Brothers Phil and Brad Cook climbed in a massive Ryder truck last July with Keil Jansen, one of their best friends since high school. They wiped away some tears. Keil put it in drive. They were leaving Eau Claire, Wis.—more or less their home for more than two decades—for Raleigh, a town they had seen exactly once.
Brad's girlfriend, Katie Johnson, stood in the driveway, waving goodbye with Justin Vernon, Brad and Phil's bandmate in their roots-rock quartet DeYarmond Edison. Justin would leave one week later for Raleigh with Phil's girlfriend, Heather Williams, and Katie would join them in one month. All six were bound for 2209 Everett Ave., an 1,800-square-foot white house with four bedrooms and two bathrooms.
It would be an adventure. None of them knew much about North Carolina. In middle school, Justin—an athletic type, his high school football team's captain, slim, shaved head—did a report on N.C.'s basketball heritage. He and Phil were fascinated by the musical lore of North Carolina, especially its folk and bluegrass tradition coming down from the mountains. Everyone in the band was a perennial attendee at high school jazz camp, and drummer Joe Westerlund—who would join the band in Raleigh later in August—had studied with free jazz pioneer Milford Graves in college. Names of N.C. natives like John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and Nina Simone all struck a nerve. And, for seven people from Wisconsin and Minnesota, the thought of four seasons and rare snow was ample bait.
They did know their friends were scattering, and they had to get somewhere fast. People in Eau Claire said that DeYarmond Edison deserved to be heard by others, and that the band needed to get out of town, to try their sound elsewhere. There were other places to consider besides the Triangle, but Chicago was cliché, Minneapolis was too cold, and Austin and Nashville were music scenes that would swallow young bands whole.
But Raleigh, virgin territory in their clique, seemed like a fit. Several bands and labels from the area had emerged on the national level, and they saw the resources of a strong community, musical and otherwise. In March, five of them—Phil, Heather, Brad, Justin and Keil—climbed into a ragged van Keil's father had bought to cart a high school golf team around and headed south on Interstate 94. As trips to future hometowns go, this was a disaster. Heather fought with Brad, then Justin. She laments that Phil, then her boyfriend of eight months, had never seen that before. But it was excusable: All five were crammed into a hotel room at a Garner Holiday Inn, and, 30 minutes after they began to explore the Triangle the next day, the brakes on the van stopped working. They rented a tan Crown Victoria and found directions to Hendrick Dodge in Cary, 15 miles away.
"The only thing that worked was the emergency brake, and it was one of those foot ones. So if you started it, you had to kick it really hard to get it back out," remembers Keil.
But they made it in the Crown Victoria, exploring Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham over the next five days. They agreed Chapel Hill was a nice place, but it seemed exactly like Eau Claire, a town they would travel 1,100 miles to leave. When they inspected©Durham, they ended up downtown, immediately discouraged by busted buildings and boarded windows. But Raleigh seemed like a diffuse city with plenty of room to explore.
"Everything seemed really even about Raleigh, and it wasn't like a flash-in-the-pan thing. There was a lot under the surface," remembers Phil of his first impression. "Raleigh seemed like it would unfold itself very gradually and steadily to us."
So they decided to try it. The houses they looked at while in town fell through, but they found the house on Everett Avenue on Craig's List while back in Wisconsin. They signed the lease and started getting ready for an August departure. They had planned six different moves. Now they were doing it.
As Keil, Brad and Phil pulled onto the interstate on July 30, Keil plugged an iPod into the truck's sound system. He hit random and let it shuffle through its own selection. He leaned back and settled in for the ride. It would have been difficult to score the moment better. Through the speakers came a singular Southern songwriter, a roots hero who borrowed heavily from Bob Dylan's Upper Midwest nasal tone.
Reassurance and encouragement came from Tom Petty: "It's time to move on, time to get going/ What lies ahead I have no way of knowing/ But under my feet, baby, grass is growing/ It's time to move on, it's time to get going."
The Cook brothers lived in the same house in Chippewa Falls, Wis., for 15 years before they became friends. Phil is 14 months older than Brad, and their personalities are polar. Phil is a gregarious, grinning guy, eager to please and make life suitable for those around him; Brad is gregarious and jolly, too, but it's his proclivity to be direct from the onset, to tell you exactly how he feels in grandiose statements. As a high school freshman, Brad was into baseball and basketball, while Phil was studying cool jazz and bebop in the jazz band. Brad was eager to join the high school baseball team that spring, but a severe collarbone break during a ski trip that winter meant high school baseball wasn't in his future.
