"Do people feel OK?" It's well past midnight on a Monday night at Lillie's in downtown Raleigh, and--after three beers, a washout band practice and an hour spent explaining the origin and direction of this Infantry--Nathan Asher really doesn't have the answers, but the questions come quick and cutting. He doesn't know why so many people need antidepressants just to feign happiness. He doesn't know why teenagers are frightened into a mold of beauty. Frankly, he doesn't know if the kids are all right. "Really, do people feel OK?" he asks again, rubbing his closely shaven head. "I don't think so. Somehow, we're the richest people in the world, and people don't feel fine."
Welcome to Nathan Asher's world, a place where questions constantly get asked and nothing is ever finished, a place where being in a rock band isn't about making a scene or inking a deal. It's about airing the troubles in his head, no matter how confrontational, controversial or contradictory they may be.
As such, Asher is an utter perfectionist. Tonight, lounging at a bar-side booth with three of his bandmates, no one is sure which master tape they mailed to the factory last week, just 15 days before their CD release show two floors above in Martin Street Music Hall.
Drummer Daniel Abbate, a hulk-ish sort whose triceps are rivaled only by the snare-splitting solos he sometimes hammers out mid-set during one of the band's marathon shows, claims it was the most compressed of the three test discs. Asher and keyboardist Lawson Bennett are only moderately confident that it was the master with medium compression that went to press. Chris Serino, ensconced in the opposite corner with a cool rock-star laxity, just takes another drink, admitting that none of them could really tell a difference at all. Everyone agrees, but it's obvious that Asher is worried.
Mixes and masters aren't the only thing on his mind, though. Eleven hours from now, the band will meet on Hillsborough Street directly across from N.C. State to hoist two massive billboards totaling some 300 square feet as invitations for the upcoming party. Two business owners have agreed to it, but Asher is worried that something will go wrong, that the city will take them down, that the property owners will object to advertisement for such an upfront, brash band in their storefronts.
Two days ago, he had a litany of questions and concerns for the Kinko's employee responsible for printing the signs' pieces. He gave the employee his phone number no less than three times, and he wanted to know which printer would do the job. Cost wasn't a factor.
Perhaps it's fulsome self-promotion, a local band's take on publicity, gimmicks and over-indulgence gone too far. Or, more likely, it's six guys living an E-Street Band dream, guys with enough will and audacity to stand by the claim that they really do believe in the music they're making.
"We do a lot of promotion for this band, and that can burn you out really quickly. But it would burn me out a lot faster if I didn't believe in this and what we have to sell," Asher says, entering one of his characteristically tangent explanations. "We've got no intentions of turning it into a cash cow, but we hope that this band and this music is useful and somehow meaningful to people."
That belief is the tie that not only holds the band together 10 months into its existence, but it's also what led them to one another in the first place. Asher and Bennett have been playing together since Asher--a classroom delinquent--jumped from his seat one day in sixth grade at Ligon Middle School to impress his classmates with a bold rendition of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA."
"From the time that Nathan did that in school, I knew...Well, I don't know what I knew," laughs Bennett, explaining the bond the two have had in music for nearly a decade. "When Nathan first started writing stuff, I could tell he didn't know what he was doing, and I would hear the painful process of him trying to write his first songs. It was awful."
Bennett, who was on course to become a classical pianist, took to Asher, teaching him the fundamentals of music theory. The two eventually landed in Phantom FM, which came crashing to an end shortly after college. The duo's long-standing musical dreams seemed to die with the band, but they kept busy writing, practicing and planning.
"I was very frustrated with the world when this started, and these songs were a way to express this frustration with pop culture, politics, getting older and watching people around me change," Asher remembers of The Infantry's inception. "I felt myself changing, and I needed these songs to remind me of what I was and what I didn't like and didn't want to be."
Looking for a team of musicians to hire for the recording of those personal numbers, Asher hit the clubs, hunting for a backing band. He quickly noticed Nova Cancy drummer Daniel Abbate, and--after scouting the band for three more shows--he approached Abbate, who agreed to record the songs. Nova Cancy guitarist Chris Serino joined on bass, but he shifted to his familiar role behind lead guitar after Abbate's older brother, Nick, joined. Eyes to Space frontman Jay Cartwright also signed on for the sessions with Bennett, Asher and the core of Nova Cancy.
"Nathan recorded the very first session we did in his basement, and when I went back and listened to it, I realized that everyone in that room was a really great player, and that we had connected," the younger Abbate recalls. "That just impressed the hell out of me."
Following a subsequent tour in New York full of bad experiences and busted gigs, Serino and the Abbates disbanded Nova Cancy and joined Asher's Infantry. The move from full-on, radio-ready pop band to the politically spirited, intellectually fueled bent of Asher was a bit awkward, but Serino knew there was real potential in "this next level of songwriting."
"It's really empowering for me, and I feel and understand what he's expressing in his lyrics," Serino says. "To be able to stand up and have the balls and the means to sing songs that need to be sung--it's very empowering, and it's important to be a part of that."
Asher's songwriting isn't simply empowering, though. It's empowered, emotionally charged stuff built on bedrock hope and full of an earnest, dead-faced devotion to his political pulls and lofty social aspirations. "The Last Election"--the band's banner and the title track of the heavily anticipated debut--is a five-minute, barn-burning philippic that finds Asher denouncing "His peons, adoring morons worshipping the Koran / Misinterpreting the verses to avoid feeling human" after pointing out that "The president is driving air force one / His daddy gave him the keys and he's drunk," in a scathing Stipe growl set above Springsteen-styled rock heroics and Turner Brandon's harmonica licks.
Sincere, earnest and charged, Asher and The Infantry is a band that realizes it comes as an anathema to an area known for its wealth of ironic, indie detachment or guttural, emasculated rock chops.
"For me, this music is not ironic. I'm tired of rock 'n' roll having to be ironic, because it seems to say that, 'Oh, we don't take this seriously'," Asher says, digging into the argument. "I'm fucking scared...we're 24 or 25, and--right now--this is it in our lives."
Nathan Asher and The Infantry host their record release party at Martin Street Music Hall Friday, Sept. 17. The show starts around midnight.