Johnnie Matthews & Jessica Oliver of Elim Bolt
In the case of Elim Bolt, the name sets the scene pretty perfectly. The Charleston pop-rock outfit is sparked by Johnnie Matthews, who grew up on a farm in the microscopic town of Elim, just south of Florence. While there, he played with Sequoyah Prep School, which eventually shortened its name to Sequoyah. That band’s rambling sprawl earned comparisons to progressive folk-rockers such as Akron/Family and momentarily attracted interest from Atlantic Records. A development deal was signed, but nothing really came of it. Tired of Sequoyah’s sound and hungry to create something on his own, Matthews bolted the band and Elim two years ago, landing on the coast and learning to write on his own.
“I loved the travel, and I loved hanging out with my friends all the time,” Matthews explains. “But the music never really did it for me. It came to a point where it was my job, and I kind of made the decision where I’d rather bartend or wait tables for money and do what I want to do with music, rather than not being happy when I am playing.”
His solo recordings were immediately — and accidentally — distinctive. He recorded an EP, Felix, with Wolfgang Zimmerman, the architect of Charleston’s massively catchy Brave Baby. Over reverb-soaked strums and plodding rhythms, Matthews offers an undulating warble, conjuring the kind of strung-out drama that made Roy Orbison so compelling. But this wasn’t his intent: “When I first started singing, it was really hard for me to stay on pitch without using vibrato,” Matthews laughs.
But he knew he was onto something. With help from Zimmerman and his Brave Baby cohort Jordan Hicks, Matthews spent most of the next year recording at various locations across the Holy City, eventually hooking up with Run Dan Run’s Dan McCurry, also the owner of upstart record label Hearts & Plugs and the recording studio Apartment A. McCurry helped the newly minted Elim Bolt finish its first batch of songs. The resulting Nude South arrived last November.
The album is self-assured and savvy. Showing newfound control over his signature vocals, Matthews sings with piercing fervor, cutting through colorful walls of sound that easily equal the works of regional pop peers, such as Raleigh’s restless The Love Language. The combination is weird and distinctly Southern, an expression of rural isolation and creative angst: “Grew up in South Carolina / In a lonely field,” Matthews moans at one point, girded by guitars that anxiously shimmer. “That’s how I learned / To be lonely still.” His singing is stylized, but the juxtaposition with Elim’s lush arrangements is powerful, unearthing a profound and personal conflict.
“It was just a really large part of my life, and it shaped who I am,” Matthews says of his provincial upbringing. “I usually write about real stuff. I think that’s just a consistent thing that’s been happening given that I am really new to songwriting. It’s something in the background of my mind all the time, so it shows and comes out in songs.”
But Matthews didn’t start Elim Bolt to be limited to one sound and subject. Dingy, Slimy, Scummy!, a new EP that the band will release later this year, opts for the distorted chugs and bent tones of traditional indie rock. On “Dingy,” rumbling riffs instigate a riot, allowing Matthews to drop his characteristic croon, opting instead for a snotty bleat. It’s a sneering pop narcotic, the kind created by Nobunny and other garage pranksters, and it fits Elim Bolt perfectly.
“That’s a large reason why I started this: It’s mine,” Matthews admits. “I’m lucky enough to have players that are totally into whatever I’m doing. I don’t know where I’ll be in five years, what I’ll sound like. It is important to have some sort of flow to your sound. I don’t want to come out with a trance record or something. But it needs to be fresh. It needs to move and advance.”
Elim Bolt plays New Brookland Tavern on Saturday, Nov. 2. Doors open at 8 p.m.; admission is $5, $7 under 21. Can’t Kids headlines; The Hermit Kings and That Hideous Strength open. New Brookland Tavern is at 122 State St. in West Columbia. Call 791-4413 or visit newbrooklandtavern.com for more information.