For the Love of MusicInside the Hard-Working Bands of Birmingham
Birmingham doesn’t do rock stars. We aren’t the next “it” city, and we don’t have a “sound.” People don’t move to Birmingham to get famous and launch their careers. Don’t get me wrong, there’s more great music being produced in Birmingham than most people can imagine. We’ve got a community of bands who are committed, hard-working craftspeople, and their output is consistent and engaging. On most nights of the week, you can see a caliber of music played across the stages of our nightclubs and other venues that would rival any large city or “scene” town.
Yet, somehow, that music often reaches only a fraction of the people for whom it is made. Audience turnout is regularly anemic, and Birmingham bands are greeted on the road with surprise, as if it was inconceivable that such good music came from our fair city.
There is hope, though, and plenty of it. We have the bands themselves, acting as ambassadors for Birmingham every time they hit the road. We also have a host of new venues that have cropped up in the last few years, like Bottletree and Workplay, who are willing to put local bands forward and support the musicians as they experiment and grow, and who are also bringing in great and interesting acts from outside, so that they can get a taste of what Birmingham has to offer. We have new music festivals such as Secret Stages and BAAM! who are committed to bringing the world’s attention to the music we generate here. We have each other, musicians and fans alike, all mixing together in the streets and clubs, living our lives and each doing our small part to make the wheels of Birmingham keep turning.
Each of the artists on the following pages is an example of the kind of dedicated musicianship and willingness to persevere that is necessary to survive in a difficult musical climate. They are by no means the only bands to fit into this category, but they are a good representation, and I hope as you read through each of their stories that you see a reflection of your own struggle to live life fully.The next time you see one of their names on a bill, go out to the show. You won’t see any rock stars. Birmingham doesn’t do rock stars. What we do is make good music.
The Green Seed
The first time I saw hip-hop trio The Green Seed, they were the last band on a long list at the Bottletree, and by the time they started, there were six people, including me, left in the crowd. Not that it mattered to them, because they killed that show. Down at the edge of the stage pounding fist with the lucky few, spitting lyrics with aplomb, they gave it all for nothing.
In Birmingham, you get to know the music by experiencing the music. The Green Seed know this as performers and as fans. “We did a show at the High Note Lounge,” Complet recalls. “We were in the corner, and we had never heard of 13ghosts, but they…were…awesome. I mean they slammed, and we were like, ‘Who is this? Why have we not heard of them before? Where has this been?’ If you want to be a part of this industry, or this network, this society, it has to be about more than just you. You have to not only be able to make good music, but have to be willing to expose yourself to the possibility of hearing good music from somebody else.”
These days, The Green Seed have become synonymous with hip-hop in Birmingham. They and the Birmingham-based LOBOTOMIX collective, a group that attempts to create socially conscious music that can stand opposite the negative reinforcement coming from commercial hip-hop, can now be seen regularly on a number of local stages.
The Green Seed’s take on conscious hip-hop has video game and comic book culture as its touchstones, but lately they have branched out lyrically to include social issues, including a song which urges you to “kill your television.” I concur, and suggest you head out to see some local music instead.
“I’m not a DJ. I don’t really know how to do that,” James Hrom says. No matter though, what he does do is fascinating enough. Under the banner of his last name, pronounced without the ‘h,’ he performs a very specific sub-genre of electronic music known as Chiptune. If you know what the soundtracks to eight-bit Nintendo games sounded like, than you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Chiptune is all about.
Hrom began exploring how to perform his style of music live in the now-defunct Birmingham musical breeding ground of Cave 9 and says he only recently figured out the formula: “[Cave 9] is where I started to experiment with trying to figure out my show, what works, what doesn’t work, what people want to hear, what people don’t want to hear. It took a long time to figure that out.” Because of that experimentation, his performance has adapted to contain pure Chiptune mixed with more digestible music so that it is easier for electronica neophytes to get into the mix.
