"I was unsure of you," laughs Heather McEntire, glancing to her right at friend and frequent collaborator Jenks Miller, more than half a decade after they first met. McEntire worried Miller was pretentious. "You know that. You can be very guarded. I was judging him, I'm sure he was judging me."
In the last five years, though, there's been little room for guarding or judging. Since they forged a friendship while working together at Schoolkids Records on Franklin Street in 2005, the pair have worked together on a horde of projects—two bands, a night club and a record label, which has had a banner year.
Miller and McEntire met through their respective bands, which shared a gig on Halloween at a Chapel Hill house show. McEntire was then in the duo Bellafea, while Miller played drums in another duo, In The Year Of The Pig. McEntire, who was hired at Schoolkids first, recommended Miller for the job behind the counter. He was intrigued.
"She had really cool hair, even cooler than it is now," he says. "And she used to dress a lot more weird, and she had really long hair then, in these long kind of pigtail-y things that looked like a Colonial soldier. She would wear these frilly shirts and vests."
"It was an identity crisis," McEntire concedes, palming her now-shorter hair from her forehead. The job soon spawned a friendship.
"We were pretty inseparable," McEntire says. Their relationship began to enable new ways for both musicians to explore new sounds, first when McEntire shared a collection of pop songs she'd been writing and which wouldn't work in the context of Bellafea's spiky post-punk. Miller played drums, and the pair became Un Deux Trois.
And when the trio had an EP recorded, Miller and McEntire decided to start a record label to put it out. "I think it was on a shift, like we had a break or something, and we walked across the street and we talked about starting a label together," Miller remembers. "It was a very explicit conversation."
Upon returning to work, they bought a domain—holidaysforquince.com, named for McEntire's deceased puppy, Quince. They wanted to support and promote their own projects, as well as to highlight the sounds of local artists they saw and heard in the region. Between 2007—when Un Deux Trois' Lovers EP was released—and 2010, Holidays For Quince released seven titles, ranging from the Technicolor psych-pop of Violet Vector and the Lovely Lovelies to the red clay sludge of Caltrop and The Curtains of Night. But, in 2010, the label kind of exploded, doubling its catalog with another seven strong releases. There was, at least, the titanic full-length from kraut-metal conglomerate In The Year Of The Pig, and the recorded debut of Miller and McEntire's latest collaboration, Mount Moriah. Holidays For Quince released the third album from blues-rock duo The Moaners, who signed with the upstart after departing Yep Roc Records, and the second from both the gently psychedelic Filthybird and the bruising post-hardcore trio Monsonia.
As the year's output illustrates, Holidays For Quince has always focused more on documenting its region than any specific sound. Where most of the Triangle's labels are easily identified by certain aesthetic markers, Holidays For Quince dares to embrace a sonic diversity that could seem burdensome.
"It's just as much of a statement to say 'We're just focusing on this particular area of North Carolina,'" says Miller. "To me, that's much more meaningful."
Miller and McEntire have navigated their own musical careers while running Holidays For Quince. McEntire's primary outlet for a decade, Bellafea, released its first full-length, Cavalcade, in 2008 through Southern Records. Miller's work with elements of lush, extended drone, blues improvisation and extreme metal has created opportunities to record for curatorial labels like Utech and Small Doses, and powerful players in the metal world, like Relapse and Hydra Head. Mount Moriah toured twice in the fall, first supporting the Indigo Girls and then opening for Amy Ray.
But it's not exactly easy. Despite the pair's accomplishments this year, 2010 conjures a bittersweet medley of emotions for both of them. "We were kind of at a crucial point this year because we had pretty much exhausted all of our initial resources," Miller says. "We hadn't gotten to the point where we could generate a lot of income from just the label, so it was kind of a make it or break it period for us this year."
For a time, it seemed that the label was more likely to break. The pressures of juggling multiple bands and trying to do justice to a struggling independent label were becoming burdensome. In July, Holidays For Quince turned the release party for a Mount Moriah EP, The Letting Go, into a benefit for the label headlined by The Mountain Goats, in an attempt to raise capital for the label. "It got to a point," McEntire says, "where we really raised the question, 'Is this something we want to keep putting our energy into?' We were broke. We got in a fight—the only fight we've ever gotten into, and we were just like, 'What are we doing? This is so hard.'"
But before the pair could throw in the towel, a generous, anonymous benefactor helped give Holidays For Quince the push it needed to keep moving. "It was like some angel shit," McEntire laughs. "During that week, we were totally broke. This person stepped forward and wanted to help us keep going."
"That, as much as any other moment, showed that what we're trying to do is valuable to the community," Miller says. "You spend so much energy and time doing your thing, it's hard to judge how it's being received."
Even with the unexpected aid, some things had to give. Miller bowed out of his role drumming for In The Year Of The Pig, shortly after HFQ released that band's excellent Jamón. McEntire, meanwhile, found herself devoting less time to Bellafea and redirecting her energy to Mount Moriah—perhaps, she admits, to the chagrin of her bandmates.
But through all of the setbacks, there was success, too. Mount Moriah's shows were well-received, and a limited-edition version of The Letting Go sold well. McEntire started writing new songs for Bellafea, hopefully to be recorded next year. Horseback is ever-busy on any number of collaborations and derivations, and Miller is writing the follow-up to The Invisible Mountain, tentatively titled Half Blood. And Holidays For Quince's fall releases by The Moaners and Filthybird—the first two titles for which Miller and McEntire invested in independent publicity services—garnered bundles of press clippings and a surprising number of European mail orders.
"The normal state now is to be totally exhausted and totally invigorated," says Miller. "I feel like there's no moment of the day when I'm not thinking about this stuff."
The first quarter of 2011 already promises Mount Moriah's first full-length, and Miller says the label will stay busy, even if it's unlikely it will release as many titles as it did this year. "It'll just be more strategic and refining some of the stuff we did in 2010," Miller says.
If anything, the roller coaster of 2010 has reaffirmed Miller's and McEntire's commitment to their creative endeavors—and to their friendship. Despite the difficulty, and the time sacrificed, they draw excitement from the fragility and instability of it all, says Miller: "Every little success means a lot."