Alpha Rev frontman Casey McPherson doesn't worry too much about fashion. 'I only wear skinny pants now because the label tells me to,' he joked last week by phone from New Jersey, where the Austin band was in the middle of a tour opening for late 1990s hit-makers Third Eye Blind.
His focus on substance over style — worrying less about what music blogs are saying and more about finding a broad audience — is one that has guided his career in recent years and culminated in the release this week of a new album, 'New Morning,' the band's first in four years. 'I've never been privy to the in crowd, in the sense that I was home-schooled,' McPherson, 32, said. 'You want cool people to like your music, everybody's like that, but what the coolest thing is, and I think Austin has really showed this to me, is to have all different types of people from all different types of backgrounds listening.'
The release comes nearly two years after Alpha Rev signed to the Disney-owned Hollywood Records, home to Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers and Selena Gomez, among others. In addition to the release, the band was also recently named VH-1's 'You Oughta Know' Artist on the Rise, a new program highlighting up-and-coming bands.
McPherson grew up in Lake Jackson, south of Houston, where he taught himself to play guitar and was classically trained on the piano. After moving back and forth between Houston and Phoenix, he moved to Austin in 2000, where he started the band Endochine. Other members included Nathan Harlan, Steven Six, Darrell Moran and Johnnie Goudie. Austin producer Lars Göransson worked on both Endochine's and Alpha Rev's first albums. Endochine's 2004 album, 'Day Two,' was well-received and released nationally. The band appeared at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2003 and 2004 and opened for The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jet, among others.
During that time, however, McPherson experienced personal tragedy, losing his brother and father to suicide. That, combined with long stretches on the road without much food or money, led to burnout, and he left Endochine. Those experiences inform much of his writing now. 'I've been a big supporter of making change in your life, after being booted out of my own band, or booting myself out, because my own lifestyle was so crazy,' he said. 'It's very easy in Austin to have great ideas but to stay a bit self-destructive the whole time and never really accomplish anything, especially for us as musicians because we're down in bars every night.'
He describes his path back to music as 'organic,' a process that began once he started opening up about his problems with depression. Alpha Rev formed in 2005 with Derek Dunivan (guitar), Tommy Roalson (drums), Dave Wiley (cello), Alex Dunlap (bass), Brian Lewis Batch (violin) and Derek Morris (keyboards). They recorded an EP and subsequent full-length, 'The Greatest Thing I Ever Learned' which was released locally and is still available digitally.
For McPherson, signing with a major label is an opportunity to get much-needed support. 'Ever since Endochine, I've been a heavy proponent for independent touring and promoting and distribution, and I've learned a lot from it, but the truth is, there's no such thing as a one-man army,' McPherson said. 'I began to mistake the word independent for doing it my way and not having a team of people.'
Unlike earlier recordings, which tend to be fairly minimalist, the approach to new 'New Morning' is bigger than anything the band has done, McPherson says. They recruited producer David Kahne and sound engineer Michael Brauer, whose credits include Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Coldplay, to mix the album. Like Coldplay, the production on the album is dramatic, head-on rock elements bolstered by dense layers of strings and piano. Midlake drummer McKenzie Smith also makes an appearance.
Dwight Baker, owner of Austin-based Matchbox Studios, has recorded the band and co-wrote some of the songs on 'New Morning.' He says that the album represents McPherson's development as a songwriter who can balance his indie tendencies with a pop sensibility. 'He's more accepting of his pop side,' Baker said. 'He finally realized if he wanted to get his message out he had to do it in a way where regular Joe would want to sing along.'
Like the title implies, rebirth and renewal are major themes. 'This material is very much about me believing in myself again, striving to find who I am and find how I can be used in this world, instead of feeling sorry for myself or just gobbling up as much as I can and step on people, because I used to do a lot of that,' McPherson said.
McPherson's self-rediscovery also has led him to a seat on the board of directors for the Texas branch of nonprofit organization Mental Health America, where he works to promote suicide awareness and prevention through videos and speaking engagements. 'I've had a lot of friends and family lose their lives to depression and bipolar disorder, and when that happens to you on a personal level it's like when you buy a blue car and all of a sudden you see a thousand blue cars on the highway,' he said. 'Hopefully it helps others connect so that they have a little bit bigger support group, because not everybody has a family and not everybody has people they can turn to.'
Lynn Lasky Clark, president and CEO of Mental Health America of Texas, says that McPherson helps to reduce the stigma that is often associated with mental illness. 'Casey is so dedicated to our mission, so passionate about mental health,' she said. 'His position as a musician allows him to reach a group of people through his music that we would be able to reach otherwise.'
For McPherson, the band and his work with the organization go hand in hand. 'I really look at music as therapeutic, because when I was younger that was always the way it was for me, especially in high school when you question who you are and you're always trying to get out of the place that you're in,' he said. 'Music has a way of calming the soul, and my biggest goal is to do that for others.'
Alpha Rev performs at La Zona Rosa on May 8 with Aaron Ivey, The Soldier Thread and Quiet Company. 6 p.m. $15. lazonarosa.com