Search conditions couldn't be any better: The skies above Johnson City, Tenn., are pale blue, with a faint touch of gray in the distance on this Saturday afternoon. Aside from a few motivated pedestrians and a lazy trickle of cars, the streets are empty, too.
So it would seem that finding a seven-member metal band with the peculiar name U.S. Christmas—rehearsing in the only heavy metal recording studio in downtown Johnson City, a college town of about 60,000 people—would be easy. But no one on the streets has ever heard of Fahrenheit Studio, and the Web site doesn't list an address. "East Main Street"—that's the best anyone can do.
And that's the best anyone need do, really. A few minutes into the search, U.S. Christmas—or, at least, its music—overruns East Main Street for blocks and blocks. The band's headed into the end of "The Valley Path," a 45-minute endurance test that they're playing now just for the second time. The sound parades through the city: The guitars move in crests and swaths, and the double drum kits gallop and crack. The bass massages the concrete of the sidewalks, and a voice—a mutated, menacing grown-man howl—spills out into the daylight. In long, droning strokes, violin slices through the middle. A torn rose on the red canopy above an out-of-business tattoo parlor across the street ripples in the late-day breeze, as if the music's pushing the wind and making it dance to the riffs.
- Photo by Tim Griffin
- The shirtless guy: Nate Hall on a rare U.S. Christmas tour in New York.
When the song's finally over, the band—six of them today, though they've been a seven-piece since early last fall—puts its sticks and strings down and mills about the space, resting on a few scattered couches and simple wooden chairs. Singer Nate Hall and drummer B.J. Graves crowd into a room with Travis Kammeyer, the space's head engineer, and listen to the song they just played. The rest of the band heads for a convenience store.
Fahrenheit is a rather humble and utilitarian space, where the impressive array of equipment in any given corner has been given much more thought than the appearance of said corner. The linoleum chips away from the wood beneath, and a hand sanitizer station in the lone bathroom looks to have been out of order for months. If someone pushes the inside door handle the wrong way, it collapses with a crash. The light inside is dim, and the impact of a few space heaters is negligible.
But this is where U.S. Christmas—one of fewer than a dozen nationally successful and recognizable heavy metal bands to emerge from North Carolina since the heyday of crossover kings Corrosion of Conformity—comes to rehearse and record. This band isn't concerned with glamour or glory or the trappings of being a big band. They just want to play together. In 2007, they released Eat the Low Dogs, their debut LP, on Neurot Recordings, one of the most carefully curated and respected loud labels in the world. This summer, Neurot will release its second LP, Run Thick in the Night, and U.S. Christmas is part of a three-band tribute to English space-rock pioneers Hawkwind, due later this year, likely on experimental powerhouse Important Records.
For them, that's very good news: As long as people keep asking to release their music, it gives them more reasons to come back here and make it.
Or, as Hall—an elementary school teacher with tattoos, a thick beard and hair that extends to his ribcage and who doubles as the band's lyricist, lead guitarist and the guy with that grown-man howl—unwittingly summarizes with his anxious, slight drawl: "Hey, guys, you wanna play some more—or what?"
He gets off the couch. They mosey back to their instruments.
- Photo by Tim Griffin
- Metal, with a violin? Meghan Mulhearn adds her long tones to U.S. Christmas' odd sound.
Today is only the second time U.S. Christmas has practiced since ending an 11-day tour in November. Last night was the first. After everyone finished work and drove the two or three hours to Johnson City from their homes in Asheville, Knoxville and the small North Carolina mill town of Marion, they reconvened in Fahrenheit without multi-instrumentalist Chris Thomas, who's still in Washington, D.C., recovering from a winter sickness at his parents' home.
That East Coast and Midwest tour took U.S. Christmas to big American markets like Manhattan and Chicago. Each night, they opened for Savannah, Ga., band Baroness, a combo that is steadily becoming one of the biggest and best new things in American metal over the last five years, and Earthless, a West Coast trio prone to half-hour electric guitar explorations. They played in front of a few thousand people, racked up a handful of favorable reviews ("hypnotic dirges with layers of delightful noise," is how the standard-setting metal magazine Decibel described their set in Buffalo) and even got raked through the coals by the notorious commenters of the New York music blog Brooklyn Vegan. ("USX sucked. They looked like members of some brooding doomsday cult led by the shirtless guy. They were old," said one anonymous poster.)
More to the point, though, it was just the second legitimate tour U.S. Christmas had ever done and their first stateside, despite having been a band for nearly seven years and despite being booked by one of the country's premier talent agencies. To wit, they've only played Chapel Hill once. Oddly enough, this is the pace they'd like to maintain.
"Touring's hard, especially with as many people as are in the band," says Matt Johnson, who co-founded U.S. Christmas along with Hall. "It's a hard way to live."
"It destroys a lot of bands. It destroys a lot of people, actually. You see people dying fairly recently from habits they probably pick up on the road," says Hall, laughing nervously and glancing down at his hands, just four days after the as yet unexplained death of Memphis garage rock hero Jay Reatard. "You don't want to put yourself in situations where bad things are going to start happening."