Still, Hrom is adamant about his status as a DJ, largely because when he says he plays electronic music, he is often misunderstood. Chiptune is time-consuming and difficult music to make, requiring an intricate knowledge of ancient programing techniques. Being able to meld such a labor intensive style into a live show that can adapt with its audience is a feat whose difficulty is not sufficiently conveyed by the title DJ. DJ’s play dance music, and what James Hrom does is much more than that.
Still, he understands the climate. “There is that weird stigma with electronic music that it is just some guy hitting play,” he says. “Even just writing electronic music, people are like ‘Well, I could do that you know. Just program it into a computer.’ There isn’t a lot of literacy in terms of understanding what’s going on, even between different types of electronic music. I’ve known people who have listened for years and are like ‘Chiptune music, what’s that?’” I’ll tell you what. It’s awesome, and in your backyard.
The Magic Math
The Magic Math describe themselves as “colorful eccentrics,” and they do have a certain quirkiness about them. When we all sit down for an interview, lead singer and principal songwriter Van Hollingsworth takes pleasure in conducting, pointing my questions at different members of the group, and they delight in providing oddball answers, like suggesting that they play “retro existentialist cyberpunk music,” insinuating that the Birmingham music scene is “about to be dominated by The Magic Math,” and that what we all need around here is “more American Idol wins.”
When they’re not having a laugh, however, they come off as intelligent and sincerely in love with the music they make. Hollingsworth’s answer when I ask about the band’s name is a good example. “I like that they’re short words and they both start with the letter M,” he says. “Deeper than that, I like that they’re kind of antonyms. I mean, you have the mysterious and irrational magic, then you have the grounded and rational math, like left brain and right brain. And deeper still than that is the fact that all of music is really mathematical ratios. All music is magic math. But the magic part is the easy part to relate to. You know it’s magic if you’ve had an emotional response to music, but deeper and more mind-blowingly, it’s all math.”
Amen to that. Sonically, their sound is very diverse. Hollingsworth plays a deft acoustic guitar and sings upbeat songs with lyrics that betray more melancholy than the music would suggest. The full band’s sound strays from bouncy to beautiful, with tinges of world music and backed by warm strings. It feels like authentic folk music, à la Cat Stevens before he ran to the hills, emotionally resonant and built upon solid songwriting.
In fact, I take back what I said about their domination being an oddball answer. The Magic Math makes music that is infectiously good, and it might not be long before all of Birmingham has caught on.
Through the Sparks
The heart of Through the Sparks is Alamalibu, their home recording studio in east Birmingham, within shouting distance of Bottletree. It’s where they, and many of their musical friends, have spent innumerable hours honing their craft, one track at a time. It’s where they birthed their début album, Lazarus Beach, which received national critical praise, and where they perfected a new model of distributing music to their fans via the internet that changed the way they wrote music, resulting in their latest album, Almanac (MMX) Year of the Beast.
In their case, as is often true, success wasn’t necessarily a ticket to anywhere. according to frontman Jody Nelson. “It was like we were the wrong band at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing, trying the wrong thing with the wrong model,” he says.
“We’d go out to play and there was literally no one there. Now we actually have people know who we are. We could go tour now, but now everything costs too much money. It’s just the perfect storm for everything wrong.”
Luckily, fame was never a big part of the equation for Through the Sparks. “I’m saying that we do care that it gets out there and we do our good stuff and we do well,but there’s nobody wanting to have gin and tonics with Oasis,” Nelson says. “Thank God, frankly. We’re all a little better off with Through the Sparks in town putting out a stream of tunes, and in many ways their craftsman aesthetic is indicative of the type of quality Birmingham can produce.
Nelson agrees with me wholeheartedly. “Our town’s Vulture Whale is a ton better than your town’s Vulture Whale,” he says. “If there was a total grid breakdown, and everyone was forced to live like zombies, we’d be fine on the music end. And people would go, ‘Oh, Holy S***!’ If you want to understand how greatly weird your town is, just look at the art. Not just music…I mean [visual artists] like Chris Lawson. This place, this whole place, there’s no reason for it to be here anymore. We’ve had to adapt. It’s a medical town now. But if you just look under the right rock, you know? Well, look under a rock if you want to, but there’s probably some slug under there listening to Thin Lizzy.”
