Nate Hilts enjoys the thrill of toying with the fates of his characters in the songs he writes. As the lead singer, guitarist and mandolin player for Regina, Saskatchewan-based four-piece band The Dead South, Hilts often takes deeply flawed characters and twists their outcomes to his will.
“I think that they're just fun to play with,” Hilts said during a recent interview. “For some reason it’s easy for me to come up with tragic endings for a lot of these people and stuff. It comes up naturally, I guess.”
The band will perform a free show on Friday, August 2, at Live on King Street with Armchair Boogie and Them Coulee Boys opening.
That penchant for unhappy endings is evident on many songs off the band’s upcoming third album, “Sugar & Joy,” out in October. For example, “Diamond Ring” features a character getting robbed of a diamond ring by a groom looking to impress his partner.
“That was all about a desperate man who was trying to do something for someone that he thought loved him,” Hilts said. “And in the end, it didn't turn out so well for him because it was a rash decision going down.”
Hilts finds some inspiration in songwriters such as The Doors’ Jim Morrison, who have a similarly “weird, tragic sense of writing.
“His was a lot more poetic, I guess,” Hilts said. “But I'd say a lot of what I listen to…has some sort of tragedy to it. I also like a lot of humor as well, though. Not just dark all the time.”
The story-filled lyrics are paired with a sound that tightropes between old and new. The band, which doesn’t have a fiddle player or drummer, offers their own unique modern twist on Americana and bluegrass.
That’s the focus of the band’s song “Blue Trash,” which is about not being a traditional bluegrass band. But they don’t have any issue with traditional music.
“It's not like an anger song,” Hilts said. “It’s more of like a ‘We're just here to enjoy ourselves, no matter what.’…I think it's important to not get too angry about music. I mean, music's there to make people happy, and if you don't like it, well, you don't have to listen to it either.”
The album marks the first time they’ve recorded outside of their hometown. They worked with esteemed FAME Studio-trained producer Jimmy Nutt at his Nutthouse Recording Studio in Sheffield, Alabama.
“It went great because we actually had to go immerse ourselves somewhere else, where the main focus was writing it and recording,” said Hilts. “So, we felt very inspired, being somewhere like Sheffield and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We'd just sit in a circle and jam all night and go to the studio. Once we'd go in the studio, we'd try stuff out and it was perfect.”
Hilts’ favorite recording memory was getting to meet veteran musicians from the area, such as Spooner Oldham from The Swampers.
“I loved these local legends that are just down there, hanging out and playing music, kind of nightly or whenever they have a gig,” said Hilts. “And these guys have played with everyone. You know, like the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin. And that list just goes on and on and on…They're just hanging out and coming to the studio to check us out and see what we're all about and say hi. It was pretty magical.”
The band is excited to share their new tunes with Madison. Years of performing has led to a confident, lively swagger on stage from the white shirt and suspenders-wearing band members.
“We want to make a nice atmosphere for everyone,” Hilts said. “And we like to have fun up there ourselves.”