Drumsticks in hand, Dave Perry peers above his cymbals from a stool pushed into the corner of a small practice room in his Carrboro house. He's ironing out the structure of a cover song his band, Durham trio The Dirty Little Heaters, will debut at the release party for its first 7-inch record.
The conversation is all insider intricacies: Someone questions the length of a guitar solo. Someone else wonders if there should be another take on the chorus. Then Perry's roommate—standing at the open door of the baby-blue fourth bedroom—mentions the electric bill.
"Hey, Dave, sorry to be a buzzkill, but I need that $30," he says politely if definitively, holding a slim stack of $20 bills with both hands.
"I don't have it today, man, but I'll have it for you tomorrow," Perry promises.
The roommate relents and walks away. Perry stares at the far wall and draws his lips tight, worried but only for a second. Then, he turns to his bandmates—bassist Rob Walsh and guitarist and roaring singer Reese McHenry—and prepares for the next number. They play, and everything seems all right.
Most musicians don't make music because it pays all of the bills. They play it because they must. It's in their bones. Or rather, they need it to be in their bones. The Dirty Little Heaters—a high-energy, high-emotion soul-punk-rock act—comprises three such rock 'n' roll lifers who committed to this band after tough bouts with life, love and other bands that didn't last. They needed the feeling of playing music again. So if this music sounds tough, that's because its makers—with their scars, tattoos, broken limbs and nasty habits—are tough, and they've earned it.
"It saved my life," Walsh says of the band in his deliberate, laconic manner. He brushes long blond hair from his eyes with his hands, tattooed across the knuckles to read "High on Life," one letter at a time. "I wanted to take my bass and just put it in a closet and say goodbye. I'd all but given up."
Walsh played bass in The Spinns, a Chapel Hill trio that toughened '60s-obsessed garage shimmy for four years. They lived hard, drank harder and toured the hardest, eventually breaking up in 2006 due to intense interpersonal strain. The effort that went into that band and the bitter end that followed broke Walsh's heart, he says. He fled to New Orleans and hated it. Upon returning, he started practicing with McHenry, an old Spinns devotee.
"It really gave me something to—not to be overly sentimental—but this band gave me something, not to live for, but something to focus on," Walsh says. "Y'know what I mean?"
Perry's feelings about The Dirty Little Heaters bound beyond romanticism and into existentialism. Over the years, he has been in a dozen bands—Jett Rink, Fake Swedish, The Travesties, Twilighter, Chrome Plated Apostles, Red Smokes White, to name the most recent—playing bass, guitar and drums. His longtime band, Jett Rink, called it quits two years ago, and the few upstarts he had been playing with weren't exactly taking off. He checked himself into rehab for drinking. When he came back, he played less, trading some nights of band practice for Alcoholics Anonymous.
"A.A. meetings sucked. I hated going to 'em," admits Perry, who, unlike Walsh, talks 90 miles per minute, moving not just his hands but his entire body. "I kind of like drinking and playing in bands and working shitty jobs. It's what makes me happy! For me, it was a rejuvenation. I was ready to get back in there and start throwing punches again."
Perry and Walsh tell their stories while gathered around the small, cluttered table of Perry's kitchen. Perry smokes a cigarette and drinks a PBR (the only beer he'll have). After a long day of work, Walsh rests his head in his right hand, which is covered by the end of a cast that comes off in one week. He sips from a Schlitz (a beer that makes Perry sick). McHenry faces both of them, nodding along with empathy to their stories, biting her lower lip when they talk about how good it feels to be in a rock band.
She understands. This is actually the second incarnation of The Dirty Little Heaters, which she formed as a pummeling drum-and-guitar duo with Melissa Thomas in 2005. Walsh and Perry may have been that band's biggest fans. They gush openly about their first experiences witnessing the duo, and they both consider its only output—a seven-song EP released locally—to be in their steady musical rotation.
"I see three shitty bands a night and have seen three shitty bands a night for 10 years of my life doing sound at clubs," says Walsh, who manages Local 506 in Chapel Hill. "I was sitting in the back, smoking cigarettes, whatever, and it's The Dirty Little Heaters. I came up front. It was awesome."
McHenry loved her band, too. She remembers showing up for concerts in other towns, loading in her gear and being asked where her acoustic guitar was. Everyone who didn't already know about the Heaters expected two women in their mid-30s to play sentimental folk songs about what's wrong with the world. Instead, McHenry and Thomas played clattering, crushing, straight-ahead rock that, at its best, had the wowing power to silence whatever was wrong with the world.
"I don't really subscribe to the whole 'This is happening to women, and this is happening to men,' but it was such a good feeling to bring that huge amp in and have people go, 'What the fuck?'" McHenry says, smiling. "The greatest thing about being in a band, besides playing music that you've written, is that it feels like a gang, without all the rules and the killing. Any reason to be more defiant is great."
When the band didn't last, McHenry admits she went through the usual refractory period of wondering if there'd be another. Her songwriting had slowed, and she had gotten married. Then she picked up Walsh as a bandmate. Several months later, Perry enlisted. Tonight, after roaring through the new tune "Mexican Way"—an intricate, dynamic number that's smarter and more skilled than everything the Heaters have in their back catalog—everyone shares a menthol cigarette. No complaints, no reservations.
Perry leans over his drum kit and grabs Walsh's bass. The lock that holds Walsh's guitar strap on the headstock of his bass has come undone, and he's been trying to fix it for several minutes with his broken hand, the cigarette still dangling from his mouth. McHenry didn't see that he needed help, but Perry did.
"Your hand's busted. My knee's fucked up. We're all falling apart," Perry tells Walsh, laughing.
Then they start playing, and—once again—everything seems all right.
The Dirty Little Heaters releases its debut seven-inch, Fatty Don't Feel Good, with a show at Duke Coffeehouse Saturday, Nov. 15, at 10 p.m. Spider Bags and The Loners open.