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Running with the devil

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We had our chance, you know. We had our chance to make a deal with the devil. We danced with him, we flirted a little, maybe we even led him on. But I'm not so sure we ever took his offer. Here's how it went down.

It was the summer of '92 and scores of magazine reporters and music-industry types, looking like robotic ravens in their standard-issue black T-shirts and jeans, sweated hiply in the Chapel Hill heat. They came to see what sarcastic locals had named the Big Record Stardom Convention. They came to see 49 North Carolina bands over four days.

Late one night, when all the shows had ended and the after-parties were in full swing, a reporter from Spin magazine was holding court, dissecting our local culture, trying to find its essence. "What is the Chapel Hill sound?" he implored partygoers.

"Pffft!" Someone opened a beer can right in his face. "That is the Chapel Hill sound," came the response. Laughter erupted. "Pffft!" This was our answer to the devil.

Ironically, the first shot fired in the '90s Chapel Hill rock revolution took place in Raleigh two weeks before the decade began. On Dec. 18, 1989, a fresh-faced band called Superchunk went into Jerry Kee's Duck-Kee Studio and laid down a song called "Slack Motherfucker." It resembled a punk-jacked reading of .38 Special's "Hold on Loosely." It rocked.

Kee, who would go on to record such local classics as Small's Cakes and Polvo's Cor-Crane Secret, recalls the session with fondness. "Once we got going, they'd play a song, look at each other and say, 'Is everybody okay with that? All right then.' They never went back and listened to any takes. They just kept going."

"Slack Motherfucker" struck an immediate chord upon its release as a single in May 1990. Which was a mystery to original Superchunk drummer (and namesake) Chuck Garrison. "I just remember being surprised at how popular it became because I thought we had better songs than that," he shrugs. Of equal note was the fact that Superchunk released the single on its own label, Merge. Kee got a sense early on that this band was anything but slack. "They were quite businesslike. It was like, you don't sit around and get drunk. You do what you're here to do. It's your time and money."

A few years later, after Superchunk had released a couple of spectacular records for the Matador label, a major-label bidding war was expected to ensue. Instead, the 'Chunk signed themselves to Merge and never looked back. The devil was sent packing.

Another band tabbed to make something of itself pulled over before it got to the crossroads. Metal Flake Mother, whose Pixies-informed 1991 classic Beyond the Java Sea may be local musicians' most beloved record of the decade, broke up at a moment when fan and music-industry interest were at their peak. Squirrel Nut Zippers saxophonist Ken Mosher, who was MFM's drummer for "about 10 minutes," calls the band's demise "sad but, in a way, glorious."

Mosher collaborated with MFM guitarist Jimbo Mathus--and sort-of member Tom Maxwell--on what they thought would be songs for a second album. Instead, the band dissolved and the three became the nucleus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Mosher offers no easy explanation for why MFM broke up. "A lot of people were left scratching their heads. It wasn't like they were all arguing or something. Maybe it was success anxiety. They were all really young, difficult, emotional people and there was a lot of craziness going on at the time."

The devil again went away hungry.

Welcome to Chapel Hill, where Natty Bo flows from kitchen faucets, girls grow bass guitars out of their backs and Polvo's Ash Bowie runs a secret lab that clones visionaries. That was roughly what the national press came up with, appearing like a comical hallucination on the local radar in the summer of '92. Details, Spin, Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly piled on for what is known in football parlance as a "late hit."

"It's really hard," says longtime Cat's Cradle owner Frank Heath, "to go into a small town like this where something's been going on for a couple years and say, 'This is what it's about.' It's really hard to distill it down the way that they did."

The recurring theme in the articles--that Chapel Hill could be "the next Seattle"--was far off the mark, at least in commercial terms. It was impossible not to notice that the popular grunge bands were born of Led Zeppelin and classic rock, while Chapel Hill's brand of wobbly guitar-rock was more the bastard child of Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü. Even devoted locals had a hard time believing that Spatula was about to move a million units or Erectus Mono-tone would knock Pearl Jam out of the MTV "Buzz Bin."

