Alex Chesney and Renee Mendoza met in a stairwell. It was 1993, and he—a grade beyond Mendoza, the rising freshman—was skipping class by hiding out in the Western Guilford High School cafeteria.
He wandered past the stairs and saw Mendoza standing beneath them, testing the cathedral-like reverb of its underside by singing a Cocteau Twins song. That was the band that had hooked Chesney to the idea of making music. This was the moment that convinced him he'd found a lifelong friend.
"She was by herself, and there was this big, bright light surrounding her. It was a pivotal moment in my life," Chesney remembers. "She was a star, and I saw her as that from the get-go."
The friendship slowly morphed into a musical relationship. Mendoza, now married and named Renee Haran, knew how to sing and play piano and guitar, and a year after they met, she taught Chesney his first six-string chords. They recorded silly songs about bubblegum and other arcana. At first they called themselves Echo Wreck, but they were such a low-key affair that, when Chesney spotted two words he liked on a manila envelope while working as a janitor, they didn't hesitate to change their handle. For the next several years, they were Ashrae Fax, and their icy, surreal electro-pop didn't exactly fit in.
"Ashrae Fax was a band that was always doing what they wanted to do," says Kelly Davis. "They weren't trying to sound like another band or trying to make sure that their set was solid and consistent so that they could 'build' a fanbase."
Like Haran, Davis grew up in Greensboro, a city whose small music scene has long been fiercely independent by necessity. It's thrived, he says, because of off-the-grid house shows more than those at permitted clubs and high turnover at dual college radio stations. As such, none of the bands sounded the same or fit convenient trends, Ashrae Fax included. Davis remembers Ashrae Fax opening for two touring bands in Greensboro. They started their set to the side of the stage, cloaked in fog. What began as a fusillade of noise morphed slowly into a showcase of strange dance songs. Their casual defiance stole the show.
The gig happened not long after the 2003 release of Static Crash, Ashrae Fax's only album to date. In June, New York label Mexican Summer issued the album, a coveted jewel of an overlooked Triad underground, for the fourth time. When it was actually recorded, Haran had already left the band once and rejoined. A decade later, she has done that once again.
In 2001, Haran quit Ashrae Fax to go to college. The child of two musicians, she'd seen firsthand the rough-and-tumble path to which a life of music could lead, so she wanted something else—a degree, a career, a family. She studied physics at Guilford College and seemed content to pursue academics.
Chesney continued Ashrae Fax without her, taking their electronic pop wanderlust into new and sometimes disorienting directions with a few friends. They'd released a pair of EPs and embarked on several short tours. But then he saw her play a solo set of Pretenders covers at a house show in Greensboro. He'd brought along guitarist Mike Soter and bassist Robert Parker, the two musicians who had joined him in the band's most recent iteration. Haran, they agreed, belonged in Ashrae Fax.
"We went up to her and said, 'You're in Ashrae Fax.' She said, 'Yeah, OK, I know,'" Chesney remembers. She thought he was speaking in the past tense, but he insisted that she re-enlist right then. "I was like, 'No, seriously, you're back in the band. We need to record.'"
At that point, Haran admits now, she needed her band, too. She'd sequestered herself at Guilford, rarely leaving campus as she turned herself over her to studies. That's what she'd wanted, after all, but it didn't allow much space for an outlet.
"I was in this heightened state of mind, but at the same time, I was really alone. I didn't have any friends. I spent every minute of every waking hour using my mind," she says. "When Alex showed up, there was my best friend again. 'I'll sing with you again. I'll have friends again.'"
Her return became more than just singing: The next two years were a whirlwind of activity for the new four-piece Ashrae Fax. They began writing at a rapid pace and recorded and re-recorded the eight songs that became Static Crash. They toured several times up and down the East Coast behind that set, but the release itself depended on DIY modesty. They stuck a sticker with the band's name on a few spools of CD-Rs, added a Xerox insert and sold them for $5 each at merchandise tables at gigs. The band broke up shortly thereafter. All four musicians have relocated and pursued different projects in the interim.
But a decade after Static Crash was made and just less than a decade after Haran left Ashrae Fax for what she thought would be the last time, Mexican Summer tempted Haran to rejoin Ashrae Fax. Their release of Static Crash is the fourth but the most legitimate and widespread. Next year, they will offer two more collections of collaborations by Haran and Chesney, including songs they recorded to a four-track while still in high school.
Several label employees heard the record after Hot Releases, the experimental imprint run by Carrboro's Ryan Martin, issued it in a run of 300 LPs last year. They lobbied to put it back out in an even larger and remastered edition simply because they liked the music. It wasn't a ploy for a nostalgia cash-in.
Static Crash, after all, sounds like little else. Even now, after the rise of the synth-laden bedroom pop of "chillwave" and the return of electronic post-punks such as Cold Cave, its music is anomalous, an outlier in both sound and shape. The record fits best with the synth-driven, texture-loaded oeuvre of 4AD Records, whose acts Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and Dif Juz served as definitive touchstones for both Haran and Chesney.
But there's a postmodern recalcitrance to Static Crash, too, evidenced by an aversion to customary structures and an allegiance to harsh noise. The brief "Uprlxrq," for instance, twists through layers of sonic shrapnel, as if the death of a dozen electronic devices was recorded and then manically cut, recut and remixed. From the ascendant vocals to the lurking background guitars, from the pulsing drum machine to the claustrophobic synthesizers, every part of "Pointbreak" wobbles on its own axis. It's as though each element of this perfect goth-pop cut were a separate ray of light, refracted by a unique prism. Static Crash seems to exist as a wrinkle between the past, present and future.
"Renee doesn't follow anyone else's rules," reckons Davis, who went on to release Haran's debut with the country-rock band Filthybird on his own label. "She and Alex worked well together because they're similar in that way. That's why people still care about it."
With the relationship between Haran and Chesney revived, a key component to Ashrae Fax's return, at least for her, has been the stability that she's found in adulthood, something she sought both times she previously left the band. They're not kids beneath the stairwell anymore; she's now a homeowner with two dogs and a job in Durham.
After multiple bouts of almost giving up bands entirely, she's effectively in three now—Ama Divers, a soundscape-shaping trio with her husband, Brian; a solo R&B project she's recording with Megafaun multi-instrumentalist Bradley Cook; and, for at least the third time, Ashrae Fax. Chesney, meanwhile, is an active electronic producer. Under the name Faster Detail, he has hoarded more than 200 techno tracks he's built in a home recording studio.
"All these songs are so old, from when we were teenagers or in our early 20s," says Haran. "Is this anything more than putting the records out and playing shows? We're trying to figure that out."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Home keys."