Concerts are advertisements for the bands that play them. It's why, in industry speak, groups tour "behind" a new album. They visit towns in hopes of finding fresh faces, of converting the uninitiated into obsessives.
But when the young Greensboro rock 'n' roll preener Jonny Alright plays in Carrboro Thursday night, he intends the show to be an advert of a different sort. He hopes a few listeners like his firebrand style of Lou Reed drift and Iggy Pop verve enough to join his band permanently, to make his songs their own. More than seven months and several dozen shows after releasing his fantastic and explosive debut, Jonny Alright Sings and Plays His Songs, he finally wants a full-time lineup.
"I've played with different people almost every gig. We have to rehearse just to work the songs up every time we play," says Alright. "We get raw energy because it's not very well-rehearsed, and I like that. But it's a challenge to get everyone together. I have to track down a drummer here, a bass player there."
Alright, whose real name is the decidedly less flashy Jonathan Albright, sits in a Greensboro coffee shop, where he's just returned from California. After spending Christmas with family in Nevada, he purchased a cargo van and drove back across the country. This was his second trip across America in less than a year; during the summer, he spent six weeks hitchhiking up and down the Heartland.
Now he's ready to settle, at least for a moment. What he hopes is his last Triad lease expired less than a week ago, so the van is currently full of everything he owns. He's crashing on the couches of friends until the gig in Carrboro, at which point he'll land in Durham, recruit his band and use the van to take these songs on tour.
For Alright, stopping in one place long enough to gather a group runs counter to the nature and origins of the music he makes. Almost a decade ago, he and some friends from high school started writing serpentine and bombastic indie rock under the name Jonas Sees in Color. Despite its origins in rather rural Graham, away from the state's musical hubs, the band signed a small indie deal before leapfrogging to Glassnote Records, the New York label partially responsible for the success of French rock charmers Phoenix and Scottish pop group CHVRCHES. Alright toured behind their Glassnote debut and had spent weeks in the studio of Mitch Easter, working on the band's second album, when he sensed his own flagging interest. After a show in Durham, he heard The Velvet Underground's "I Found a Reason," and he realized it offered his avenue out of the band.
"He sings, 'Oh, I do believe/if you don't like things you leave/for some place you've never gone before,'" says Alright, reciting Reed. "For some reason, I didn't feel like I was doing what I needed to be doing. So, when the record came out, all my parts were scratched, and I got to hear new parts in the place of them. That was a weird feeling."
By the time that second Jonas Sees in Color LP arrived, though, Alright had found not only his new name but also a more expressive and liberating outlet—his own songs. He'd written lines and parts in the past, but the guitarist never finished any of these thoughts, largely for a lack of confidence that he says stems from previously writing in a larger, group-oriented process.
But two chance encounters pushed him toward a finished product: Several years ago, Alright wandered into Fret Sounds, the then-new guitar shop in downtown Graham. He expected to find an instrument aficionado who shared little of his increasing enthusiasm for atavistic rock. Instead, he encountered Brian Haran, the shop's owner and Filthybird guitarist who connected almost instantly with Alright. He became a regular, learning about records from Haran and trying out new guitars.
Another mentor soon pushed him from enthusiasm to execution. An older guitarist, Tommycat Scifres, explained that songs needn't be convoluted to be compelling. You could sculpt a song from a chorus, even build an entire number from a solitary chord. The two pogoed between instruments, expanding Alright's lonesome riffs and melodies into full tunes. Together, they even wrote one of the record's best, a savage guitar-and-drums number called "Little Black Revolver." It's stubborn, sassy rock, perfectly tempered by a chorus that feels like a knowing wink.
In turn, Haran encouraged Alright to come in not to look at guitars but to record these new songs in the studio attached to Fret Sounds. He told Alright to assemble a band for the session only, to not worry with building and rehearsing with a full-time unit. Haran's advice was simple: Find the best sidemen you can, and make a record with me.
"It gave me complete control over what was happening. There weren't a lot of opinions about these songs we had written, because they were songs I had written," he says. "I didn't have to change the arrangements a whole lot. For once, I got to be raw and honest."
He doesn't want to lose that just yet, to cede control over his sentiments to the new pals he might make in Durham.
But he does want a band. He has a van. And he's ready to set out from home.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Have songs, will sing."