In total darkness, we made our way past firemen rescuing trapped fans from an elevator shaft, and I said to my friend Lee that we had just seen a true Birmingham show.
Half an hour earlier, we had been enjoying the Delicate Cutters album release show in the historic and gorgeously renovated Woodrow Hall in Woodlawn. The Green Seed had just given a typically energetic set for a bunch of reticent folks who weren’t quite ready for the type of stuff-strutting that a hip-hop show of that caliber deserves, and the Delicate Cutters were on stage showing off their brand new tracks, when the power failed. For blocks.
All of it, the strange harmony of hip-hop and mountain-rock, the sudden vitality in a struggling neighborhood, the infrastructure failure, was somehow right, somehow Birmingham. Janet Simpson-Templin, the singer-songwriter at the heart of Delicate Cutters, understands the strange and chaotic nature of Birmingham music. “When I started hanging around, I couldn’t decide if Birmingham was stuck in time 10 years behind the current or if it was staunchly individual,” Simpson-Templin says. “There were mysteries to me when I moved here. Where is radio? Where is the press? How do you guys even find new bands to listen to? This was before the internet was the monstrous resource it is now. I was asking everyone I knew. How did you find music? I had grown up with so many resources and none of them were here. Now, if there is true indie spirit in any music scene, I think Birmingham’s got it. As in all areas of creativity, this city is DIY. We have to. We now have several labels popping up, music bloggers, DJs, recording engineers and many, many bands. All these things have been here before, but we’re in a fresh, new cycle. Things seem pretty exciting. It’s truly remarkable. There’s no distinct Birmingham sound. It is about the staunch individuality.”
Like many Birmingham natives, Jason Brouwer is an urban expatriate. “We had family down here and decided to take a break from the craziness of a big city,” Brouwer says. “I have two small children and decided Birmingham would be a nice place, especially with relatives. We wanted a patch of grass that we could go and sit on. Not a huge one. Just something.”
With a five–year–old and an eight–month–old, former Sufjan Stevens bandmate Brouwer has been confined to making music in the quiet hours when his children have drifted off to sleep. It makes him a bit of a musical recluse. “I have not played out at all,” he says. “I’ve pretty much been writing and recording and [working on the new record] back and forth with a friend in Chicago.”
That solitude has also informed the sound of his new record. “When you think about making a record with kids and dogs and things around and people going to bed at eight and things getting real hushed around the house, all those different parameters affect what you’re making and how you’re thinking about music,” he says. “I can’t just go and be John Bonham.”
Brouwer hasn’t always lived a settled existence. “I’ve lived a lot of places,” he says. “It’s kind of a tough story. I was born in Michigan, then I moved to Iowa, then at four years old I moved to Nashville, and most of my childhood was there until seventh grade I moved to Minneapolis, and then in high school I moved to Michigan and was there…I can’t keep track of the years. My dad was a pastor, so I guess that comes with the job.”
Well, he’s here now, and it sounds like he’s here to stay. “Here it feels like I’m really at home,” Brouwer says. “Like I’ve settled into place, and that’s really awesome because for a long time we didn’t have that. In Chicago, sometimes you needed to crawl into a box and hide because there’s so much happening that you can’t even possibly sort it out. I don’t think that’s a good environment for me anyways. It’s just white noise. It seems a lot calmer here, but there’s definitely still a fabric to the local music scene. It’s not just a couple of random bands. There’s a thing that’s happening.”
Late one night, years after his band Remy Zero’s success had pulled him from Alabama to Los Angeles, Jeffrey Cain found himself alone in a studio with the urge to create. His head had finally cleared from a day full of recording other people’s music and, as he began to write, he discovered that the empty nights allowed him space to make music that was truly his own. “I felt more honest than I had been in a long time,” Cain says. “Uncomfortably honest. It wasn’t pleasurable. Listening back was kind of like looking at strange pictures, or under a microscope at your face or something.”
