Rotary Downs: Progressive rock from the Crescent City

Photo by CORD MCPHAIL -- Rotary Downs members are, back row from left, Zack Smith, James Marler and Jason Rhein; front row, Chris Colombo, Alex Smith and Anthony Cuccia. Show caption
Photo by CORD MCPHAIL -- Rotary Downs members are, back row from left, Zack Smith, James Marler and Jason Rhein; front row, Chris Colombo, Alex Smith and Anthony Cuccia.

Progressive rock from the Crescent City

“A lot of us grew up on ’70s rock. That’s kind of what we’re going for ... At the same time, we live here in New Orleans, and it seeps into us.” zack smith, Rotary Downs drummer

In Rotary Downs, New Orleans has a modern-rock band worthy of the world’s notice. The group’s new album, “Traces,” is a great example of its meticulously constructed pop-rock, distilled into short, fetching songs.

“I hope you’ve got some good headphones,” Rotary Downs drummer Zack Smith said. “That thing is meant for the hi-fi.”

“Traces” is available in digital, CD and vinyl formats. The latter version of the album, pressed on bone-colored vinyl, means the most to the band.

“If people listen to these earbud MP3s, they never hear the intention of the musicians,” Smith said. “We love the fidelity of vinyl. It’s got a warmer, broader spectrum of sound than any MP3 file, which is what everybody listens to now.”

The six-man band Rotary Downs recorded most of the basic “Traces” tracks and overdubs at Marigny Recording Studios, a facility co-owned by the band’s bassist, Jason Rhein. They worked in the studio for as long the band liked and left its equipment there, without worrying about running up a large studio bill.

“It was great to have a home base,” Smith said. “That helped get things to the finish line.”

Producer and engineer Ben Mumphrey (whose résumé includes national acts B.B. King, the Pixies, the Breeders, Greg Dulli and Ani DiFranco), mixed the songs at the legendary Studio in the Country in Bogalusa. Recording engineer Misha Kachkachishvili mastered the album at his Esplanade Studios.

“When you work with pros and creative folks like that, it really makes you feel like your baby is in good hands,” Smith said. “Because there are so many places where things can go wrong. If you’re not watching and directing it, it can go askew in a moment.”

Rotary Downs, which has played multiple times at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Voodoo Experience, devoted four years to the making of “Traces.”

“If we could finish our records in two years, we would love that,” Smith said. “That would be awesome, because four years is a long time. We write songs really fast and we love what we do, but the process takes so long. There are so many details.”

Despite Rotary Downs’ local origin, the group’s ’70s pop-rock sound is nothing like what many people think of as New Orleans music.

“I love the Meters,” Smith said. “I love Johnny Vidacovich. I take from them all the time. But the music that has influenced us is far from New Orleans. A lot of us grew up on ’70s rock. That’s kind of what we’re going for, but a little harder, a little more progressive. At the same time, we live here in New Orleans, and it seeps into us.”

Smith and Chris Colombo, one of Rotary Downs’ three guitarists, count Electric Light Orchestra and its leader, prolific producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Lynn (George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, the Traveling Wilburys), among their inspirations.

Original Pink Floyd principal Syd Barrett is another touchstone. And Rotary Downs performs some songs by ’70s and ’80s hit makers the Cars.

“That is pop-rock to the bone,” Smith said of the Cars’ music. “If you blink, the song is over. They say what they need to say in two minutes and 45 seconds.”

It’s tempting to wonder what might have happened with Rotary Downs’ career had the band come from a more modern rock-oriented city such as Seattle or Portland, Ore.

“There may be more of a following for this kind of music because there are more bands like us,” Smith said. “But I wouldn’t trade what we have here for the world. It’s the total package, living here and creating music here.”