words // Zach Despart | photos // Natalie Williams
The first time I saw Mission South was the summer of 2010. I was living in the cramped apartment complex on Hyde Street in Burlington that every UVM student has partied in when Max Harwood, who I’d known from school, knocked on my door.
It was one of those “hey, uhh, so my band is playing tonight and you should uhh check it out,” kind of deals. I knew he was a drummer and had a band, so I said I’d check it out.”
At eight-thirty I crossed the parking lot and assumed the apartment on the end was Max’s, judging by the Subaru Forrester with Maryland plates parked in front. There were a handful of people inside, none of them Max. The spring semester had ended a few weeks earlier and most students had left town.
I walked down into the basement, which was empty, save for a keg and a barefoot guy with a bandana around his head and a Gibson over his shoulder. He introduced himself as Dan and we talked about guitars while a few more people trickled in. A lanky blonde fellow, who I later learned was bassist John Beck, fiddled with an amplifier. He didn’t say much.
At about nine o’clock Max, who for some reason was already sweating heavily, came downstairs and sat behind his set. The barefoot guy, guitarist Dan Miller, slipped a slide over his ring finger and said something to Max. A moment later the trio kicked off their set in the half-empty basement with a crashing blues riff.
After eight bars the bass and guitar dropped out, leaving just Max’s bass drum keeping time. Miller stepped up to the microphone and uttered, just above a whisper—
I could not believe my ears/when you became my greatest fear
His voice was at the same time rough and beautiful, refined but untamed, mature beyond its years. Before I could wrap my head around it the band jumped back into the blues jam and never looked back.
All in all, it took me about fifteen seconds to realize Mission South was the real thing.
Miller’s slide playing echoed the old Delta bluesmen, melodic but not overbearing; Harwood knew exactly where to play hard and where to back off and Beck filled in everything in between with subtle, complex bass lines. The song was “Kerosene”. And I was hooked.
Long time comin’
Three years later, Mission South is in the middle of their second national tour. They’ve released two records, booked gigs at revered venues across the country and played Austin’s SXSW festival. But until the spring of 2012, they weren’t even a full-time band.
Mission South at Nectar’s in Burlington, 2012
On this lazy September afternoon, the band is sitting across from me at the kitchen table of an apartment in Burlington’s Old North End. They’re still recovering from gig last night at a house party on South Winooski Avenue, where they played until four o’clock and then slept on the half pipe in the basement (Harwood insisted that fact be included.) In a few hours, they’ll head to nearby St. Michael’s College to start setting up for a show there. But for now, they’re recounting the journey of the band thus far.
The story of Mission South begins well before then, at Wood Acres Elementary in Bethesda, Md., where Beck, Harwood and Miller first met in the mid-1990s.
All were musically inclined — Harwood first played trumpet, Miller saxophone —but soon adopted their current instruments. In middle school, Miller and Harwood played in separate ska bands (yes, it was the 1990s). When the trio first played together remains a matter of dispute — Harwood maintains they jammed together in middle school; the others shrug their shoulders.
But there is no doubt as to when Mission South was formed — at Walt Whitman High School in 2006, while Beck, Harwood and Miller were sophomores. The beginning was, well, less than perfect.
“We tried out for a talent show and didn’t make it,” recalls Miller, his voice more rugged than usual, owing to last night’s show.
“Basically, we formed out of failure,” Harwood adds.
One of the first paying gigs the band had was at the JW Marriott in Washington, D.C., two blocks from the White House.
“It was some corporate reception we didn’t have any business being at,” says Beck. “I remember drinking Captain Morgan and Dr. Pepper and just walking around the lobby with nothing to do before we played.”
They were paid $200 and lugged the bass drum to the gig on the Metro because, as Harwood recalled, none of them had drivers’ licenses.
A few years later, Mission South would play another corporate event, this time at the Gaylord National Resort in Maryland. This one, at least, went a little better.
“We told them we could play a ton of covers we really couldn’t,” Harwood says.
“They were paying us a shit ton of money and we said we could play pretty much every song from the 60s and 70s,” Miller adds.
“…and then we got there and played most of our own songs,” says Beck.
While many bands cycle through a number of names in their early days, the trio found one and stuck with it. The name Mission South was not an original creation, per se, but an appropriation. Miller explains:
“I worked with a guy in California. He would work for three months out of the year at this surf camp, and then he would travel through the rest of the year, down to Mexico and South America. He always referred to it as his Mission South — he found his place in the world. He’s traveled the last 15 years of his life, he’s like 35 or 40. It was very poignant and real.”
By their own admission, Mission South was not a serious band in high school.
“Everyone who saw us said ‘you guys are okay.’ That’s how serious it was,” Beck recalls. “We were the best 17-year-old band in Bethesda at the time, which is not saying much.”