Later, he sent the tracks to two radio stations but didn’t want the DJ’s to play the music because of his reputation, so he came up with what he thought would be a joke name. “I thought, ‘It would be hilarious if there was a band called The Dead Snares,’” Cain remembers. “And then I was listening to the songs, and thought, ‘This could be that band, I don’t know what this is, but it could be this band.’”
Not long after that, Cain realized that he didn’t need Los Angeles anymore, that he could make music anywhere. “I wanted to work on projects that meant something to me, and I think to stay alive out there you have to work on whatever comes your way,” Cain says. He made his way back to Birmingham, and began trying to find those meaningful projects. Since then, he’s brought many of the city’s best bands under the umbrella of his new label Communicating Vessels, and the resulting albums are wonderful to listen to and look at, a full package.
“There’s a soul that I hear in all the bands that I’ve worked with [in Birmingham], and it’s genuine, honest in it’s intent,” according to Cain. “It’s done for the right reasons. Somebody’s not making the music just to become famous and to play the game and get on the hip tour. The people I’ve met here have a personal need to have to make the music, and I…music saved my life, growing up, in my town. I know when I see other people and know how bad they need it, whether someone is putting out their records or not, these are the real artists here.”
Jackie Loquidis has always rocked, whether she was blistering your face with her all-girl group One Minute Go, kicking it on stage with her husband Jason Hamric in their band Twinside or bringing the flute in local band Sunny So Brite.
Twinside had been the project of the moment, and things were going well until Loquidis felt that she had begun to write songs that felt different than the type of music that Twinside was about. She and Hamric decided to shelve Twinside for the moment and focus on a new project centered on the new material. Thus, Jackie-Lo was born.
The couple is still working on the new tracks, which are being recorded in Vulture Whale’s Ol Elegante studio in Homewood, with Les Nuby on drums and producing. When I meet them there, the conversation turned to the current state of music in Birmingham.
“This is the most fun I’ve had and seen people have for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been playing music here since the early 90s,” Loquidis says. “Even though there was always a lot of talent, no one could ever get along long enough to make it happen.”
The bands certainly are getting along now. We’ve set up to talk near the back entrance, and while we gab, Jake Waitzman from Vulture Whale and Jody Nelson from Through the Sparks begin filming a video for an air-drumming competition.
“Back then you’d have four or five bands and if they could have all gotten along they’d be big,” Loquidis says, pulling me back into the conversation. “Also the world’s a little more accepting of the South now. There’s almost like a mystique, a Southern gothic kind of like. And that’s cool. If you traveled north when I was a teenager you’d get made fun of. And now it’s like ‘Oh, you’re from the South!’ Everybody loves the place.”
I get distracted again, because Waitzman, after repeatedly leaping from behind a couch, has begun replicating some intricate drum line, and a small crowd of various band members has gathered to watch. We cut our interview short to join in the festivities, and after a couple of takes everyone heads indoors, all these different bands, laughing together. Looks like Jackie Loquidis was right.
Vulture Whale always seems to be up to something, and right now it’s electronic cigarettes. We’re in the top floor of Ol Elegante, their studio in Homewood, and it looks like a make-shift test lab, with components littered across a work-table like some mad nicotine scientist has taken up residence.
Clasping their high-tech smoking devices, Jake Waitzman and Wes McDonald seem like a model of the modern musical entrepreneur, and they seem just as excited about their new business venture as they are about the latest album release.
They remember their roots though, before they had a recording studio of their own and dreams of spreading the electro-buzz. “It used to be the only place really to play was The Nick,” McDonald says. “I mean there were other places. But that was the only place that was really just original music, original bands. You would never catch a cover band at The Nick normally. I mean I’m sure it happens. The Nick was kind of it.”
McDonald continues, “A lot of people think they’re going to get shot or robbed if they go to The Nick, which is ridiculous. I mean The Nick is the most accepting place in town, really.”
