Scott Phillips and Chris Dalton, two-thirds of keyboard-rock trio Goner, laugh at their own joke. Greg Eyman, the band's bassist, just called to say he won't be sharing the booth tonight at Jackpot on Raleigh's Hillsborough Street. Dalton mentions the clinking glasses and dance pulses he heard in the background; Eyman must be at the strip club again.
Remember, it's a joke: Eyman has a 3-year-old son named Quinn, a wife and a mortgage—and he's likely at home. Anyway, Eyman has always been reluctant to talk about his music, while Phillips and Dalton like to gab about rock history and how Goner reflects it. And let's face it: Tonight's interview won't make this band famous. At best, it may explain why Rock 'n' Roll Always Forgets, Goner's third album this decade, is its most adventurous and memorable to date.
The answer, it seems, invokes age and maturity and mortgages and children and teaching school and how Goner—now three men between the ages of 35 and 40—is completely its own band. They can do what they want, and on Rock 'n' Roll—which drops disco and New Wave aplomb with hints of roots and space rock into Goner's melodic blasts—they do. Maybe its members wouldn't be opposed to "making it," but that's not the aim. They're happy to be a local band making records they like and sometimes playing shows for people who like them. No matter who comes calling or who doesn't understand, they will continue to write songs.
"I'll get asked, 'Are you hoping to make it?' That's a big thing because a lot of people who aren't in bands assume that's why you get in bands," says Phillips, a teacher's assistant at an area elementary school who recently started taking night classes at N.C. Wesleyan College to obtain his teacher's license. "But once you get past—I'll say, arbitrarily, 30—that's not there anymore. It's not about being cool. It's not about making it."
Dalton works an office job now, too. The rest of the staff supports his alternate rock lifestyle, he says, even if they don't understand it: "They really don't get it because it's not American Idol. You just let that go. If anyone comes at you and they're like, 'What did you do last night?' Well, 'I rocked. You watched TV. Do you not think it was worth my effort? I know I had more fun than you.'"
"We can do whatever we want," echoes Phillips. "What the hell? It's fun. We're supposed to have fun."
But having fun can be a lot of work for bands a decade into making records together, especially when their music is not a source of income. After releasing its second album, 2003's How Good We Had It, Goner's writing stalled. Neither a legion of fans nor a record label was demanding a follow-up. The band had other things to do. Dalton, the father of an 8-year-old named Gabriel, remarried earlier this year. Eyman was busy with work and raising his family. Phillips taught school by day and by night concentrated on The Monologue Bombs, his solo singer-songwriter project that started as an asylum for rejected Goner songs.
Dalton—a rock 'n' roll encyclopedia and a fast-talking, sharp-eyed ball of energy—finally broke the complacence. While reading a biography of Iron Maiden, he learned bands on major labels often operated on strict writing and recording deadlines. They had to maintain forward momentum. That was his prescription for Goner.
"We didn't have these pressures to force us into succeeding on a timeline. We would have written one song a year for the next six years," remembers Dalton. "I approached Greg and Scott and said, 'Why don't we pretend we're on a label and have to deliver an album at the end of the summer?'"
Phillips already felt anxious about his lack of output, so he agreed. He just had to find time to write for two bands while working full-time.
"I read this interview with Bruce, and someone's like, 'Now that you have three kids, what's your songwriting process like?" remembers Phillips, such a fan of The Boss that he generally omits his last name. "He was like, 'I steal time. If it's 20 minutes here, I have a desk. I steal 20 minutes here, maybe an hour there.' I was like, 'Well, damn. If Bruce is allowed to work piecemeal like that, certainly I'm allowed to work piecemeal like that."
So Phillips wrote whenever he could. "Intercom, Intercom," a track so new it didn't make the record, was written at an elementary school lunch table. He lifted the title from his surroundings. The other piece of the puzzle was just letting go, lyrically and musically. Phillips had always worried that each song had to make a grand statement, which slowed his process because he felt too nervous about whether each song said enough. "Writing songs is supposed to be fun," he reminds himself.
And, this time, Goner let all of its ideas pour into the sound, refusing to reject something because it didn't fit their familiar mold. This time, they had nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
"There is a period where we opened up. We have jokes in the practice space about how Goner are now allowed to do anything we want to," says Dalton, Phillips chuckling beside him. "It used to be in the rules that you couldn't have a funk hippie jam, and—at some point—Scott and I were like, 'Actually, if we want to write a good funk hippie jam, we're going to allow ourselves to do that.'"
Don't hold your breath for that one, though.
Goner releases Rock 'n' Roll Always Forgets on Bifocal Media Friday, June 13, at 10 p.m. at Slim's in Raleigh. The band will play a one-time-only 30-song set for the celebration, including 12 electric songs in the bar, five acoustic songs on the back patio and 13 more electric songs inside to end the night. The $8 cover charge includes a copy of Rock 'n' Roll Always Forgets.
CORRECTION (June 11, 2008): The print edition of this story incorrectly identified Scott Phillips' college. He attends N.C. Wesleyan College.