At first, descending the stairs to the Maldives' basement practice space in Ballard feels as if you've stumbled down a rabbit hole and emerged in American suburbia circa 1973. A faded tapestry of JFK hangs on the wall. Framed portraits of two people with dated haircuts grin from the top of an upright piano. An oil portrait of a tiger--of the sort that regularly pops up at thrift stores--guards an old Rhodes. If it weren't for the magazine foldout of Nashville nymph Carrie Underwood above Chris Zasche's pedal steel--he's a big fan--you'd think you were in an episode of That '70s Show.But there's no denying the instruments are the main attraction here. With a drum kit, the piano, the Rhodes, a pedal steel guitar, a couple of banjos, a mandolin, an accordion, a bass, and various guitars littered about, there are enough sound-producing objects here to start at least three bands. But in an hour of practice, the Maldives—a nine-piece country band fittingly named after a country—manage to make use of almost every instrument in the room.The band starts with "Walk Away," a track from their upcoming Listen to the Thunder, that clocks in at 10 minutes, 35 seconds. It's a three-chord epic that starts quietly, with frontman Jason Dodson singing a refrain of "oohs" in a faint drawl reminiscent of another alt-country singer with that name: Jason Molina. As the song progresses, it builds to a sweeping, symphonic guitar climax. "It's almost a cinematic experience [in that] it builds and builds on one theme,"says Dodson, a former UW film student and current Scarecrow Video employee. "In jazz it's called modal. You vary the rhythm slightly."But Dodson is not Miles Davis, and the modal structure wasn't quite coming together until he gave guitarist Tim Gadbois the rough recording of the song—which originally ran only about six minutes—and asked him to come up with an incendiary conclusion. "I told him, 'I hear it building and building, and the only way I can picture it is if it fucking explodes and goes out into the stratosphere,'" Dodson explains. "I'm not familiar with music terminology." Gadbois took Dodson's visceral instructions to heart and recorded his own interpretation of stratospheric guitars at home, layering three or four parts to create the desired effect. "The dude went above and beyond," Dodson recalls. "He brought this to us in recorded form, and when we listened to it...I started getting tears in my eyes."Even though he tends to favor sad, somber songs, it's hard to imagine Dodson, a gregarious, smiley guy with a curly mop and scruffy facial hair, penning the weepy ballads that dominate the band's self-titled 2006 release, let alone with tears in his eyes. But while those who've been hoping for another record of down-tempo songs won't be disappointed by Listen to the Thunder, it's a little livelier, and a little more rock-and-roll, than the Maldives' previous work."The first album's charming because it's essentially a songwriter album of the band," Dodson says. "This time around, it's a band." The Maldives have cycled through more members than there are islands in their namesake country (Sera Cahoone almost became the Maldives' drummer before opting to join Band of Horses instead), but the current roster—Dodson, Zasche, Gadbois, Jesse Bonn, Kevin Barrans, Ryan McMackin, Chris Warner, Seth Warren, and Tomo Nakayama—finally seems to have stabilized. "I used to go out on the road with Tim Seely [SW Managing Editor Mike Seely's younger brother] and I would bill myself as Maldives," says Dodson. "It would just be me and a guitar, which is what led into the first recordings."He still writes the lyrics and melodies by himself, but on Thunder, composing and arranging the instrumentals was a collaborative effort. "I would bring songs to the table, we would play them together in practice, and then we would put them out there at shows. Everybody learned how to play together, how to interact and essentially how to communicate with each other, and the album is the end result of that."During practice, there's a visible cohesion among band members, which translates to the new album as well. "We're not all great musicians, but when we come together, we make something work," Dodson adds. In this case, the band's chemistry is more important than the members' skills—which, despite what Dodson says, are formidable.The band's last project, the Tequila Sunday EP, came out July 14 and functioned as a little morsel to tide fans over until Thunder was completed. The sound quality on the latter is noticeably better too. All 11 tracks were recorded at Avast and produced by Kory Kruckenberg. "He essentially engineered, recorded, and produced all of our stuff this time around," Dodson says. "[Kruckenberg] usually works with J. Tillman and Damien Jurado, [but] this was the first time he actually produced a full, giant band. For him it was a learning experience, but he already had the chops to do it."Thunder is the first Maldives recording that comes close to capturing the spectacle of a live nine-person band. "A lot of people say our live shows are better than what we've recorded, and in some ways I agree, because when we're up there on stage, you get to see how we interact," Dodson says. "The songs on this record are the end result of us learning how to play with each other as a band."After the band finishes practicing "Walk Away," they barrel into a new song called "Come On, Come On," a raucous, psychedelic homage to '70s rock and roll. Mustachioed guitarist Bonn is thrashing his shoulder-length blond hair—held back with a blue bandanna worn Jimi Hendrix–style—alongside Gadbois. On drums, McMackin, who's obliged to restrain himself during the ballads, lets loose. Dodson frowns and insists they're playing the song too fast. But a few ticks on the metronome in one direction or another won't diminish its power. It's unreleased, but it'll be on the set list for at least one of the Maldives' three shows in celebration of the Tractor Tavern's 15th anniversary.Originally, the Maldives wanted to try to release the new record on a national record label. But after shopping around, they ultimately realized they'd rather be represented by a local-scene figurehead and longtime friend of Dodson's: Mt. Fuji founder Mike Jaworski. He is, Dodson says, "someone who actually cares about us and cares about our music. He's looking out for all of our interests, [and] not just business, but personal interests. That's really rare these days—on any label."email@example.com
The Maldives With North Twin and 17th Chapter on Thursday; Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers and the Moondoggies on Friday; and Shim, Thee Emergency, and Pickwick on Saturday. Tractor Tavern, 5213 Ballard Ave. N.W., 789-3599, tractortavern.com. $10. 9 p.m. Thurs., Aug. 27–Sat., Aug. 29. Also at Sonic Boom Records, 2209 N.W. Market St., 297-2666. Free. All ages. 4 p.m. Sat., Aug. 29.