On Saturday, Dec. 13, Brooks Wood—who's been leading bands in Raleigh under his own name since 2002—will play his last show with Brooks Wood Band. A few miles down Interstate 40, Max Indian—a band of friends, acquaintances and veterans of local favorites Roman Candle, Spencer Acuff and The Old Ceremony—will release its first LP, serendipitously entitled You Can Go Anywhere, Do Anything.
The cycle of musical entrances and exits is a familiar one for the Triangle, a region with a rich enough talent pool to lose and gain bands in equilibrium. This year, for example, Fighting Poseidon, Transistor Sun and The Future Kings of Nowhere all bid adieu. But brand new acts like Whatever Brains, Bright Young Things and Sunfold emerged. They sound charged and eager, ready to burst into the world.
This never-still turnstile of bands building and breaking depends upon several factors, some benefits and some liabilities: The availability of musicians in the area and a strong club network means we generally have a strong, diverse music scene. With that, though, comes a lot of bands playing a lot of shows for a limited number of people. Though the bands may be as boundless as our regional imaginations, the area's resources for funding them are inherently finite.
We sat Max Indian and Brooks Wood Band at the same dinner table and asked them to think out loud about the costs and benefits of being a band right here, right now.
On the creative community
Many members of both bands were lured to the area by its creative past and promise. In turn, the bands emerged from their own creative enclaves after making new connections and recruiting new members. Wood, for instance, joined the N.C. State jazz program just to meet people like Danny Shampine, a drummer with serious chops but an interest in rock music. Max Indian's core also met in a jazz program, but the band was eventually rounded out by mingling with other musicians in Chapel Hill.
NICK JAEGER (MAX INDIAN): We had a big incestuous group of songwriting people. We had this residency series going at Vespa [a Chapel Hill restaurant] that everybody got really involved in, where we started backing each other up and playing everyone else's songs and doing all these covers.
CARTER GAJ (MAX INDIAN): The Vespa thing was just trying to back everybody up and be a really big backing band for whoever had a song that week. And now The Sundowners [a new side project] is kind of that way—it's just sort of a lot of covers and whoever wants to be there can be.
That's a new thing we're doing. Jamie McFarlane and Rob McFarlane are playing in it, and Ryan Gustafson from Boxbomb and Josh Moore and Mark Simonsen from The Old Ceremony. It's sort of everyone we know.
JAMES WALLACE (MAX INDIAN): And it's loose. Whoever can show up to the gig can play that gig. Whoever can't ...
JEFF CRAWFORD (MAX INDIAN): Gets the hell out. [Laughs.]
GAJ: For us, I know that when you're in a jazz department, it's always kind of nagging: "We probably ought to be playing something that is a little bit more ours."
WALLACE: But the good thing about it is that you're always playing with different people. You're always playing with different groups, different combos of people playing jazz.
GAJ: And almost all of them are trying to go play something else.
JAMIE MCFARLANE (MAX INDIAN): I didn't find these guys. My brother was in Boxbomb, and he and Ryan started playing in The Sundowners. They were like, "You should come over tonight. Come on over. Bring your stuff and sit in with us." I didn't know what the deal was with it at all. I just knew it was a bunch of guys I knew who were getting together to play. I kind of messed around, plugged in and followed 'em and had a lot of fun. Next thing I know, these guys were like, "Hey, do you want to play with us?" I said, "Sure."
BROOKS WOOD (BROOKS WOOD BAND): We used to practice at [a space at] Capital Boulevard and Peace Street in Raleigh, and a lot of the bands practicing there play original music. The walls were so thin you were going to hear the other people's music. Sometimes, you'd stop and listen and say, "Let's listen to them and see what they're doing." This is music they were writing at that very moment that became pretty popular songs at the small clubs like The Pour House and The Brewery. People knew the words to some of these songs even after like two or three times of hearing it. They were that catchy. These were songs we'd heard them write a month before. And we would say, "Do you want to come in here and jam with us on something?"
