"Think this'll work?" asks the shirtless blond behind the drum kit. We're in The Cherry Valence's practice space and the cowbell is nowhere to be seen. Drummer and sometimes frontman Nick Whitley has decided to thwack his mic stand with his stick--a surprisingly good substitute that cuts through three cranked (or "crunked," in band lingo) vintage Ampeg amps. The Cherry Valance are running through a set at their Raleigh practice space, located in a large industrial building that's partially converted into band rooms. (From a room down the hall, you can hear Apollo Creedence's punk bass riffs throbbing through the drywall.)
The band is practicing the aforementioned song, "The Clap" at a very non-pussified volume--a solid, slightly overdriven roar of sound heavier than bassist Paul Siler's SVT rig. Two full drum kits are set up--drummers Whitley and Brian Quast both sing lead on some songs, and Quast also does serious damage on an ancient Crumar Traveler-1 keyboard (the band's Vox Jaguar, after much road abuse, bit the dust ... with a little help from the band). Siler also does vocal duty, sounding like a proud member of the KISS army; Quast sounds like a cross between Lemmy and Mudhoney's Mark Arm, and Whitley sounds like Axl doing Deep Purple's Ian Gillan or Humble Pie's Steve Marriott. It is most certainly not "indie rock."
The Cherry Valence is a supergroup of sorts--they've all played in bands for years (back to Trucker, Regraped Erectus Monotone, King Dick, Royal Fux, The Werewolves and others). Siler is a co-owner of Raleigh's hip live music club Kings, while riffin' guitarist Cheetie Kumar got firsthand experience with the music industry during her stint as band manager for Motocaster, among others. But it was from the ashes of Trucker that TCV emerged, named after a character in The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton's classic novel of teen alienation (Cherry was a sympathetic "Soc"). TCV are continuing a rock aesthetic they shared with late Trucker co-founder Jere McIlwaen, whose untimely death left Siler and Jamie Williams with three U.S. tours under their belt, a taste for the road and a bitchin' former prison van (with grates and everything--bought at state auction) to head out on their rock odysseys.
"The whole thing for Trucker--and Jere's idea of Trucker--was that it's so much more important to go play shows than worry about putting out music. Jere's thing was, 'Indie rock is terrible. Rock is meant to be short," fun, with every show ending up with explosions,'" Paul recalls, citing a particular McIlwaen project that featured a member who just stood onstage, punctuating the riffs with cries of "Hell yeah!" and "All right!" The McIlwaen rock credo influenced another young musician, a teenage Ryan Adams, to move to Raleigh, where they played together in the Patty Duke Syndrome. The rest, as they say, is history.
Having set a precedent for "takin' it to the people," the remaining members of Trucker decided to carry on. "We never actually even sent one single tape to a club," Kumar admits, about booking the band's first tour. "A lot of people liked Trucker," Siler adds (including one Corey Parks, who went on to play a similar style of no hold-barred rawk in the Nugent-inspired Nashville Pussy). So--with their rep preceding them--TCV found clubs extending them the same welcome they'd experienced touring in Trucker and Regraped.
For the band's first two U.S. tours, they were a six-piece, with a vocalist named Malcolm, who was followed by Chris Jones. Quast moved back from Portland and started playing organ; soon he was standing and playing a tom tom and percussion on some numbers.
This is not to give short shrift to the "monster drum set" version of TCV, which featured Whitley playing an unholy amalgam of Quast's drums and his own set. This mismatched kit comprised of different sized drums featured Whitley kicking away on two bass drums simultaneously.
When Jones left the band, TCV found themselves in a lead-singer quandary. Volume-wise, however, they were louder than ever: "We went from six to five, but added a drum kit," Siler says, laughing. Siler and Quast juggled vocal duties, until the night Whitley stepped up to the mike to deliver a burnin' rendition of Deep Purple's "Speed King" and a new TCV frontman was born. Whitley, who prefers to perform unfettered by a shirt, also revealed a natural talent for rock moves--kind of Axl meets Jim Dandy and then some. It was August of '99, and the band--with no album or club guarantees--embarked on a cross-country tour, developing their tight, explosive live show by performing for strangers.
"We're out playing," Siler emphasizes. "I mean, you're only going to get better. So whenever somebody sees you or hears about you, you'll just be that much better than if you were just sitting at home and being bummed out that nobody will listen to your tape."
Armed with big amps, some cooking supplies and the camaraderie born of their belief in what they were doing, TCV witnessed to the power of heavy rock on club stages across America--rock that recalls the early days of Deep Purple with a dash of Mudhoney, KISS hopped up on trucker speed, and Humble Pie without the extended jams.
