It’s a gloriously sunny day in Carrboro and the Pfizer vaccine is pumping through my veins (in theory — I don’t know how vaccines work). Post-inoculation, I’m ready for color, variety and a laugh. Lucky for me, I’m meeting Damian Lopez, Ross Stephens, Ashesh Chatterjee and Brendan Macie.
Four members of the now five piece The Band Misc. have piled into a picnic table with me at the front of Open Eye Cafe (details on how to meet all five — Jeffrey Walker included, though I had to miss him this time — to follow.) My conversation with the band on their EP follows below.
And you can stream that EP exclusively here at The Triangle Guide until the official release in September. Scroll down to listen, and click through to pre-order and follow them on Bandcamp.
If this pandemic ground you into a gray pulp of your former musical self, you’re looking for dexterous musicianship and playful genre-mixing with a bright splash of unexpected instrumentation. The Band Misc. are just what the doctor ordered. I prescribe putting on your headphones and turning the volume way, way up.
DL: “I like being in Carrboro. The environment is very indie, and it leaves a lot of room for you to fuck up and create and go the distance —
BM: “Without judgement.”
DL: “Yes. And we really want to reflect that in our music and in the content we put out on YouTube and TikTok. We want people who tune in to feel like they’re part of the town, right out on Franklin Street with us. They could be in Japan for all I care. But when they’re tuning in, we want them to feel that sense of connection.”
RS: “I think it definitely influenced a lot of the EP. The sense of community, our love for each other, the love for your neighbor, and embracing our creativity. It really does take a village.”
AC: “It’s so important to us as Chapel Hill and Carrboro reopen to get back the sense of community we lost over the last year.”
DL: “This question made me realize, too…it’s been so hard to keep in touch with the music scene because we haven’t been having shows. I’ve only been able to go to two shows since I moved back here. I’m so excited to see who’s going to be playing, and getting back in touch with everyone.
BM: Everyone’s going to come back from it more fully realized. I think we’re going to see a lot of cool, colorful shit.
RS: It’ll be a rebirth for sure.
On Their Favorite Song from the EP
BM: “I like ‘Reflections’ because it showcases each of our individual talents as far as our musicianship is concerned.”
DL: “I’m actually kind of torn between ‘Reflections’ and ‘Priorities.’
BM: “‘Reflections’ is a lot moodier than we’re used to writing.”
DL: “I kind of wish I had written ‘Reflections’ because it feels very much in the realm of progressive rock. ‘Priorities’ is a song I pitched to the band, and it’s much more left field for me in terms of mood and inspiration. Much more vulnerable. And it’s a song I’m still excited to play.”
AC: “I would say ‘Reflections’. Apart from the fact that I got to really let loose on the guitar parts. I’ve always liked the song since it was written back in 2014, at three in the morning…It’s an airtight song. It hits all the high points at the best times. Nothing drags, nothing’s rushed.”
On Recording the EP
AC: “I don’t think half the ideas we had we could’ve manifested without our producer, Dylan Turner.”
DL: “For sure. He challenged me on a few points of my own playing that were tough to hear, but I knew he knew what he was doing, and it came out solid.”
AC: “During the recording process, if Dylan went in the room to talk to Ross, for example, I’d take my headphones off. We didn’t need to eavesdrop. We let the man do his job.”
On The Band Misc. Elevator Pitch
BM: “This is where you get to see all the extreme sides of us in a user-friendly package. It’s the sashimi sampler.”
AJ: “This is the deli tray with cheese and crackers.
In my professional opinion, there are not too many bands in this town. Heck, having lots of bands is good for business when your business is chronicling the local arts and culture scene.
Jason Bales and JJ Westfield of The Yardarm don’t think there are too many bands in the Triangle, either, despite the title of The Yardarm’s latest single, “Too Many Bands.”
In fact, “Too Many Bands” is a tongue in cheek Americana romp that chronicles the struggles of coming up in the local music scene. It’s charming storytelling to a rollicking rhythm, with Bales and Westfield’s knack for setting a scene on full display.
Bales and Westfield’s gift for creating a powerful sense of place takes over again on the tender ballad “Camp Song,” in which Westfield croons about fireflies over rippling guitar.
