Editor's note: The names of the children have been removed from this story at the request of Rebecca, Justin Williams' partner and the mother of the children.
On a clear, crisp mid-March evening, 50 or more people have gathered at a Carrboro farmhouse to hear two local singer-songwriters play acoustic sets in a tiny barn.
Some distance away, there's a bonfire, a keg and some merriment, but near the barn, the night's headlining troubadour, Ryan Gustafson, sits listening intently to Thomas Costello's new tunes. But Justin Williams, a close friend of and collaborator with Gustafson, isn't here tonight, though he's in town from his native Charlotte. That's by design.
Gustafson has kept this gig from his buddy because Williams and some pals have been partying since the afternoon. In that state, Williams cannot be counted on to maintain a respectful silence. A between-set survey confirms that Williams' reputation as a wild man precedes him. I get eye rolls and grins, an unruly anecdote, even an "Oh, him?"
But Williams does show up, with a couple of his Twelve Thousand Armies bandmates in tow. The music has just ended, and Williams and friends are somewhere between hammered and shitfaced—in high spirits and friendly, for sure, but loud and slurring, the way you get when you've devoted half your day to drinking.
The party pushes toward the keg and the flames and a patch of earth made muddy by recent rains. A wooden pallet is tossed on the fire, and the night is punctuated by laughter, shouting and sloppy bonhomie. Williams finds a seat beside the blaze. Deep in conversation, he uses one backward stretched arm to support his considerable bulk, not seeming to mind his palm pressing into the claylike earth.
"It's not an addiction to booze," he says. "It's an addiction to partying with my buddies."
Williams is a 37-year-old songwriter who, despite ample recorded evidence of his musical gifts, has not yet reached a wide audience, in part due to considerable personal demons—a history of childhood abandonment, drunken excess and allegations of assault and rape.
He has been arrested at least a dozen times, according to police records in both Orange and Mecklenburg counties, including six incidents before he turned 18. Still, with the support of Winston-Salem's Phuzz Records, he and a cohort of longtime collaborators recently recorded and released the 10-track Tiger Beat. It's quite beautiful. The songs bubble with an almost-cartoon exuberance, its harmony-bedecked pop nuggets suffused with the stacked tonalities of the Beach Boys or George Harrison. He buries dark sentiments beneath a thin, golden surface. It's a record to be proud of, but his enthusiasm is tempered by a career already marked by fits and starts. He's more excited that he's about to be a father.
"I'm gonna take all the cool stuff I learned growing up and I'm gonna filter out all the shitty parts," he says. "I can't wait to see my kid, can't wait to hang out with my kid, just chill. Be a dad, work and just ... hang."
Williams may not know what he's in for as a father. But he has learned how to craft a rather good pop song. Williams is also a skilled producer and arranger. Eston Dickinson, whom Williams helped with his debut LP last fall, believes Williams' greatest gift is the way his voice shares the troubles of the guy inside.
"Whether you know him personally or not," Dickinson says, "the listener is greeted by a unique voiced narrator who empties his life—good and bad—in his records. Justin's Jekyll and Hyde persona is admitted and explained over '60s-era music. His lyrics reflect a boy trapped in a man's body, which explains both his self destruction and his love of life."
Williams is about 6 foot 5. He wears bulky, utilitarian glasses and has a heavily tattooed neck, hands and arms. His knuckles spell out "H-O-N-G K-O-N-G." One side of his neck reads "In Your Face, World!"
Williams also has a small green letter M at the outside corner of his right eye. His father, who left him and his mother early on, had the same one.
"He was in a biker gang," says Williams. "The Mongrels or something. People probably look and say that's crazy, but to me it's just a joke. I forget that I have all these tattoos. Then I take a shower."
Williams was born and now lives in Charlotte, a place to which he's frequently returned when his life has gone south. After spending a few years in Carrboro, he's back in the Queen City again, with his partner, Rebecca, and her son. They'll soon be moving to new digs that include a third bedroom for the baby, due in late April.
