Breaking up is hard to do, but it's even harder when your lover leaves with the drum kit. That was the case for musician Matthew Park, who parted with his girlfriend of the better part of a decade and the other half of his band of two years just as their duo was starting to earn attention.
"Veelee was a band that consisted of a boyfriend and a girlfriend," Park says of the two-piece he shared with longtime partner Ginger Wagg. "The relationship wasn't working anymore, so the band was going to suffer as well. There were times when it was trying to keep it together for the sake of the band, even though that was an absolute detriment to the relationship element."
Veelee specialized in potently nervy and immaculately textured pop—charming and charged, with co-ed melodies ricocheting over strange arrangements of drums, keyboards and guitars. With a promising EP (2009's Three Sides) and a worthy full-length follow-up (2010's The Future Sight), the pair had begun to receive accolades outside of the Triangle, even selling through a pressing of their debut. But when the two broke up in 2011, Park not only had to pick up the pieces of his personal life, he had to hit the restart button on his musical career.
"When that all ended, and it ended fairly badly, we split up," he says. "We lived in different places, and I was really devastated and spending a lot of time locked up in my house alone, just drinking a lot and being depressed."
Sitting in a quiet parlour of the Durham sweets cafe Straw Valley, Park looks as if the split happened two weeks ago, not two years ago: He's visibly tired, with dark circles highlighting the gauntness of his features and throwing his skin's pale hue into sharp relief. He works nights now at the laid-back restaurant and pub Geer Street Garden, his second bar gig since moving to Durham in August. He's in a new relationship now, and he and his girlfriend live together in the Bull City. His new band, Airstrip, is again catching attention with a mix of sardonic, psych-beguiled indie pop, backed by an instrumental wallop that borders on heavy metal.
The fatigue has nothing to do with the breakup, then; he's simply busy. When Veelee split, Park's relentless work ethic was put on hold. It took him a few months to regain his ambition. He became lost in self-pity—something that happens to him fairly often, he adds with a sheepish grin. But now, he's back at it, spending long hours working on new material in his home recording studio, despite the fact that Willing, Airstrip's ample and anxious debut, won't be released until Saturday.
Nick Petersen plays bass in Airstrip. Since Park moved to the Triangle in 2007, the two have been close friends. He helped produce Veelee's records, and he allowed Park to crash with him for a time following his split with Wagg. "Matt and Ginger had a super-complicated relationship as far as being together off and on for over 10 years, living together, having a band that was kind of getting on people's radar," he says. "To have all that go away pretty quickly was a pretty big blow for Matt on all levels of his life."
But little by little, Park began writing and recording new material, uploading three songs to the website Bandcamp months after the breakup. By Thanksgiving of 2011, he had assembled a new band, and Airstrip played its first show.
"I just had to start writing songs again because that's what I do," he says. "To not be writing songs is foolish of me. I was just keeping all the pain inside without anywhere for it to go. The songs ended up being kind of naturally dark and heavy. I hadn't played really heavy music for a long, long time."
Five years ago, Park was one half of another duo, Opening Flower Happy Bird. That pair specialized in gauzy, intricate post-pop sprees. Built with layers of sequencers and loops, the music sparkled with colorful electronic flourishes. Veelee was more minimal, with simple melodies bolstered by efficient rhythms and meticulous synthesizer-and-effects enhancements.
Airstrip's songs aren't alien by comparison, but they use bigger sounds to create a darker vibe. "Happenstance," one of Willing's best numbers, begins with a repetitive drum machine sample and sheets of droning synthesizer, a combination often exploited by Veelee. A loop of pretty electronic chirps arrives, recalling the claustrophobic beauty of Opening Flower Happy Bird. But the past gives way to Park's future halfway through, as sludgy bass joins the synth lines, accentuating the density with force. Slashes of distorted guitar cut across the mix. The result is bleak but beautiful pop that underlines the foreboding nature of Park's lyrics: "The space in your head has been filled/ And the demons don't pay rent."
The aggressive nature of Airstrip stems in part from the lineup: Petersen, a bassist in roomy metal outfits including Horseback and Monsonia and a producer who works with many of the area's louder rock bands, assisted Park in refining Airstrip's aesthetic. Tre Acklen plays bass in energetic rock outfits such as Americans in France and Gross Ghost; here, he contributes heady fuzz with guitar. John Crouch is the powerhouse drummer of three of the area's best metal bands—Caltrop, Horseback and Solar Halos. He rounds out Airstrip's impressive low end.
"We did a lot of things to ensure that the heavy parts were really heavy," Park explains. "We worked on re-amping, which is where you'll take a bass or guitar or something that's already been recorded, and you send it out through an amp again. You've taken your original sound and just totally beefed it up to this other heavy place. One song that I did has like two or three different drum parts going simultaneously, just to layer it up and create that heaviness and that intensity."
Indeed, heaviness isn't the aim so much as intensity. For now, that means nervy pop that's punishingly dense. In a year, it might mean something entirely different.
"Everything is going to continually change," Petersen says of Airstrip's intentions. "We didn't ever sit down and try to put too much of a formula together."
Park's backing players have certainly left their mark on Airstrip's sound, but unlike his last two projects, he's the band's sole leader. Willing includes Park's original takes of the first three Airstrip songs, home recordings that Park made entirely on his own. "Middle of Night" not only proves his control over Aistrip but reveals his early blueprint for what has become a full band. A simple, militaristic beat drives with a power similar to Crouch's, forgoing his occasional embellishments. Chugging bass breeds relentless tension, heightened by the addition of cutting electric guitar.
Given his group's outside allegiances, it's hard to say if this lineup will stay with Park forever. But at this point, it doesn't really matter. He's going to keep on making his music, breakups of any kind be damned.
"It's what I do, and hopefully it'll work out this time," he says. "All of the other bands I've been in that I thought were really achieving something were collaborative efforts that all just kind of broke up for one reason or another. I figure since this time it's my band, I can't really break up."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rock from a hard place."