With Bales and Westfield on guitar and vox, Palmer Smith on bass, and John Cowan on drums, The Yardarm are bringing their dynamic mix of rock and Americana to eager Chapel Hill ears. With a new EP, “Camp Songs,” coming out Saturday, October 12, 2019, there’s never been a better time to embrace The Yardarm.
I sat down with Jason Bales and JJ Westfield to discuss band dynamics, MTV, and “Camp Songs.”
You can catch The Yardarm celebrating the release of “Camp Songs” with The Gone Ghosts and Owen Fitzgerald at The Cave on October 12, 2019. Info here.
TTG: What is The Yardarm’s origin story?
Jason: So JJ’s wife and my wife messaged each other on this Facebook group that was for moms in the South Durham area, and I think Bri had posted, y’know, “My husband plays music, I do knitting and art stuff,” and my wife was like, “Hey, same.” And so they organized a get-together. So it was a blind date for us, organized by our wives.
TTG: Was the chemistry there right away?
JJ: I think we walked away from that first time together thinking, “Hey, that went surprisingly well.” It’s so easy to walk away from a first time playing with somebody going “Never again!”
Jason: It worked out well. Everyone in the band does their homework, we’re all very Type A. We had some pretty good versions of songs early on.
JJ: If there’s any competitiveness, it’s totally friendly. It’s us trying to push each other to another level.
TTG: That sounds disgustingly healthy.
JJ: I know! We should be throwing things at each other, Oasis style.
Jason: Yeah, the whole band dynamic is really just disgusting. We’d have a very boring “Behind the Music” so far.
TTG: You’ve got a great single called “Too Many Bands.” Tell me about that one.
Jason: “Too Many Bands” was a bit of an origin story song for me. So when I was in college I was in a band with my brother, and when I moved down here, I didn’t know anybody, had no connections at all. I started trying to do solo shows, and I wasn’t super resilient about it. And this is a town where there are millions of bands! And as somebody who isn’t part of the music scene, how do you become part of it? Just because everybody else is doing it, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Because I felt like what we were doing was too good not to just be, like, an attic band nobody hears.
TTG: Setting comes up a lot in your lyrics, especially in “Camp Song.” You guys are great at creating a sense of place in your music. Where does that come from?
JJ: “Camp Song” is about a camp I used to go to. I was actually a counselor, so it’s a love song to the camp. Sense of place and location – it comes pretty naturally to me. I think that’s how I dream, I dream in very vivid locations and places, and maybe that comes out in songwriting.
Jason: I really like when books have maps, I’m a big geography nerd, and I think that comes in when writing about place.
TTG: You guys have lived on every side of the Mason-Dixon line. How has living in different parts of the country affected your music?
Jason: There’s a group called The Ingham County Regulars that never really played outside of Lansing, Michigan, but it was this great, like, honky-tonk thing, but the guy who played lead guitar could shred like Pete Anderson from Dwight Yoakam. Those guys, and that gritty vibe you get from post-industrial towns in Michigan.
JJ: I grew up mostly in Florida, I grew up in Vero Beach, which is where Alison Mosshart from Dead Weather and The Kills was from. Honestly, I feel like I’m more a product of MTV than anything else.
Jason: We’ve talked a lot about our MTV in the early 90s, and how alternative radio had everything.
JJ: Ska, to industrial, to swing, that was a great education, I think, growing up when everything was mashed together.
Jason: I can definitely see that eclecticism in our music.
TTG: The Yardarm names Tom Petty as a big influence, and the anniversary of his passing is coming up. In his honor, could you name a favorite Tom Petty song?
Jason: “Wildflowers.” He’s such a singles artist, Damn the Torpedoes is absurd, the amount of hit singles off it. But “Wildflowers,” I try to emulate a lot. That sort of acoustic wave — but rockin’!
JJ: For a deeper cut, “All the Wrong Reasons.” Sad songs. I just want to depress the audience.
Jason: I think we’ve got a fair amount of sad songs between us. I mean, some of them have a beat.
JJ: It’s hard. An audience wants to escape for a night, and you want to write something with some weight to it, and it’s hard to strike that balance.
TTG: Tell me about recording the new EP. What kind of production were you going for in “Camp Songs?”
JJ: We decided to bring in Jeff Crawford, to get his take on it, to see what his vision of it was. We recorded at Arbor Ridge.
