Shuffle: Coby and The Prisoners Produce Large-Scale Songs Out of Small-Town Roots
Indie-rockers Coby and The Prisoners latest album is showing off the band’s talent at producing homegrown recordings that are polished and radio ready. WKSU contributor Brittany Nader talked with frontman Coby Hartzler about the band’s sound and his roots in the Dover/New Philadelphia area.
Making music from the heartland
Frontman Coby Hartzler grew up in a religious environment and lives just a handful of miles away from the heart of Amish country. His lyrics aim to question the values he was raised on and is presently surrounded by, particularly in the song “Everyone” — his latest release last year with The Prisoners.
The full-length album was released a little more than two years after “Candy Queen,” which contained elements of Americana, pop and blues. Listeners will hear a slight diversion or growth in “Everyone” with songs reflecting on societal issues that are top of mind for many audiences.
“It was sort of a transition phase like in my personal life,” Hartzler said. “My wife and I, we were moving, (and) I was kind of in the process of quitting my job.”
These life transitions set the songwriter on the path to create and record more music. Hartzler’s large, life-changing decisions and deep moments inspired the album.
Running a recording studio
At the same time, the frontman was putting together his own recording studio in a 130-year-old Victorian house in Dover.
Hartzler’s wife, Elisabeth Yoder, said the studio helps him pay the bills, perfect his craft and support their young son. Hartzler and his musical collaborators Billy Stansifer, Matt Garver, Joey Weaver and Jared Riblet record their own material in the studio, which is the birthplace of “Everyone.”
Owning, operating and crafting new music in Dover — located about an hour from Cleveland but right around the corner from smaller villages like Sugarceek — allows Hartzler to explore his musical capabilities without being financially strapped.
'Even before I knew how to sing or how to craft a song, I immediately found friends that had a drum set and a bass guitar, and we formed a band.'
“(What keeps us here) is a question that my wife and I ponder daily, it seems like,” Hartzler said. “One, just financially, it’s so much easier, like I’m able to have a recording space and a house and still live super cheap. There’s also something I kind of enjoy about the small-town life.”
Coby and The Prisoners held their album release show for “Everyone” at The Auricle in Canton and played Akron’s Highland Square PorchRokr Festival a few months prior, so venturing outside of the Dover area is still very much part of the band’s agenda.
“Even though we’re in a small town, we’re kind of nicely situated where there are bigger cities within an hour or two drive. Lots of them,” Hartzler said. “So I’d like to try to break into those areas a bit more. And then, also, constantly recording.”
Undergoing an evolution of sound
Hartzler is currently working on a more toned-down, acoustic album that he intends to finish recording with The Prisoners this year.
This sonic progression is all the more evident when listening to the bandleader’s work with his first group, State Bird, an alternative-rock outfit that fused boundless thrash with more melodic, gospel tones. Ultimately, it was louder and more brash than his recent music.
“I think the one theme that has remained the same is the looseness that I still kind of approach things,” Hartzler said. “A lot of bands rehearse a song, like, until they’re playing the exact same way and the exact same note every time. And that just bores me, and I can’t do it.”
State Bird was his first serious project as a musician out of high school.
“I was always drawn to songwriting and being in a band, so even before I knew how to sing or how to craft a song, I immediately found friends that had a drum set and a bass guitar, and we formed a band,” Hartzler said.
The band got on a small record label and was an active part of the Dover music scene in the mid-2000s, which was arguably centered around, and perhaps born out of, the Dover Ballroom.
“(State Bird) never really broke up,” Hartzler said. “People are just moving away, and that’s when this project sort of started.”
He explained that Coby and The Prisoners originally served more as his own creative outlet and recording project, with the addition of featured players brought on when they were available to play a show or two.
“In the last couple years, I’ve been trying to be more active with it,” Hartzler said. “I like to keep it exciting and almost allow for surprises.”
Getting signed and releasing records
Coby and The Prisoners is currently signed to The Record Machine, a record label based in Kansas City, Mo.
“Candy Queen” and “Everyone” were released on the label, which runs the Middle of the Map Fest. The festival has featured bands like Spoon, Iron & Wine, Social Distortion and of Montreal, while the label itself strives to introduce rising Midwest bands to larger, widespread audiences.
“Everyone” is a standout album rising from Ohio’s music scene, with tracks like “https://youtu.be/Eybu44OfA10" target="_blank">Street to the Door” serving as a love letter to past DIY venues — in this case, the aforementioned Dover Ballroom — and songs like “Dead Hair,” that are a timeless, locationless fusion of bootgaze, Americana, dream pop and wistful, poetic reflection of changing times.