That was the most creative point of our practicing. We would go hang out at these other bands' practices, because it could be so hard to practice at the same time. Like, "How about you guys practice for 15 to 20 minutes, then come jam with us for three or four of our songs for 15 to 20 minutes?"
GAJ: During the time that we formed as a band, I think we were all just hanging out all the time. It just felt like there was a constant gathering among all of our friends and that spilled over into how we played our first shows. We happened to be living together, and we needed to make this gig. Even beyond that, it felt like you [points at Jeff] would be working on something, and we would hear that from you. We would be working on something, so we'd play it. There was all this competition because we were always hanging out, always recording.
WALLACE: Working at the Nightlight [a Chapel Hill club] is a big thing for me with meeting people. This is the kind of town where you can meet someone one night and the next night be playing with them. That's what happened with Jenks Miller [who leads Mt. Moriah, in which Wallace plays drums]. He was there, and I was working there. We met, and he said, "Oh, you play drums?"
WOODS: As a singer-songwriter, I tried to keep close-knit with all of the songwriters in the main bands in town, too. If I had an idea for a song, I would go to them before I'd go to anybody else—even before I'd go to my roommates, who hear the shit anyway. I'd go to B.J. Barham [of American Aquarium] and be like, "Hey man, lemme play this riff for you. What do you think about this?" And I'd sing the melody or harmony I'd written over that, and I'd say, "What would you do to that?"
Your influences are but so deep. Even if your influences are thicker than somebody else's, they've got different influences than you do. You talk to somebody and say, "What would you do? Would you take it here? Would you take it there? Would you do exactly what I did?" and try and mold your influences with theirs. The more influences you can take from somebody, the better—the more options you have.
JAEGER: Another thing that lends us to being able to play together or work together more is being able to have constant studio access, being able to record at Jeff's place or with James' equipment. Whenever somebody has a song idea, you have good access to putting it down. And everybody, when they're hanging out, can hear it and help flesh out ideas and work on 'em.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, that was a big thing when we were going tit-for-tat for so long. We were just running rough demos by each other.
JAEGER: Max Indian was recording a record at Old Pillow Recording Studio [now in Durham, then in Chapel Hill], and Jeff was making his record at his house. There was this recording competition to match each other demo by demo.
GAJ: And treating each song like it's a popular song. When you're hanging out and everybody just opened a beer, you're like, "All right, this song we just recorded is about to go on. It better be cool."
JAEGER: That would happen all the time. We'd go out at night and get a drink, then go walk out to the cars in the parking lots and open up the doors and turn on the stereo and listen to songs that were just recorded.
WALLACE: And be elated. It just felt like everyone was on the same page about a year ago. Creative tides flow together, and everybody's just got songs and everybody wants to play what they've been working on. It doesn't always last forever, but a lot of really good musical relationships were built during that time. It kind of grows out like a family tree.
On making money
The Triangle certainly offers a wealth of opportunities for young musicians to meet and start new projects, but its ability to support those bands financially isn't quite as strong. Brooks Wood Band hit the road, playing a mix of covers and originals at bars to make it full time. It eventually drained the band's attitude and ambition. Max Indian has played similar gigs, but they're currently trying to find a way to hit the road with their own songs and not go too hungry.
GAJ: That doesn't sound fun to talk about.
WOODS: We hit it at the wrong fuckin' moment. Gas prices went sky high as soon as we tried to do it full time. We all quit our jobs. We all said, "Music is what we do."
DANNY SHAMPINE (BROOKS WOOD BAND): And for me that was one of the easiest decisions I've ever had to make, quitting a full-time job in front of a computer to play music full time.
WOODS: We decided, if this is what we're going to do, there's no easy in to it. It's either full-steam ahead or not full-steam ahead. We immediately formed an LLC [limited liability company] so we could do something to write off our gas on our taxes. We delegated so that everybody in the band had their responsibility. Two of the guys were the MySpace guys, so that's what they did. Paul [Sheeran] was the money guy. ... Everybody's got a job, and you try to make it as fair as possible.