One of Mission South’s first gigs in 2007
After graduation, each was college bound — but they would not be going to school together. Miller headed to Tulane, Harwood to the University of Vermont and Beck to Virginia Tech. There was never a conversation about keeping the band going. Instead, it just happened.
“We came back every summer and didn’t have shit to do and kept playing music and drinking beer,” Harwood recalls.
Their senior year, the trio made their first trips to play at each other’s schools.
“I think all that traveling together and playing just for fun in the beginning actually really set the stage for us being a professional touring band,” Harwood says. “We thought it was fun, and it was mildly successful.”
During this time Mission South recorded their first record — a six-track release called Migration, Vol. I. The band began circulating CDs among friends and people at shows.
“We started giving it out to people and they were like ‘yo, we really dig this’,” says Harwood.
“It was weird because we couldn’t capitalize on any of the momentum because we weren’t together at all, because we were at school,” Miller adds.
When each graduated in the spring of 2012, there was still no plan for the future of the band. Miller had been accepted to the graduate program at Tulane, and the band faced a now-or-never moment. Then, for the first time, the three discussed what they wanted Mission South to be.
“Shit got intense and heated,” says Harwood. “We talked about moving to New Orleans so Dan could go to school and we could do the band.”
And then, while sitting in the parking lot of a fast food joint, Miller had a revelation.
“I was eating fried chicken in this parking lot and I just realized that school sucks,” he says. “The real decision — I asked myself what I wanted to do with my time as an individual, not even career-wise — and I was like ‘I want to find a way to give back to the world.’ And I thought at the time I was best equipped to do that by making music that people could connect with.”
For Beck and Harwood, the decision to play in the band full time was more practical.
“I didn’t have a whole lot else going on,” says Beck. “I didn’t want to work a fuckin’ desk job or any of that shit.”
“For me in college, I was dividing so much of my time between journalism/writing and music, and I wasn’t exceeding at either,” says Harwood. “I played a lot more music my junior and senior years and at some point I realized ‘this is all I’ve ever done’.”
None of the three were deterred by the difficulty of breaking into the music industry.
“People say a music career is so hard,” says Harwood. “But I wasn’t any further along in anything else. It wasn’t like I was choosing between being a doctor and a music career. I was choosing between being a starving writer and a starving musician.”
For Harwood, having a more tangible career to fall back on was too much of a crutch.
“I realized that I didn’t want a backup plan — that was my revelation,” he says. “If you keep having backup plans — and college in and of itself is a backup plan — the more likely you are to fall back on them. If you back yourself into a corner, where music is all you can do, then you’re gonna do it, because you don’t have a choice.”
From playing on the road and seeing a lot of different groups, Mission South realized when other musicians aren’t dedicated to what they’re doing, it’s obvious.
“The only reason we’re able to do this is because all three of us are all in,” Harwood says. “There are so many other bands that could be doing well but they just don’t push forward — there’s commitment problems.”
“Not everyone is on the same page,” Beck adds. “And you can notice it, it’s obvious.”
Mission South plays a show at 148 No. Union Street, Burlington, 2011. p. Zach Despart
Mission South draws from a wide range of influences. Harwood played in jazz ensembles in college, while Beck played in an orchestra. To even the most casual listener of their music, there’s no doubt Miller’s blues influences are ever-present.
“Some of the first things I really dug my teeth into were Howlin’ Wolf records and some Robert Johnson tracks, R.L. Burnside,” he says. “Such sparse sounds that are filled with such energy and emotion, these artists slopping through these songs with such style — it gets lost in a modern day pop place where people are trying to drive everything to the fullest extent possible.”
“We want to make meaningful songs,” says Harwood. “If you go too much into this electronic pop trying to get these cool sounds, the music loses itself.”
That’s the thing about Mission South — their music is fun and loose, but make no mistake — these guys don’t dick around. In a three-piece, there’s no room for bullshit, and the band has taken that to heart. The parts are complex and distinct, and blend together without drowning anyone out.
“I think we do a good job not stepping on each other’s toes,” says Miller. “If someone’s doing something really busy, we let them say it. Our chemistry is beyond anything I take for granted.”
On the road again
On this tour, Mission South stopping in dozens of cities all the way out to Colorado, then down through Texas and the Deep South. They’ve learned a few things on the road — where to play, how to build relationships with talent buyers and promoters, how to share a bill with local acts to build an audience.
Some of these lessons are more practical, like the necessity of buying a van.
“We used to have a Ford Explorer that was paaaaacked in,” says Harwood. “I feel like that was good — when you’re in the beginning you gotta rough it and pay your dues.”
The band continues to play anywhere, anytime — if there’s an audience, they’ll be there.
“We have no problem going to house shows still, because that’s how you grow and build a fan base,” says Harwood.
The band has had some great exposure — their first music video, “Peaches” debuted on the Fuse network earlier this year, and they’ve played prestigious venues like the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colo. and the 9:30 Club in D.C. But the focus has always been on playing anywhere people show up, and returning to cities again and again.
