With the candlelight from a Raleigh watering hole's tabletop dancing in pale yellow shapes across the brown stubble covering his face, Stuart Edwards offers a crooked, at-ease smile. This weekend, he moved into a house in Carrboro, just a few hundred yards from the restaurant where he works. He's not only reduced his commute, though. He's also now the proud owner of less mess.
"I must have thrown away four pounds of paper," Edwards says about packing for the move. Those bits of paper held scribbles of lyrics and chords, thoughts of songs he's finished. "It was stuff that I'd already recorded or didn't want to use."
"Just scraps," explains Andy Holmes, who plays guitar and drums and sings harmonies with Edwards in their spectral, tender duo Old Bricks. "Everything I've ever seen by Stuart has been on the back of a bill or an envelope or anything. He doesn't own a notebook. In his house, there were just stacks of these papers."
This is how Old Bricks gets by: Put something down, get it out, move on—and do it all in a way that means you don't have to be tied to any one idea or item too long. Old Bricks thrives on the need for its own evolution. To change, to improve—that desire seems to shake at the root of Edwards' fragile, nervous warble on Farmers, the band's excellent debut LP, which puts them somewhere in the company of earnest folk-music benders Bright Eyes and Phosphorescent.
Live, after all, these songs already sound much different than they do on the album, the recordings' distorted temerity swapped for a sort of menacing defiance. And the next album, they say, will bring a marked shift in sound, too, with more percussion and more members to help fill the crevices between the guitar, drums and the grainy little sound loops Holmes often runs beneath everything. They've tried the other avenue of being in a band—that is, finding a sound that works and sticking with it—and they both chose homelessness over staying in a stagnant band.
They would rather not do that again.
Edwards is Old Bricks' only songwriter. In fact, the band's first EP simply gathered the multitracked demos he recorded in the closet of his parents' Mebane home. And Holmes only plays on three-quarters of Farmers, adding guitar leads, ambient textures and some drums where needed. But Holmes, who confesses he's something of a logocentrist when it comes to the music he enjoys most, speaks of Edwards' words as though they are his own. In many cases, the pair agrees, they are.
"Do you have any lyrics that you feel like you relate to? What's your favorite lyric on the album?" Edwards asks him, eyes peering from beneath the dark brown locks falling from an old cotton hoodie.
Holmes laughs the question off, his hand shooting up to ruffle his thick blond curls, as if to prove his own playfulness. He immediately answers, though, quoting "Children," the drifting, redolent, seven-minute centerpiece of Farmers. Loneliness, rejection, escapism, death, permanent dusk—on "Children," Edwards trickles these images over acoustic guitar and click-clack percussion, all fighting through what sounds like a graveyard wind blustering by the microphone. The lyrics repeatedly resolve into a dark grace, a persistence that acknowledges that hell can exist right here on Earth.
"'All these drugs they blacken my face/ A perfect smile is born of the waste/ Every lost ship is headed someplace/ As long as the wind blows,'" Holmes recites, pausing every few words to gather the next line in his mouth. "When I hear that, every single time, I still look back at the situation. I remember sleeping in a big pile of garbage on a friend's porch."
"With me hugging you, basically," adds Edwards, laughing nervously, looking away.
"Stuart pulled me up and took the knife out of my hands, so to speak," Holmes finishes.
For Edwards, 26, and Holmes, 23, their shared experience in Nashville, Tenn., was, indeed, their introduction to such a hell. Written as their previous band, a psychedelic outfit called Maudvelice, disintegrated and while they slept in movie theaters, cars and on couches in the months before leaving Nashville, these songs are about survival and moving on. They're Holmes' songs, too, even if he didn't write them, even if he's only singing behind them.
"I still quote Stuart when I'm talking to friends. Like, 'Oh, Stuart said this in a song," he says. "It's personal to both of us, regardless of who's singing what or who's playing what. The last four months of our time in Nashville, we were both homeless. At least eight of the songs on the record were written then."
The Nashville stay started out casually enough: Holmes and Edwards both grew up in Rocky Mount, but they didn't know each other too well there. Years later, they were reintroduced by a mutual friend. Edwards was in Nashville already, studying recording and playing music. The two began sharing long-distance, hours-long telephone calls across state lines, instantly identifying with one another's listening interests. They both liked strong songs where the intricacies formed supporting clouds.
Holmes wasn't interested in college ("You know, Andy, school isn't for everyone," he says his guidance counselor suggested), so he moved to Nashville with the mutual friend that had provided the introduction. They both joined an already-big band.
"It was more of a clusterfuck than anything. There were so many people doing so many things that we would lose sight of the main idea of the song," remembers Edwards of Maudvelice. "It didn't translate."
It didn't move, either, and that was the real rub. Though a lot of people funneled a lot of ideas into the band, it felt to Edwards and Holmes as if they were always standing still, waiting for the world to come to their noisy rock.
"That was the problem. He and I both saw it moving forward, and these guys weren't interested in changing or being different," says Holmes. "It was pretty dead set, what we were doing. If we had continued playing together, I don't think there would be any evolution from where it was three years ago to where it would be now."
What's more, Nashville was warping the way they viewed music. There was too much of it, they say, and the cliques and niches were too isolated and insular. The best bands never make it out of Nashville, these expatriates suggest. For every Kings of Leon or Silver Jews, or even for every country superstar, there's at least one great act that simply gets swallowed by the sound—and the selfishness—of the city. Even East Nashville, the apparent hip side of town, offers little respite, Edwards and Holmes insist. Meaningful relationships were hard to come by in Music City.
Or, as Edwards frailly sings on "New Born," in search of innocence or at least naiveté, "The big city kills our small towns/ Dumb, sweet newborn, where are you now?"
"A lot of people don't realize, and they think, 'This is the place to be. I play in a band in Nashville, Tennessee, and everything's going well,'" says Holmes. "It's really depressing. It's a really superficial, pretentious place. Something's gone wrong there."
So they moved out of their bad situations (or were kicked out), survived for the next six months and headed home. Within three months, they were recording together again. Five months later, Old Bricks made its debut.
"And things are working out," says Holmes, smiling sheepishly to Edwards, as if saying it now for the first time.
Old Bricks—featuring its extended five-piece lineup with members of Inspector 22, Lost in the Trees, Waumiss and The Kingsbury Manx—play The Cave Friday, Jan. 8, at 10 p.m. Pros and Cons opens.