Four years ago, on a weekend afternoon sometime near dusk, Andy Herod was standing in his friend's driveway between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro, lighting a giant plastic dollhouse on fire. He'd found the combustible at a thrift store in town and picked it up for a few bucks. He lugged it into the country, stuffed it with pine mulch, soaked it in gasoline, set up a video camera, hit record and lit a match. Four years ago, it'd be pretty safe to say Andy Herod wasn't in a good spot.
"It got out of control. I finally got it out, but it took all night. I bailed, but when my friend got home and saw the wreckage, he came to town looking for me. He was going to kick my ass," says Herod, laughing about it now. "I thought it was the greatest thing I'd ever seen, though. They were all like, 'I can't believe you did that.' I thought everybody else was crazy."
Months before, Herod had broken up with his girlfriend, Dawson's Creek starlet Michelle Williams. He lived the romance out with his songwriting, holing up in their shared cabin on Wrightsville Beach with a four-track recorder and a guitar and writing a few dozen songs about what had happened while she was out of the state. When the relationship finally came to a close, things didn't get any better: Herod and his band The Comas recorded their third album three times amid busted talks with several different record labels. They spent $30,000 in one New York studio before realizing simple and slow was best. They returned South, recording with longtime friend Alan Weatherhead in Richmond. They decided to go with Yep Roc. Riding big, arching production and Herod's busted hearts story (he says he used interviews with journalists as cheap therapy), it was their biggest record yet.
Herod was still working through his issues, though.
"I was not thinking clearly," he says, talking about the night he finally put the burning dollhouse video to use at Kings in downtown Raleigh. The Comas were opening for The Kingsbury Manx, and Herod covered the venue's floor in rolls and rolls of bubble wrap. He projected the film behind the stage and encouraged the crowd to dance to his moaning heartstrings as the band played. "It was so loud. I couldn't even hear the band, I don't think. The band had no idea what was happening."
Today, Herod sounds a little more lucid. Actually, he sounds like a different person. He's walking down the street in Manhattan, sirens and engines screaming into his earpiece every few minutes. He lives here now—not in Manhattan, but in Brooklyn, where The Comas, now a five-piece signed to indie powerhouse Vagrant Records, have finally coalesced. He's leaving a private acoustic set at America Online's studios, joking about the skit the producers had the band act in after they performed a handful of songs.
Things are going well. Tomorrow, The Comas will leave New York for more than a month, touring mid-sized rock clubs from Philadelphia to Carrboro to Los Angeles. It comes on the heels of a big three-day run: Today, there was AOL, but last night, there was the end of a two-day stint opening sold-out The Jesus & Mary Chain sets at New York's Webster Hall. Nicole Gehweiler, the only Coma who remains with Herod from Conductor, sang "Just Like Honey" with Herod's icons both nights.
"That is a perfect example of why being here is good. There are reasons not to be here, but that was a payoff, definitely," says Herod, mentioning that the bands share publicists and a former road manager. "A lot of things have happened with us that would not have happened if we hadn't been here. Some of the things we've gotten to do—making this record how we made it, being on this label—wouldn't have happened."
This record is Spells, the fourth and best Comas record yet. It's punchy and full, built on some of Herod's most agile and convincing melodies ever. Best of all, Spells sounds like a turning point, or the album where Herod stops worrying about dating a starlet and starts having a little fun writing songs about fleeting romances or arching fantasies. He sounds like he's enjoying making music again.
That's due in no small part to two things he's done since he's been in Brooklyn. First, he says he has a bona fide band now, and there's more collaboration than there's ever been. "Red Microphones," one of the bright lights in the Comas discography, was written by Herod but arranged and largely perfomed by Coma Jason Caperton. Mercury has always been a part of Herod's creativity: Over four albums, he's involved at least 13 band members, and the unit that recorded Spells is completely different from the one that first put The Comas under the national spotlight with Conductor. But he says he wants to stick with this band.
"I get tired of myself after a while. A lot of it has been me getting sick of myself and having just an ugly ego about most things," Herod says. "But, after a while, I just realized we should be having fun with this thing no matter the expense."
That new ease with making music is due to another Brooklyn relationship that, coincidentally, started the night Herod covered Kings in plastic. Brooklyn band Bishop Allen was also on the bill, and they bonded with Herod. When he moved to New York months later, they got even closer, and when Bishop Allen needed a touring bass player, Herod was eager to jump on board. Hanging out in the back, playing bass, Herod was just having fun. It shows off in his attitude walking down a sunny street in Manhattan.
But, true to form, any success The Comas have with Spells isn't going to be a facsimile template the next time around. Already, Herod swears it's going to be sonically different, and he doesn't think the production style used by Bill Racine (Mercury Rev, Rogue Wave, Mates of State) for Spells can hold for the next Comas record. Herod says Racine had the band put down as many parts for every song as they could think of, even if they knew it wasn't going to work. Then, in the mixing process, they would peal back the layers until just enough were left to carry the song. Herod remembers playing the mellotron—a post-war keyboard that triggers a series of internal tape loops—or adding unintelligible shouts and whispers to songs. It was fun, he says, but the difficulty came in deciding how much should be taken back off the record when it was being mixed.
"You're burning yourself out in the mixing. You run out of money and time, and, next thing you know, your ears are just burnt out. You stop caring about it," says Herod, who says mixing Spells was a series of compromises. "That process was difficult, and I think we finally ended up somewhere in between. This record took a lot of me and us."
Part of that fatigue is where Herod lives. As he puts it, he's over living in Brooklyn and ready to return South. His bandmates have lived in New York longer than he has, and they seem largely adjusted in a way that he still hasn't managed.
He's not sure where he'll end up: He knows rejoining Chapel Hill wouldn't make a lot of sense ("That would be a total feeling of..."), but he's seen a brochure of Echo Mountain, a small little studio in Asheville that looks nice. It's also about an hour from his sister, who lives just across the Tennessee border in Johnson City. When she had a baby earlier this year, Herod headed down and fell in love with the South again.
"Here, no one hangs out at home. When I was down there, I wrote 30 songs in two weeks. I need the pleasant boredom of the South to let my head digest things, I think," he says. "I mean, maybe I'll eventually get tired of it and leave, but that's OK."
The Comas play with The Broken West and *SONS at the Cat's Cradle Saturday, June 2, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door.