Local music mainstays Billy Sugarfix and Wendy Spitzer head to Prague | Music Feature | Indy Week

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Local music mainstays Billy Sugarfix and Wendy Spitzer head to Prague



When Carrboro musician Wendy Spitzer's parents left Czechoslovakia in 1968, they didn't envision returning.

It was a bleak time: The brief Prague Spring, an experiment in increased freedom and democratization in the then-Eastern Bloc state, had been decisively terminated by a Soviet invasion. Spitzer's parents wanted out. They fled to Canada.

"They left kind of thinking they'd never go back," Spitzer says. "There was no prospect during those years that there would ever be a time when communism didn't control that part of the world."

In a few days, though, their Canadian-born daughter is going back.

A lot has changed: It's the Czech Republic now, the Soviet Union dissolved nearly 23 years ago and Prague has become a destination for creative types and American expats. So Spitzer, the songwriter and mind behind the ever-morphing oddball indie act Felix Obelix, and boyfriend Bill McCormick, a local prankster best known by stage name Billy Sugarfix, are inverting that 1968 exodus in their pending move. They're headed to Eastern Europe for the arts and culture.

"There's a Czech saying that every Czech is a musician," Spitzer says. The arts scene she describes incorporates serious sonic variety—from classical to pop to bluegrass and avant-garde. "I think it'll be impossible not to be inspired by the environment and the cultural vibrancy of what's going on there right now."

Spitzer still has family there, but the move itself stems from the couple's common desire to live abroad. That's something they both have wanted to do, but the time never seemed right. They simply decided to go for it. They're playing a farewell show Saturday at the Cat's Cradle Back Room; come Tuesday, they're gone.

"Don't really want to plan it," McCormick says. "I wish I could just play that show, push a button and be there."

McCormick's involvement in local music goes back to 1988, when the Kentucky native moved to Chapel Hill. He started on drums before moving to guitar and eventually more esoteric instruments, such as theremin. In his 26-year tenure, he's played recurrent Independence Day, Halloween and Christmas shows at The Cave with Chapel Hill's consciously goofy Evil Wiener and then with Billy Sugarfix's Carousel. He's played in a dozen area acts; McCormick and a new lineup of collaborators will even play their first and only show at the couple's farewell gig.

Spitzer arrived 10 years later as a UNC music major and worked in various bands including The Physics of Meaning, The Gates of Beauty and Eyes to Space. Most recently, Spitzer has been the mastermind of Felix Obelix, an intriguing weird-pop outfit just as likely to write meticulously constructed, classical-inspired tunes as an album's worth of cell phone ringtones. Her contribution to the farewell show is a live soundtrack to an early 20th century stop-motion short by Polish-Russian animator Ladislas Starevich.

A testament to their long cumulative history, two rooms in the small Carrboro house they will soon vacate are jam-packed with instruments.

"I think it's starting to sink in that we're leaving this area for a bit," Spitzer says. "The music community's been very good to both of us for a really long time." And it's continuing to be, as friends will be taking care of many of the couple's belongings during their year or more overseas. The hardest part, McCormick says, will be leaving their cat, Elka.

"I think she knows we're leaving," he says. Today the blue-gray cat lounges in a sunny window as the house is gradually boxed up. Elka recognizes her environment is changing, Spitzer says, so she knows something's up—even if she doesn't completely understand she'll be living with Spitzer's parents soon.

Along the back wall of the room where Elka takes in the sun, drum major hats rest on shelves. McCormick has 17, and these are staying with local friends, too. The inherent pageantry of marching bands led to this unlikely collection, and even older and stranger pageantry now draws McCormick overseas. He's fascinated by surviving pagan rituals in which regular people don elaborate, furry outfits and transform into beasts (for a primer on these ancient European traditions, see Charles Fréger's Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage).

"If you look at the marching band hats and look at some of those costumes, there's a pretty direct connection," McCormick says.

It's the mystery, too, of these pagan holdovers that fascinate him. A friend recently told him about a French character, Le Pre Fouettard. Tradition has it that the character accompanied St. Nicholas on his rounds and would punish naughty children. McCormick had never heard of this, and that sense of the unknown tantalizes him: "There are so many things that we don't know about and that I'm very, very interested in. But you know, at the end of the day, just the weird rituals that they have and the strange costumes that they have are what's alluring."

Spitzer and McCormick will get TEFL—teaching English as a foreign language—certifications and then look for jobs. They've planned out a year in advance. And then?

"I'm oddly just not worried about it," McCormick says.

"We do have ties to this area, so I don't think this is the last this area is going to see of us," Spitzer says. "All of that's up in the air and we're just, kind of, we're going for it."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Czech you later"

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