Then and now, our local sound has been far from homogeneous. We've embraced straight pop (Dillon Fence, Evil Wiener, The Connells, Ben Folds Five), noisy guitar-rock (Archers of Loaf, Small, Pipe, Vanilla Trainwreck), all kinds of roots music (Chicken Wire Gang, Southern Culture on the Skids, Trailer Bride, Flat Duo Jets) and, for lack of a better term, angular post-rock (Spatula, Shark Quest, Polvo).

Interestingly, many of these seemingly disparate groups have influenced each other, directly or not. "You'd go to see your roommate's band," recalls Bill McCormick of Evil Wiener, "and you'd end up falling in love with the band that opens up for them." Despite the occasional crossbreeding, the common thread among Triangle bands appeared to be a fierce individualism and an almost stubborn disregard for prevailing musical winds.

Heath says the Big Record Stardom Convention did its job. "I think it energized things. It definitely boosted the idea that we were on the musical map." Chuck Garrison, who's drummed for nearly every band in town, agrees. "It was a spark plug," he acknowledges. "It started the whole thing. After that, everywhere we'd go on the road, people would say, 'Wow, you guys are a Chapel Hill band?'"

The ensuing five years would prove what locals already knew. The Summer of Hype was not the culmination of anything, it was the beginning.

Things really hit their stride in 1993 and '94. Small, Picasso Trigger and Archers of Loaf released albums for California-based Alias Records and toured like crazy. (The Archers became college radio stars, with their classic debut Icky Mettle and follow-up EP Vs. The Greatest of All Time.) Polvo and Superchunk became international cult heroes. And Zen Frisbee released I'm as Mad as Faust, a darkly beautiful pop masterpiece.

At a time when a lull would have been excused, things really got interesting. The Class of '95--Whiskeytown, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five--issued stunning debut records and followed them up in grand fashion over the ensuing two years. The Zippers' Hot and Ben Folds' Whatever and Ever Amen became the first two platinum records in the Triangle's history.

This would normally be the part where I tell you that we finally made a deal with the devil. But it didn't happen. The bands went to the next level, but they didn't change. They didn't pander. They maintained a likable perversity. The Zippers, leading lights of the "new swing" movement, tried in vain to explain to people that they weren't a swing band. Whiskeytown, superstars of the so-called "alternative country" school, vexed unsuspecting fans by professing their love for Fleetwood Mac and performing 20-minute live versions of Sonic Youth songs. And Ben Folds Five, the grand-piano power-pop trio, I don't know what the hell that was. But I know it was perverse. And beautiful.

Remarkably, the national hype machine stayed away this time. "I think it may be because those bands are all so different," says Frank Heath. "They couldn't lump them together. And a lot of people got to know them on television rather than on the street level."

While Ben Folds was singing "Brick" on Saturday Night Live and the Zippers' "Hell" was in MTV heavy rotation, the Triangle was again ruling the underground. The area became a leading light in the fledgling insurgent-country scene, and things hit a fever pitch in 1997 when The Backsliders, Red Star Belgrade, Whiskeytown, Two Dollar Pistols and Six String Drag all released acclaimed records.

Two Dollar Pistols take their country without even a splash of "alternative," but frontman John Howie says getting lumped in with the alt-country thing wasn't so bad in the end. "In many ways, it was really helpful because that network was already set up. People were really communicating a lot about bands that they liked. Whereas I thought that label might be a hindrance and sort of ghettoize what we did, it actually helped us."

Howie, a Raleigh native, acknowledges that Capital City bands like The Backsliders and Six String Drag played a central role in the country resurgence. "In Raleigh, there always seemed to be more of a willingness to perform rootsier stuff."

A May 1992 Alternative Press cover story on Chapel Hill said: "No one seemed able to direct me toward the source of this scene. Each scenester pointed a humble finger at someone else when it came time for recognition." Nothing's changed. Kevin Dixon played guitar for Zen Frisbee, once the perceived kings of the Chapel Hill in-crowd. "I was never a very social person," he shrugs. "If there was a scene, I wouldn't have known about it."