It's happened to Meghan Mulhearn, the friendly violinist with the shy smile who joined U.S. Christmas last September. She's been in bands that have been eaten by the interstate: "Everybody gets just really worn down, and it's not any fun anymore. It's like a really lousy paying job."
The arc—and, for that matter, the idea—of U.S. Christmas is a bit like Anvil! The Story of Anvil in reverse. As portrayed in last year's compelling Sacha Gervasi documentary, the Canadian metal band Anvil—led through multiple lineup changes and a dozen albums by Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner—struggles tirelessly for its big break or the moment that makes them world-famous, that washes their mundane day-job woes away into a sea of screaming fans. But despite shows with Bon Jovi and Scorpions and a handful of big-money relationships, it never happens for Anvil. They remain, at best, a cult band with an oversize influence and, at worst, washed-up metal harlots who should have taken a hint. In the film, their nominal fame frustrates them to the point that it nearly breaks their band, their families and themselves, too.
U.S. Christmas has been there. Not long after the release of Eat the Low Dogs, the band lost all of its six members except Hall and keyboardist Johnson. They've been close friends since meeting in Marion's one music store about a decade ago. Johnson talks about his desire to record music under this name for the next 20 or 30 years.
But, defensively independent, they've never signed a record contract, and they both sport a healthy, sincere distrust of the record industry at large. "We've all read that thing [Chicago producer] Steve Albini wrote about labels. I can't remember what it's called, but I think we've all read it," says Hall, referring to "The Problem with Music," the 1993 essay in The Baffler in which Albini wrote of major labels, "I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe 60 yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit."
Johnson has four sons and a job as an electrician that sends him driving across the state most of the week. Hall has a wife, Melissa, a toddler, Nora, and a 3-year-old son, Art, and he is finishing his master's degree in education. They want a life—with a band on the side.
In Johnson City, it's apparent that they're here to work, not to party. Sleeping bags rest haphazardly on couches, and a few pillows and thin blankets are pushed into a corner of a closet. During the afternoon practice, the six members in attendance split a dozen cans of Miller High Life beer, and despite the spacey tones of the band's heavy metal, the drugs—limited to one bowl in the afternoon—are minimal. Mostly, they play in bursts of four or five songs at a time, listen to some of the recordings in another small closet with a computer and a recording console, and return to the forest of guitars, drum kits and amplifiers. Some of these songs are old (they have a short tour coming up), but most of them are new and ready to be debuted on the road.
Indeed, U.S. Christmas keeps its day jobs so it can casually remain a band. They'd rather record—make something that can last forever and spread itself—than spread themselves thin by touring the same old songs through every heavy metal dive in America. And to some, maybe that's a lazy way to be a band—to create without going out of your way to tell people about it. But Hall has his priorities.
"You can't reasonably expect to be ultrafamous without being gone all the time and just making it your job all the time," says Hall, now back at home in Marion. He lives in a comfortable ranch with a two-car garage just at the edge of the Pisgah National Forest. Children's toys cover the floor, stacks of guitars and amplifiers pushed aside. Volumes of Proust share shelf space with Toy Story, and Kandinsky prints, heavy metal posters and art for the kids cover the walls. "And this can't be our job right now. I feel it couldn't be much better, personally."
That mind-set comes as a welcome break from the cycle of instant hype and flashbulb success that technology has instigated in music. With cheap recording equipment and software suited for the home studio, almost anyone can make a decent sounding album. And with ubiquitous opportunities for Internet promotion—from MySpace and MP3 blogs to iTunes and Rhapsody—anyone with an e-mail address can try to tell the world about that album. Bands with only an EP get signed, get booked, get momentarily famous and, in some cases, get burned out before they ever have a chance to make much of a statement. But U.S. Christmas hasn't had to ingratiate itself to a scene or a circuit: They simply made some songs, put them on the Internet and let labels and tours come their way.
"We haven't had to look for anything in four or five years. Everything we have done, somebody has asked us to do, which happens frequently," says Hall. "We have to turn down stuff. We don't have to play on a Sunday night if we don't want to."
The strategy seems to be working. The show offers keep coming, and Run Thick in the Night was recorded by Sanford Parker, a big-deal metal producer who's worked with Nachtmystium, Pelican, Yakuza and Rwake. John Baizley, the frontman of Baroness, their touring partner back in November, designed the cover. And though both Hall and Johnson have lived in or around Marion for most of their lives, Hall wrote the record by staring out the front door and simply imagining what was happening in those woods by night.
"If we can have the time to work and are dedicated to it, we're always going to have things we want to do," he says. "There's no shortage of ideas."
Just then, Nora, climbing on the back of a little red chair, stubs her toe and lets out a sharp little girl's cry. Hall leaps up, scoops her into his arms, presses his thick brown beard beard against her chin and coos into her ear.
Johnson laughs: "He's got to be here."
U.S. Christmas plays Nightlight with The Curtains of Night and Caltrop Friday, Jan. 22, at 10 p.m. Tickets are $5.