Long Live The Art Machine: The Unlikely Triumph of Tenth Row
“As stars scrape the universe,
My eyes reflect the wonder works.
I’m feeling alive, and well rehearsed.
The memories of you begin to lurk.”
The ghost of Kevin Scheidt, Tenth Row’s dearly departed founder and frontman, haunts the Atlanta post-hardcore outfit’s debut EP, ”Rest Well”, from start to finish. And I say that, not just because the record features the late photographer and songwriter’s raw and impassioned vocals, which were tracked shortly before his unexpected passing at the age of 21 (though this is certainly striking and significant in and of itself), but because there is an overwhelmingly disquieting, visceral gravitas at work here; a certain heart-wrenching, chill-inducing sense of urgency pervading every aspect of the 6 songs comprising “Rest Well”, which suggests that “The Art Machine” (as he was affectionately known in local DIY circles) had so much left to say, and furthermore, that those he left behind are hell-bent on giving him a voice that not even death can silence.
Carrying on Kevin’s creative legacy against all odds, his surviving bandmates – bassist Ian Riley, guitarist Zak and drummer Jonathan Washburn, and newcomer Jessica Michael (Scheidt’s girlfriend, prior to his death, who was long considered the group’s de facto fifth member, contributed backing vocals to the EP, and is soon to assume the role of Tenth Row’s permanent frontwoman) – have overcome the unthinkable, and crafted a record of unequivocal brilliance and breathtaking emotional depth. It’s a fitting eulogy for a fallen friend, and a courageous, cathartic step forward for a band that very nearly ceased to exist.
On Friday, April 20th, the quartet will officially return to live performance, celebrating the release of “Rest Well” with support from fellow locals Blurry, Stay Here, and The Callous Daoboys. It’s another critical milestone for the group, and one that marks the beginning of a new chapter in what has become (in my opinion) one of the most compelling and inspiring stories in the history of the Atlanta music scene.
Eager to discuss the show, the record, and all that led to Tenth Row’s surprising return, I sat down with Ian Riley for a few hours on a dreary, humid Thursday afternoon in Suwanee, GA, for an illuminating and candid interview. I’ve transcribed our conversation below.
First of all, congratulations on the release of “Rest Well”. It’s a truly outstanding record. I’ve been spinning it constantly over the last few weeks.
Dude, thank you so much! I’m so glad you like it!
Are you nervous about the release show?
Nervous isn’t the right word for it... maybe just kind of anxious to see how we’re received. That’s not to say that I don’t think people will like it, I think they will, but this will be our first full show with Jess singing, which, of course, means that we’re going to sound a little different than we do on the record, and there’s this sense that everything’s new, in a way. I don’t think any of us are really worried about the performance aspect of the show... honestly, we’re probably better musicians now than we were two years ago... but we’re definitely aware that it’s kind of different, and we know there are things about it that are probably going to be a bit unexpected.
Well, to be fair, the fact that you’re playing at all is pretty unexpected.
I mean, you’re not wrong **laughs**. You have no idea how many times we’ve basically said that there’s almost no logic or reason this band should still exist – not in a negative way, at all, but just out of surprise, because it’s so crazy. We’ve sort of gotten this second chance that makes absolutely no sense.
That actually brings me to my next question. What was it, exactly, that made you guys decide to pick things back up?
Well, initially, it wasn’t a question of “should we pick this back up – should we continue?” When Kevin died, we had a small “tour” and a few local shows booked, and we decided that we weren’t going to do the out of state shows, but we were at least going to honor the couple of local commitments because we felt that’s what Kevin would have wanted. So, for about a month, Zak, Jon, and I played the songs as a three-piece to fulfill the show commitments we already had, with Zak and I splitting most of Kevin’s vocals between us , and it was just so incredibly draining, mentally and emotionally... we were pretty unanimous about not wanting to keep going. Kevin was such an integral part of everything Tenth Row was that to carry on without him just felt... wrong... not, like, morally or anything, but just... wrong. At that time, there was no question about it. None of us wanted to do it anymore. It wasn’t Tenth Row without him.
So what changed?
On the last show we were scheduled to play (our farewell show and benefit for Kevin’s family at The Masquerade), Jess decided to step in for a couple of guest spots. And the thing is, in rehearsals, she was such a natural fit. It was weird... and I mean that totally in a good way. We were already close to Jess, so nothing felt forced or fake, or whatever. And she and Kevin were so similar... she makes the same jokes, and just has the same sort of goofy personality he did, and she came into it the same way that Kevin did, with really no musical background, but with this uncanny, instinctive ability and energy. It was almost like having him back. At that last show, even with no real prior live performance experience or anything like that, she was amazing. The people that came to that show loved her. And something about having her up there with us just worked.
