave the door open for future submissions.

Keep in mind that our comments are aimed at assisting you in coming up with a more marketable product. This is based on 20 years in the business, over 18 platinum album awards, and a lot of success with placing music n TV, film, commericals, etc.

Best of luck in your endeavors.

back to top