Wylie Pamplin's spare living room isn't a place most people would drive four hours to visit. Tucked into a wooded corner a few miles south of downtown Carrboro, the bassist's house isn't easy to find.
It sits in an uncut yard, hidden among bushes and shrubs long ago left to their own devices. The room isn't special either. Light from a half-dozen plain windows spills onto the white walls. A couple of posters hang on them, but otherwise, they're bare. And on this Memorial Day weekend, the place is a cluttered mess of guitars, keyboards, amplifiers and drums. It looks like little more than a musical hobbyist's recreation room, hardly something that warrants a near quarter-day drive. But for Brice Randall Bickford, it's always worth the trip.
This is the practice space for a band that was until recently called The Strugglers, the taut and melodic folk-rock group Bickford has led for nearly a decade. He's driven down from his home in Washington, D.C., for a rehearsal and a holiday barbecue. It's a trip that Bickford—whose friends call him Randy—has made a few times over the past several months as he gears up for a spate of shows to coincide with the release of his new record, a self-titled LP that's his first as Brice Randall Bickford. The practice is over now, and only Bickford, Pamplin and guitarist Eric Haugen remain, laughing and cracking jokes as they pack up their equipment.
"When we had this great crew together, I moved to D.C.," Bickford quips, as the three explain how the band has grown over the years from a cast of revolving characters into a steady, close-knit ensemble with a core of five players. His bandmates laugh, and Bickford smiles, but there's a legacy of frustration in his gaze. "That's thrown a wrench into things, but that's the way it goes. That's the way life goes."
Life moved Bickford from Durham to Washington in 2010, by way of a job opportunity for his wife, Lara. She received a position at a large nonprofit in the capital the year before, and it was a chance she—and consequently, Randy—couldn't pass up. She moved north ahead of him as he closed out work as a grant writer at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He joined her early last year, leaving behind both his home and his band.
For Bickford, the stretch of interstate that would separate him from his Strugglers only exacerbated years of artistic turmoil. The year before he left, he fell into a bout of self-doubt that made him question both the quality of his songwriting and the overall viability of the enterprise. For years, he had been signed to Spanish imprint Acuarela, a deal that caused his records to be more available across the pond than they were stateside. Distribution for his records in the United States made them frustratingly hard to buy, meaning that some of his albums were actually imports from Spain. That lack of access—paired with the slow, winding nature of his songs, beauties that need a few listens to detect and value—means his music hasn't ever caught hold nationally. Despite praise from vaunted publications such as Pitchfork and Prefix magazine, Bickford remains relatively unknown outside of the Triangle.
Such a trajectory makes it easy to pun on the old band name. That is, Bickford's Strugglers have "struggled" with the music business. Bickford never liked that aspect of the name, and while it's not the reason he dropped it—that honor goes to the litany of similarly named, mostly subpar bands he found on the Internet—he'd very much like to change the notion that even his limited success hasn't been rewarding.
"Despite the band name, I don't think I ever struggled," he says, now sitting at a table outside Carrboro's Weaver Street Market, clearly enjoying the bright sun and familiar locale. There are bags under his eyes, and his chestnut hair is greasy and a bit mussed. He smiles through the tiredness, patiently fielding questions about his music and life. "I'm just OK with it being whatever it's going to be. I'm just going to play as many shows as I'm able to play."
But if it hasn't been a struggle, the path to the release of Brice Randall Bickford—his best record yet—hasn't been a cakewalk. In 2009, Bickford and company were finally done with their Acuarela contract. They traveled to a small town near Charlotte to work with producer Scott Solter, best known for his albums with the Mountain Goats, Spoon and Okkervil River. The record was recorded, mastered and ready to go by the end of the year. Bickford worked to find a label to put it out. A friend wrote a one-sheet that labeled the new LP as the fifth, self-titled Strugglers record; he printed up 200 CD-Rs, which he sent out to friends and label contacts, basically anyone he thought might give it an ear and a chance.
"It was done at the end of 2009," he recalls. "You're already halfway into 2010, and nothing is happening with it. I just felt like, 'Maybe this part of my life is over, and maybe this record will never come out.' That was pretty tough. I was sitting there. That was pretty defeating to be in that situation."