Jason: On the first EP, you’ve got “Lucy,” more distorted guitars, and it’s pretty heavy. And I think Jeff did a good job of evening everything out. We’ve got a straightforward rock song, an ethereal, sort of pastoral song, one that we really rip up live. And Jeff stripped things down and shaped the instrumental sections in ways we hadn’t done live, but we thought it sounded really cool that way. He tempered the heavier elements, made it sound very organic and cohesive.
I think it’s important to realize how special our environment is, and the lens through which we view it. How do we play into this? I think that’s a great thrust throughout the show. How people are incorporated into the landscape, and how it’s beautiful, and worth saving.
Dana Cowen, Ackland Art Museum Curator on Way Out West: Celebrating the Gift of the Hugh A. McAllister Jr. Collection
If you want to get a dose of the beauty and culture of the American West without the five hour flight from RDU, stop by Ackland Art Museum’s latest exhibition, “Way Out West: Celebrating the Gift of the Hugh A. McAllister Jr. Collection.”
The red rock and broad horizons of the American West have long inspired the Eastern imagination. Those landscapes certainly had a hold on Hugh A. McAllister Jr., the famous cardiologist and UNC alum who, in his recent passing, donated over twenty artworks portraying the American West to Ackland Art Museum. “Way Out West” is a celebration of the McAllister gift, and marks curator Dana Cowen’s first exhibition for Ackland Art Museum.
Incorporating donations from the McAllister collection and works from Ackland’s holdings, “Way Out West” is a tribute to inspiring Western landscape s- and a critique of artistic perspectives. The exhibition asks the audience to consider just who’s looking at the landscape. What do they see, and why do they see it that way?
With works from the late nineteenth century onwards, “Way Out West” is a gathering of a wide variety of media and a wide variety perspectives. There’s no arguing with the individual and collective beauty of the paintings, photography, sculpture, and other media, and a viewer could take that beauty at face value. But “Way Out West” asks more.
With a keen eye for cultural interaction and its impact on the environment, curator Dana Cowen creates a reckoning with the inspiration and violence inherent in artistic representation of the American West.
19th century painters and photographers captured the romance of the West’s sweeping vistas. Painters Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran and photographers Carleton Watkins and Timothy O’Sullivan portrayed the West with an eye for luminosity and European aesthetics.
However, these artists did not acknowledge the Native Americans that inhabited the West, the violence being perpetrated against them at that time, or the industry that was rapidly transforming the land. These paintings and photographs portray a pristine landscape ripe for the picking by white settlers. “Way Out West” acknowledges the beauty of these artworks while asking the audience to consider their problematic nature.
An array of work from Native American artists featured in “Way Out West” ranges from the early 20th century to present day. Highlighted artists include Awa Tsireh, Romando Vigil, and Larry McNeil. Alongside depictions of Navajo and Pueblo culture, much of the featured art critiques how non-native artists portray Native Americans. These critiques land with particular power when juxtaposed with early twentieth art from white artists that romanticized and infantilized Native Americans.
“Way Out West” also pulls from Ackland’s vast photography collection, showing work by Edward Weston and Peter Goin, among others, that explores the transformation of the American West over the course of the twentieth century.
In an examination of the effects of industry and tourism on the environment, “Way Out West” concludes with a strong message of appreciation for the beauty of the American West, and the imperative to protect it.
Ackland Art Museum will host several events for “Way Out West,” including guided tours, 2nd Friday ArtWalk events, and opportunities to create artwork inspired by the exhibition.
At the opening of many a classic Disney movie, the first shot is of a storybook flipping open to an illustration of the setting of the film, with a voiceover from a narrator droning, “Once upon a time…” Violins play, we zoom in on the illustration to see the main characters- you know the drill.
Let’s imagine a new movie opening. That the narrator says, “Once upon a time, in a town called Durham…”
Rather than violins, there’s distorted guitar. And the storybook flipping open to images of Durham’s grit and glory…well, it might look something like a ‘zine from Durham Beat.
Founded in April of 2018, Durham Beat is a print and online publication devoted to telling the stories of the Durham arts scene from a first person perspective. The Durham Beat staff are narrators and storytellers actively participating in the Durham scene as artists themselves. The artist profiles, show and album reviews, and food and beer coverage are all from an intensely and intentionally personal perspective.
