It's never too late to revisit not being a grown-up; for the Sex Police, one of the area's most lively music institutions in the early '90s, now is the perfect time.
When the Sex Police initially convened in 1989, its members had been in other bands. But they shared a strong musical focus and enjoyed a playful camaraderie, the kind of kinship that often arrives only once in a lifetime. They issued three albums, enjoyed goodwill and accolades through the region and returned more than a decade ago for a reunion and the release of a 1992 New Year's Eve show on CD and DVD.
Their punchy, party rock added a horn-heavy bounce to the vibrancy of the B-52s. They sang about a "Flame Retardant Asbestos Suit" for no discernible reason and contemplated life's unendurable trials on a cowbell-banging, harmony-enriched rocker called "The Duh Factor." They'll bring that back to the stage one more time on New Year's Eve. But it's more than just the music that beckons; it's the enduring bonds they built.
"The older you get the more serious life gets," says singer and bassist Norwood Cheek. "When we were in a band, it was not all serious. It was just fun. We got to do what we loved."
"It's like family," answers drummer Jody Maxwell. "We spent so much time together the six years we were a band, you get to know more about each other than you probably cared to know."
Singer and guitarist John Plymale thinks they'd have just as much fun today if they were to drive to a city 10 hours away, crash in a cheap hotel and head to another distant town.
"Plus," he adds with a laugh, "we wouldn't have to lug heavy equipment around."
In that time they were brothers united in purpose, but it ran its course. The curtain came down on the Sex Police in 1995. "We all mutually agreed, 'Let's stop while we're still friends, and while we still love music,'" Cheek remembers.
Still, music stuck with them. Though creativity can be regarded as a frivolous youthful indulgence that eventually gives way to a real job, that wasn't the case at all for Cheek, Maxwell, Plymale or trumpeter Jay Widenhouse. If the lifespan of the Sex Police were a movie, the epilogue that came just before the credits rolled would show that their futures were deeply informed by experiences and friendships forged while in the band. The Sex Police didn't become their lives, but it certainly helped set the course.
Quickly identifying the best local band for a horn player, Widenhouse wound up following onetime Sex Police bandmate, the late Stacy Guess, to the Squirrel Nut Zippers. But it wasn't as calculated as that might seem; it was just the nature of the scene. Cheek, meanwhile, got his start as a filmmaker by hanging out with those players and making short films with Zipper Tom Maxwell before that band even existed.
Cheek did a documentary on the Chapel Hill scene called Young Rock, and not long after, a Los Angeles agent picked him up and started getting him music video work. Bolstered by work for the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five, he was able to get gigs with other national acts like AFI, She & Him and the Eels. He moved to Los Angeles, acted, directed and, until a few years ago, ran a West Coast version of the Flicker film festival that he led in Chapel Hill.
"I was one of the few people in town who had a 16mm camera. Of course, I was really into approaching these bands and saying, 'Let me make your video for you,'" Cheek says. "It definitely was a very organic springboard. I never thought, 'Oh, I'm going to use this to do videos for other bands.'"
Plymale, on the other hand, fell in love the first time he walked in the recoding studio as a teenager to work with Mitch Easter on the first Pressure Boys album.
"Just the way the studio smelled, the way the tape machines looked," he says. "You walk into the studio and there's a sense, a sort of feel in the air."
Still, he didn't set out to be a producer. As with Cheek, Plymale's post-Sex Police career opened up in front of him, based on the success of albums he made with locals like Dillon Fence and Athenaeum. He admits that he never imagined he'd be working with the Meat Puppets, Superchunk, Alejandro Escovedo and the dB's.
"The Athenaeum album did well. Then the Sex Police stopped, and I had nothing but time," he says. "The Athenaeum album led to a million other records."
Drummer Jody Maxwell complains that his story "is pretty boring," as he's actually working for the same company he was with when the Sex Police were a band. But instead of screenprinting shirts for Sports Endeavors, he's now in Atlanta investigating the potential purchase of a giant heat-press for making goods. He has kept a foot in the music world, though, playing for a time in Gumption and most recently with Plymale and Metal Flake Mother frontman Ben Clarke in Bustello.
Widenhouse lives in Asheville, where he has released four albums with the Firecracker Jazz Band, in the style of Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton. Even Cheek has kept his chops sharp with longtime collaborator Peyton Reed in Cardinal Family Singers, which they've kept going since his Sex Police days.
The members of the Sex Police realize that reunions like this can't be taken for granted. Plymale, the oldest, just turned 50. Stephen Akin's death earlier this year drove home that point. Akin died in March at the age of 49. A one-time record store clerk and constant scene supporter, he was also the Sex Police's unofficial sixth member. He wore whatever hat was needed—driver, sound engineer, roadie, tour manager and passionate friend, wiling away the hours debating the virtues of some band, city or even package delivery service.
"We got together and played some songs at his memorial service, and it was obviously fun to get back together and play again. We decided then that the time was right to do a full show," recalls Maxwell. "It'll be different without him. He was a big part of the band."
While the thousands of people who've seen and enjoyed the band are obvious benefactors, it's pretty clear they aren't the real reason the band's getting together for another "last show." Just plugging in will feel good, says Cheek.
"You revert to being in your 20s again," he says, "which is great."
"This type of thing is great because rehearsal will be 50 percent getting down to business," he says, "and 50 percent talking a lot of shit, playing a lot of foosball, just reconnecting."
After a spell in the Triangle, Chris Parker lives in Cleveland, where he writes about music and politics.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Men in uniform."