The third song on the second album, Passion, by Audubon Park pours smoothly from the tune before it. At the close of "What Happened to the Nighttime This Weekend," a haze of distortion subsides slowly, like the sun setting on a Sunday night before the workweek begins. The glow has barely disappeared when the first tessellated guitar and bass notes of "My Cardinal Is Blue" cut through the near-silence in the same key, as uneven and anxious as a Monday morning commute.
It's the sort of careful and considered segue you might expect from a band that spent months plotting the turns and twists of its record before heading into the recording studio. And sure enough, it's been five years since the quintet—a quintessential Chapel Hill indie rock descendent—released its first album, Teenage Horses. They've had ample opportunity to dream up transitions between albums, time to test songs and sequences on the stage. But since releasing Teenage Horses, Audubon Park has played maybe a dozen shows and has spent exactly one weekend recording. That was more than a year ago, and that session, of course, became the deceptively evolved Passion.
"Every band says that the music is the most important thing, that my artistic vision is the most important thing," says David Nahm, the songwriter, guitarist and lead singer in Audubon Park. "I realized I wasn't interested in that. I'd done it for years, and I was miserable. I didn't want to be in a band that cared about music more than anything else."
After all, Audubon Park would have a tough time touring right now. Co-founder Matt Kalb works as an engineer at Verizon. Bassist Finn Cohen only recently returned to America from an extended stay in Russia, where he was working at an American-language newspaper after studying Russian at Duke University; he now lives in Brooklyn. Nahm is a married lawyer living and working in the Virginia mountain town of Harrisonburg. Audubon Park is a band with bigger priorities than "making it." (In fact, that third track, "My Cardinal Is Blue," is a brilliantly non-rock star tune about Nahm missing his wife when she lived in Virginia for several months without him while he finished his job in Chapel Hill. In an industry that hinges so often on image, it's a superbly domestic moment.)
Audubon Park is also a friend band in that phrase's best sense. Though each of the five members, including Ben Spiker and Robert Biggers, have been in bands where ambition pushed them to do things like tour to South by Southwest and sign deals with record labels, no one in Audubon Park has the pretense that this band will make him rich or famous. They just want to keep making music so they have an excuse to spend time together, to stay in constant contact. Rather than risk frustration looking for a label to release Passion, a record that marries two-guitar indie rock kinetics to Nahm's poignantly narrative songs, they're releasing it themselves on plastic sleeve-bound, spray-painted CD-Rs. And rather than turning the occasional buck by posting it on iTunes, they're selling it digitally on CyTunes, the online distribution charity founded years ago in memory of their friend Cy Rawls. The friendship and the music compel them, not the prospects.
"I noticed that about this band right away—hanging out with these guys is so much fun, and it just fosters these friendships," Kalb reckons. "And, oh yeah, we also play some shows and record."
For Nahm, that idea—finding people you care about and sticking with them, no matter where careers or spouses send you—is maybe adulthood's most important thread.
"There's not any pressure on the band to be anything other than us communicating with one another. We're always going to be friends, so the line between a band practice and getting together to watch a movie is arbitrary," says Nahm. "They're all the same action. That's what makes it easier to get together and continue on, even though we get together and play once a year now."
Though he graduated from college more than a decade ago, Nahm says he emails his closest friends from that period of his life almost daily. In fact, he's married to one of them, Jennifer, who he met through Kalb during their freshman year at Centre College, a small but lauded liberal arts institute in Danville, Ky.
Early in the fall semester of 1993, Nahm poked his head into the dorm room of the new student at the end of the hall. A Tennessee transplant who'd spent most of high school listening to thrash metal on badly dubbed cassettes, Kalb was playing "Drive," by R.E.M., on an electric guitar. Nahm, who actually grew up about a block away from the Centre College campus, recognized something of himself in Kalb—namely, that they weren't the cool kids. As Nahm remembers it, Kalb had long hair, denim shorts and a Soundgarden poster. Nearly 20 years later, Kalb confirms that this is likely accurate, save for the fact that the amplifier he played was a Peavey Envoy, not a Peavey Audition Plus.
"I asked, 'Oh, can I play your guitar?'" remembers Nahm. "That is, of course, the most obnoxious thing a human being can do—walk into your dorm room and say, 'You're playing guitar. Can I do it now, too?'"
When Kalb handed Nahm his electric guitar, he played "Plush" by the Stone Temple Pilots, a song that neither of them particularly liked. Still, they seemed to be the only two kids at Centre interested in music, and they quickly bonded over their awful high school bands (Nahm was still in his, Ragland) and the songs they had written. Nahm turned Kalb onto bands he'd never heard, like My Bloody Valentine, and Kalb gravitated toward Nahm's unrelenting sense of irony. They played each other's songs, wrote some together and eventually formed their first of five shared bands, Gertrude.
"We had moments where we'd get on each others' nerves," remembers Kalb. "I never had a brother, but I assume that's the way a lot of people describe their fraternal relationships. It happened pretty immediately."
After freshman year they became roommates for the remainder of college; they've been inseparable for nearly two decades now. They subsequently moved together to Louisville, and after a few years they left Kentucky altogether with their future wives for Chapel Hill. Not only was it the place that seemed best for Jennifer's graduate degree, but, as Nahm puts it, the town also produced most of the music over which they obsessed. Their first Chapel Hill band together, V. Sirin, broke up a decade ago. Just a few months after, Nahm showed Kalb a batch of new songs, and they started playing them.
"I can't imagine being in a band that doesn't have Matt in it," Nahm had told his wife.
That's the perfect summary of Audubon Park in 2011. They don't have any clear plans for the future. Kalb says he doesn't think Passion will be their last album or that its release party will be any grand sort of farewell. This is the blessing and the burden of a band like Audubon Park: It seems as though it will go on forever, if that's how long these friendships last, but there's no single thought as to where to take it next. Kalb jokes that maybe they should just start Twitter accounts so they can all hang out virtually—fewer intra-band memos, more Nahm zingers in less than 140 characters.
"We email each other all the time," says Kalb. "We'll eventually come to some sort of decision, but I don't know when we'll all be playing music in the same room again. But we'll be in touch."