Eric Wallen just lost his job. He's stoked. For Wallen, 32, it's an opportunity to push his new band, Minor Stars, closer to the goal he's been chasing for a decade: to make music his living. The band has a freshly minted debut LP that brims with promise, meaning all that's left now is to go for it, to find out whether or not it works, whether or not his careerist ambitions matter.
"I'm excited for this release," he says. "I'm excited for getting laid off and just making something happen."
A decade ago, Wallen ditched his Ph.D. coursework in electrical engineering at Duke University. The two years he completed earned him a master's degree, but that's not what he wanted either.
"I really only applied to grad school because I didn't want to get a job," he says, leaning forward from a vinyl couch cushion at the Orange County Social Club in Carrboro. The cold air outside calls for a sweater and a scarf that, like Wallen and his long pillow of hair, look like imports—from the '70s. Between sips of Jim Beam and PBR, he continues. "Pretty much as soon as I started it, I was like, 'What the fuck am I doing here?'"
So, at 22, he left school and decided to spend his life playing music. He never looked back.
Tonight, or a decade and two dead bands later, Wallen's betting the house on Minor Stars, the psych-rock outfit with little more than six shows and a great debut, The Death of the Sun in the Silver Sea, on its résumé.
On wax, Minor Stars sounds like the sum of its influences. A collection of shoegaze and psychedelic rock, power pop and heavy metal, these deep riffs could have come from Black Sabbath, the fog above it from Swervedriver. The melodies boast hooks like Cheap Trick's and a shot of the heavy electric blues, much like Queens of the Stone Age.
Live, it's not as dense. The band, accustomed to ever-changing lineups, was writing with at least two guitarists in mind. In many ways it's better, making up for what might have been lost in weight with dynamic range. And what the band lacks in experience, Wallen makes up for in conviction.
For years, Wallen paid the bills working with Tar Heel Temps, the temporary staffing agency that serves University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Because of state budget cuts, though, there hasn't been a demand for temporary employees, so the agency is closing. "Safe to say I'm the only one in the office who's pretty psyched about it," Wallen gloats.
For him, the past 10 years have disappeared into revolving-door band rosters and the side effects of growing up, all adding up to the feeling that he was wasting his days and energies at a job. Now he's welcoming the chance to turn the tide. It's not going to be easy.
"You got a bunch of guys in their 30s," explains Minor Stars bassist Bob Dearborn at the beginning of a practice session at the Chapel Hill home of drummer Matt McCallus, "and you're going to have people getting married and moving and stuff."
Such circumstances have plagued Wallen's bands from the beginning, or when he sprang from playing the traditional singer/ songwriter role at local coffee shops to forming his first band, My Dear Ella, in 2000. That band, which at one time featured both Dearborn and McCallus, dissolved in 2006 after multiple lineups and earning something of a local following.
When My Dear Ella started, Wallen says, "There was a really intense burst of energy." The band began to play shows, developed its fan base and released three albums. A fourth album, All Your Stars Out, was recorded but never released. By the time My Dear Ella broke up, Wallen's musical direction had already stretched its indie rock foundations to embrace shoegaze textures and psychedelic sprawl.
Though the sound was shifting, the band had lost momentum. "We were having a ton of fun," says Wallen. "But as much as I might have wanted to believe we were taking it seriously, we didn't take the necessary steps."
Essentially, My Dear Ella would never move beyond the local following it had built.
After more than a year of inactivity, Wallen started his second ride, Death of the Sun. With drummer Kuki Kooks, bassist Ryan Benjamin and guitarist Chris Grey, they explored more psychedelic territory than My Dear Ella had suggested. Death of the Sun ended within a year's time, but it served as a critical building block for relationships and for sound. After Kooks and Benjamin left Death of the Sun, Wallen and Grey kept playing, eventually assembling what would become The Death of the Sun in the Silver Sea with songs that Death of the Sun and My Dear Ella hadn't used. The duo recruited McCallus—who had played guitar in My Dear Ella—to play drums. McCallus shared drum duties with Kooks and Andy Willard. Wallen recorded the bass lines himself.
By the time Dearborn moved back to Chapel Hill (after stints in Mexico and Kentucky) and joined the band as its permanent bassist, they'd mostly finished the album in McCallus' home studio and elsewhere with local producer Nick Petersen. Just when the band was beginning to advance, Grey—who co-wrote the LP with Wallen—left for Denver.
The high attrition rate—the only constant through 10 years and three different bands— is a source of frustration for Wallen. During the song "The Numbers Don't Lie," he even sings, "It's too late to let go/ But you just wanna explode/ Your friends have all moved on/ And you carry the load."
"It blows me away how focused he's been on this," says Dearborn.
And each member raves about the advantages of this three-member lineup. It opens up more space, lets the band play with vocal harmonies more, and it simply sounds better in a small club where a denser sound would just overpower itself. Indeed, in practice, in a cramped back room McCallus has filled with band equipment and computers for recording, the trio's individual parts take their own shapes, congealing without blurring. Wallen's vocal melodies lead. Dearborn drives the songs' fundamental riffs. McCallus' focused drumming powers the momentum. Wallen's guitar sprinkles leads on heavy, atmospheric chords.
McCallus and Dearborn watch intently for their cues and concentrate carefully. Wallen, especially, seems more at ease when he's playing than when he's not. He swigs water as he fiddles with a temperamental amp, letting the tubes warm up. The toe of his white Chuck Taylor navigates a table-sized board of effects pedals like a blind man reading Braille. He leans into every chord and sings with his eyes closed. For him, this is it.
Dearborn, the band's oldest member, has a cautiously optimistic outlook. "We're just trying to make the most of it," he says. He echoes the local musician's mantra: "Let's just put everything into it and just see."
McCallus is quiet but more in agreement with Dearborn. He's got a steady gig with Red Star, a video game development firm. Dearborn gave up 15 years' working as a mental health counselor to take a job at Tar Heel Temps and play in the band, but he parlayed the closing of Tar Heel Temps into a full-time job at UNC. His wife still spends most of her time in Kentucky working on a Ph.D. However tight, it's the sort of lineup that still seems tenuous.
But Wallen—he's committed. "I feel like I'm at the same stage of life I was when I made that decision to fuck a 'real' career and try to become a rock star," he writes via e-mail. And now, well, he'll have his shot. The past decade has been an education in how to do it. Now he wants to put what knowledge he's assembled to use. More time in the day means more time not only to write songs but to focus on the business end of being in a band: looking for exposure opportunities and trying to reach fans. "What I'm going to do is ramp up what I'm already doing," he says. "I'm going to treat it as my full-time job to get this music heard."
With 1,000 CDs, 500 LPs and an unlimited distribution channel via the Internet, Minor Stars is hoping to get its music to as many ears as possible. They're giving away CDs with admission to the CD release party at Local 506, and they've already leaked half the record. Wallen is constantly unearthing his demos and unreleased cuts and posting them on the band's official Web site.
He thinks this is his chance to go—not literally, he hopes—for broke. "My philosophy is, 'I want you to hear this music.'"
Minor Stars play with Transportation and DeVries at Local 506 Saturday, Jan. 30, at 10 p.m. The $5 cover includes a free CD.