The magazine’s mascot is called the Owlephant, and she does look a little like a Disney character come to life. A symbol of the magazine’s commitment to Gonzo journalism, it’s easy to imagine her wandering Durham’s streets, taking it all in, writing stories featuring the diverse array of artists she encounters.
The remarkable commitment to community involvement goes beyond the lens of reporting at Durham Beat. The magazine has hosted a series of exciting art and music community events that emphasize equal opportunity for local artists. The Beat Market, the magazine’s signature event, returns to Fullsteam Brewery on Friday, April 12th, with a local art market and live local music.
Durham Beat will celebrate the magazine’s first birthday (delightfully, on 4/20) with a raucous show and party at The Pinhook.
And if you’re hype for Moogfest but haven’t been able to snag tickets yet, Durham Beat is giving away one general admission pass to two different winners of their Instagram contest. Submit an original image based on what Durham means to you with the hashtag #durhambeatmoog and you could win. The contest runs through Saturday, April 13th.
I spoke with The Editor (as she is formally known) of Durham Beat, Matia Guardabascio, about the founding principles of Durham Beat, the magazine’s commitment to community involvement, and where she and the staff find their favorite talent.
It’s safe to say that by Durham Beat’s launch in April 2018, Durham wasn’t a secret anymore. The art, music, and food scenes had blossomed, the startup scene and STEM jobs exploded, and many people who might’ve dismissed Durham just a few years ago have taken notice.
While launching a magazine documenting the city from the inside, others might have chosen to define Durham Beat as an objective voice in the midst of outside forces. Durham Beat deliberately went in the opposite direction. Why the emphasis on Gonzo journalism, personal narrative, and subjective experience? Why is that important for chronicling Durham?
Objectivity is easy. It’s cold, distant, and boring. There is no shortage of “objective” reporting in the media- writing devoid of passion and flavorless content that strives to separate fact from feeling. It’s impersonal observation posing as gospel and offers little more than a prosaic imitation of something I could have Googled. Anyone with a smartphone and the ability to form a coherent sentence can present perceived facts “objectively.” This is not my way. In my experience, engagement and participation take courage, and often yield greater creative rewards. I want to feel a connection to the stories I read. I want to be moved by them in the same way that I’m moved by the people and places they are about. And I know I’m not alone in this.
Fundamentally, the idea that objective journalism is free from bias is total bullshit. Every writer experiences the world individually, that is, subjectively. The Gonzo approach embraces and elevates the experienced over the informational. Where traditional journalism creates distance between subject and writer, Gonzo instinctively connects them, yielding a philosophy of writing that I think naturally lends itself to coverage of the arts.
Like the Durham Beat staff, we all come from different backgrounds, levels of education, areas of interest, political leanings, and cultural influences. The way I interact with my surroundings differs from how Zoe or Stephan interact with theirs because each of us looks at the world through our own little key hole. Gonzo isn’t the regurgitation of information from a personal perspective; it’s about participating in the moment, becoming part of it. The writer is the character, therefore the stories we write are decidedly human- deeply honest and totally authentic.
In the eleven years that I have been working as an editor and writer, I have always been heavily involved in the arts and often dreamed of starting my own publication, one exclusively dedicated to local arts coverage. When I moved to Durham, I realized this was the place. The creative energy here is incredibly powerful. The people who have become involved with Durham Beat and joined the staff are all local artists (most born and raised right here in NC) who were seeking a flexible platform to pursue their own artistic ambitions. The subjective model empowers them to pursue those ambitions in a free and open space, while also building a portfolio and experimenting with new ideas.
What we’re doing at Durham Beat- what Durham Beat practices– is not news. We write stories. In so doing, we offer our readers something more than mere coverage- we offer the opportunity to feel connected, to share in the experience of and appreciation for the creative community thriving here. Anything less would be a disservice to Durham.
In the editorial philosophy of the magazine and in organizing events like The Beat Market, community involvement is a pillar of the Durham Beat brand. What motivated that decision, and how does Durham Beat go about implementing it?
