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Battling egos, power struggles, addiction, a rotating line-up of mentally unstable drummers and most of all: a pipe dream started in a teenage boy’s garage becoming realized. These are all quintessential parts of the classic tale of an American rock band...and this one is still waiting to be discovered.
Kellen Ross is that teenage boy. His story begins in Abilene, TX. He grew up the youngest of 3 sons to religious conservatives who think rock and roll is an Amy Grant concert. His mom is a school teacher. His dad is an accountant. They actually laughed at Kellen when he told them at age 15 that he was going to be a singer in rock band and that he saw no point in going to college.
He had been writing music for several years at that point and without notice from anyone close to him. Like most artists, Ross starting writing lyrics to deal with his emotions but he didn’t understand how to create the drums and guitar parts that kept looping in his head. He had no choice but to drive to Arlington at age 16 and buy a guitar. His first guitar was a Fender Stratocaster and taught himself how to play it. At that point he had never played anyone else’s music or learned anyone else’s music. He is completely self-taught to-date.
“It was a mixture of my first heartbreak and discovering the record, Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness by the Smashing Pumpkins that fueled my songwriting,” says Ross.
By age 17 he had already made his first CD on an 8-track recorder in his house with a friend filling in on a drum machine. At age 18, he gave college a try when he got accepted to the University of North Texas in 2005. He dropped out a year later and moved to Dallas in 2006 determined to start a band.
True to the timeless storyline, Gene Antos responded to an ad Ross placed at a local guitar shop and joined first as lead guitarist. Laurie Hukill then joined on drums and JD Eakins filled out the group on bass. Better than Sex debuted their first show in Austin at the Parish. They quickly changed their name to Opium Symphony.
While Ross was writing for no less than 3 hours a day at that time and had about 400 songs published, his band was falling under the grip of addiction. Laurie had uncontrollable substance abuse problems and soon overdosed on methodone. Antos had to leave the band as well due to his own struggles with addiction and the law. Opium Symphony was becoming a case study in art imitating life by that point.
The band’s name really comes from a sound that Ross has heard in his head ever since he started writing music with his first band Acrylic. That sound to him is similar to being high on opium.
“It’s like seeing and hearing a haze of colors and I want to see and hear as many of them as possible in a chord,” he says.
Most musicians would have given up or started a completely new project at this point but Ross soldiered on with bass player JD Eakins. Eakin’s childhood friend Troy Schmidt quickly replaced Antos as lead guitarist and Leigh Underwood joined on drums. Opium Symphony got back on track and back to work.
They recorded and self-released a 6 song EP called Life is A Cigarette in 2007 at One Road Studios in Austin. The next year in 2008 brought forth the Flu Sessions, also recorded at One Road. The singles “God or Money,” “Deaf Radio” and “Stars and Stripes;” all from that recording, garnered extensive radio play in Texas and California.
Ross then conceived the “You Don’t Deserve My Vote” tour in 2008. Dates spanned across Texas, the southwest and California. Other acts such as Paul Crook (Meatloaf, Anthrax, Sebastian Bach) joined the bill in certain cities.
“The point of that tour and the concept behind it was to simply make people aware of the electoral college and how it hurts the democratic process. We weren’t intending to court controversy,” says Ross.
Courting controversy was unavoidable however. Fortunately for Opium Symphony, that controversy only served to propel public awareness. They were regularly playing at least 4-5 shows per week in Dallas and building a real fan base.
2009 started with the band opening for Perry Ferrell at SXSW and eventually playing their first arena show opening for Gin Blossoms at Phoenix Pride Festival that summer. Opium Symphony was growing and so were internal pressure between members.
Once again; and as the story goes, Ross found himself struggling to keep his band together. Drummer Leigh Underwood became depressed and struggled to show up to work sober. Schmidt starting showing signs of Syd Barrett-like craziness and Eakins simply wanted more money and control over the band.
Days before the band’s biggest show to-date; playing before 40,000 people as opening guests for Gin Blossoms, Kellen fired Underwood. Respected local drummer Derron Bell filled in at the last minute but wasn’t interested in joining the band at that time due to scheduling conflicts. Ross then went on to fire Eakins and Schmidt soon after.
He called upon his childhood friend Jarret Kramer; with whom he had recorded with as a teenager, to join as lead guitarist. Drew Nolde; now bassist for Opium Symphony, responded to a classified ad. Derron Bell also reconnected with Kellen around that time with interest in joining as a full-time member.
Blame It On the Radio; due out on June 19 via Ross’ own Man or Machine imprint is Opium Symphony’s first ever full-length album. Thirteen tracks were recorded at Maximedia Studios and SonicDropper Studios in Dallas. Ross co-produced Blame It On The Radio with Jim King. Jim King mixed and mastered as well.
“This collection of songs is about the record industry and how my dreams have been the source of the greatest inspiration as much as the source of the greatest pain in my life,” says Ross.
The band will embark on an extensive tour of the US in support of Blame It On The Radio.
Opium Symphony is Kellen Ross on vocals and guitar, Jarrett Kramer on lead guitar, Drew Nolde on bass and Derron Bell on drums.