This could be the scene of any low-key, pre-show hangout for the Carrboro rock band Last Year's Men.
On the back patio of the Orange County Social Club, the three members lean deep in chairs that surround a metal table. Within arm's reach of each, there's a bottled PBR, a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Ben Carr and Geoff Schilling, the band's guitarists, favor Camels; drummer Ian Rose, Marlboros. In a few hours, the trio will play a gig a half mile east, across the Chapel Hill line at The Cave. But tonight, they won't be playing as Last Year's Men, the name that first earned them local and national notice.
Instead, tonight's show marks the second gig for Natural Causes, an impulsive, synth-punk counterpoint to Last Year's Men's more considered songcraft. On any given night, Carr, Schilling or Rose could be in any of seven different bands. All three play in Last Year's Men and Natural Causes, while Carr and Rose have joined Charlotte's rowdy Paint Fumes. Schilling and Rose get together in Bohica Sheiks, while Rose sits in with Drag Sounds. Schilling recently joined Flesh Wounds and Silent Lunch. All of this activity comes despite the fact that Last Year's Men released their long-awaited sophomore album, Underwhelmed, just a month ago.
"I can't write enough songs to shit out a record every seven months," Carr says. "That's not the Last Year's Men style."
After four years of regular touring and sporadic work on the follow-up to their auspicious 2010 debut, Sunny Down Snuff, this is the new modus operandi for Last Year's Men. The musicians have found necessary diversions and new inspiration by opening their relationship.
"When you work really hard on this one thing, and it takes time, you don't have spontaneity in your creative output," Rose says. "It's easier to do in other outfits. That's the reason we're all in other bands now."
But where does that leave Last Year's Men, who only two years ago seemed to be the next Triangle act at the lip of a full-time breakthrough? Even before Underwhelmed unceremoniously arrived on Bandcamp, rumors swirled that Last Year's Men were ready to bow out for good. Was the surprise digital release of Underwhelmed the morning of their recent Hopscotch show a return of the prodigal sons, capitalizing on their early promise in a sudden second act? Or was it a clearing-of-house before the members moved on to other things?
Around the table at OCSC, the bandmates still aren't entirely sure.
Carr looks up and offers a simple confession: "We don't know, man."
Last Year's Men haven't idled since releasing Sunny Down Snuff in 2010. They toured halfway across the country, making more friends than money. They shared stages with genre heroes the Reigning Sound and Black Lips. They released two singles, a split with Reigning Sound backed by the car company Scion, and a snappy EP called Clawless Paw.
But there have been obstacles, too. Bassist Montgomery Morris, who played on Underwhelmed, left the band to front Flesh Wounds. Replacement Spencer Lee, of the doom metal outfit MAKE, quit, too. They made Underwhelmed without the support or guidance of a label, and more recently, two tour vans died within months of each other— a "morale killer," Carr calls that last one.
When the band recorded Sunny Down Snuff in 2010, Carr and Schilling were barely out of high school. Rose remained in the thick of it. "I took the ACT the morning of the first recording session," Rose remembers. "I got up at 6, took a standardized test and then drove to Durham. And I didn't even know how to get to Durham! I wound up at the airport."
Recorded quickly, Sunny Down Snuff framed the band as an urgent, youthful act obsessed with garage-rock's vintage formalism. Their influences—The Oblivians' ragged punk, Reigning Sound's red-eyed soul, Spider Bags' rangy twang—were obvious, but so were the band's talent and vigor. Carr's lyrics were wise beyond his then-18 years. Rose's drums kept a primitive backbeat with veteran confidence. Schilling's nervy guitar fills crammed hooks inside of hooks.
Back then, the rather young adults had parental support and the aid of Durham's Churchkey Records, who recruited Spider Bags frontman Dan McGee to produce their debut. Making the record followed a prescriptive process.
"When somebody's like, 'Here, go do a record. Go for it,' we had a set timeframe, a set engineer, a set three people. We had deadlines," Carr says. "That was really important."
But they're no longer the scrappy teenage band that once earned as much attention for their age as their tunes. They have bosses instead of boosters: Carr bartends at The Cave and works for a catering company. Schilling and Rose sell records online for Carolina Soul. They've got flexible schedules, but they have to make rent, too.
"You're just working all the damn time," Carr says, "and trying to figure out how to do it—how to be sane, eat occasionally, also go out and have fun."
To record Underwhelmed, Last Year's Men took time off from work in January 2013 to join Reigning Sound frontman Greg Cartwright in Asheville. Between sessions for an Oblivians reunion and a new Reigning Sound LP for Merge, Cartwright helped the upstarts make a second album. He was a hero for the band, so it seemed like a step toward the spotlight. The recording went well, too.
"We were pretty prepared," Carr says. "We knocked all the basic tracks out in the first full day of recording. The next day we did some overdubs, and I knocked out some vocal tracks."
The record, then, was nearly finished 18 months before it was released last month. When they brought the work they'd done with Cartwright home for mixing, however, momentum stalled. They got lost in their own sound, cutting more tracks with Wesley Wolfe and backloading the album with harmonies and embellishments that hadn't been on their raw first effort. Months later, Carr teamed with Love Language frontman Stu McLamb to finish the mixes.
"If somebody would have said, 'You need to have this done in a month,' we probably would have put out the same exact record," Carr says in retrospect. "But it's really easy to just sit there and think, 'What if we did this?' It's easy to get in your own head."
The version of Underwhelmed that surfaced in September at least feels like a fully realized next step after Sunny Down Snuff. Carr's songs still concern themselves with tricky relationships and big hooks. The title track borrows a country shuffle from the Reigning Sound playbook, while "California" scuffs retro-pop polish with a tangled guitar riff. By relying on classic forms with clever twists, Underwhelmed doesn't depart from Sunny's template; it just piles richer textures on top.
The material merits more than a mere $5 online download, and the band agrees that finding a physical way to issue Underwhelmed remains a crucial next step. But there's nothing to report, specifically, about how or when that might happen.
"We're going to see what's up with the physical release of this record, and after that, just see," Carr says. "We all want to keep going and doing it, but it's all a matter of when we finally put out a physical release. We'll go from there."
Later, at The Cave, the trio assembles as Natural Causes on the portion of floor that serves as a stage. They launch into a relentless set of seasick synthesizers, spined guitars and unmitigated momentum. Rose sings and plays keyboard. Schilling drums. Carr sings and plays guitar.
It's more antagonistic and urgent than anything in Last Year's Men's catalog, and its jagged edges come softened by humor. Carr introduces songs as bluntly as he sings them: "This song's about poppers," or "this song's about bitching too much." Born spontaneously from a post-rehearsal jam session, this blow-off detour seems to invigorate the trio. For Natural Causes, there is but one edict: "The rule is to write a new song every practice," Rose says.
As evidenced by the trio's easy chemistry on-stage, on record or just at the bar, the band Last Year's Men might simply be the first in a series of titles for three friends with no intention of quitting music or each other. The sound and the handle may shift, but not the core. "Regardless of the status of Last Year's Men, we'll probably all still play music together," Carr says.
Various sideman roles have fueled Last Year's Men's second wind, too. After touring Europe with Paint Fumes in the Spring, Carr penned a new batch of songs for Last Year's Men. They've learned three so far, and they're now talking about including them in a third Last Year's Men album.
But will it take four years to make, costing the band its second life, too?
"It's safe to say we learned a lot from the whole process of this," Rose says. "I don't think any of us want to spend a whole lot of time recording another record."
"You can have my word on that one," continues Carr with a laugh. "I tell you what, if there's not a new record out in four years, I'll buy you a drink or something."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Future Is Unwritten."