It was the winter of 1991, and Chapel Hill bassist Stu Cole got a phone call from California. A music manager and band scout for Capitol Records had just signed a young Los Angeles group named Blind Melon. He'd sent them to North Carolina, and now they needed something.
Back in Los Angeles, Blind Melon—just boys from Indiana, Mississippi and Pennsylvania—had struggled with writing its first album amid the temptations of the big city. Frontman Shannon Hoon, a high school friend of and collaborator with Axl Rose, was getting in trouble. Blind Melon had been in Los Angeles long enough to get tired of it and mired in it. They needed to get out of town.
Chapel Hill, they'd heard, had a good music scene. Guitarist Christopher Thorn and the band's manager flew east, but they couldn't find an affordable house big enough for the band and its gear. They drove to Durham and wound up on Trinity Avenue. The two-story house at 926 W. Trinity could be theirs for $1,000 a month. They took it.
But now the band was in Durham in the middle of winter, living in a place they'd come to call the Sleepyhouse. They had no real friends. They had their instruments, a record contract, a soundman and girlfriends. But what they really needed was weed. Their manager knew Cole, then in the Chicken Wire Gang, through a series of record industry showcases he had asked Cole to play. Cole got the call.
"He said, 'Look, I just signed this band, and they've come down there to finish this album. Can you get them some pot?'" remembers Cole, laughing. "So he says, 'So, take as much pot as you can get to this address in Durham.' I thought he was crazy. I told him I wasn't born yesterday."
But Cole eventually relented, gathered what he could find and headed to Durham that night. When he knocked on the door, five heads peered out, hoping the right guy had arrived. Cole and Blind Melon became fast friends. During those few formative months, Blind Melon left Durham for two reasons—to play their weekly show in Raleigh at The Brewery and to hang out with Cole and his friends at another local band stand, Chapel Hill's legendary Yellow House.
"We were hanging out with those guys, Chicken Wire Gang, at their house, the Yellow House," says Thorn, suddenly remembering that Blind Melon even calls Yellow House by name in "Sleepyhouse," the ninth song off of the debut they were working on in Durham. "They were all super musicians—playing banjos, guitars, stand-up basses. And they were great people. When you got out of Los Angeles, you found musicians that didn't care about getting record deals. It was a breath of fresh air."
Indeed, Thorn remembers an idyllic winter in Durham the year before Blind Melon's debut album and its slightly psychedelic hit, "No Rain," made them famous. They barely left the house, choosing instead to stay inside and "smoke pot and play music all day." Thorn says Hoon lined the walls in his bedroom with tinfoil to keep as much daylight out as possible: "As if we weren't vampires enough. As it was, we weren't waking up until 2 o'clock in the afternoon. But he shut out every bit of light."
Thorn is romantic about the time Blind Melon spent in Durham, but he admits that was the whole point. Blind Melon's members had a common devotion to The Band, and Thorn says that quintet's time in a Woodstock house called Big Pink in the late '60s had always seemed like such a perfect arrangement. That music was rich, and Blind Melon was inspired by their familial quality. "We rehearsed in the house and recorded in the house. We became a much better band in the house, and that's where we really developed our sound," says Thorn. "We learned how we played together. It was band training camp."
But living in Sleepyhouse made them more than a band. It made them friends. "I remember just getting along," Thorn says. "There were periods of time that the band was—well, fighting is too strong of a word—but we weren't getting along so well. That was not one of them. We were hanging out and being brothers at that point."
Tough times were ahead for Blind Melon, and those formative days gilded them for the road. Thorn says living in the Sleepyhouse prepared them for spending the next year in a touring van, almost like a trial marriage. It also kept the rest of the band together after Hoon died in 1995 of a cocaine overdose in New Orleans. Blind Melon released one more record, Nico, in 1996 and continued playing until 1999. They all kept in touch, and Thorn started a recording studio with bassist Brad Smith in Los Angeles.
Last year, Smith and Thorn were asked to record a young rock singer named Travis Warren. Slowly, the idea of reforming Blind Melon around Warren—who had idolized Hoon and Blind Melon in the early '90s—made sense. The same band who entered Sleepyhouse in 1991 entered the studio in 2007, with Warren respectfully taking Hoon's place. They've finished a record, and now they're hitting the road: "When we were touring in the past, people knew the hit or a couple of songs. But, because of the amount of time we were away, they know all the songs, and they're singing along. It's been incredible."
Blind Melon plays Lincoln Theatre Sunday, Dec. 2, at 8 p.m. with Brad Benson. Tickets are $13-$15. For more on Blind Melon's time in Durham, visit the excellent fan site www.beemelon.com.