Williams discovered skateboarding at 10, along with Black Flag and a rebellious ethos. He worked his way through a series of punk bands before co-founding The Talk in 2002 and gaining a record deal with Charlotte indie MoRisen Records a year later.
The band's most telling moment occurred while on tour with post-punk legends The Fall. Williams, outraged at leader Mark E. Smith's treatment of his own bandmates and tour manager, lobbed a banana peel at the singer during a performance. Back at his hotel, Williams smoked a bunch of weed and posted an incendiary account of the incident on MySpace. He says he fielded death threats from Manchester for weeks.
Williams met Rebecca 15 years ago. Her half-brother played drums in The Talk, but they only got together officially about a year and a half ago, when Williams' stepdad was in hospice care and he started spending time with her again.
Williams says "we" a lot, but it hardly ever refers to himself and Rebecca. It means, instead, he and his bandmates and a looser confederation of musicians, people like Dickinson, with whom he has recorded and performed, and fought and partied with, over the years. They agree they have seen him at his best and most productive, though the rest of the world doesn't often see that side of Williams. When I asked my neighborhood record store clerk whether he'd heard of Justin Williams, for instance, he replied, "Oh, isn't he that lunatic?"
After the incident with the banana, Williams and The Talk made one more record for MoRisen with local producer Brian Paulson before Williams began his solo career. He hasn't been idle exactly, yet his three records in 11 years suggest a promise unfulfilled.
"For every 10 songs I write, there'll be four I'll put out," he says. "I want clarinets and trumpets and oboes and all the stuff I can't have, but I don't want to put that song out unless it matches the sound in my head."
But several of his friends indicate that it isn't perfectionism standing in his way, but rather his excessive drinking and legal troubles, and the damage done to personal relationships.
"People have this idea of who they think that I am," he says. "They'll be like, 'Oh, that dude rages, or he goes nuts or whatever,' but you never see me do anything bad. Dancing or singing drunk, y'know? But they think because I'm so big or because I have tattoos that I must be a rough and tough dude."
By his own admission, however, Williams has been banned from numerous local bars—Cat's Cradle, Local 506, All Day Records, Orange County Social Club, Nightlight, even Bada Wing's. He's also not allowed to enter the homes of certain people who still call him a friend, people who asked not to be identified by name.
Last weekend, Twelve Thousand Armies performed at Phuzz Phest, a three-day festival presented by the label that released Tiger Beat. On the morning of Williams' performance, Chapel Hill experimental musician Ryan Martin canceled his own appearance because he was uncomfortable participating in an event that included Williams.
Of Williams' dozen or so arrests, two stemmed from assaults against women. In May 2001, he was arrested for using "non-aggressive" force against a woman and resisting arrest. And 10 days later, he was arrested for violating a protective order. According to Julia Rush, the public information officer for the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office, police arrested him again in 2009 for "aggressive" assault against a woman and attempting to "interfere with emergency communication." Williams was convicted of violating that 2001 protective order and performed community service, according to the N.C. Department of Public Safety. In 2009, he was sentenced to probation in Orange County for resisting arrest.
But the firestorm that erupted after Martin's cancellation refers specifically to an earlier incident in 2009, in which Williams allegedly raped a Charlotte woman.
The allegations are false, Williams says, and stem from jealousy after he told someone he'd been seeing that he was returning to an ex-girlfriend. He says he went to the police to say he'd been falsely accused. No charges were filed.
Nonetheless, friends of the accuser opted for local music scene justice when making a flyer for an April 9, 2009, concert.
Matthew Nelson, a member of the Charlotte band Yardwork, and Thomas Berkau wrote "Safe show" across the abdomen of an elephant hanging upside down, chains wrapped around his feet. The phrase implied that people could expect a sexually tolerant environment at the show. Nelson and Berkau added one telling detail—an "M" tattooed beside the elephant's eye, same as with Williams. They wanted Williams to know that he wasn't invited.
"He not only went around town ripping down the flyers," says Nelson, "he came to Thomas' apartment and put them back up on his door with a note that said, 'We need to fuckin' talk.'"