"Phil and I never got along when we were younger, but he came home one day before the end of my freshman year and was like, 'The jazz band doesn't have a bass player for next year. Is it something you'd be interested in?'" remembers Brad, who had never played bass. "I said no, and he talked me into it."
Brad picked up the bass and an amp on the last day of school, and every day that summer, Phil would show him how to tune and where to find notes on the neck. Brad understood the instrument, but he didn't understand the sheet music he saw at the first practice.
"Every day we would come home, and I'd memorize all the parts note for note. Phil would sit there for three hours and play one bar at a time until I had it memorized, and then he'd play the next bar. He really taught me how to play day by day," Brad says with a smile, sitting in the Village Draft House in Cameron Village, a five-minute walk from the Everett Avenue house. He comes here to watch Lakers games by himself.
The brothers' interest in jazz spun into an immersion in the jam band world: Both were avid Phish fans, and Brad became engrossed in The Wailers and The Grateful Dead. Neither of them knew much about punk rock or avant jazz because there was no one in Chippewa Falls to expose them to it. But they got by.
"I slept in Brad's room on the floor every night. I never slept in my room. We would smoke clove cigarettes and blow out the smoke through an exhaust fan and talk about music," remembers Phil, nostalgic and grinning. "We were just instantly friends."
Music made fast friends of Joe Westerlund and Justin Vernon, too. In sixth grade at South Middle School, they had adjoining lockers, mutual friends and a mutual interest in making music. Justin was already learning guitar, and Joe was playing drums. The early '90s alternative rock explosion was around them, and their early bands took aim. Justin and Joe started playing in Justin's basement with some friends, making videos of themselves playing as hard as they could manage.
"There are these old videotapes of us playing Neil Young covers in my laundry room, and it's bizarre to watch because we're both very, very prepubescent," Justin says, sitting on the bed in his small back room on Everett Avenue. "We played in a whole bunch of different bands with the same people, different names. You know, classic middle school stuff."
In high school, jazz band was a priority for both of them, too. Justin played guitar, Joe played drums and Keil played trombone. Keil is quick to mention that being in band in Eau Claire is an exception to stereotypes. Everyone wanted to be in jazz band, from the best students to the captain of the sports team. During their sophomore year, the jazz director decided they needed to raise money to buy new instruments. He hoped to rent out ensembles and individuals for community functions. Joe, Keil, Justin and a saxophonist named Sarah Jensen were section leaders for their instruments. They formed a quartet and raised money by playing several Christmas parties. When the fundraiser ended, the quartet kept riffing on the blues, eventually forming Mount Vernon. Not long after Joe and Justin met Brad—who went to high school in Chippewa, not Eau Claire—the Cook brothers joined Mount Vernon one at a time. That's when everyone got serious about music.
Keil was never interested in the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire on an academic level, but he decided to follow Mount Vernon to the college that dominated his hometown. Things were going well: The band was having fun, things were fresh and they were one of the biggest draws in town. Mount Vernon was obsessed with documenting its sound because it was so mercurial. By the time Mount Vernon finished mixing its debut as a nonet, for instance, they hated the sound on the disc.
But eventually things started to stagnate, and everyone realized it. Justin decided to study in Ireland for the second semester of his sophomore year, and Keil shipped off to England. He wouldn't return to school in Eau Claire. Phil and Brad separated for the first time, Phil staying put and Brad heading to Minneapolis. The move that would most affect the shape of the music to come, though, was Joe's decision to study jazz at Bennington College, a rigorous liberal arts school of 725 students in Vermont. Among his teachers would be Milford Graves, one of the most emancipated, exploratory drummers in free jazz history. His credits include work with John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and John Zorn.
"Milford opened my eyes to a different set of values in music altogether. He's an artifact, and it got me excited about jazz again, having contact with someone who had looked up to Elvin Jones not because everyone said he was good but because he was the guy to go to in New York at the time," says Joe, who studied improvisation at its most extreme with Graves, who has developed an aesthetic of improvisation based around martial arts, physiology and cooking. "It felt like I was taking something from a pure source."
Brad was exploring fringes, too. For four months in Minneapolis, Brad lived with a married couple who introduced him to Brian Eno. As he's wont to say, "Oh dude, it totally blew my mind."
Throughout his childhood, Brad had struggled with severe Attention Deficit Disorder. He was a classroom jokester who responded most to drawing and painting. His parents introduced him to stippling, a form of drawing where images are formed by the relative density of hundreds of thousands of dots. He found the musical analogue for that preoccupation in Eno's Music for Airports and, later, in Steve Reich's meticulous counterpoints.
"I had no patience in my life, but I could sit down for hours and do this. With minimalism, that same technique of art applies," he says. "I had enough curiosity in my lack of an attention span that I would want to wait and see what would happen."