“But at the same time, some people just don’t want to go,” Waitzman says. “The time slots are really late, so it was never really easy to get people to come. Girls don’t like the bathrooms.”
Now, there’s another venue that the fellas from Vulture Whale feel have changed the landscape of Birmingham music. “We can’t say enough about The Bottletree,” McDonald says. “What [they] did was bring in these indie bands that were on tour that would normally not have stopped in Birmingham because they would have said we don’t have any place to play. Bottletree has given us that place. Having all this great music come through I think inspires and brings together all the age groups.”
McDonald is quick to make the qualification that, though he has the benefit of experience when it comes to music in Birmingham, his is only one opinion and that younger musicians might disagree. “They might say our guys that are in the age of running things,” he says, “the bars and the record labels, that we’re just kind of terrible Nazis. Who knows?” At least he has the future of smoking to fall back on.
It hasn’t always been easy to make music in Birmingham, and Brad Armstrong of 13ghosts bears the scars. “I remember as a young artist trying to play shows, it was debilitating,” he says. “You’d finish the thing and you’d all be sitting around kidding each other about ‘Oh, we played a great show, man,’ but you all felt like shit because nobody turned up. It was a lot more competitive then. Fewer venues. It was really kind of cut–throat between bands. And really over the past four or five years it’s more of a cohesive thing. Everybody seems to be playing on the same team, supporting one another, and therefore it’s created a little tighter scene. An exchange of ideas and music. And they seem to inspire one another instead of trying to outdo one another. It’s much stronger.”
Even now, though, he keeps his head down and worries about his own work. “I really, really love playing on stage in front of people and doing it in the moment,” he says. “I love that, and I really love going to the studio and recording. And that’s the only two ends that I serve. And the rest of it I’ve kind of given up on it, man. I don’t f***ing care.”
Why should he care about the trappings of stardom? 13ghosts has never been about that. Born out of the death of a friend, their dark and fractured music has always had the feeling of necessity woven through it, as if they were unloading weighty burdens that would crush them otherwise. In fact, Armstrong scoffs at the very idea of working toward a hit record.
“Vulture Whale, they started in what, ’03,” he asks. “Hit record? No. Big sold out shows? No. Through the Sparks. We met in probably, ’02. It’s 2011. Hit record? No. Sold out show? No. Still f***ing whipping ass? Absolutely. The bands that are going to do it are going to f***ing do it regardless of record sales, regardless of the support network, regardless of anything, because there are no more record sales. That’s out the window. There is no hit record. Taylor Hicks has a hit f***ing record. What’s he bringing to the table for the town? Nothing.”
It’s all well and good to talk about how great the music is here in Birmingham, but sooner or later, somebody has to take it on the road. Even in the internet age, there is no substitute for real-life face time. There is no quicker way to a fan’s heart than the radiant aura of actual sweat.
Songwriters and spouses Lauren and Michael Shackelford of The Grenadines recently returned from spreading the gospel of Birmingham music during a tour that took them up the East Coast from Atlanta to New York City. Everywhere they went, they found a receptive audience.
“It was really fun and pretty smooth,” Lauren says. “It was great,” Michael agrees. “Good audiences, good venues, good people.We got to travel, but didn’t have any crazy long drives. It was amazing. We met several really cool bands, we played in Richmond, which is probably my favorite venue we’ve played at, at a place called Strange Matter, with a band called Diamond Center. They were phenomenal.”
While the Shackelfords and their fellow Grenadines understand the value of touring, they love coming back to Birmingham. “It’s a tighter knit community,” Lauren says. “[When] you go to those larger cities, people are just spread out. They don’t really know each other. I feel like here, we’re kind of a small town.”
“People support each other here,” Michael adds. “We’re all having to struggle to expose people outside of this small region to what we’re doing. Because I think what we’re doing here, all the bands that are in this little conglomerate, surpasses a lot of stuff everywhere else, and it’s just a shame that it’s not getting as much recognition, which hopefully is going to change.”
