Neon Avenue moving in new stylistic direction

By John Benson

Intentionally living with less is how Justin Edwards views his band Neon Avenue, which is undergoing a series of changes.

“I don’t feel like I have anything to prove,” said the Poland native and 2006 Struthers High School graduate. “I feel like I have in the past. I think that’s one of the reasons why I got a little bit aggressive in some of my songwriting. Now I’m just really writing music that I want to hear, as opposed to trying to write things that I think other people will want to hear.”

For the past few years, Neon Avenue — Edwards (vocals, piano, guitar), John Cutlip (bass), Ryan Mehle (drums) and Stephen Pappas (guitar) — has been evolving in public from a Killers-esque-sounding act to a more heavier alternative-rock sound. That explains the evolution the quartet experienced from its EP debut, “The Darkest Hour,” to its most-recent affair, the full-length “Welcome to Reason.”

The newest effort, which is available on iTunes, found Edwards writing more on the edge with anger and aggression fueling the music that meshed into a Killers-meets-Alter Bridge motif.

Edwards said the stylistic leap stemmed from his questioning of spirituality. Whereas the cliched story is one finds religion and becomes mellow, Edwards said his experience was the opposite.

“Throughout the process of questioning, I wouldn’t necessarily say I found God, but I found a lot of solace in the teachings of Buddha and some Eastern philosophy that actually helped me to be more OK with a lot of my upbringing,” Edwards said. “I was raised Christian. Now I’m at a weird point where I’m learning to combine my Christian background with a lot of the influences of Eastern religion and, specifically, Buddhism.”

This explains why Neon Avenue is once again shedding its skin and moving into a new direction. Edwards said the band now has a more indie-rock feel similar to Minus the Bear with hints of a John Mayer Trio blues sound.

Lost in the shuffle is “Welcome to Reason,” which the band put out four months ago. The foursome is putting that album behind them with a new project looming. However, there is one “Welcome to Reason” track that will jump to the next album.

“The song ‘Try Try Try’ is one of the only tunes we’re going to carry over into the changes,” Edwards said. “That won’t change at all. It’s almost like a mantra to me, asking myself to be a better person and being calm as possible.”

On the surface, such genre-jumping can have a negative effect on a band’s audience. That is, will people stay focused enough to follow the band? Then again, this is a local group still finding its sound, so there is an inherent leeway.

When asked if he’s worried the audience won’t follow Neon Avenue, Edwards revealed his new mindset.

“By no means am I worried about it,” Edwards said. “Writing music for me is something that I have to do to keep myself sane. I joke about it sometimes, but it’s kind of true. It’s more of a release for me, and if people listen to it and like it, that’s a bonus. I’ve been really lucky with this album [‘Welcome to Reason’] and the effort put into it over the past few years. We’ve had some good shows and had people come and really enjoy the music. So if people want to listen, they will. And if they don’t like it, they can listen to something else.”

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