First of all, thank you for pointing out that “community involvement is a pillar of the Durham Beat brand.” I feel pretty good about how folks are perceiving Durham Beat because yes, community involvement does live at the heart of what we do. In fact, community involvement stems naturally from the type of storytelling we do. But ultimately, it goes beyond content. The broader vision is to create and grow a platform for empowering local artists- Durham Beat contributors included. In the process, we’re trying to redefine the scope of what a magazine can be.
Among the staff we have writers, musicians, designers, models, photographers, educators, poets, and dancers. We all have stories to tell and we all want to create, share, and connect. Why shouldn’t those sensibilities inform all of our endeavors? As a business made up of active members of the creative community, Durham Beat is uniquely suited to collaborate with, organize, and represent the interests of local artists.
The Beat Market is a perfect example of this. In my travels through the art scene, I have noticed over and over again the same struggles for working artists. One key issue is the ability to get the kind of exposure they need in order to sell their work. While Durham hosts a number of farmers markets and craft fairs (some on a regular schedule, others as “pop-up” style events), nearly all of these opportunities require registration fees or some kind of investment up front from the artist. This is problematic for the working artist, especially those in the DIY scene (which I daresay is the majority of artists in Durham). I created The Beat Market as an alternative model that offers guaranteed minimum payments for performing musicians and a no cost regular vending opportunity for our fellow working artists.
Durham Beat handles all of the logistical planning and participates as one of several vendors. As a business made up of artists, our interests are directly aligned with the interests of our collaborators, our local business partners and hosts, and our performing and vending artist partners. In the same way that the Durham Beat publication is a platform for the artists on staff to pursue their artistic ambitions, The Beat Market is its own platform, the beginnings of an economic infrastructure meant to create opportunities for and investment in local creatives…the very same people who are responsible for the creative energy and steadfast edginess that give Durham so much of its persistent cultural authenticity and appeal.
Artistic collaboration is a major tenet of our community involvement. A good example of this is the REUPCYCLE Lookbook Zine and party we did with local fashion artist Cool Boy 36. He was interested in making a lookbook for his new fashion line and I wanted to do an artist profile and make a zine. So we combined all of those ideas and ended up creating a totally original work of art that included his designs, my writing and photography, and the opportunity to host a launch party featuring an exclusively local lineup of musicians. Within the project itself, we also created opportunities for other local artists to be involved: paid modeling gigs, paid music gigs, paid photography gigs. Through this kind of collaborative work, we are able to imbue that subjective sensibility into the very business structure of Durham Beat, while simultaneously investing in the local creative community.
The work we have done with The Beat Market and Cool Boy 36 is only the beginning. We have some serious plans in the works right now to create regular paid opportunities for artists to showcase their work, participate in events, and interact with the community at large in a meaningful way.
Where do you and the the staff look for local talent? Any favorite venues or online resources you can share?
Discovering talent requires effort, certainly. I always comb through the calendars at all of the venues and galleries and event spaces. I sift through Facebook event pages to find things I might not otherwise hear about. I pick up flyers on the street or take pictures of show posters on bathrooms walls or community bulletin boards. I will also often go to a show blind, without any knowledge of who or what I am about to see. I have been happily surprised, totally freaked out, and deeply inspired in my adventures following these methods. I enjoy the unexpected.
Of course, sometimes artists write to us too and invite us to their shows. We do our best to make it to as many of them as possible. We are only limited in our capacity to cover events by our numbers. And we are steadily growing…in fact, there are eight of us who make up the core staff now.
To get to the crux of your question though, the “resource” on which I rely most is participation. I go to the shows. We all do. Because everyone on staff, myself included, is an artist, we exist naturally within the art scene, broadly and within its various niches. We all have different backgrounds and tastes, so inevitably what each of us will find will be different. What’s the best way to find local talent? Go to the shows. Participate. Be surprised. Follow the night wherever it leads.
If you could throw a city-wide party with one beer, one vendor, and one band, who would you choose?
My initial reaction is this: for a party of this size with only one beer, one vendor, and one band, the keg ought be bottomless, the art’s a-gotta be plentiful, and the band would have to play a four hour set and be well paid for it. This is a very challenging question. But, being decisive by nature, and relying as I do on stream of consciousness methods, my answers at this particular moment are:
Beer: Green Man ESB
This question, however, begs a collective response. So I sent this one out to the Durham Beat staff and collected their answers:
Band: Reese McHenry
Beer: Wicked Weed
Vendor: Worthy Women.
