Music » Music Feature

A little-known Durham band reconvenes to surprising fanfare

Drug Yacht plays Saturday at Nightlight



The list of bands that these three Daves—Heller, Bjorkback and Cantwell, to be precise—have played in is improbably long. From In the Year of the Pig to Actual Persons Living or Dead, from Sweet Militia to Grappling Hook, from The Torch Marauder to Cantwell, Gomez, and Jordan, these three Daves have created a strange latticework of membership through the local music scene for the last two decades.

"I've been in 45 bands with two people," Cantwell says, laughing and looking across an outside table at Durham pub Bull McCabe's at those two fellow musicians, Heller and Bjorkback. Together, they form Cantwell's second-oldest band, the recently reunited Drug Yacht. "It's all pretty incestuous. After Drug Yacht broke up the first time, Bjorkback and I started a new band. That was Razzle, with him on drums and me on bass."

Before that, Heller and Cantwell played together in Analogue. For all the interesting recombination during the last two decades, though, this is the first time since Drug Yacht's 1998 breakup that the three have played together. When the band booked its first show in 14 years earlier this month, area musicians and boosters raved about the prospect on Facebook and Twiiter. And the show at The Pinhook was well attended—not bad for a band making its fifth appearance onstage ever, and its first since 1998.

"I was surprised by that," admits Cantwell. "I figured our friends would come out, but I didn't expect anyone who didn't know us or who didn't see us back then to care."

While the Daves shrug off or wonder awkwardly about the excitement for their reunion, longstanding local music commentator Ross Grady says that the hype stems from the bona fides of those involved.

"Three of the greatest—and most essential—local rock bands of all time, Analogue, Razzle and The Grappling Hook," he explains. "Also, three of the nicest guys and most generous friends and fans of other local bands: Merge all that awesomeness into one supergroup, and you're damn right there'll be some mega-buzz."

Drug Yacht played Local Live, Grady's WXDU radio show, two weeks before their Pinhook appearance. The broadcast not only revealed a crackling, wide-open indie-math power trio but also documented that sound for the first time. The group's original songs, which were never recorded, are faded relics; the members can't even recall what the band sounded like in 1998, let alone how they played the old material. They tried to get together not long after the band first split up and record its seven songs. They were already lost.

"It had only been six months, but we just remembered little vague pieces," Bjorkback says. "We just kind of forgot them that quickly."

Grady still keeps a few underexposed negatives of the band playing a dim house show in 1998. As with the musicians themselves, his memories of those shows are distant and as indistinct as these frustrating photographs. But what details do survive point to a band tellingly loaded with potential. "Drug Yacht have made me happier the two times I've seen them than I've been at most other shows I've seen in the past nine months," he wrote in the March 1998 edition of the long-defunct Triangle webzine NGASAMA (Nobody Gives a Shit About Music Anymore). "And I've seen a lot of shows lately."

One of Bob Wall's bands, Spacelab, opened for Drug Yacht at The Pinhook in August; 14 years ago, one of his old acts, Two Headed Dawg, shared a bill with Drug Yacht at a Wilmington co-op. His other band, Le Weekend, joins them for a bill this week. "Folks tend to have an affinity for something that happened long ago that is connected to the present," says Bob Wall. "Bjorkback, Cantwell and Heller have a lengthy pedigree of current and defunct bands with lots of intermingling, but this one is the only one with just those three. And that's a powerful three guys."

Though Wall and Grady both saw some of the 1990s shows, Heller estimates there were five people at the Pinhook date who'd seen them before. To everyone else, this is effectively a new band with familiar members. When Drug Yacht formed, Cantwell and Heller were undergrads at North Carolina State University, spending summers in Wilmington, where Bjorkback lived. This would have been mid-1997, Cantwell reasons, because the band practiced in an outbuilding behind Heller's dad's Wilmington house. That year, both of Bjorkback's bands—Tricky the Cosmonaut and Cruise Control Pills—had split up.

"I was at a record store or something. I bumped into these guys, and I was lamenting my woes about how I was a drummer without any bands and they were like, 'You should come play with us!'" he says. "Then I asked [Cantwell], 'Are we both going to be playing drums?' and he's like, 'No, I'm going to be playing bass.' I remember thinking 'I don't know about this ...'"

The three friends laugh, reminiscing—or at least trying to remember—details like song titles or what bands played with them. At one point, Bjorkback simply confesses, "I've played a lot of shows, so I don't know."

The all-new Drug Yacht material favorably reflects 14 years of playing in bands by all three members, meaning they are not only more practiced at their instruments but also at working with others. And while 1997's Bjorkback was skeptical about Cantwell's transition from drums to bass, 2012's Bjorkback says Cantwell's bass tone was all many audience members could talk about.

"One drunk guy," Cantwell says, blushing a little.

"That was the star of the show," insists Bjorkback.

Strangely, now that Drug Yacht is back, the band is preparing for another hiatus. Cantwell has started a student-teaching internship at an elementary school, and he's putting all his bands on hold until at least January. Following Saturday's Nightlight show, Drug Yacht won't play again until 2013, but it's safe to wager this long-lost band is back.

"We already had a 14-year hiatus," says Bjorkback. "Give us a five-month hiatus; we can do this standing on our heads."

He and his friends laugh.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Lifting anchor."

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