SHAMPINE: Then we had a meeting every week. Usually, we'd tour Wednesday through Saturday, so, on Wednesday, we'd have the meeting on the way out of Raleigh and say, "Brooks, what did you do this week?" Brooks would say, "I did this, this and this." If you got a guy who had only done one thing, it wasn't so much that we were coming down on him, but he would see that everyone else was pulling their weight, and he'd feel guilty. It was a checkpoint.
WOODS: The music business is just that: It's music, and it's business. If you're going to try and be a legit band, you have to treat it like a Fortune 500 company, almost. It's not that strict, but you have duties and you have to come through with it. Everybody thinks being in a band is, "Oh, dude, it's whatever." It is a fun job, but it is a job nonetheless. You have to pull your weight, or you're going to be a band that doesn't do shit.
It got bad because of our overhead. We would play in Savannah and Charleston and a lot in Georgia and in D.C. and New York. We drove everywhere, and we were pulling a van with a trailer, getting like 11 or 12 miles to the gallon, tops. At $4 a gallon, it didn't take long. One trip, we played Greenville, S.C., Savannah, Ga., Valdosta, Ga.—which is on the very tip near Florida—back up to Charleston and drive back to Raleigh. I think we spent $580 in gas that weekend.
SHAMPINE: We're playing these bar gigs that have five people at 'em. Playing cover songs for five drunk people in Valdosta, Ga., we're kind of thinking, "We could be doing some better stuff with our time."
WOODS: Sometimes, we were playing like Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday nights. You can have a good gig on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday night, just not every Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday night. We found ourselves playing a lot of cover gigs on the early weeknights. We played some fun shows on Fridays and Saturdays, but we came to the conclusion that, with gas prices the way they were and because early weeknights are not the best night to play original music, maybe we should all have jobs. Instead of paying out money from the band money, all the money goes into retained earnings for the band, and we just maintain ourselves with money we make during the day jobs. It was a tough decision because nobody wanted to go back to having a day job, but—for the band—it was the best decision.
WALLACE: We're definitely struggling with the exact same situation. It's just that we have all figured it out in our own separate ways. Some of that is sustainable and some of it is not very sustainable.
GAJ: I can safely say that we have never reached the height of organization y'all had. We all spent time in bands that, even though we enjoyed being in the band a whole lot, the shows outside of town would get kind of grueling. Since we knew pretty much that this would be an all-original thing and we weren't probably going to get paid anything, our thought was, "Let's just hang out, have a good time and play shows in the town where we live with all of our friends." If anything bigger than that comes knocking, we'll be ready to do that.
WALLACE: We made a conscious decision not to go on the road and thereby be a more sustainable, easygoing thing.
MCFARLANE: It does seem like a whole lot more fun to do stuff locally. Don't play too much. Don't overkill it.
WALLACE: But you're never going to make it like that. You're going to see more people if you go out and really do it.
GAJ: Sometimes we say to each other when we feel like everything is really depressing playing music in front of people, we'll just say to each other, "Yeah, but you're not going to go do anything else." I guess what I'm saying is the impetus to do it at all is because you gotta be doing it.
WALLACE: The thing that would cause us to go out is if there's somebody we could open for.
WOODS: I think the best thing a band can do is forget about—not forget about it, but put it on the back burner—how far you want to go. Think within your bubble. How can I make myself or my band a better band, write better songs. Don't even think, "I'm going to write this song because I think it's going to get me to the next level." Just write. Be against yourself. Don't compare yourself to other people. There's always going to be somebody out there better than you, and there's going to be somebody that's better than that person that's better than you.
CRAWFORD: I remember Russell Carter, Roman Candle's old manager, would always be like, "You guys just need a break." It's like, "What does that mean? Yeah, a break." Like, is this the '50s?