He joined the off-beat hip-hop group Mel Gibson & the Pants with Joe and started experimenting with electronics. Anticon., a California avant-garde hip-hop crew that toyed with non-traditional electronic textures and drones, had a heavy influence, too.
"Playing in Mel Gibson was weird without Phil, but, without him, I definitely developed my own confidence apart from him and my own musical voice," says Brad.
Brad returned to Eau Claire after eight months. Justin, back from Ireland, was working on a solo project meant to be an exorcism of the songs he still had from high school. He was uncomfortable playing by himself, though, and Phil and Brad loved playing with him. Things started to happen. Justin had about 50 songs, but they focused on about 25 of them. It was rock 'n' roll played with what Justin calls "a certain kind of tenderness." The trio wasn't sure if it was a band, let alone what kind of band it should be. They just played rock because it was easy. Danny Westerlund, Joe's younger brother, began playing drums with them. Their first gig focused on Justin's songs, one Meters cover and a Dead song they had learned as a band from Bruce Hornsby.
"It felt so right, the three of us. And Danny was the closest we could get to Joe. We had this really intense emotional connection from high school," Justin says. "But in Mount Vernon, we were still reacting to this post-Phish kind of thing, complex music. It felt really good to get back to being OK with being really rootsy."
Naturally, as the quartet evolved into DeYarmond Edison, tension emerged between the roots and the avant proclivities that Brad had been exploring. Since returning to Eau Claire, Brad had started playing with Tom Wincek, an electronic music guru he met in Chicago while Wincek was experimenting with a glove made of turntable needles for his senior thesis at the Art Institute of Chicago. Alvin Lucier, Jim O'Rourke and John Cage began to occupy Brad's headspace, especially when he would sit in Wincek's living room (Wincek moved to Eau Claire to be with his wife) for hours on end, exploring those new sounds. Joe had been sending Brad esoteric obscurities he copied from Bennington's audio library as well, and Brad would periodically call Joe just to ask what he'd learned from Graves that week.
Then there was Dinner with Greg, an Eau Claire alt.country-ish band that made Justin focus on his songs that much more. Brad insists that they were one of the best bands he's ever seen, and they led Justin to rediscover Paul Westerberg and Neil Young. They made DeYarmond Edison take songwriting seriously. Dinner with Greg eventually split, but half of the band joined members of DeYarmond Edison to form Amateur Love, an electronic rock band. They started buying more equipment, which, in turn, allowed DeYarmond Edison to explore new techniques. The bands became the two most popular acts in town.
But after DeYarmond Edison began to record its second album, Silent Signs, they again felt stagnant. Justin recalls good, packed, hometown shows that left the band feeling empty. They weren't reaching new people as a band or new places as musicians. Phil and Heather made a weekend trip to Nashville to see Old Crow Medicine Show play three gigs at Exit/In. The same weekend, Justin and Brad were backstage with Wilco in Minneapolis. Simultaneously, both pairs realized they had to get out of town, tour, share what they had. Before that, though, they knew they needed Joe.
"I knew when they proposed the idea of me moving to Raleigh and me joining them, it was something I couldn't pass up," says Joe, who remembers standing in the cold in Manhattan, waiting for his girlfriend, Carson Efird, to be done with a yoga class when Brad called. "It was exactly something I wanted to be doing because I trusted these guys to be dedicated and really work hard at it and not just get caught up in a scene thing."
Joe headed to Eau Claire and recorded percussion on four of Silent Signs' tracks. He rejoined the band and played its CD release show in July. Then, they—Phil, Brad, Joe, Heather, Justin, Keil and Katie, who had graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison in May—packed for Raleigh.
"It's OK, you can play music in the next room while we're playing in here," Joe says, incensed and leaning up from his drum stool.
It's the band's second time playing at Kings, and they're playing the opening set of the Double Barrel Benefit, a two-night, seven-band benefit for WKNC 88.1, N.C. State's campus radio station. During the first 25 minutes of the band's one-hour set, they play two songs—that is, musical pieces with words. Much of the first half hour is spent shape-shifting through an opening ambient drone, coalescing around Justin's guitar hum and Phil's Hammond pedal point sustains. But, somehow, people unfamiliar with Eno or Fripp or Lucier listen. DeYarmond Edison begins to lighten the load for the set's second half, but—50 minutes into it—they subside into near silence, slight rumblings and Justin's muted baritone the only thing in motion. Most of the room is captivated, but someone in the other portion of Kings mistakes quiet for completion. A funk number starts blaring. As the DJ realizes his mistake, the often withheld Joe utters his imprecation and launches the band into a scorching soul number. By the end of "Set Me Free," Justin is grinding his guitar against his amplifier and Joe is actually tearing through his drum kit with his sticks. People gasp, and smile.