Band: The Wiley Fosters
Beer: Starpoint Kingadanoff
Vendor: Boriqua Soul (folks gotta eat.)
The beer…well, it has not been brewed yet. We need a collaboration of Durham Brewers. I would name the beer the The Bull City Backslap…it would contain hints of artistic innovation, a fine blend of culture and a wallop of civil disobedience and revolt!
I would hold the release party…unannounced with no permits in front of the prison.
The Vendor…Runaway with single print t-shirts designed by one hundred Durham artists…representing brown, white, black, multisex identified however we like…ARTISTS!
Oh yeah…weed would be legal…
Cider: Bull City’s Steep South
Vendor: Pincho Loco ice cream
Band: BANGZZ or Corroder. Or Cosmic Punk! Or H.C. McEntire! Gosh, I don’t know.
Beer: Ponysaurus Don’t Be Mean to People. The beer itself is pretty good, not my favorite, but I feel that the reason it was created is a good representation of who Durham is.
Vendor: Runaway (I miss them already) or Chaz’s Bull City Records – maybe a collaboration of the two!
Band: Severed Fingers. I fell in love with them when I covered their show at the Pinhook.
All images courtesy of Matia Guardabascio. Featured image by Zoe Carmichael.
Maybe you’re a long-term couple and you’re saving up to buy Hopscotch tickets together. Maybe you’re single, mingling, and don’t want to shell out too much cash on a first Tinder date. Or you’re a student and you want to go out, but you’d also like to, y’know, eat food this month. Any way you slice it, we all want maximum romance at a minima; cost. SoThe Triangle Guide presents the “Cheap Dates” series. Up next, Chapel Hill’s most inexpensive and atmospheric dates. Frugal flirtation, here you come.
Drinks at The Baxter
For a dose of nostalgic, nerdy fun and reasonably priced beer, The Baxter Arcade on North Graham Street in Carrboro makes for a great date.
Whether you appreciate the history of the fifty vintage, all-original arcade games, or just want to try your hand at being a pinball wizard for an evening, Baxter Arcade is a great hangout for aficionados and newbies alike. Enjoy the cheerful pop art and count how many cultural references in the decor you and your date recognize.
With domestics going for $2.50, a 2 a.m. closing time, and an exciting mix of a crowd, The Baxter Arcade is a winning choice for fun, atmosphere, and frugality. Game on!
Ackland Art Museum
If strolling the halls of a museum and learning about your date’s taste in art appeals to you, Ackland Art Museum is a UNC institution with admission going for the best price of all: free. The museum’s permanent collection of 18,000 works offers something for art appreciators of all levels.
Whether you’re delighted by Asian and European masterworks, intrigued by twentieth century and contemporary art, or you just want to Snapchat pictures of ugly Renaissance babies, you’ll find what you’re looking for at Ackland Art Museum.
Ready to dance the night away? Nightlight on East Rosemary Street has you covered.
Housed in an unmissable pink building, Nightlight’s funky feel and well-curated selection of experimental live music and DJs make it a great stop for seeing if your date is really as good a dancer as they say.
Caffè Driade is easy to miss, so keep an eye out for the turn into a gravel driveway off of East Franklin Street. The most magical environs await.
Once you’ve parked, head for the brown, translucent-walled building tucked away in the woods. You’ll find Caffè Driade, a lovely coffee shop with a selection of pastries from local bakeries. String lights and tables cluster around the patios. You’ll feel as though you’ve stepped into another world.
A cup of brewed coffee here will set you back $1.50, though you can certainly spring for the array of tasty caffeinated beverages. Caffè Driade would make for a great morning coffee date- it opens at 7 a.m. most days-but it would also make for a magical evening rendezvous. Grab a glass of wine, enjoy the fairytale atmosphere, and unwind on a Carolina evening until 10 p.m. weeknights and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Weaver Street Market
A Weaver Street Market picnic is a quintessential Carrboro experience. This coop offers tons of tasty treats, so let your wallet be your guide as you choose something to snack on.
Then, grab a seat at one of the picnic tables out front and people-watch to your heart’s content. Watching the town of Carrboro pop in and out of the yard is one of the greatest pleasures of hanging out in town.