Mission South performing at Nectar’s in 2012.
“It’s cool to find out where your music is popular,” says Harwood. “It’s not always the places that you think. We have a really big following in Jackson, Miss. We played there once, and some people dug it, and they told their friends, and we went back there on a Monday night and it was packed.”
“There was a lady there who said ‘Next time you boys are in town I’m baking y’all a casserole!’” says Beck. “I’m excited for that.”
Halfway through a cross-country tour, sleeping on couches and the floor of their van, Mission South wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I know a band that was plucked out of the masses from the industry and was groomed to perfection in a matter of months, and now are in Rolling Stone and stuff like that,” Miller says. “And that’s great, and I think the people in this case are totally deserving of it, but it’s also like you miss out on a very quintessential part of building your reputation. Which is what we’re doing right now — the most credible source for a band is mouth to mouth.”
“We give every fan mouth to mouth,” Beck opines.
“Can you headline the article Mouth to mouth with Mission South?” Harwood suggests, or rather, insists.
Despite the long hours on the road and exhausting tour schedule, the poorly-attended shows and difficult club owners, there have been vindicating moments for the band.
“The other day in Ithaca this kid came up to me and was saying thanks for the show and he looked at me and said ‘I went through a really rough time, my friends thought I was suicidal, and your music saved my life,” Miller recalled. “Which is just like damn, that’s the closest I’ve gotten thus far to achieving anything relatively close to what I set out to do.”
“It was a totally vindicating moment,” Harwood adds. “That’s the best you can ask for from music.”
Mission South haven’t yet recorded a full-length LP, instead opting for two six-track releases, Migration Vol. I (2012) and Migration Vol. II (2013). There were several reasons behind this decision.
“Full-length records are for Bob Dylan,” Miller says.
“We’re not Bob Dylan,” Harwood clarifies.
“Yet!” jests Miller, before adopting a serious expression like he’d just taken the Lord’s name in vain. “No… We’re not Bob Dylan ever.”
The choice not to record an LP was economical — the band wanted a release that was cheap enough to produce that it could be given out at shows for free. Instead of a full-length album that few people who had never heard the band would buy, let alone listen to all the way through, the trio decided on small releases that were easily digestible.
“We just felt like, as products of our generation, when everything is being broken down into smaller and smaller bits for consumption, the way these songs were gonna be most poignant and come across was in a small portion,” says Miller.
Plus, at the time the band only had a few good tracks.
“We had six good songs,” says Harwood. “So why sit around and say ‘oh, we have six good songs, we need 10 so let’s write four shitty songs’?”
“Even as it stands, we write shitty songs to fill out a five-song release,” Miller jokes.
“Most of our songs are bad. I actually don’t even know why people keep coming to our shows,” Harwood adds.
For Mission South, the fact that music fans seldom buy full albums anymore isn’t a death knell for the industry. Instead, the band embraces the new way people listen to music.
“The new way of consuming music forces people to write good songs,” says Harwood. “You can’t get away with writing a bullshit filler song that’s like track seven on a 15-track album anymore. You make a good record with a few songs or you don’t.”
“Led Zeppelin did it!” says Miller. “Led Zeppelin I, II, III and IV were all really short.”
After the current tour finishes this winter, the band will return to the studio. The next project will be Migration Vol. III, capping the three-part Migrations release.
“It’s in its sapling phase,” says Harwood.
The band hopes to finish Vol. III by next summer.
There’s nothing easy about being in a touring band, especially one that is just starting out. But Beck, Harwood and Miller approach each show with an unbridled enthusiasm. One thing is clear — these guys just love to play fucking music.
Even hungover and groggy from sleeping on the floor of a Burlington basement, there’s an incessant energy within the band. Even this afternoon, on little sleep with another gig and long drive ahead, the creative process is churning. As I set up my recorder, Harwood played endless invisible rhythms on the kitchen table with his fingertips, Miller jotted bits and pieces of future songs into a lined notebook, and Beck… well Beck was asleep sitting upright in a chair, but that’s a skill in its own right, undoubtedly learned on the road.
Mission South have yet to find their sound, to truly come into their element. At their shows there are glimpses of greatness — amidst the process of experimentation that is playing live, there are moments where band just clicks, and it is truly a beautiful thing. There’s no question Mission South are well on their way to wherever they want to be, and little doubt they have the resolve to meticulously refine their sound until it is there.
Perhaps they possess a sense of youthful naivety, bred in the fact that the band hasn’t faced rejection from labels or scathing reviews from critics. But I suspect Mission South endured the crushing sense of failure six years ago when the band didn’t make the bill for their high school talent show, and have remained humble ever since — never forgetting where they came from, and knowing there is no limit to where they can go. ‡
Check out the band at www.missionsouth.com