DeYarmond Edison's life and musical existence in Raleigh have followed variations on that plotline. There is compromise, stemming from constant risk and very infrequent failure. Consider their living situation: Justin, Heather, Phil, Katie, Brad and Keil all call 2209 Everett Ave. home, and it's a case study in micro-management. In a house where musical tastes run the gamut from spirituals to electronica, the best solution has been the most household-oriented: Keil devised a Linux-based system of servers with 7,000 albums, several hundred movies and dozens of video games. People can use files individually, or an album can be piped throughout the house.
In the front foyer, a massive white board is divided into a spreadsheet, such that each cell is the intersection of two names. If Keil owes Phil $30, Keil writes 30 in the Keil-Phil block. Each has a daily chore, and sometimes they cover for each other. Everyone helps look after Crackers, the Peking duck Keil bought for $1 from one of his schoolchildren at his Morrisville elementary school. Justin admits he has trouble remembering to do the dishes some nights.
"They all have wonderfully supportive and loving—but also enabling—mothers, who have taken care of everything their entire life," Heather says, sitting beside Katie in a Village Draft House booth. "It can be kind of hard for them to realize that they do have to do things like buy toilet paper for themselves.
"Mom's not going to stop in and buy you toilet paper and change your sheets. Oh, they love their babies," Katie laughs.
For the most part, they get along. They sit on the front porch and have dinner. They stay up late with their neighbors, and go to work—teaching, cooking, selling records, working with autistic patients—on weekdays. Phil, in fact, is stunned by how little they bicker. The band deals with itself with the same type of approach—that is, a creative one. With the move, everyone's guards went down and their vulnerabilities as bandmates were exposed. The possibility of slowing down has all but disappeared. A massive computer recording rig occupies a large chunk of wall in their Capital Boulevard practice space. They record everything they play now, afraid they'll miss that indescribable instant.
In January, the band began a five-show residency at Bickett Gallery in Raleigh. They dubbed the first show a "palette cleanser," in which they played their own songs with simpler instrumentation. Brad played upright bass, and Justin went at most of his material with an acoustic guitar. Since then, they've set most of the band's material aside to engage in residency practice. For two hours four times a week, they meet in the space and allow one of the band members to lead the rest of the group in an exhausting exploration of a very specific genre.
"There are these moments when you're not sure, and you're on the cuff of feeling insecure about what you are about to do. Then you do it, and it works," says Justin at the band's practice space.
Justin has been challenging everyone to sing without reservation, forcing the band to sing spirituals—loud and hard—as a unit and to perform 15 seconds of spasmodic, vocal-burst, thrash-inspired solo. Brad has composed an original phase piece in the spirit of Steve Reich using the less brittle tones of Eno, hoping to teach the band patience. Phil has been mining hundreds of early 20th-century blues and string band recordings, hoping to deepen the band's roots as they learn to play the antique material on traditional instruments. Joe is elaborating on techniques he studied at Bennington, pushing the group to improvise, to let go, to feel everything they play.
Joe has been in DeYarmond Edison for over a year now, and—more than anyone—he keeps pushing the group. Everyone mentions how disparate Joe's and Justin's approaches to music are: Justin is rooted in the melody and the song, and Joe wants to let it run free. Essentially, though, what makes reconciling Justin's music with Joe's music so difficult is that they approach the same passion of crawling inside people's skin and staying there from different sides. Justin's music is based in song and imagery-rich narratives, and Joe's music is based in improvisation and indeterminancy, the notion that simultaneous musical paths can make sense together without intrinsic dialogue. Because they've been doing this for so long, they feel comfortable struggling for that insufferable union.
"Watching those two is fascinating because there is such tension, but it's always been super-productive ... Joey is such a thinker, and Justin is such a reactor. They've always done this amazing job of challenging one another," says Brad. "I've never seen two people push themselves closer to the edge of letting go and quitting because of each other—and then grabbing on and completely letting go toward each other."
In essence, that's what this is all about: letting go toward each other. Though the group of seven will only live together until May, they will all still live in the same neighborhood. Phil and Heather are the smiling mother and father of the group, and Brad and Katie are the jocular, younger couple. Joe and Carson live about a mile away from Everett Avenue and they're happy, too. Justin has a girlfriend now. As for Keil, well, he's looking, but at least he's got Crackers—and his friends.
DeYarmond Edison plays Bickett Gallery on Wednesday, March 1 at 9 p.m. For more on the band, see www.dyemusic.com.