Waterloo Revival Gets a Good Workout With 'Bad For You'

Jeremy Cowart
Waterloo Revival

It begins with a Doobie Brothers-like funky rhythm guitar, slams into a Maroon 5 “Sugar”-style chorus and pushes toward a scratchy Bee Gees “Jive Talkin’ ” guitar fade.

Waterloo Revival’s poppy, high-octane “Bad for You” pumps and pushes for a lightning-paced two minutes and 29 seconds, then drops into silence. When it’s all over, it leaves the listener in a daze. The frenetic single is sure to piss off traditionalists, geared to amp up millennials and likely to send a lot of listeners to the repeat button.

“We want to leave them wanting more,” says the duo’s guitarist, Cody Cooper.

The ride isn’t all that different from a roller coaster — fast, curvy and done before you know it.

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“The first time I kind of experienced that was on ‘Fell in Love With a Girl’ by The  White Stripes,” says Revival lead singer George Birge. “That was like 1:50 long or something, and I remember the first time I heard it, I was like, ‘Holy smokes, that is just straight energy.’ I wanted to press repeat again and again, and that’s kind of what we were going for with this.”

Not that creating “Bad for You” was anything like what Waterloo Revival expected when it started working in Nashville. Named for its Austin roots (Austin was originally incorporated as Waterloo), the duo has been musical cohorts since middle school, fashioning a rather sweet, semi-traditional sound. On their first songwriting excursion to Music City, Birge and Cooper co-wrote “Hit the Road,” a song they released independently that got them a recording deal with Big Machine. The label hired producer Ross Copperman (Dierks Bentley, Brett Eldredge) to punch up the mix a bit, and that started a relationship that led to some co-writing.

Copperman has developed a reputation as a “track guy” — he typically brings a handful of pre-produced music beds to a songwriting session, hoping the music and the groove will inspire something. On this particular date, Copperman’s first with the duo, co-writer Jon Nite (“Smoke,” “We Were Us”) showed up in advance, and Copperman played him an eight-bar dance groove. Nite loved it, but figured it was too much for Waterloo Revival.

Birge and Cooper had a similar assessment when the session formally started. But they didn’t speak up. Instead, it was Nite who nixed it, and neither of them had to deflate Copperman’s enthusiasm.

“We were like, ‘Thank God he said that,’ ” recalls Birge, “because Jon, you know, he’s written several No. 1s. He had the balls to tell Ross Copperman, ‘Maybe let’s not go with this.’ ”

Instead, they invested about 15 minutes in another acoustic idea, though it never quite jelled. Finally, when they agreed the slower song was a dud, they put their guitars aside and returned to the Doobie-ish vibe. With the eight-bar pattern looping over and over, they threw out lyrical ideas and hooks until the title, “Bad for You,” appeared.

“It might’ve been George riffing, singing, and he popped it out of the air,” says Nite. “It was right for the music.”

In another setting, that title might have suggested a more painful sort of plot, but with the beats speeding by, “Bad for You” wasn’t destined to be a downer.

“You hear a title ‘Bad for You,’ and you think it must be this girl causing him a lot of heartache,” says Copperman. “You hear it recorded, it’s like, ‘Oh, I got it bad for you.’ It’s not what you initially think it’s about. At least that’s not what I thought it was initially about.”

How bad did the guy have it? Answering that question was the challenge in the chorus, and they tried out a ton of lines in the process. This time, Birge spoke up.

“I said, ‘I’m like a bee on honey,’ three different times,” he recalls. “The fourth time I said it, Ross was like, ‘Dude, great line.’ And I was like, ‘Man, I’ve been saying that for the last hour.’ So I came up with ‘bee on honey,’ and then Jon was like, ‘Yeah, man, like a cloud on blue.’ ”

A what? “Cloud on blue” is a weird line — Nite knew it while it was coming out of his mouth — but there was something intriguing about what’s ultimately a reference to a fair-weather sky.

“We actually talked about doing ‘cloud nine,’ but it didn’t work as well rhyme-wise,” says Copperman.

They added a bridge, which is the only place in the song where the chord progression changes, and Copperman built a fairly elaborate demo as they wrote, with Birge and Cooper cobbling together rough lead vocals and Nite adding a few background vocals.

“I sang some stupid-high harmonies that were like medically induced,” says Nite. 

What Nite didn’t realize was that Copperman would keep those vocals in the final mix. In fact, Copperman also used most of Waterloo Revival’s vocals from that day, tricking the pair to deliver the best take on the spot.

“He was like, ‘Hey, man, can I just get you to do one pass all the way down and really focus on it like you were singing the real vocal?’ ” remembers Birge. “I was like, ‘Sure, man, no problem,’ thinking that he just wanted to present the label with a good work tape. Instead, he was like, ‘Cool, that’s the final vocal.’ He kind of sneaks up on you.”

They tried to do redo the vocals later, but after one or two attempts, they dropped that plan and made a handful of tweaks.

“It’s literally just a few lines that changed,” says Copperman. “It was just an energy. When you write a song and sing it for the first time, you don’t really know it that well, but there’s an energy that you are singing it with, and I just don’t feel like you ever sing it the same again.”

In the interim, Copperman rebuilt much of the track around those vocals, hiring bass player Tony Lucido and Los Angeles-based drummer Aaron Sterling (John Mayer, Matt Kearney).

“I did a live streaming drum session with Aaron Sterling,” says Copperman. “I literally was laying on my couch with my cellphone, streaming the drum session with Aaron, texting him what I like, what I didn’t, and what to do. It was amazing. It was the best experience of my life.”

Dan Dugmore threw on some atmospheric steel fills, and guitarist Danny Rader layered multiple parts on the track, including some scintillating mandolin passages and a seven-second electric solo.

“Bad for You” superceded another track that was previously slated as a single. Big Machine first released it on iTunes, and it made a quick splash with the duo’s fan base.

“We showed up to a show literally three days after we release a song, and people knew the words line for line throughout the entire song,” marvels Birge.

The label sent “Bad for You” to radio via Play MPE on July 13. It starts at No. 58 on Country Airplay, and, of course, its short length is a plus.

 “The Beatles’ [early] songs were like, 2:30 or so,” reasons Nite. “Maybe we should just let it be.”

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.