Antifolk Southeast Winter Extravaganza 2007
With Billy Sugarfix, Charles Latham, Midtown Dickens, The Wigg Report, The Future Kings of Nowhere and The Tourist
Friday, Feb. 9
Duke Coffeehouse, Durham
In April 2005, Charles Latham made a trip to New York. That's something folks do all the time. But Latham just didn't just go to New York. He made a pilgrimage. He was looking for 94 Avenue A in the heart of the East Village: The Sidewalk Café, the cradle of antifolk.
Latham was looking for a guy named Lach who pioneered the antifolk scene in New York two decades ago. Legend has it, Lach came to New York like so many boys from so many small towns: He wanted to be the next Dylan.
But Lach's folk was too punk, and he was kicked out of the coffeehouses. So he stayed true to his punk leanings. Not fitting in didn't stop him. He kept doing his own thing. He started calling it antifolk. If, 20 years later, antifolk is a religion (and, for Latham, it may be), Lach is its principal deity. And if The Sidewalk Café is Lach's Mecca, Latham arrived with the awe and reverence of the most devout pilgrim.
"The anti-hootenannies at The Sidewalk are so many light years ahead of your average open mic," Latham says. "It's a total talent fest."
Latham has played at The Sidewalk three times. That April, he got a gig there with his favorite antifolk band The Bobby McGees. He was a ball of nerves. "They were so good, I kind of forgot I had to play," he says. "I was pretty intimidated and didn't play very well." But he kept trying: He returned to The Sidewalk in December 2005. The show was another disappointment.
But, last May, he went back. He nailed it. "Everyone was stomping and shouting and clapping along and digging it ... I was ecstatic. That was probably my best set ever. I felt like I was home."
Lach even came to the show. Before he left, Latham asked Lach if he could come back and play again. Lach replied, "You've got a home here."
Latham is still gushing: "I felt like the Ray Liotta character in Goodfellas—a made man."
Antifolk, as it has descended from people like Lach to songwriters like Latham, is a quirky combination of lo-fi folk and punk with a do-it-yourself aesthetic. Like their folk predecessors, antifolk singers are storytellers with acoustic instruments. But their songs are edgy: Like their punk antecedents, antifolk singers are prone to unvarnished truth-telling and a disdain for political correctness. They're often humorous and less idealistic than folk musicians, and their acoustic instruments can be used in unpolished, unorthodox ways. "It's that truth over beauty thing that probably describes it most simply," says Hunter MacDermut, who leads Cary's The Tourist and collaborates with Latham. As Latham reckons, though, "It's a commitment to originality above all else."
Latham's take is especially interesting since he started playing what he now calls antifolk music without even knowing the niche existed. He moved to Brighton, England in 2003 to study English at the University of Sussex, but songwriting quickly became his reason for picking up a pen. He won first prize in a university-sponsored songwriting contest. The prize was un-billed time in a recording studio. He cut his first record there ("I wouldn't hoist it upon my worst enemy"), and he began frequenting different open mics in Brighton. That's where he met The Bobby McGees. And he heard the word that changed his life. "They told me 'What you're doing is kind of like punk-folk ... it's called antifolk,'" he says.
Those words were music to his ears. "Before that, I thought maybe I was alt-country, which is really just shorthand for country that doesn't completely suck," he says. The McGees also gave him an antifolk compilation. He cried the first time he listened. "I laughed a lot, too. I kind of alternated between the two."
Latham returned to his hometown of Washington, D.C., before moving to Chapel Hill in the summer of 2005 to be with his girlfriend. He assumed that he'd be going the antifolk route alone, yet again. Surely a scene for such music didn't exist in North Carolina, right?
"To be honest, I kind of figured it would be a bunch of frat rock party bands who played covers," Latham says. It took Latham about four months to learn he was wrong. The Wigg Report—the Durham trio of Stephen Mullaney, Christine Fantini and Ben Riseling—had organized an antifolk night for the first Troika Music Festival. It blew Latham away.
"I drunkenly danced my ass off during their set," he remembers. "I loved how they could get such a full sound out of just three people and barely a drum kit."
Latham approached The Wigg Report after their set. They loved much of the same music, but head Wigg Mullaney felt an unwelcome sense of obligation when Latham handed him his second record, Pretty Mouth.
"You know how it can be when people give you their CDs. It's kind of like, 'Oh shit'," Mullaney says. But then he listened. "Latham may have cried when he heard his first antifolk compilation, but I cried when I first heard some of his songs."
When Latham started gigging locally, he asked The Wigg Report to join him onstage. That's now a tradition. It's common to see Mullaney—who plays guitar in Wigg, but who used to be a punk drummer on a major label—back Latham on drums. Latham even named his own kid-sized drum set "Little Stevie." These are just signifiers of a growing, communal bond among Durham musicians.
Consider Latham's relationship with Midtown Dickens, the Durham duo of Kym Register and Catherine Edgerton. Latham added them to his growing circle of antifolk friends the moment he saw them: "I nearly jumped out of my skin," he remembers. "I kept thinking, 'This is it, this is it, here is what I've been looking around for.' I wanted to make music with these people."
Latham gave the Dickens a copy of his album Pretty Mouth after the show. They agreed to play with him on Ross Grady's celebrated music show, Local Live on WXDU. He hates to play without them, and that makes for a complete mutual admiration society.
"The first time I saw Charles play, I felt like someone just let me be the first to read their satirical version of their autobiography," Register says. "He has the ability to make you feel he's confessing everything to you, and you're the only one around to listen. Even when you're watching in a group of audience members."
The connections don't just stop with Latham, Midtown Dickens and The Wigg Report. As Shayne O'Neil, from Durham's Future Kings of Nowhere puts it, "Kym and Catherine play with the Future Kings, I play on their stuff, they play on Charles' songs, Charles plays with The Tourist, et cetera, et cetera." From there, the connections and friends are endless.
Latham emphasizes that what he's part of in the Triangle isn't exactly a collective, even though everyone in his circle plays with everyone else. They promote each other, share instruments and trade gigs. But they don't want to be exclusive. They want this to grow, more like a movement than a club. Latham says that antifolk's embrace of imperfection—barely tuned instruments, unorthodox voicing, wry lyrics and all—could be salutary for any community's spirit. That's just as true in Durham as it is anywhere else.
"Antifolk is saying, 'You've had enough practice, come out and play something. Play an open mic, play on the street. Don't worry about what you sound like, just worry about what you're saying, and whether or no you mean it,'" he says. "I think that's good for any community. I think it's a cure for a lot of the posturing and posing that plagues music scenes all over the country, not just here."