GAJ: That big break! Farm Aid '09.
WALLACE: But it's like what Jamie was saying with getting signed to a label: You can have a break these days, and it doesn't mean anything.
CRAWFORD: That's what I'm saying. Roman Candle had a lot of good breaks.
WALLACE: It's not like it gets a lot easier. There's a few tiers you can see, and one of them is one tier up from where we are: You'd be making enough money to pay your bills, but you'd still be working your ass off. I'd settle for the bills level right now.
MCFARLANE: It's like we know that's what we want to do, but how do you figure it out? It's just this interminable process. ... Did you guys save up money before you quit your jobs?
SHAMPINE: You'd think we would've.
WOODS: We didn't really have a ton of money in the bank individually. When we went full time, we already had a booking agent and a manager lined up. He started booking us in every shithole you can think of, every Wild Wing Café on the East Coast, 30 or 40 locations. It was good money, but it was, "OK, let's play some Lynyrd Skynyrd right now. Let's play what the people want to hear."
WALLACE: How good was the money?
WOODS: $500 or so. You play at most 25 percent original material. We'd mix it up as much as possible. We had two EPs, but—at the same time—we'd say, "This song is on the CD, hope you like it," and they would call for "Freebird." We definitely sold our share of CDs independently, but we would have been a lot better off playing one all-original show a week that meant the world to us.
GAJ: We've taken some of those gigs. We're not trying to act like we haven't.
CRAWFORD: I've played more of those gigs than I should have. And some of them can be really fun. Like Southern Pines: I used to go down to Neville's to do original songs. I guess when we were in Roman Candle, I was doing that. I would go down by myself and play with people there. But we played at O'Donnell's in Southern Pines one time, and it was all covers. It was fun. "Sweet Home Alabama," we did twice, and we didn't even know how to play it. We did "Dreams" twice by Fleetwood Mac.
GAJ: And there was a girl that became our lead singer.
JAEGER: She was standing on top of amps. It was awesome.
CRAWFORD: I think the key is just not to have any expectations going into it. Just have fun. What else are you going to do?
WALLACE: We weren't doing it every night. Every night, you just can't take it anymore.
WOODS: It was tiring, yeah.
JAEGER: If I had to play Southern Pines every night, I'd be done.
On the scene and the kids
Though both Brooks Wood Band and Max Indian are part of the same loose Triangle music scene, they'd never met before sitting down with the Indy. Yet they are confronted with some of the same problems—attracting fans, making friends, appealing to young college students, lifting people over nostalgic notions about the old scene or the dead new scene. Still, there are certain payoffs with each of those difficulties.
SHAMPINE: For us, since we started in college, we took some of our friends in college with us, and they were the basis of our fans. Now that we're getting older and further away in age, they're kind of dropping off a little bit.
WOODS: And they're moving.
GAJ: It's getting harder to play a show with a door cover that makes you money. Would we all agree with that?
CRAWFORD: Or to book a show with national acts because a lot of them are bringing their own support. So you end up playing benefits. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's a weird double-edged sword. I like to do that, but—at the same time—every show is free.
WOODS: I think it's the most natural progression to start your fan base from your friends because people in general, if they don't know how the band is playing, they'll be like, "Oh, I don't know who the band is. I'm not even going to listen to 'em." If their buddies are playing the middle slot, they're into it: "I don't care how shitty my friend's band is. I'm into this because that's my buddy playing guitar right there." Even if the first band blew them out of the water, they'd just be like, "Yeah, they're all right."
It's tough to sway somebody to get into your music if they don't know you. I think the trick, sometimes, is to walk around and be like, "I'm in the band that's up next. Won't you listen? What kind of music are you into? Oh, for real? We do kind of that sound. We're into that." If you want to gain a crowd in the Triangle, people want to feel a connection other than the music. They want to feel like they know you. Once you play your 45-minute set, you can go have a beer with them. They think this guy's actually nice. He's not just up there, rocking away and doesn't give a shit about who's listening to him.