I ask Michael what he thinks it will take to bring that change about. “Honestly, I know we do have Birmingham Mountain Radio, but I feel like we need listeners,” he says. “There’s a large group of people which I really do believe don’t know what’s going on right underneath their noses. Just getting outside of our little small community and spreading it to the other groups out there, that’s the way to do it.”
The Great Book of John
It’s Thursday night, and though Parkside Café in Avondale should have a good crowd, it shouldn’t be packed to the gills like it is. Something’s afoot, and that something is The Great Book of John (GBoJ). Formerly the side project of Wild Sweet Orange guitarist Taylor Shaw, GBoJ moved to the forefront of his attention when that band splintered, leaving Shaw looking for a place for his creative output.
The last year has been a big one for GBoJ. They’re among the cadre of local bands who’ve been brought into the Communicating Vessels family of recording artists by Jeffrey Cain, and they’ve got a new self-titled album ready to drop August 16. As I navigate the narrow fissures that open and close in the crowd waiting for the band to perform, I realize that some of GBoJ’s forward momentum has rubbed off. The crowd buzzes in expectation of the performance while they wait patiently, even though the show begins almost two hours late. When it begins, the crowd crush forward toward the tiny stage with the urgency of the converted. What we’ve got here is a genuine following.
With good cause, by the way. The new album is a layered, soulful, heartfelt and passionate work, and gorgeous to listen to. It grooves and soothes, if you catch my drift.
Shaw says the growth of the band is a conscious choice, something they strive for. “I think it’s important to not lose energy or intensity,” he says. “I think I always want to change up some aspect of [our sound], in a way. I think that’s what I enjoy the most, the possibility of growth—the most creation we can do besides procreating. Until I have a baby, if I ever do, I think it’s the most capable of creating I can be. That’s my outlet.”
When asked about the sound of the current album, Shaw pulls out his listening list. “James Brown, old soul music,” he says. “A lot of Al Green, but I’m still so in love with Jeff Buckley or Radiohead. I’m obsessed with Bob Dylan.” Not that a list of influences can ever truly indicate what a piece of music sounds like, but it’s clear that Shaw has the ear of one who loves and listens to as much music as he can get, and that way lies the road to quality.
The Gum Creek Killers
“I love Birmingham, and I love it for music,” Gum Creek Killers founder Duquette Johnston says, “because I think everyone gets to evolve into what they want to be as a songwriter, or a band, or whatever. Some cities have sounds, or have been pigeon-holed into having sounds, but in Birmingham there’s not a lot of that. There’s not another band that sounds like the Grenadines. There’s not anyone that sounds like Gum Creek Killers.”
Johnston should know, since he’s done a fair amount of evolving himself. When Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl discovered Johnston’s band Verbena in the late 1990s, he was handed the catapult he needed to escape Birmingham, but troubles of his own landed him in Etowah County detention, looking at a possible 10-year prison sentence and an uncertain future. Mercifully, he was given a reprieve—a 60-day stint in rehab-—and he’s taken his second chance and used it to make as much music here as he possibly can.
Since then, Johnston’s mission has led to the creation of many bands—Cutgrass, Duquette Johnston and the Rebel Kings and now The Gum Creek Killers. “I can’t wait on people,” he says. “I mean, I guess I could, but I really don’t want to, ‘cause I kinda feel like I’m lucky I get to write any music at all. I try to constantly be in a state of motion and creativity, and with The Gum Creek Killers, that’s attainable, and flows really well.”
With The Gum Creek Killers, Johnston does seem to have found a home where he is comfortable. The other members all come from other successful Birmingham bands and work collaboratively, so he doesn’t need to shoulder the burden alone, creatively or otherwise. “Everyone in the Gum Creek Killers is insanely intelligent and is really honed in on their craft,” Johnston says. “I mean to have a core group that all have the same type of goal—everybody carries their weight in the band on every level, creatively, traveling, expenses, whatever. It’s a united front and a big family. There are times when we all have our spouses with us on the road, and we try to get together and do Gum Creek Killer cookouts. It’s a family for sure; it’s an awesome family.”