Richard Wouters and Steven McKellar of Civil Twilight with writer Erin Swanson
Steven McKellar sits on the vintage patterned sofa in Fete’s green room; Civil Twilight’s lead singer looks relaxed, albeit fatigued, as he looks up from his Narragansett Lager. I ask him if he knows he’s drinking Rhode Island-made beer: Narragansett is indeed a real place. “Oh,” he says, examining the can. “This is local?” He hasn’t lived in South Africa for roughly eight years now, but that fact does nothing to quell his distinctive accent, which at times sounds largely British. “I like it,” he says, simply. “It’s really quite good.” In a navy plaid shirt, perfectly faded denim and dark, tousled hair, Steven is the epitomical rocker. Choosing not to employ a stylist, the guys just wear “whatever.” In fact, those faded jeans belong not to him, but to his older brother Andrew, who plays guitar in the band.
Drummer Richard Wouters is in stark contrast to Steven, with his fair skin, long limbs and blush-colored button-up. While Steven speaks deliberately, Richard’s words are free-flowing and airy: “We did a show on the river here [in Providence] once,” he tells me. “It’s really cool down there.” He’s speaking of their June 2010 appearance at Waterplace Park; the band played as part of WBRU’s Summer Concert Series, which is – ironically – happening as we speak, on the other side of town. Civil Twilight have been brought in again by the radio station to headline that show’s after party, which apparently they hadn’t yet realized. It’s three hours until show time, their third show in as many nights. One evening prior, they performed at Mohegan Sun, and the day before that, the band gigged at Brooklyn’s famous Knitting Factory.
Regarding their heavy touring schedule, Steven reveals, “It’s all a bit of a blur, though I remember a thing above Hell – that was Providence, I think.” I figure that he’s referring to the now-defunct Jerky’s. (The band played a show there in early 2010.) The two friends glance at each other upon my revelation and laugh. “It was terrible,” pipes in Richard. “There was a seriously intense metal show going on below us. It was crazy.”
Fortunately, as their rise to fame has advanced, so has the quality of venues increased. In addition to playing music halls and arenas, Civil Twilight has been in high demand on the festival scene, citing Bonnaroo as their favorite thus far. In 2010, the trio (now a four-man band, after bringing on keyboardist Kevin Dailey) released the self-titled studio album that cast them in the limelight with its heart-stealing songs such as “Letters From the Sky” and “Human.” The former found itself at the number seven spot on the Billboard Alternative Songs Chart and spent 24 weeks there. The band’s music has also been featured on multiple television shows, including House, The Vampire Diaries and One Tree Hill.
I notice that Steven is bouncing his right foot ever so slightly, and I ask about his tendency towards stage fright. He shakes his head. “It hasn’t happened in so long… but if it does, it’s actually quite thrilling. When you’re a kid, playing a show, you’re driven 100 percent by this anxiety. I think it’d be nice to get a bit of that back: it would be the best of both worlds, really – to get a bit of that [anxiety] back but also the confidence you’ve gained.” Richard nods in agreement. “I might get [stage fright] occasionally if there are certain people in the audience, such as bands I really respect. But, I just channel that energy into the performance.”
They both remember the first time they heard one of their songs on the radio. “It was really cool, and really surreal,” says Richard, and I wonder if that isn’t a bit of wistfulness that I catch in his voice. “You’re used to hearing your songs in a certain context and then you’re used to hearing songs on the radio… When those two meet together, it’s sort of weird.” He smiles at me with kind eyes. “It’s cool to hear your song, and then the DJ talks and says, ‘That was Civil Twilight.’”
Their most recent LP, 2012’s Holy Weather, makes up much of the evening’s set list. As Steven penned most of the songs on that album aboard the band’s tour bus, lyrically they reflect his feelings on moments passed. The band’s been compared to U2 and based upon two of those tracks I can see why: “Fire Escape” and “Move/Stay,” both of which have gotten a ton of radio play, feature Steven’s vocals in Bono-esque grandiosity, as Richard’s huge and sweeping drum hits guide the uptempo beat. It’s nearly impossible, as I stand in the crowd later that night, to stand unmoving.
Still, it’s the headier and more experimental tunes that best showcase each member’s individual strengths: on “Highway of Fallen Kings,” for example, Steven’s falsetto is intoxicatingly akin to the empyrean voice of Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe. It’s a soothing escape from the more aggressive tunes, and despite the song’s thick aura of longing, there’s an eerie beauty present. Richard’s steady and driving control of the bass drum sends pulsing waves of heat across Fete’s ballroom on “Holy Weather,” which oscillates between light buoyancy and desperate pleading, Steven’s voice thick like caramel.
Civil Twilight does not disappoint. The band’s live show is as clean and purposefully orchestrated as their studio recordings, with unexpected arrangements and refreshingly honest emotion to be found in both Steven’s vocal intonations and his smart lyrics: “As much as I want to be found, please don’t find me.” As I watch them up on stage, emitting a quiet confidence, I wonder if those words were penned for a lover or in the light of his rising fame. Regardless, that self assurance bears testament to what I got a glimpse of in the green room earlier — that they truly love doing what they do.