Chris McKay heads down new road musically, takes step away from photo work

| | Story updated at 8:03 PM on Friday, June 15, 2007

In addition to his considerable skills as a rock-and-roll photojournalist, Chris McKay is best known for the infectious pop tunes he's created with his band the Critical Darlings. But after years of carving out a canon of feisty compositions, McKay is veering in a slightly different direction these days.

McKay, who will appear with the Critical Darlings Thursday at Tasty World, recently "co-wrote" a pair of songs with none other than The Who's Pete Townshend and is in the process of putting the final touches on a new tune that will be highlighted by the contributions of one of the rock world's most valuable sidemen.

"It's actually all a bit overwhelming," says McKay.

Although he's never met the legendary British icon, McKay received word earlier this year that Townshend - along with programmer Dave Snowdon and composer/mathematician Lawrence Ball - had taken digital data supplied by McKay (including sound bites and photographs) as part of their "Lifehouse Lottery" to create two synthesizer-driven pieces of music that are somewhat reminiscent of the opening movements of Who classics such as "Baba O'Riley," "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Eminence Front."

"The whole thing with Pete Townshend was a fluke," says McKay, who took Townshend's photo late last year when The Who visited Atlanta. "It may not wind up on the next album, but I'm sure I'll wind up doing something with it."

The South Carolina native, who moved to Athens seven years ago, has definite plans about another song he's written entitled "Something Unseen."

"My original band was a power-pop trio, and I tend to write layered, harmonic songs with lots of counter melodies," he says. "My goal is to write more advanced songs than regular pop music, which is where 'Something Unseen' enters the picture. 'Something Unseen' is a departure from what we usually do in that it's an epic-type, piano-based tune that will be the closing song on the next album."

Although McKay has exceptionally capable co-conspirators in guitarist Joe Orr, drummer Josh Couillard and bassist Frank Defreese, none of them are a piano player, which clearly provides the heart of the song.

"I began thinking of who, in my wildest dreams, I'd want to play the piano," says McKay, "and I came up with two names - (the late Queen vocalist) Freddie Mercury and Mike Garson, who played on so many of David Bowie's great albums. Obviously, Freddie Mercury was unavailable, so I decided to try and find Mike Garson."

Garson, who has also added his piano prowess to recordings by Nine Inch Nails, No Doubt and Smashing Pumpkins, was contacted by McKay through his MySpace page and indicated a willingness to sign on for the project. Then McKay sought out Athens producer-musician Dave Barbe, who has manned the board for a host of notable acts, including R.E.M., Drive-By Truckers and Son Volt, to gauge his interest in working on "Something Unseen" and the next Critical Darlings' album.

"I've wanted to work with Dave for a long time because I love what he does, and I'm arrogant enough to think I can add to what he's done," says McKay. "When I met him, we started talking about music and it was like visiting with a family member. So now I'm totally blown away."

"In early June, I'll be working with Dave on the basic track and then we'll send it to Mike, who'll add his piano parts," McKay said earlier this year. "It's kind of interesting that the last song will set the mood for the album. We're going to play some shows first and then start on the album in a few months."

McKay's latest exploits come on the heels of the release of the Critical Darlings' debut album, "C'mon Feel Your Joy," which was recorded in 2005 but wasn't issued for national distribution until early May.

"Things are working on a fast track," he says. "We played our first show with Josh in April and within a few weeks we signed an indie deal to distribute the album, which we recorded two years ago. We held off on releasing it because we were waiting to find the right drummer. Now's the time to maximize our efforts."

With his music prominently on the front burner these days, McKay is taking a respite from the world of photographing rock concerts and rock stars.

"I've made a conscious decision to back away from photography," says McKay, who began his career as a lensman shooting for Flagpole and for the last several years has licensed his work through New York-based Wire Image (which is owned by media titan Getty). "I'm focused on the band now. I'm willing to take this chance because I believe in the people I'm working with and they believe in the project."