But the band still dissolved, at least temporarily, anyway…
Yeah. After those shows, the idea did cross my mind that we could keep going, and we could ask Jess to take over... and I did bring it up to Zak and Jon, but they were pretty firmly against it, which was completely understandable. It wasn't anything against Jess. We were all still feeling a lot of residual pain at the time. So I didn’t push it. We did what we agreed was best and broke up.
So then a year and some odd months pass, and suddenly you’re releasing an EP and beginning to book shows again. That’s quite an about-face. Would you mind filling in the blanks for me?
In the months that followed Kevin’s death and those shows, Jess started writing, and decided that she wanted to start a band of her own, strictly for fun, as a creative outlet, because getting onstage for the first time had sort of awakened something in her, and she had this drive to perform again. There were several short-lived groups that would take shape and then just kind of fall apart – one notable project being this six-piece shoegaze thing that she, Jon, and I were in together, which was a nightmare to schedule and coordinate... Eventually, she and I talked about working together on a project, and I think she was getting kind of frustrated looking for people to join, so I suggested that we talk to Zak and Jon. They’d been having similar difficulties, trying to put something new together, themselves, so it made sense. They agreed, I moved back to bass, and we finally all got together and talked about writing new music and maybe running through some old songs. At some point, I called Zak and said, “This is just Tenth Row. If Kevin could weigh in on it, I think he’d say the same thing. Why pretend it’s something else?”
That must have been quite a moment.
It was. It really was. The thing is — and this probably sounds like it’s straight out of a Hallmark card, but I can’t think of a better way to put it — practicing as the four of us, with Jess on vocals... it feels the way it did when Kevin was in the room with us.
It’s funny that you say that, because, honestly, that’s the impression I get from the EP…that Kevin’s there; not just his voice, but his spirit…if that makes any sense.
It makes total sense. And I attribute that to the fact that there’s just something about the four of us being together and making music simply because we love doing it, and because we have this relationship — one we ultimately owe to Kevin — that makes Tenth Row what it is... because, I mean, that’s the thing. Tenth Row is more than just a “band” in the strictest sense... Tenth Row is sort of this thing that happens when the four of us get together. And I think that, as close as we all were to Kevin and to each other, whenever that happens, there’s a part of him there, too, naturally.
Beautifully said. So was it all smooth sailing from there?
No. Honestly, Jon still took a lot of convincing. Jess even went so far as to write this big speech that she recited to him, explaining why she, as someone who wasn't a member of the band at that point, believed that the scene needs Tenth Row, and that it wasn’t even entirely for us at this point, but for Kevin, and for the people who connected with his songs, and felt like they were part of something when they saw Tenth Row perform... because, I mean, what we didn’t know was that Jess had actually wanted to do it for a while, but just never felt comfortable mentioning it to us. She didn’t want to force anything if we didn't want to do it anymore. So, when it seemed like a possibility, she really became the driving force that pulled us back together. Eventually, she won Jon over, and we started to get things moving.
I’m glad you all ended up on the same page.
Oh, dude, me too. I’m so grateful that it all worked out the way it did.
So I guess my next - and last - question is…what’s next? You’ve come back from the brink, you’ve made a record, and now you’re back in action. What lies ahead? A tour? A follow up?
We don’t have anything specific in mind at the moment. We want to be as active as possible, locally, for sure, and we do plan to tour, but nothing’s quite set in stone yet. And as to a follow up... all I can say is we’re writing, and that feels good. But there’s not a heavily defined conscious direction to it yet. Jess came in with a lot of material already written, and we’ve tossed a lot of ideas back and forth, but we haven’t settled on exactly what we want to put out there yet. And we’re really okay with that.
Basically, the way we’re approaching Tenth Row now is that if it goes somewhere, great. If there’s a wave, we’ll ride it. But there’s no real "plan". We’ve all got things outside of the band that we’re content to pursue. The only long-term goals for us at this point are to stay together — in whatever capacity we’re able — and to honor Kevin’s memory and legacy. Beyond that, we’re just kind of taking it as it comes. We’re really just happy to get to do this again.
Awesome. Well, thank you so much for your time.
You’re so welcome. Thank you for doing this for us. It really means a lot.
Lyrics quoted at the beginning of this article taken from “Beauty In Nothing”, by Tenth Row, written by Kevin Scheidt.
Album cover photo taken by Zak Washburn.