Many avoid using the word "scene," with all its positive and negative connotations, like the plague. Instead, they opt for euphemisms like "community." I like "infrastructure." For years, we've had one in place--a network of record labels and college radio stations and zines, of live music venues and studios.

"It's like Disneyland for musicians here," enthuses Bill McCormick. "Back when Evil Wiener started, we had Trash and Stay Free to write stuff about us. There were recording studios everywhere, lots of places to play and WXYC and WXDU playing our records to death. All this for a band that's not even signed!"

There were also key establishments that served as musicians' ground zero. Raleigh had Sadlack's and the Comet. Chapel Hill had Tijuana Fats (later Henry's) and the Hardback Cafe, a rare hangout where afternoon iced coffee melted into evening cocktails and live bands. "Everything kind of catalyzed around the Hardback," recalls Chuck Garrison. "They had a sort of open-door policy where the more eccentric and averse to work you were, the more likely they were to hire you." No wonder all the employees were musicians ...

The one casualty of success may have been the dispersal of what used to be a concentrated community. "Most of the bands back in '92 were not touring bands," recalls Frank Heath. "They were very local. They lived here, they hung out here and you recognized them when you saw them on the street."

Now, stalwarts like Superchunk and Southern Culture on the Skids spend vast amounts of time away from home. "All the touring sort of drags them out of the local loop," Heath says. "So a lot of the popular bands aren't as connected to what's going on around here. It affects the sense of community." Other "locals" have scattered--Whiskeytown leader Ryan Adams to Austin, New York and now Nashville, head Archer Eric Bachmann to Seattle and Ben Folds to Australia.

The community may have become more dispersed, but the area's success has turned into something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. "The bands have gotten to have higher standards over time," says Jerry Kee. "I record some high school bands now that are really good. I think it has something to do with the fact that they were listening to Polvo when they were 15."

As for bright new blips on the radar, Kee points to The Kingsbury Manx, whose odd Stereolab-inflected debut may go down as the area's last classic of the century. Heath tabs pop purists The Mayflies USA and country siren Tift Merritt.

One thing is for sure: You'd be hard-pressed to find any place in the country that churned out as many good bands as the Triangle did in the last decade. "I think we're really lucky," says Heath, "and I think we've been lucky for so long that it's hard to keep it in perspective." As Dexter Romweber, the hyperkinetic singer-guitarist for the legendary Flat Duo Jets, puts it, "It's good that people are still picking up instruments and playing--even if it sucks. If it doesn't suck, then it's that much better."

For me, the images of the last decade are palpable. Tweaker and the Chicken Wire Gang playing their hearts out at a midsummer party in a Chatham County chicken-coop. Zen Frisbee's Kevin Dixon casually strumming his guitar at a Local 506 Halloween show, while the flaming pumpkin on his head throws fire to the sky. Dillon Fence, at one of its final shows, launching into an AC/DC cover with utter abandon. Picasso Trigger's Kathy Poindexter, Rubbermaid's Jessica Spangler and Pipe's Ron Liberti dancing around a stage, awash in flying beer cups, looking like menacing showgirls (sorry, Ron) who kick in teeth for a living. Spatula's Chuck Johnson and Polvo's Ash Bowie mesmerizing an audience with understated guitar heroics. Southern Culture on the Skids heaving pieces of fried chicken into a hungry crowd.

To this day, when I listen to the Archers' "Wrong" or Whiskeytown's "Drank Like a River," I get woozy--dizzy with infinite possibility and instant nostalgia and pretty girls and charming boys and North Carolina summers and late-nights-into-early-mornings, parties with bristling energy and thick smoke and no shortage of personality. And while I know that bands well beyond my imagination are revving up their guitar-fueled engines as I write this, I can't help but wonder if we really did make that deal with the devil, if the absolute zenith of my musical generation in this town occurred somewhere back then--and I didn't even have the sense to stop and enjoy it. EndBlock

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