Middle Class Rut is a guitar, a drum kit and endless possibilities.
The duo of guitarist-singer Zack Lopez and drummer-singer Sean Stockham has spent the past month in a Sacramento studio, breaking out the big riffs and beats while exploring the tonal possibilities of pots, pans and other household and automotive items.
"That's a door closing, and that's Zack revving his Corolla," Stockham said, identifying two sounds as he played back the track "Police Man" from the duo's sophomore album, due in early 2013.
As Stockham, 30, sat at the board of the expensively outfitted rented studio, Lopez, 31, added a new guitar part to the already densely layered song After several tries and equipment adjustments, his guitar reached the desired "mid" level, supplementing previously recorded guitar parts.
The surprisingly big sound for which the duo is known will get bigger on the new album, the follow-up to 2010's "No Name No Color."
"No Name" produced the hit single "New Low," an irresistible combination of catchy chorus, downcast lyrics and Lopez's and Stockham's emotion-laden yet disembodied-sounding vocals. The heat behind "New Low" led to a spot on the 2011 Warped Tour and tours with Alice in Chains and Chevelle. MC Rut also has toured with Linkin Park, Social Distortion and Foo Fighter Dave Grohl's side project, Them Crooked Vultures.
Finally off the road and able to focus on recording, MC Rut is employing "whatever is in the room that might make a sound that might sound cool," Stockham said. If the duo cannot later reproduce a recorded track's dense sound live on stage, so be it.
"We will just have to find a different way of playing it (live)," Stockham said.
Left alone in the studio by their label, Lopez and Stockham, who have performed together since they were 14, rely fully on each other's ideas and opinions. If they think a song needs more reverb, or more Toyota engine, they add it.
"We toured for so long, we are just trying to have fun, doing whatever we want to do before we have to start the (record-release and touring) process and figure it all out again," Lopez said.
They also rely on their innate sense of what makes a song. No outside producer or label representative need urge them to include a hook.
"We kind of keep an eye on things ourselves in that way," Lopez said. "We are not trying to have 20- minute jam sessions."
Their experimental and accessible bents are evident in the new song "Weather Vein." Heavily textured and fully enveloping, the song's prominent groove makes it sound like the sexiest song in space. And like nothing from "No Name."
Lopez said he now wishes MC Rut would have pulled off the road earlier to record new material, to take advantage of the success of "New Low." "People's attention spans aren't two-and-a-half years long," he said.
With so many opportunities coming at once, it was hard to decide what to do.
"We get so many good tours and good offers. Are we going to not go and play for a couple of thousand people a night on a super-comfortable budget?" Lopez asked. "And that turned into one after another, and the next thing you know, it's two years."
MC Rut made it back to Sacramento often enough to maintain a loyal fan base. A concert in May at Cesar Chavez Plaza drew 7,500 people. That broke the attendance record for the downtown Concerts in the Park series, said Andy Hawk of Play Big Sacramento, which books the series' acts.
MC Rut is among the "very few bands that can grab the hard-rock crowd but also the hipster indie kids what would have been the Lollapalooza indie crowd" in the 1990s, he said.
Though often likened to Jane's Addiction (due mostly to Lopez's vocal similarity to Perry Farrell), MC Rut defies easy comparisons.
The band's harder elements are powerful but contain subtler explorations than your typical metal riff. Stockham said MC Rut draws lots of 1980s rock fans, which makes sense. The Guns 'N' Roses and Motley Crue era allowed bands to be hard and be hitmakers.
Whatever its influences, MC Rut's sound is fresh and inventive enough to have given it more traction than most bands formed in Sacramento in the past several years.
"Not too many bands get on the radio and get signed and tour the world in a span of three years," Hawk said. Hawk, also host of the "Local Licks" program on 98 Rock (98.5 FM), has played MC Rut since he worked at now-defunct alternative station KWOD (106.5 FM).
MC Rut has hit most marks used to measure a new band's success in the years since record sales took a dive: prominent tours, a deal with Oakland's Bright Antenna label, heavy radio and MTV airplay for "New Low" and nearly 4 million YouTube hits for its video.
But the process took years. The duo released EPs before "No Name No Color" came out, and "New Low" received airplay years before the album's release. Before that, Stockham and Lopez started a band called Leisure once signed to DreamWorks Records which disbanded in 2003.
"We are happy with what we accomplished, but it wasn't like, 'Oh, we made it to where we see ourselves being,' " Lopez said. "There is a hell of a lot more that needs to be done."
Now Lopez and Stockham, both fathers, are looking for longevity. "We are 30 years old, and it can't be as short-lived anymore," Lopez said.
They are fortunate, they said, to make their livings just from playing music. Now they want to build their fan base in markets where they are not yet big draws.
"The goal is to make it not just getting by, but something sustainable," Lopez said. "To know, 'All right, we have this much of a fan base, and we can take this to every club in the country and get this amount, and we will be fine for a year.' "
Musically, they will continue "as long as it's poppin' and people want to see us," Stockham said. He recently relocated his family to Idaho, but that has not affected the band, he said.
The pair rarely have played music without each other except when they were 15 and Stockham was in a band involved in Skip's Music's "Stairway to Stardom" competition.
Lopez, then living in Berkeley, came to Sacramento by train on weekends to rehearse with Stockham in Elk Grove.
"We would practice in his parents' living room, and he would say, 'Oh yeah, my other band's going to be practicing here,' " Lopez said with a laugh. "I was like, 'Damn (he's) got this shredder here, and I'm going to be out of a job.' "
"It didn't fly with him," Stockham said of Lopez. "I felt like I was cheating."