The alleged victim was not available for comment.
Williams admits that he once dumped a glass of water on a woman's head, but he denies any history of abuse against women.
"If I fucking beat a chick up and raped her, and everybody knows me and everybody knows the chick, I'd be in prison," Williams says. "I would at least have gone to court for it. I would have been tried. I've never been a violent dude to anyone. I don't even play fight with people."
Williams says he blames such accusations on sets of people he thinks want to sabotage his life.
"I think they're just haters," he says. "Nobody wants anything that's good for me in my life at all. That's why I didn't do anything for the last record. Being famous would be like the worst fucking thing in the world. I can't even make music and put out a record without people trying to ruin my shit."
Conspiracy or not, such incidents do limit the reach of Williams' music. In March, Carrboro store All Day Records refused to carry Tiger Beat because of those rape allegations and previous run-ins with Williams. And four days after Williams' Phuzz Phest appearance, the organizers and owners of the label that released Tiger Beat, Phuzz Records, severed ties with Williams and donated money they'd made from the record to a local women's shelter. Williams says he is disappointed with the decision and that it seems that the label is only trying to save face during a difficult situation.
"I don't know what else they could have done for me, anyway. They already put my record out," he says. "I'm still going to write records, and I'm still going to raise my kids."
He seems to comprehend how his actions strike others and the reasons he gets into trouble so often. He says that things are under control.
"I am monitoring how much I'm letting it out," he says. "I'm aware of it, and I can tell you where everything I'm doing is coming from."
Where is it coming from?
"Like, abandonment issues. You got every sick, little kind of thing. All of it."
Williams has no siblings. His mother, an aspiring folksinger who studied music at Queens University in Charlotte, raised him. She admired Carole King and Carly Simon and rejected her family's wealth. She had drinking problems, too. Struggling to raise her son and wanting to do her own thing, she sent him to a boarding school in Pennsylvania for three years. When he returned to Charlotte, he shuttled from school to school throughout his teens.
"I was left alone a lot. I was traveling a lot by the time I was 15, staying away from home for long periods of time. My mom was trying to rebel," he says. "She wouldn't accept her family's money, but I wouldn't change that shit for anything, cause that's who I am. The songs I wrote wouldn't be in place, and I wouldn't have Pollard."
Williams finishes this very serious reflection on his difficult childhood with the pipe dream of an adolescent skate punk.
"I only wish my mother had played the game with her parents so I could be loaded right now," he says. "Being rich, you can do whatever you want. You can have a ramp in your backyard. You can go to Carowinds."
But Williams admits he has no real hopes or expectations pinned on the success of Tiger Beat.
"Even if I did—what would really happen?" he asks. "You'd go on like a month-long tour. You sell maybe 50 records and play in front of maybe a thousand people. And then come back and be behind."
The attitude at least fits a guy with "In Your Face, World" tattooed on his neck, but not for a songwriter who admits that, as much as he wants his music to be weird and noisy, he always tries to make it sound kind of, well, nice.
"For some weird reason I want my mom to like these records," he says. "I wanna play it for my mom and have her be like, 'Oh, that's good.' Really, I wanna be like 'Yaaaaaaaa.' But I just won't let myself do that. I want it to be the best I can sing it. I want it to sound as pretty as it can."
The songs on Tiger Beat show that his songwriting has deepened, and he doesn't skimp on the pretty. "The Last Scar" is a soaring minor-key stunner that Williams acknowledges is a grown-up thing for him, his version of a Camera Obscura song, with all its attendant sophistication. Still, even on the eve of fatherhood, Williams maintains that he's still a kid.
"In my mind, I'm 16 years old, so it doesn't matter to me. I know what I need to do. I know what I need to get done for my family. And that's fine," he says. "But for fun-wise, I'm always gonna be the same. I'm gonna be 50, walkin' on the street, and I'll see a curb or a handrail and I'll say, 'Man, somebody should fuckin' kill that.' That mentality is always gonna be with me."'
INDY Music Editor Grayson Haver Currin contributed to this story.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Broken record."