The swift rush of success was both heady and disruptive.
The surprising, if deserved, breakout of Spacebomb’s first record — Matthew E. White’s 2012 debut, “Big Inner” — led to international tours, multiple festival appearances and a host of new opportunities.
It also presented a swarm of challenges to the idealistic vision of a distinctive Richmond sound at once retro and innovative, leveraging local talent and modern recording to recreate the orchestral scale of popular hits from the ’60s and ’70s on a do-it-yourself budget.
“We were an idea,” White says of the record label — “a lot of people on the same page, but we didn’t have those business chops. Every month there were thousands of people learning who Spacebomb was — and we were gone all the time.”
Now they’re home. They’ve opened Spacebomb East, formerly Songwire Studio, a pristine complement to the original Spacebomb in White’s funky West End attic. And the label is preparing to release its most conventionally commercial record, from Nashville-based singer and songwriter Natalie Prass, known as a touring member of Jenny Lewis’ backing band.
Prass’ album is mostly a cycle of bittersweet breakup songs: “My Baby Don’t Understand Me,” “Your Fool,” “Never Over You.” The distinctive Spacebomb sound, clarion unison horns and swelling strings atop crisp drumming and a Motown bass, has evolved. The palette has expanded and become more detailed. Small gestures stand out on repeat listening — a bit of Beatles guitar, a floating flute line.
It comes together, and perhaps goes over the top, with the closer, “It Is You.” Unabashedly romantic and resolutely, cinematically old-fashioned, it’s sung in a high, girlish vibrato tinged with laughter. It could as easily be delivered by a classic cartoon princess as a modern indie one.
“We were not afraid to put it all out, take the music as far as it would go,” Prass says. “It is overdramatic in the best way.”
“It is almost Disney, but we want there to be no taboos,” says the song’s arranger, guitarist and composer Trey Pollard. “Just let the music be anything it wants to be. But it was the hardest one to do.”
The heart-on-sleeve, risk-taking approach was part of what made White’s “Big Inner” work. So was the sound scape.
“The timeless thing is important,” Pollard says. “Orchestral scores have been part of Western music for 400 years. A movie with ’80s music is dated. If ‘Star Wars’ had synthesizer music, no one would be watching it now.”
Spacebomb is a team effort, with Prass giving Pollard equal credit with White in the production of her record. The rhythm section of bassist Cameron Ralston and drummer Pinson Chanselle is a big part of the sound. Designers Travis Robertson and Joel Speasmaker forge a visual brand identity. Ryan Corbitt, cofounder of Songwire with Pollard, focuses on production. And Jesse Medaries, Matt Rawls, Ben Baldwin and Dean Christesen handle the ever-increasing legal and business dimensions.
“It’s been three years,” Christesen says. “But it almost feels like this it just the beginning.”
The still-untitled album will be released late this year or in early 2015, with a staggered release of singles being used to build interest. There are more sessions scheduled for other artists, and the label is experimenting with an approach pioneered by the website Daytrotter, with which visiting artists lay down a single track that gets the expansive Spacebomb treatment.
As for his own work, White is in the midst of recording a hotly anticipated follow-up to “Big Inner.” Working with longtime collaborator Andy Jenkins, he’s finished a new set of songs. The bass and drum foundation has been laid down. All that’s left is erecting the big Spacebomb superstructure, this time with even more complex horn arrangements, a bigger string ensemble and expanded background vocals.
White’s learned from touring that some things perfect for a headphone hearing don’t play well live. “Gone Away” was the bruised heart of “Big Inner,” but its gentle but furious complexities didn’t resonate in a hall or at a festival. It was seldom played on tour, except on the night of the Sandy Hook school shootings.
After the debut album’s surprise breakthrough, Spacebomb is striving to carve a sustainable niche in the chaotic music industry. There are high expectations for the second record, backed by an advance from Domino, a prominent London-based independent label (Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys). White launched his career as the soft-spoken advocate for the Richmond scene. And now, though still soft-spoken, he’s a world touring, critically praised artist in ascent.
“My life is 180-degrees different in terms of some things,” White acknowledges. “But how I think about music, Spacebomb, the people I love, my girlfriend and parents — that is just the same. Steven Bernstein told me, ‘Never forget, it’s just music.’ It’s wild when you are in the middle of it, but this is just a small season of my life. Whatever it is it is not who I am, it’s what I do.”