“The only voices that can stop me are the ones inside my head,” sings Sierra Shell in Case Sensitive’s simmering single “Count Your Blessings.” But it’s difficult to imagine anything stopping this Chapel Hill-based band. Since their nearly sold-out release show at The Station in February 2018, Sierra Shell (vocals, bass, and keys), Chesley Kalnen (guitar), and Mary Koenig (drums and supporting vocals) have been racking up fans of their otherworldly sound. And they show no signs of stopping, with upcoming appearances at Hopscotch day parties and an EP in the works.
They announced that first release show with a dancing Grim Reaper gif on Twitter- an entirely on-brand choice, given that their social media is full of black cats, haunted woods, and other witchy aesthetics. It’s an appropriate branding decision, given their sound. Their first release is singularly haunting and atmospheric- “Count Your Blessings/Six Feet”- is colored by sonic distortion, and guided by pensive lyrics. It’s a bewitching combination. Case Sensitive’s distinctive sound and charismatic live performances have cemented them as talents to watch in the Triangle music scene.
Koenig, Kalnen, and Shell spoke to The Triangle Guide about the songwriting process and their methods of collaboration.
What is Case Sensitive’s origin story?
SS: Back around 2014, several women were meeting together in a friend’s basement in the hopes of learning and playing together. Most of us were quite new to our instruments. We wanted a safe space to grow, and found that playing with other women was both fun and encouraging. At a certain point, Mary, Chesley, and I wanted to start writing our own songs and begin performing, so we broke away from the group in order to pursue music more intensely.
From your otherworldly sound down to the skeleton gifs on your social media, Case Sensitive very much aligns itself with a “spooky” aesthetic. Tell me about what inspired that aesthetic choice. Did you guys plan to align yourselves with an “ethereal/eerie” sound from the beginning of the project?
SS: We didn’t plan that initially, no. Originally, the music we were writing was much more poppy and upbeat.
CK: We started off very alt-pop and pop rock, heavily influenced by Marina & The Diamonds. We wrote two songs with that inspiration. One of those songs never felt right when performing it, and we ended up ditching it. The other song is Count Your Blessings, which was released February 2018 as a double-single. Often at practice, one of us will noodle on an idea, and the others jump in for an impromptu jam. There was one instance where I was playing a really simple line, and I kicked on a fuzz and octave pedal. The sound was heavy and gnarly, and our eyes lit up. That song became Six Feet, the other half of the double-single release. I think we all were really drawn to that sound (it was so intriguing and haunting) and interested in exploring beyond that. Tone is a really important element to me, and having the band be in to this new vibe was exciting. While we all like spooky things and our band has a quietly-heavy sound, we still hold tight to having a pop-informed ear to our songs, but now have these elements of floral, goth, and fuzzy indie mixed in.
Tell me about how you guys collaborate while songwriting. How do you allocate songwriting responsibilities? Does Mary [Koenig] have final say over drums, Sierra [Shell] have final say over keys, and Chesley [Kalnen] have sole control over guitar, for example, or do you each of you contribute to every aspect of the process?
SS: None of us really has the final say. We all contribute to the melody, the keys, guitar parts, and drums. In fact, Mary has written some of the key parts that I play and love. In reality, we play something over and over, and one of us will get inspired about a part, even if it isn’t our instrument. We’ve gotten good at communicating with one another in ways we can all understand, regardless of the instruments we play in the band.
MK: We have gotten good at communicating parts, but even better at listening and translating, I think! For example, I’m not very familiar with guitar, so sometimes my ideas for Chesley end up sounding like, “what about if you did dun-dun-dun-dun instead?” By some miracle, she takes it and makes it sound good. We’ve all written parts on each other’s instruments this way, and it often results in our best moments.
What’s something unique that each of you brings to the songwriting table?
CK: Sierra can come up with lyrics on the spot. Like, she will be playing bass or keys, and just start spitballing lyrics while coming up with a stellar melody. It’s bananas to watch her do, and we have to record it to catch what she’s doing, so we can remember/transcribe lyrics later. A lot of them stick for our songs, as well as the melody lines. It’s really organic and kinda magical. Mary, in addition to grounding us with percussion and being her own creative force, is a really grounding member of the band. She’s an amazing facilitator, and absolutely amazing when it comes to working through tough things (both with songwriting, as well as processing personal things as well as the current political/social climate).
