As they wrapped up the tour for their 2000 debut, Gift, Taproot felt like they were in pretty good shape. They had banged out a bunch of new riffs and melodies in their tour bus, and they had about 40 complete songs to work with when they met with producer Toby Wright (Alice in Chains, Sevendust) last year.
But when Taproot played Wright the material, he scratched his chin, then uprooted their spirits.
"He was like, 'Alright, these songs are good but a lot of them are in the same vein. I know you guys have so much inside of you and it's just not coming out yet,'" guitarist Mike DeWolf explained. "Then Toby said, 'Write 15 to 20 new songs and make them amazing.' "
At first, the band was miffed its producer had the audacity to send it back to the drawing board. But then the members — DeWolf, vocalist Stephen Richards, bassist Philip Lipscomb and drummer Jarrod Montague — stopped feeling wronged by Wright, and decided to prove that they could match and even exceed his expectations.
They toiled away and wrote a batch of new tunes that stretched their boundaries, augmenting their core sound of down-tuned guitars and plundering rhythms with haunting vocal harmonies, gloomy melodies and an intriguing mix of textures and tempos. The hardened work ethic Taproot adopted in the writing process became their M.O. throughout the creation of their second disc, Welcome.
When they finally were ready to begin pre-production, Taproot flew from their homes in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Los Angeles and locked themselves in their rehearsal room. There, they diligently worked from morning to night perfecting the new material.
"We'd' just keep playing and playing," DeWolf said. "If there was something that we couldn't do physically in the studio we'd work until we could do it."
The results were worth the wait. Welcome is more eclectic and musically compelling than Gift. It's even contradictory at times — harsh yet warm, brutal but soothing, incorporating layers of sound and emotion into each song.
"Truthfully that was always in us even back on our first demo," DeWolf said. "Steve always liked vocal harmonies and melody. But I think on Gift we were kind of rushing ourselves. We were excited and we wanted to get out touring and doing our thing."
The first single from Welcome, "Poem," is receiving strong radio play. And it was one song written long before the band started working with Wright.
"That's actually the first song we wrote for the album," DeWolf said. "We played it at the 2001 Ozzfest and there was a big reaction. The kids went nuts for it even more than to our other songs that they'd heard a million times before. In production we changed little things here and there to make it stronger, but it's basically the same song."
As energized and exciting as "Poem," "Mine," "Art," "Fault" and other songs on Welcome are, there's no denying the blatant vocal influence of Alice in Chains, many of whose albums Wright produced. Not only does Richards' voice wobble and wail like the late Layne Staley, but the sinister way he harmonizes sounds uncannily like the harmonies of Staley and former Alice guitarist Jerry Cantrell.
"I think all of us grew up listening to Alice back in the day, but we weren't exactly going for that," DeWolf said, sounding a touch defensive. "And I don't really hear it that much. We were just trying to write music that was fresh for our ears. Everything has basically been done before, but you can go back and find chords and styles and ways to do things that just aren't around anymore, so it's going to sound new to people."
Looking back, DeWolf is glad Taproot didn't release the 40 songs they originally wrote for Welcome. And he's pleased with the growth the band went through to get from where they were then to where they are now. Yet, he can't help but feel like a seventh grader who suddenly skips a grade and finds himself in high school.
"We kind of feel like we made our second record and we threw it away, and this is our third record," he said. "But it also feels like this is our first record because Gift was a bunch of songs we wrote when we were growing up that were thrown together on an album, and it wasn't really focused like this. It's kind of a weird feeling, but I like it."