Sugarland fans needn't worry; Kristian Bush is still fully committed to the group and is, in fact, in the midst of recording a new album with Jennifer Nettles that should be out next year. But Bush has something more, and more immediate, up his musical sleeve.
Dark Water, his long-gestating band with his brother Brandon (formerly of Train) and jam band scene veteran Benji Shanks will drop its self-titled and self-produced debut album on Nov. 15, with the first single "Paint It Blue" premiering exclusively on Billboard today (Nov. 8). The trio recorded the 11-song set in Atlanta, and Bush is open about the different influences, primarily the Grateful Dead, that factor into his new group.
"We have this wonderful place in Atlanta where we have a studio, so we get to make all kinds of things," Bush tells Billboard. "Brandon brings in all these different kinds of ideas and experiments in order to stay creatively fresh -- like, 'Let's do some Celtic death metal!' and stuff like that. A few years back he was asking, 'Hey, what would it be like if the Grateful Dead's American Beauty record had songs that didn't make the record?' 'What?!' 'Yeah, let's just use that as a jumping off point and be creative!' And I was like, 'Okay...'"
Bush concedes that he's "not an aficionado" of the Dead, but he dove into the concept -- albeit with some raised eyebrows -- as Shanks came into the fold. The other caveat was that Shanks and Brandon Bush would come up with the music, leaving just the lyrics and top-line melody for the frontman. "That was different," Bush says. "We recorded it and played it for a couple of people in our orbit, management and family and people in other bands, just to see if what we had was good or bad. And we got great reaction -- maybe too much reaction. People were just affected by it, like, 'This is amazing! You need to do this!'
"So then we repositioned ourselves into thinking, 'This may be something bigger than we thought. Let's just try and see,' so we spent the last better part of a year developing this, and here we are."
With Shanks' ringing tone defining the Dark Water sound, Bush -- who says,"There's no reason to start a band unless you have a fucking great guitar player" -- waded into the cerebral territory of the late poet Robert Hunter and others who penned lyrics for the Dead. That led to a surprising realization. "My part of the requirement was 'What would people have been thinking at that time? What was going on outside there window?'" he explains. "Oddly, when you look at it, it's not that different from what's going on now -- a weird war we can't get out of, a president who's lying all the time, technology … There's a lot of similarity when you start thinking about it and what is it you're asking each other by putting out music.
"One thing that strikes me is the idea that we're not going to get through any of this stuff alone. We're going to need each other. That was a theme I found more often than not when I started peeling back some of what those influences might have been, and that appealed to me and appealed to the guys for our songs too."
"Paint It Blue," which came out of the second batch of songs the trio worked on, echoed that sentiment according to Bush. "I heard the music, which was very energetic, and said, 'I know what this looks like!'" he remembers. "I started playing around with this fun idea that there’s an apparition, this ghost that comes to you in your dream and she's telling you how to make it through all the troubles that are going on in your life. She's like, 'Look, man, it's going to be OK,' and she's doing it in all sorts of interesting rhymes and thoughts and just keeps upping the game. It's a little bit of a puzzle, lyrically, that unfolds the more you listen to it."
Bush says Dark Water will unveil a few more singles leading up to the album's release, then plans, "loosely," to put out six songs every six months for four years and see what happens. “We decided to start with an album so everybody would understand this isn't a side project." The group also plans to play live shows in conjunction with Sugarland's dates next year, and Bush is confident that despite its jam band rock orientation Dark Water will not seem too foreign to his "day job's" audience.
"I don't think this will surprise any of them, that it's happening," says Bush, who released a solo album, Southern Gravity, in 2015. "I think after all this time they know that, creatively, I'm rolling all the time. But I think they'll be surprised by how much they love it. It's music that has a message, which is something that we [Sugarland] do, too, and I know they like that."