Born out of Clair Morgan’s rotating cast of band members, New Lions evolves their sound and looks to the future on new EP End Story.
Clair Morgan was not meant to be a band. Richmond-native musician Clair Morgan started the musical project under his own name as a solo act, but couldn’t stop adding friends, until he had enough people on stage to get the side-eye from sound guys.
Eventually, Clair Morgan turned into a full band, with seven members at its peak. After the departure of two key members earlier this year, Clair Morgan (the band) and Clair Morgan (the lead singer and songwriter) decided that it was time to end the ambiguity the name caused, and define itself as New Lions — a proper band title.
The name comes from Clair Morgan’s second album, 2016’s New Lions & the Not-Good Night, a personal record about fatherhood, family, and bedtime stories. Morgan became known and loved by fans for his self-described “noodly guitar playing” and confessional lyrics. Clair Morgan combined math and indie rock with a folk sensibility and a broad musical palette on Not-Good Night.
Clair Morgan released his first album, No Notes, in 2012, with help from a Kickstarter campaign. The band also sought help from crowdsourcing for Not-Good Night, but by 2016, they received a larger response. USA Today’s FTW section included the album in its top 50 albums of the year.
The group set up a residency at The Camel in 2017, playing a show every first Friday of the month, with proceeds going to a different charity each month. Clair Morgan enjoyed these shows and the support from The Camel, but they also stayed in “hibernation mode,” bassist Shannon Cleary said.
They didn’t write much new material in that time, Cleary said, and having more time off from shows in 2018 allowed them to get the creative juices flowing again, with a tweaked sound and new name. End Story, the first EP under the New Lions moniker released in May, showcases a heavier sound that’s reflective of the anxiety the group felt, particularly after the 2016 election.
Morgan doesn’t have the same relationship with the material released under his own name as he once did.
“I’m proud of the [Not-Good Night] record, and I like the songs,” he said. “But I don’t think that I would naturally listen to the record on my own if I wasn’t in the band.”
In the wake of the name change, the band aimed to capture their live sound more accurately on the new EP. The guitars and drumming are heavier and denser than on previous releases. The vocals sound more desperate and urgent, and while Morgan feels that the songs on End Story may not sound too different to someone who saw Clair Morgan live, some listeners have been surprised by the shift. End Story’s opening track “Difficult” was the hardest to figure out.
“‘Difficult’ comes on and people are like, ‘what band is this?’” Cleary said.
Their new drummer Christian Monroe agreed — for him, the difficulty was learning how to play it. “I spent probably three hours just going through, segment by segment, 15-30 seconds at a time,” Monroe said. “The timing is so complex. I didn’t know how hard that song was until I started to learn it.”
New Lions tried to challenge themselves musically on End Story, and Morgan himself included lots of personal struggles in his lyrics. “Difficult” describes an intense conversation with a close friend: “You sat across from me and offered up a tale / I wish you never had to / Oh brother, under pendants barely lit / In a vacuum vast, we are here at last / Our courses all the same.”
It’s Morgan’s favorite guitar piece he’s ever written, and it focuses on a theme close to his heart: the lack of human connection in our age of distraction, with screens and endless content that satisfies us. One night’s sitdown with constant eye contact, sharing real stories, has become an event worth writing about.
Throughout End Story, Morgan sounds more fired-up than ever. On “Doldrums” he urges listeners to act, rather than just complain: “I challenge everyone standing in this room to not be so complacent / We aren’t going to let them get away with it.”
“After shows I’m getting a lot of this — like, ‘Are you okay?’” Morgan said.
But don’t get him wrong — Morgan is frustrated with his own complacency as well. He said there are days when he’ll spend hours on the couch watching The Office. On those days, he dislikes his own lack of effort.
Morgan also saw his dog of 17 years pass away in 2017. He sat on the porch with Simon, he said, and the song he wrote on his guitar next to him became the EP’s closer, “Goodbye.”
“It’s a connection that I have a hard time adjusting to the loss of,” he said. “I remember looking at my dog fall apart while playing and writing that song.”
The track ends with a lengthy post-rock instrumental passage that acts as a breather for a relentlessly punchy record. This section contains a melody that Morgan used to sing Simon to sleep with, and is the band’s effort to sonically capture the idea of everything floating off into nothingness as the Earth spirals out of control, Morgan said.
New Lions as a unit feel like they can try anything now. All ideas are on the table, and the band doesn’t feel any pressure about how to go about their business, Morgan said. Band members have been listening to everything from old Tim Kinsella side projects to new punkers like Mannequin Pussy and Idles, and shades of these groups pop out in the big vocal hooks Morgan pulls out in songs like “Bear on the Rise,” or in the guitar interplay on “Small Steps.”
Monroe, who joined the band as a drummer in April, has helped spark a more prolific songwriting streak in the band. He had seen the band in concert as both Clair Morgan and New Lions before joining. Since he became part of the band, the sound has become heavier and more raw, which he thinks is possibly influenced by his admiration for bands like My Bloody Valentine. The first time he and Morgan got together, their first song “wrote itself,” in Monroe’s words.
New Lions already have a new batch of untitled songs in the works, and Morgan teased that the first of those could be released in the next month or so, once he records vocals. Cleary said the band would also love to do a split if the opportunity presents itself, whether with Richmond friends or bands from another city. He suggested that The Pauses, who are based in Orlando and featured at one of the band’s First Friday shows at The Camel, could be an option.
However, whatever form the next project takes, band members said that it would be another step into the world they started to build on End Story, out of the woods depicted on Not-Good Night.
New Lions’ next show is at Hardywood on Friday, September 20 starting at 6 PM; they’ll be performing with Sea Of Storms, Twin Drugs, and Age S. Admission is free.
Top Photo via New Lions
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