MK: I echo Chesley. Sierra can write a catchy melody effortlessly. It just comes out of her mouth, lyrics and all, completely naturally. Part of the beauty of what she does is that she does it with no ego: she’s not held back by having to make it perfect on the first try. We then take the best bits and add just a little something (or sometimes, nothing at all!) and it’s a complete vocal part. I see Chesley as the one who encourages us to be “extra”, but she’s also the one to gently push back when we say we’re doing “too much.” She contributes a lot to our crunchier, heavier vibe and brings out the angsty kid in all of us, plus writes those dark, moody lyrics that are so fun to yell along to.
SS: I think Mary brings a certain gentleness and sweetness, a high-femme feel, to the project. She’s great at coming up with catchy pop lyrics and supportive synth parts. Chesley brings the fire, and probably represents our wild side. Chesley has driven a lot of the genre that we play, and pushed us toward our heavy, fuzzy, grungy sound.
Do you ever have disagreements about the direction a song should go in? If so, how have you settled them?
MK: We have disagreed about the direction a song should go in, and we always address it in the moment. We talk through our reasoning for wanting the direction we want and then come up with a solution together. The best part of how we settle disagreements, I think, is that we don’t ever let someone be “out-voted” into doing or playing something they’re not comfortable or happy with. We keep putting in the work until we come up with something that feels right to all of us.
Your first release, “Count Your Blessings/Six Feet,” shows two very different sides of what Case Sensitive is capable of. Lyrically and sonically, “Count Your Blessings” comes from a place of melancholy, and “Six Feet” rages. How important was it to the three of you to demonstrate a range of emotion and technical prowess in your first release? As it’s a double-single, do the two songs connect, or are they separate beasts?
SS: “Count Your Blessings” was one of our earliest tracks. When we wrote that song, we hadn’t quite figured out our direction or sound. I improvised many of the lyrics to that tune off the cuff, so it probably came from a more personal place for me than some of our others. Chesley brought in the lyrics for “Six Feet,” and the themes were pretty different from CYB. But once we wrote the beginning of the song, with the searing synth coming in and the drums banging, I think we realized we loved the high intensity and energy and, really, anger the song drew from us. I think we wanted to keep walking down a similar path, and that feeling led us to write the songs “Dirty Habit” and “Can You Stand It.”
MK: Honestly, I think initially we selected “Six Feet” and “Count Your Blessings” because they were our favorites and the ones that a lot of folks coming to our shows responded particularly well to. But as we started thinking about how they fit together more and more leading up to the release, we started seeing them as “sisters, not twins.” They both bring out different manifestations of feeling listless, stagnant, or anxious to change. While “Count Your Blessings” explores the more melancholy side of that, “Six Feet” is like an outlet for the frustration that feeling can produce.
Drum roll…you have plans to release an EP! What themes will you be exploring in the EP? What are you most excited to show the world about Case Sensitive?
MK: We do! Our EP explores a lot of themes that are more interrelated than they sound: from the anxiety of change to frustration with current politics to strange intense friendships to toxic exes to how Marilyn Monroe was maybe killed by the U.S. government (that last one isn’t a joke). They are all rooted in our feelings and emotions. A lot of those feelings are universal, but a lot of them are rooted in our experiences with gender and the stage of life we’re in: figuring out relationships, identity, and self-expression. I hope that people find something that they identify with in the EP and feel a little less alone in their anxiety, anger, wistfulness, or late-night conspiracy theory binging.
What’s your favorite gig you’ve ever played? What do the three of you find makes for a great show?
SS: My favorite gig was our single release show at the Station. We had such a huge crowd, but more importantly, so many of our close friends came out to see us play. There was a lot of excitement in that room. My favorite thing about a show is the audience, mostly because I’m trying to speak directly to them when I sing. I prefer a crowd of friendly and supportive faces, but also enjoy a crowd of absolute strangers. I’m confident in our ability to connect with the audience, so I enjoy playing for strangers and watching them react, even having no idea who we are or what our music is like initially.
CK: Playing The Cave in Chapel Hill for Manifest 2017 has been one of my favorite shows to date. The crowd packed it in, there was a lot of interaction and smiles, the energy around the fest (featuring artists of marginalized identities) was buzzing, and we just really felt embraced in that moment.