Given Melissa Swingle's musical past as the swamp-voiced siren of Trailer Bride, it seems unlikely that she would reference The Streets--the one-man hip-hop crew of Brit Mike Skinner, a white guy rapping in his country's vernacular over ambitious, homemade beats--as one of her current favorites. But tonight, sitting in Chapel Hill's newly opened rock space-turned-hip bar The Reservoir, Swingle admits that she has developed a fondness for the British adventurer. In fact, it was her new bandmate Laura King who introduced Swingle to Original Pirate Material, the first album from The Streets.
"Original Pirate Mah-ter-ial," laughs the skin-slapping half of The Moaners, as Swingle makes her proclamation.
Since Swingle and King began The Moaners less than two years ago, they have been exchanging musical influences and passions on an almost daily basis. King admits that she had never paid enough attention to Ray Charles; that is, until Swingle introduced her to the real Ray Charles, the master blues, country and soul eclectic.
In turn, King introduced Swingle to Neutral Milk Hotel and other portions of the indie rock landscape on which she cut her teeth as a Baltimore rocker in an all-girls Catholic high school.
"Everything one of us listens to it seems the other one finds out they like, too," says Swingle in her languid, measured, Mississippi-native drawl.
For The Moaners, that's how it goes. There's a palpable chemistry between Swingle and King, who have that ability to share an inside joke with nothing more than a smile, a wink or a nod. Though they've known each other for less than two years, they seem to share a combined past that's much more extensive. The night they met--when Swingle's Trailer Bride and King's Grand National shared a bill--is ancient history, and their first practice, song and show are all fond childhood memories.
Alas, it did begin in 2002, during a mutual club gig.
"It was the first time I had ever seen Trailer Bride play," says King, who was busy playing drums in Ed Crawford's Grand National. "And I was blown away."
Swingle agrees, smiling as she admits, "It was just great and so different to see another really talented woman playing rock 'n' roll."
They hung out and exchanged numbers that night. A few months later, Swingle made the call. Her personal life was in turmoil, and she had long been falling out of love with both Trailer Bride ("We're taking a break, at least") and the idea of playing country music. For her, the call was the breaking point in a kind of sea change.
"I remember the first review we ever got was that Trailer Bride was a country band. I never wanted that. I mean, rock 'n' roll was my first love," says Swingle, explaining that the desire to do something different had been a slow build.
With that first practice, both Swingle and King knew they were on to something. Swingle kept plugging away at a few chords. King couldn't resist. She joined in on drums, and, within minutes, "Water" had been written. They practiced when they could, but other bands and King's six-week touring commitment with Southern Culture on the Skids limited the duo's time together.
After a few more sessions, the two decided that they had a real band. But they needed a name.
"Melissa recorded all the songs and ideas and stuff on a handheld tape deck, and a lot of times she wasn't singing actual words for the songs," says King, still talking about something that happened last year as if it were decades ago. "When she played it backed, her voice sounded kind of like some moans. So why not The Moaners?"
Swingle is quick to point out that these aren't hackneyed, irritated whines. She insists that these moans are happy moans, the kind of moans that come with some newfound liberation. And, for both of them, the name carries a certain alluring sexual connotation. The songs live up to that attitude.
These are defiant, rambunctious tunes, full of the kind of girls-week-out, top-down abandon that comes from rock instruments played loud and hard. In "Terrier," a straight-ahead, stick-to-snare drum snap follows Swingle's distortion-smothered axe and accusatory voice, as she sings, "Poodles are pussies, They don't bother me/ Beagles are stinky, I wouldn't have one/ They're just one kind to stay away from ... I'll kick you if you bite me again."
That same attitude has made The Moaners a hit since their debut last February at The Cave. Before the show, Swingle and King recorded three songs to an eight-track tape machine and made 25 copies. By the end of the night, they were out of the three-buck demos and excited by the prospects. And just as their repertoire reached the 30-minute mark, Mike Triplett asked The Moaners to open for The Mountain Goats at Go! in their sophomore stand.
In a few gigs' time, Yep Roc's Tor Hansen was singing the band's praises, moving along to the band's brazen garage refinement and requesting a demo.
"Yep Roc has so many great bands, and they keep growing. A lot of those bands are good friends, so we talked to a lot of them on the label," says King. "None of them had anything but positive things to say about Yep Roc."
Deal in hand, Swingle and King headed to Rick Miller's Kudzu Ranch in Mebane last summer to record their debut, Dark Snack. Swingle had known Miller for a decade and had recorded the last Trailer Bride album with him, and King was familiar with his musical bents and habits from touring with Southern Culture.
"He kept us laughing," smiles King. "Before we recorded 'Heart Attack,' he was playing around with the controls, and he kept getting all these crazy fart noises in the playback. He's great."
Aside from the jokes, Swingle and King assert that Miller can capture sounds like few other producers. Without qualification, King swears Miller "gets the best drum sound," and Swingle says she reveled in the chance to try so many gear set-ups for each situation.
"I mean, I used a Flying V on 'Heart Attack,'" she says, remembering times when Miller would pull several guitars at a time just to capture one song's intended essence. "And I know they're pretty cheesy or whatever, but I want one, too."
The product is electrifying: Dark Snack is a 12-song romp of boot-stomping liberation, hilarious metaphors and big meaty hooks. Recorded to analog tape, it sounds like a bastard product of Delta granddaughters. Swingle's guitar is a fuzzy spine of overdrive cranked past 10, and King's punk-instructed drumming behind her red, white and blue Vistalite kit is brutal and thundering.
As good as it is, though, The Moaners claim that they have just begun to connect, and that the next album is already half-written.
"It was really different in the beginning because we were still getting used to each other's styles and trying to bring them together," says King, staring at Swingle for the confirmation she gets. "But now we've finally started to form this unique, I guess, Moaners style. And it's fun."
The Moaners play their record release party for Dark Snack Saturday, Jan. 29 at Local 506.