Musically, the record builds from dense, warm arrangements that maintain the serpentine strings and lively piano of his past while adding a sense of rock aplomb that makes even the slow songs move with a newfound insistence. Still, words are Bickford's forte, and he delivers some of his very best here. He cannibalizes his artistic doubts by crystallizing a feeling of abject frustration and funneling it through monologues and narratives that find his characters wrestling through their own problems. These tunes are crises of self-identity.
Opener "Kindling," for instance, finds Bickford speaking to a breakdown in motivation. "I used to have something in me that needed only to be put out," he sings above washes of distortion and pinpricks of electric guitar. Tension builds. "Time obliged with speed," he offers at the end of the first verse, "extinguishing all my grand assumptions about/ The kind of man I should be." There's a powerful pause, and Bickford delivers the final blow: "The kind of man I should be by now." The feeling of aimlessness has suddenly become helplessness.
As Bickford contended with his artistic identity, he hoped to use his relocation to gain perspective on his music, to explore how much he really wanted to continue by seeing whether he could live without it. His circumstances in D.C. didn't help: His first job was torture. He's too nice to discuss specifics, but it was one of the worst he's had, adding strain to his homesickness. For most of the first year he was there, he wrote sporadically, but he didn't record and he didn't play out.
Writing songs is a slow process for Bickford. He lets an idea or phrase, be it musical or lyrical, roll off his shoulders slowly. He forges compositions over time, shaving and adding to lines subtly, feeling out the way his melodies lead into each other. Persevering through this process and then playing for people is an essential exercise for him, and after a few months in D.C., he remembered that. He missed the outlet, missed shaping songs.
For some, this might have been a point to cut ties with the band four hours down the road and focus on finding a way to make it work from the new home base. For Bickford, that was never a consideration. They played their first show back together nearly a year ago, and he struck a deal with Chapel Hill's Trekky Records to release the album that had been sitting on his shelf for a year. This is his band again. He's recommitted.
"We work really well together," he says, going on to catalog in glowing detail the talents of his players. "I can go on and on for as long as you have time for talking about the people in North Carolina and how amazing they are as musicians and as people. There's just nothing that's going to compare to that."
Their support was integral. With previous records, Bickford wrote and arranged largely in isolation, coming to his band with songs already fully formed and asking them to play along. Over their time together, more and more back and forth has entered into that process. Pamplin, Haugen and drummer Jim Bob Aiken became a sounding board for Bickford, listening to his early takes and making suggestions on how they could be better. Bickford resolved to trust them with arranging and playing his material. They agreed that these are still Bickford's songs, the work of a singer-songwriter fleshed out by friends.
"A lot of those dudes are playing with the same guys their whole lives anyway," Haugen says, referring to players who backed artists like Elton John on classic LPs. Brice Randall Bickford is a band in the truest sense, but the credit goes to the man out front. "Everybody acknowledges that that's just the way it is."
The comfort zone Bickford has found with his band has allowed him the confidence to take chances, to mix up his arrangements and to arrive at a record that's as impressive sonically as it is lyrically. "Working Woman/ Lazy Demons" springs on a piano riff that could very well soundtrack the next iPod ad. It's uncharacteristically catchy and upbeat for Bickford, who most often trades in strung-out melody and drawn-out singing. The instrumentation shifts in the second verse, a sexy rock 'n' roll shuffle taking hold next to strings that writhe with unease. This mix of pop joy and drama is a new look for Bickford, and he wears it well.
More than just comfortable with letting others help shape his musical identity, Bickford has let go of worrying about who will listen. He used to be bitter that people hadn't caught on to his music, so he didn't really write for his audience, a process that resulted in songs that resembled long-form poems, with no repetition or refrain. He says he's no longer concerned with who's listening, so he's more at ease about writing songs people might want to sing. These days, he searches for ways to make his songs communicate better, arriving at numbers that dabble in peppy melody, even relenting to the occasional chorus.
It's no play for attention; Bickford's never had much of a taste for convincing people to listen, and he still doesn't.
"I'm not a politician," he says, now speaking over the phone, riding in the car with his wife, who pokes fun at him for not being a self-promoter. "I don't care to be a politician. You really have to be. I see that. I think I didn't see that before, and so I would get pissed off because certain things weren't happening for me. I'm not a politician, and so probably this and that won't happen for me. But that's OK."