These days, "pop" may be the dirtiest three-letter word in the music community if you're a rock band. Just ask the Mayflies USA, who are poised to release their second full album of melodic pop nuggets: crafted songs characterized by layers of harmonies, guitar interplay and choruses that rush your gray matter like an influx of serotonin.
If you've never heard the Mayflies, the Chapel Hill foursome harness the enthusiasm (and riffs) of early Teenage Fanclub, laced with a jigger of Big Star and served up with an admiration for the likes of pop savant Matthew Sweet. Fearless where melody and hooks are concerned, the Mayflies' un-fey, non-purist approach (like the best of the Elephant 6 collective) is proof that pop isn't ready for the Smithsonian just yet. These are guys who'll take a drink and turn the knobs to 10--in many ways, the Mayflies are the area's first rock pop band in a generation of alternative bands. They officially launch their second Yep Roc full-length, The Pity List, Sept. 28 at the Cat's Cradle.
I meet the guys at Go! Rehearsal Studios to catch the end of their practice before hitting Hell (bassist Adam Price insists on Hell 'cause he's got a tab there) for the interview. I'm pleased--in a perverse way--that guitarist Matt Long is wearing the same clothes he had on the previous night at a local drinkery. And his hair is greasy in a totally un-Fauntleroy or "fancy lad" sort of way. The rhythm section--Long and drummer David Liesegang--are fueled by Woodpecker cider, the Mad Dog 20/20 of England. (Each guy has his own quart.) They practice at mega-volume, ripping through a Replacements cover and going into a blissfully dead-on rendition of a cool Gene Clark (The Byrds) cover they've recorded for a tribute album.
I realize--even in my beery condition--how rare it is to have an alternative band where three of the guys can really sing. And play. In rocker style, the guys use simple classic gear: an Ampeg 8x10 bass cabinet, Teles and Les Pauls, no foo foo transistor crapola. Coaxed by their label rep, they rip through a few non-reverential, warts-'n'-all renditions of soon-to-be released tracks such as "Sodium Pentathol" and "Getting to the End of You," its intro riff lifted from the Rod the Mod classic "You Wear it Well." ("He's a bad ass!" says guitarist/vocalist Matt McMichaels, straight-faced.) Live, the new songs shine with a patina of road grime and nicotine. As the practice progresses, everything coalesces into a righteous organic noise.
The Mayflies were brought together by Long, but the guys had all done their share of bands since high school days: Asheville native McMichaels proudly confesses to covering "Sweet Child of Mine" with future Archers of Loaf bassist Matt Gentling.
"Asheville wasn't anything back then," McMichaels says. "I mean, there was a little contingent that listened to Love and Rockets, New Order, Replacements and the Jazz Butcher, stuff like that." Ironically, future Archers leader Eric Bachman's high school band--Iron Beagle--was their biggest competition on the Asheville alt-rock scene. Meanwhile, Knoxville-ite Adam Price (the bassist and baby of the band) was skateboarding with his neighborhood buddy John Davis, future frontman of breakthrough alt-popsters Superdrag. both McMichaels and Price saw their old band-mates go on to indie fame, while they struggled to find a niche in the local scene.
Even though pop wasn't in vogue at the time the Mayflies formed--most new bands were trying to channel Polvo and the like--the group stubbornly wrote irony-free, traditionally crafted tunes, eschewing the dude-posturing and faux cynicism that provides a hip quotient safety net for the alt-rock crowd. For this reason, it would hardly be accurate to say that the Mayflies "burst on the scene." Rather, they got a toehold and did some extreme rock climbing, bypassing the "friend rock" circuit. ("Friend rock": bands whose friends pack the clubs every time they play but whose rep dies at the city limits.) So they drank, occasionally indulged in other sensory manipulators and wrote beautiful songs they delivered with drunken, sometimes sloppy enthusiasm. "We were incredibly unhip," admits Price.