Gear-wise, the band would definitely have an endorsement from Ampeg amplifiers--if it were 1970. "It's the only amp with the word 'amp' in its name," Kumar says, laughing.
"I liked Get Your Ya-Ya's Out. It's a great record, and you see these pictures and all those guys had Ampegs and it's like, 'Well, that's how they got that sound,'" Siler adds.
"We wish we had stacks ... ," Kumar says wistfully.
"Cabinets all around the van ... a van made of cabinets," Quast adds, bringing to mind Cheech and Chong's high-tech ride they'd constructed out of some kind of weed compound, only louder.
So those first tours, you just got in the van, crashed at people's houses, ate road food and bought grocs and made it work?
"We still do that," Kumar says. "We just did that this last tour." But with no guarantees from the clubs, they usually opted to camp out rather than do the floor thing--Siler sleeps on top of the van, Quast and Williams take the ground, and so on. The band buys groceries every couple of days and looks for places that have grills or fireplaces. For campfire grub, they all have fond memories of "papooses," which Kumar describes as "a packet of grilled vegetables" they cook out under the stars. Every time they make the dish, they all swear it's the best it's ever been. "We keep getting more science on the camping food experience," Whitley notes.
As for bands that whine about per diems and sharing hotel rooms, TCV react with disbelief.
"It's funny, you'll read in The Independent and places that these bands around here will be bummed that they're getting $10 a day per diems, and I mean ... all of us sacrifice in that we know that the band can't really pay any money," Quast says. "We got two motel rooms the last six-week tour."
On long drives, the band keeps aurally fueled by listening to their favorite artists: Cheap Trick and AC/DC, James Brown and Fela Kuti, Outkast and Ornette Coleman, Ted Nugent and more. "Until this tour, it was really rare that anything went in the tape player that was newer than 1979 unless it's Outkast or Ol' Dirty Bastard, except for the Champs." Siler says.
"It depended on whoever really had to hear something, and really looked through every tape in the van and found that Ace Frehley tape," Quast adds, laughing, but without a trace of sheepishness. (As a nice touch, the band is sitting on a couch in front of an semi-professional looking painting featuring the head and shoulders of KISS' Paul Stanley in full makeup; it's hung upside-down. In a sense, Stanley presides over this interview.)
So The Cherry Valance continued to tour, operating on a kind of blind faith and the belief that when the time was right, a record deal would happen. Which it did. Although they released a single on Fandango last year (a label that's put out singles by The Bellrays and the Hellecopters), they've just released a self-titled debut disc through prestige garage rock label Estrus Records. While they get lumped in with the garage crowd because of their balls-out live shows and road-dog ethic, TCV are rock in a way you can't put on; it's a way of life.
"We've played with some garage bands, and we get along well with them, but we're not really ... I mean, we'll do a Sonics song (Seattle '60s garage-punk pioneers) or something every now and then, but we're not garage-rock," Siler says.
For The Cherry Valence album, they laid some of the tracks down themselves on an old analog four-track recorder (setting up in the mortuary space next door). They also went into Sonic Wave studio and slammed out some analog eight-track cuts with engineer-producer Greg Elkins manning the board.
"Basically, I was trying to tell Greg to use all the nice equipment, but to use it as if he was a caveman--use a minimum of stuff, but use nice stuff," Siler says. "And he understood that. And Chris [Jones, who also worked on the album] is really good at making stuff sound good."
The band crunched out seven songs and mixed the other four over a five-day session, finishing at 3 a.m. "The next morning they tore out the [mixing] board and the wall and replaced the board," Cheetie recalls. "We had to use their auxiliary small console to mix our eight-track stuff."
So, for the first time, TCV will set off on a six-week tour knowing that the fans will be able to take a CD home with them. And they're livin' the rock life--following that ribbon of asphalt in their musical quest to rock the big mixed-up mess that is America. Between gigs in metro areas, TCV have played to disenfranchised teen hipsters in places like Williston, N.D., leading one to speculate on whether one of their gigs could have changed some youthful malcontent's rock 'n' roll-starved life. Seeing music--especially if it's something you don't get to do every day--is a more empathetic, shared experience than just listening to a disc or hearing disembodied, processed vocals compressed into a radio-friendly mix coming at you over your car speakers. It seems attainable.
"If you just make good music that you like, it's its own reward," Whitley says.
For now, The Cherry Valance feels that there's no reason to overexpose themselves locally--they play in the Triangle only slightly more often than, say, Chicago or San Diego.
"Who's going to pull five bucks out of their pocket three times a week to see your stupid-ass band?" Whitley quips.
For TCV, probably plenty of people.