Evoka’s near death and resuscitation

by Jordan Green

They grew up in various corners of western North Carolina but came to identify themselves with Hildebran, a town just off the interstate between Hickory and Morganton. Drummer Bryan Ledbetter, at least, came up with only minimal exposure to television, riding dirt bikes for entertainment and listening mostly to country music radio. And now as he and bandmates Taylor Redding, Price Stevens and Pete Small cross the threshold into their thirties, they have a CD in their possession. Thirteen songs gathered under the rubric of Cries for the Castlegate Empire that shimmer like an ephemeral mist in the May sun, full of gorgeous soaring vocals and atmospheric, textured instrumentation. A glossy booklet complete with studio photo, lyrics and artistic design. A $30,000 investment out of their own pockets into a singular shrink-wrapped package. The V-neck white T-shirt and shaggy, dishwater blond hair do not exactly suggest graphic design executive, but in fact that’s Ledbetter position. He sits behind an L-shaped desk in the office he keeps on the 5th floor of the O’Hanlon Building in downtown Winston-Salem as Hank Williams moans at low volume from the crisp audio of a satellite radio classic country station. Stevens, guitar player for Evoka and project manager for Airtype Studios, sits to the side taking calls and assuring clients that the company can meet their needs. “It’s a success that it came out at all, so there’s no expectations,” says Ledbetter, who tends to speak in a torrent of concept and anecdote. “It feels like we’ve already made ten records, but this is actually our first. There have been ups and downs, from playing for major labels and with all the big bands to playing in a Mexican restaurant for ten people. You’ve got to keep it in perspective why you do it. We were lucky that we got that stuff. We’ve signed with Sony twice. Several labels, they’ve gotten first right of refusal from us.” The fact that Evoka has been together for seven years and is just now putting out its first CD, an independent release, follows a kind of logic. Firstly, Evoka would not agree to settle into the emo/pop/punk formula that took off when they started picking up momentum as a live band, preferring the craft and subtlety of British acts like Pink Floyd, Elton John and Radiohead. Secondly, in hindsight, Ledbetter surmises, they just weren’t ready. This band goes for perfection. An example is the band’s singer and primary songwriter, Taylor Redding, who works for his family’s construction company in Hickory. “He tried to re-sing this whole record two days before we pressed,” Ledbetter says. “He goes behind his dad and says, ‘Let me re-cut that for you.'” Stevens’ rock background is a little more conventional than that of his singer-cum-construction worker or his drummer who transitioned from BMX competitions to graphic design and didn’t seriously start listening to music until he entered college. “I got my first record when I was thirteen,” says the 25-year-old Stevens, who was raised near Boone. “It was Green Day’s Dookie. I listened to NOFX and Bad Religion. When I got older and more mature I started to grasp music more fully. I started listening to bands from Britain where it was less about a scene or a lifestyle than about the music. All of us hardly listen to American music besides country.” This is a second chance for Evoka. What could have been the end may turn out to be a new beginning. “It’s a miracle that that thing’s sitting there,” Ledbetter says. “I didn’t think it was ever going to come out. We went for eight or nine months without seeing each other. I thought the band was dead. The engineer and mixer who was working with us called – he was working us in between Johnny Cash and U2, and we were getting the friend rate, so we had to wait – he called us, and said, ‘Okay, I’m ready to finish.'”

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