Ten weeks after forming the fledgling band hit the road. They now admit they weren't ready. But--being drinking buddies before becoming bandmates--the lure to quaff and bond in new "exotic" locales proved irresistible. McMichaels--a UNC liberal arts grad with a relatively fat "real" job--funneled his IBM earnings into a van. He also had "unlimited long distance" (yee-haw) to book the band's virgin tours, as well as photocopying privileges for posters and the like. Within six months of forming, they released an EP--totally DIY--and experienced "the road" as they embarked on five increasingly infernal tours of Florida.
On the advice of Long's Copytron boss--Lud's Kirk Ross--they contacted local producer/former dB's popster Chris Stamey to master the EP. Chris liked what he heard and took an interest in the band, fitting them into the studio between other sessions. "Chris saw us as sort of the Big Star for his studio, which has turned out to be true because we haven't sold any records either," McMichaels says with his characteristic wry humor. (The record is actually doing respectably: It's in its fifth pressing with more than 4,000 sold--great for a local indie record.) "We'd play and have fun, but he made us a good recording band," says Liesegang. These sporadic studio recordings--done on spec by Stamey--landed the Mayflies their Yep Roc deal and became the band's first full-length, Summertown.
One by-product of the Yep Roc deal was a bizarre brush with former Elvis Costello manager Jake Riviera, who'd contacted Yep Roc looking for a promising young American band to manage. Price, the band's biggest Costello fan, responded, "Well, surely it's not that Jake." But Riviera arrived in the flesh, wining and dining the band at Aurora, and continuing the "meeting" at Henry's, where the by-now plastered Brit's largesse extended to the whole bar--he bought the place a round.
"The guy's a walking, talking VH1 Behind the Music," says Price. "We listened to these great stories: 'Well, back in '73 when me and Peter Grant [legendary Zep manager] were doing this and that ...'"
"It was overwhelming," McMichaels concedes, "but it just seemed sort of impractical to have a manager based in England for an American band no one had heard about."
"And he had all these 'ideas,'" Price continues. "His big idea was, 'We're going to do like the Beatles in Hamburg, my friend, somebody Magnuson who used to manage ABBA owns this hotel chain in Norway ...'"
"He was gonna dress us up in peg-pant suits and send us to Norway to turn us into gonorrhea-plagued Beatles impersonators," McMichaels quips. "I mean, we can get gonorrhea here."
The band ended up going with Raleigh's Black Park Management, who at the time represented Son Volt, Apples in Stereo and Tommy Keene as well as the Connells. When the Mayflies were sent out with the Connells, the consensus of Connells fans was that "they'd be good if they weren't so drunk and sloppy and loud," says Liesegang.
On The Pity List, the Mayflies depart the clean studio sound of Summertown to tap into the band's real feel. "With the new one, we left some loose ends," Price says. "It's a little bit scarier and drunker."
But the road of the modern pop band is a lonely one. For every twee purist group of pop revivalists there's the genuine article--a Matthew Sweet or Fountains of Wayne. "It's a crappy genre;" it might be the worst, says McMichaels of the power pop tag, proceeding to list some of his "power pop" pet peeves. "Thou shalt not do the 'switcheroo' [trading instruments to show off]," he says, laughing, referring to pop craft-meisters Sloan, who have the double whammy of being Canadian. I ask about the Posies. "They're just too damn good," says McMichaels. "I guess it's that competence thing that really bothers me."
"It's not competence, it's competence in evil hands," Price interjects. "If you're not a heavy rock band now, there's something unmanly about it," he laments. "To me, a lot of math rock and stuff seems like this really safe way to go--nobody can call bullshit on you. It's this pussy way out--you can be a white college kid, be smart and not have anybody question your motives or how you actually feel about anything," he concludes.
The Mayflies' dreams are humble: to sell 20,000 albums ("somebody said then you can tour and get by," says McMichaels), tour and get to recording. They cite Yo La Tengo as a role model. "That's our plateau, to be where you show up in town, play whatever little rock club they have--150 to 200 people--and everyone really likes the stuff," McMichaels says. Price concurs. "To be judged on our own terms ... that would be a great place to be."
If the gods are kind, the Mayflies will get their wish.