WALLACE: We're really lucky, especially in Chapel Hill, because we have people like Betsy Harris. We have people like Betsy who are superfans and go see every show that's on in a certain night. They'll go to like four venues in one night. And they'll write stuff. They're the people who sort through all the bullshit of what's going on every given night and send you the best stuff.
That's the same thing Brooks was just saying: You've got to make the connection. And Betsy—the superfan you know who you are friends with and is always coming to everything—is your connection to everybody else. They are doing some of that for you. Obviously, you need to go out and meet everybody in the crowd, but Betsy will talk you up to anybody. She'll be sitting in a coffee shop beside somebody she just met and be like, "Have you guys heard Max Indian?" I think she does that all the time.
CRAWFORD: She doesn't have anything invested in it other than that she likes it. You know she doesn't have an agenda in selling you on something. It's not like, "Check out
GAJ: It's a mythical way to be, to be a person that just goes to shows. ... I would just add that people are always saying the scene is really good or really bad. I don't like to hear, "Oh, the scene is so bad. It used to be so good. Archers, Superchunk. What's going on now?" It's like, "C'mon, man, give me a break."
I remember we used to think about it in negative terms until we just joined a huge group of friends, and that just sort of fell out of the sky. All of the sudden, everybody knew one person they hadn't known a month before, and then everybody knew each other. Then, all of a sudden, it's like, "This scene is awesome."
CRAWFORD: There are so many bands per capita. Saying, "I've got a band. You should come see it," doesn't mean nearly as much here as it would in Winston-Salem.
GAJ: I feel like when we get out of this town, it would feel [bigger]—like, at the Garage in Winston. wSometimes it feels—in a town that has much of a music scene as we have—it wears the fans out. So when you go there, there are people who just want to hear a band, and they're like, "Y'all sound great." It's like, "Man, what is this? Someone we don't know at one of our shows. How did this happen?"
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: There's always talk that college students don't come out to shows, something at which Danny hinted earlier. But both bands are born of the college scenes around here. Do you think that's true, that the new students don't support you? And why?
JAEGER: Nick and I have been in bands that have been pretty supported by the college crowds. There were college kids that were pretty into what those bands, Roman Candle and SpencerAcuff, were doing.
WALLACE: There's a tipping point there, though, where, if you've done the right things and you've gotten to play college campuses and done whatever it takes to get past the tipping point, then you'll get that. But if you haven't, you're not going to get anything.
GAJ: You're just a townie band in a college town.
CRAWFORD: It's not exactly a fair criticism because in Raleigh and Chapel Hill, the geography of where the music venues are versus where the school is, it's not always fair to expect them to hike all the way down to the Cat's Cradle. Whereas if you play down on East Franklin Street, they'll be down there to support you. It's the same for Hillsborough Street.
GAJ: I was going to go out on a limb and say I think it's hard to get college kids to shows [in the Triangle]. The thought has crossed my mind. And it's totally understandable because there is a whole different, insular schedule [on campuses].
WALLACE: And you have to be honest with yourself about what you've done yourself to promote it to them. We never put up any flyers there.
GAJ: You have to be honest with whether or not you want 'em there anyway. [Laughs.]
WOODS: Marketing yourself on campus is tough just because college kids are always wrapped up in what's the popular thing to do right now. If you're one person coming up with a playbill, a little flyer saying we're playing this little show and you should come out, they're going to think, "This guy is a creep." I've definitely handed my flyer and been like, "Hey man, we're having a show down the street. You should come out." And he's been like, "Oh, hell yeah." And the next trashcan he gets to, he chunks it. I've done that to guys handing out New Testaments or whatever.
I always felt it was better, if you wanted to promote yourself to a group of people, to have an "in," some kind of avenue better than just stepping up to the plate and saying, "Hey, come out to our show." That never works.